Answerables by NexEd

New vision for digital learning is a game changer for kids.

By Editorial Staff

Much of the staff’s time at NexEd is spent describing how an educational ecosystem such as their Virtual LMS Answerables can extend the classroom, by providing a structured and controlled access point into the virtual sectors of society and a K-8 age-appropriate environment that can accommodate a rich variety of learning outcomes. What began as a lofty set of Ed Tech ideals, has transformed into a sustainable fusion of technology and learning that can provide the K-8 community with opportunities to explore, evaluate and define the direction of modern education in light of progress.

Image that says "What is Answerables?" and shows five main functionsAt its core, Answerables is the synthesis of 5 critical technologies that together provide the framework for an effective modern learning ecosystem.

Answerables is a by-product of education evolving through technology. It has the timeless strengths of a brick-and-mortar classroom, combined with modern learning principles and integrated with the most effective learning technology on the planet. The result is a virtual learning environment and collaboration space that connects people, content and learning supports via a single, easily consumable digital medium.

A typical learning management system (LMS) framework assumes the learner already knows how to consume its content; how the content is presented to the user becomes the secret sauce of each LMS. NexEd recognized that for a platform to be effective for younger students, it had to consider that the process of learning is equally if not more important than the content being delivered. So they designed a space that not only delivers content but also supports the learner as he/she develops the skills to learn how to manage that content, assisting him/her to develop into a skilled consumer of information in the digital world- a Digital Citizen. It is through this lens that Answerables is a completely new take on e-learning for kids.

Screenshot from AnswerablesAnswerables is a personal learning environment that accommodates and supports the development of digital citizens by embedding learning functionality within a customizable 3D learning space.

Parent company NexEd calls this concept PODs (Personal Online Development spaces) - 3D representations of an LMS course. Teachers log into their dashboard, create a new POD, and it’s theirs to administer. They enroll students, create events and assignments and provide feedback. But this is where Answerables diverges from the typical LMS. The newly created POD now exists and is accessible to enrolled students from within a 3D game space. It operates just like an LMS, but it is much more than that. Teachers can enter the POD space in-game and customize it to suit their needs using a variety of game-based and web-based tools. They can conduct classes and sessions, share live and stored content with students and keep track of their experiences and progress through individual and group assessment metrics.

The simple truth is the Internet was not built with kids in mind. Sure, there’s plenty of high-quality, age-appropriate content out there, along with many dedicated trailblazers creating some amazing kid-friendly places to learn online. But the truth is, navigating the web is not only difficult for kids to wrap their heads around, but it often becomes a barrier to learning. The browsers themselves perpetuate the problem with a ‘mature’ interface design and an assumption that the user understands the implications of digital actions; the role of the web browser is to navigate, not to educate. Answerables set out to add supports as scaffolding so that web browsing as an experience could become a measurable set of skills that are critical to understanding and navigating virtual society.

NexEd wanted to provide a tool for educators to assist students in becoming adept navigators at the helm of a ship adrift in an overwhelming sea of information. Answerables allows young minds to develop their skills in web browsing; not the least of which are those skills related to content management. Within the game, they include a browser that allows players to navigate the web safely, with scaffolded learning supports using mechanics geared towards younger users. When assessing and comparing the web experience currently available to kids, they decided to focus on three big ideas that were going to change the way players in Answerables consume and manage information.

The first step in creating an Internet experience for kids was to simplify the interface. For all their amazing features, modern web browsers leave a lot to be desired when it comes to explaining what it is they do and how the web is accessed. This often leads to frustration for students, who are also grappling with some very abstract concepts when engaging the web. The goal was to create a browser that was easily understandable so that students could safely and effectively surf without a lot of the clutter associated with typical browsers. It also needed to address the need for learning supports in data management, skill development, and understanding of how to engage the web. Being able to retrieve, analyze and manage learning content has become an essential skill for students as aspiring digital citizens.

Screenshot of Answerables dashboard

To address this issue, they developed a web token system, which resembles a cross between a folder system and a bookmark feature on a web browser. Each token represents a web URL that can be created by a teacher and shared with students. Navigating to a site is as simple as dragging a token onto a web terminal in-game. Tokens can also be grouped into collections of like tokens, saved and shared in a token library that stores collections and individual tokens.

The token system operates much like a library where books are organized into sections and collections for easy retrieval indexing. In order to promote effective organization of this content, they limited the number of tokens that can be saved in a collection as well as the number of tokens or collections that can be stored in students’ ‘backpacks.' And while each library can hold a large number of tokens, space is also limited to promote contextualizing or ‘theming’ of content.

The last step in creating a great web experience for kids was to make it collaborative. Web browsing that we are used to is either an individual experience or a social one. Rarely do students get the chance to go beyond sharing a link in our Twitter or Facebook feed or adding a comment to a wiki or other web 2.0 space. NexEd took the opportunities afforded to them by the 3D game environment and created a space for web browsing to take on a whole new meaning. Truly collaborative, in-game browsers are synchronized so that any change made to a web terminal (such as a new URL), is instantly shared with all participants.

Educational applications for collaborative web browsing are endless: flipped classrooms, class portals, research projects, presentations, media sharing, watching live events. Social collaboration is the next big idea in education because it is relatively simple to adopt and it emulates real-world classroom activities. If Answerables was used for nothing else, the collaborative web browsing feature stands alone as an invaluable educational tool.

Social Collaboration Network

The learning landscape is rapidly changing. With the Ed Tech movement in full swing, educators everywhere are now able to explore all sorts of innovative tools for collecting and sharing learning content and for assessing progress. In fact, with the development of technologies such as WebRTC and Tin Can API, there has never been a more important time in education for building the right tools, then setting some good standards and best practices.

Collaborative and kid-focused web browsing is one of the major features found in Answerables. The game’s collaborative web browser provides the educational community with a powerful yet simple tool that strengthens the foundation of digital literacy development. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg; collaborative web browsing isn’t the only way to collaborate in Answerables. In fact, the game is designed to work as a full-fledged social network and, combined with the live and shared real-time nature of the environment, NexEd has taken things a step further by transforming the space into a live, on-demand collaboration network. Social Collaboration is a term we use to explain how users are engaged with the environment.

Screenshot of Answerables as a social network

Social networking is great; sharing your thoughts and ideas with your people has never been easier and has resulted in some well-deserved attention to the term ‘Social Learning.' But for educational purposes, it simply isn’t enough to share ideas. They built the Answerables platform so that students and teachers can build ideas together. From working on a live document and presenting in front of the class, to researching a challenging new concept or meeting group objectives, social collaboration takes social networking to a whole new level.

Video Game

Game-based learning has been a major factor in education since Socrates first answered a question with a question.

NexEd recognized that if they were going to pull off such a bold initiative, they had to be certain that it was all rooted in deep, authentic learning. Fundamentally, they asked these critical questions:

1. What would a personal learning environment look like built inside a video game?

2. What educational/real ­world benefits would result from students and teachers coming together inside a 3D virtual      space?

3. How could they integrate the ‘gamification’ element in ways that would positively impact the learning experience?

4. How would learning occur and be measured?

Until now, it has been very difficult for a tradition of transmission model teaching, standardized testing and other rigorous quantitative measures of progress to consider gaming as a valid or effective method of learning and consuming content. Presenting the idea of measuring one’s real-world learning progress from within a game tends to result in skeptical eyebrow raising and pursed lips. So they investigated the possibility of measuring qualitative ‘experiences’ to see if they could generate valid accounts of a player’s learning progress based on their experiences in-game; after all, what is a game but an account of a player’s experiences in overcoming challenges over a period of time?

Imagine a group of students sharing a virtual space with a set of objectives to complete a quest. The completion of these objectives provides each of them with a variety of rewards and achievements including game points, badges, and experience. Here’s the catch: the quest they have been working on together is actually a real-world problem they are attempting to solve. Perhaps they are analyzing and comparing climate change between regions across the eastern seaboard or exploring deep learning in artificial intelligence via robotics kits. Or they are charged with the task of contributing one hunk of code to a larger algorithm that changes everything?

Screenshot of Answerables game with Admin Pod in the lower right corner

According to modern standards, it is no longer acceptable to view learning as a passive action. The education community already knows this, but that doesn't mean the transition will be easy. Learning solutions abound; educators are forced into a paradox of choices when making the effort to adapt their teaching strategies to include modern learning tools. Answerables is not so much a new technology as a synthesis of technologies; not a fix for a broken system but an alternative direction for the system itself.

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