The Learning Process: Fitting The Unique Learning Style Of Elementary Students

A Conversation with Mark Wu, Co Founder and CEO of Answerables

Editor’s Note: This is part of a new series on edCircuit. Connie Bosley is a professional writer with a Masters Degree in Education and a passion for EdTech and its role in the future of education. In this series, Connie talks with EdTech leaders to explore their world and the value they bring to learners.

Answerables is a virtual game program designed to engage the unique learning styles of elementary students. It is a game-based learning system for developing digital citizens in a safe environment. Authentic learning takes place through personal experiences motivated by active engagement and the building of knowledge socially and through collaboration. The latter takes place because the in-game browsers are synchronized so that any change made to a web terminal is instantly shared with all participants promoting collaboration.

In a recent interview with Answerables’ co-founder and CEO, Canadian Mark Wu shared how the game-based learning system was a result of a promise to his Chinese grandfather and his friendship with fellow educator, Peter Cameron.

In 2001, Mark’s Grandfather invited him to build a school in Hong Kong, financed by family money, that would honor the Chinese tradition of high esteem of educators. Mark was living in Canada, his wife was pregnant with their first son and he couldn’t imagine moving to Hong Kong to set up school. Mark did promise his grandfather that he would set up a school someday.

“Answerables itself is a school, a new version of a school, not the kind my grandfather envisioned in 2001,” said Mark. As a first-grade teacher, Wu, a SERT (Special Education Resource Teacher), saw firsthand that engagement was vital to students staying on task long enough to learn new material. Young students learn much easier through games.

The second Answerables’ initiator was the friendship and collaboration of two educators wanting to engage elementary students in real learning rather than the conventional classroom or Moodles, popular in 2010.

Mark added,”Engagement is always necessary; we should be using technology to enhance that engagement.”

Mark and his friend Peter Cameron first met when Peter was hired as the district IT person. “We hit it off right away and I could tell he was the kind of person I would want to hire, which we did. We became friends when we tried to change the culture of the school to one more technology-based. We worked very closely,” added Wu.

The idea for Answerables came in the outdoor drop off/pickup line for their school. Mark asked Peter, “If you were going to turn this school into something entirely online, something entirely virtual, how would you build it?” Peter, a Gamer, answered that he would build it in an MMO (massively multiplayer online) video game. “No one had thought of that approach in 2010. It would be much more engaging that anything out at that time,” Mark added.

Mark and the future co-founder Peter were talking in a coffee shop one day when Mark asked, “Hey Buddy, do you want to jump ship, leave our comfy safe jobs as teacher and IT guy with guaranteed salaries and try creating this new learning game?” Peter said, “Yeah, let’s try it.” They started using the education fund left by Mark’s grandfather. “We took advantage of the opportunity to turn this new type of school into an innovative virtual learning system directed at early elementary-aged children, using the game format,” said Wu.

Why a game format?

Mark responded, “The kids in this age group learn and think very differently than their predecessors. Often referred to as Generation Alpha (kids born from 2010 to the present), they came along at the same time as Instagram and the iPads came out. They have lived with this and more recent technology all their lives.”

Answerables recognizes those differences. Kids love running around inside the game and just playing. The game is built for eight, nine and 10 year-olds, arguably the most important learners to manage. They learn the skills that will be needed in the higher grades and later in life in the game’s virtual world.

Young students become totally engaged in the virtual ecosystem where they can be human or cyborg in the 3D game space. They can choose what content and type of learning they want from visiting content PODs (Personal Online Development spaces). Language is not a barrier in that most can be used in the typed information and can be easily changed to fit the user.

Teachers enroll students, create events and assignments and provide feedback all in the 3D game space. They can conduct classes and sessions, share live or stored content and keep track of student experiences and progress through individual and group assessment metrics.

Teacher training is done in the district by the Answerables staff. Support is given either live by a phone conversation with Mark or other staff members and/or through YouTube videos.

Safety on the web is a concern for young children. NexEd, Answerables’ parent company, dealt with this issue in two ways. First, the Learning Management System allows students to develop their skills in safe web browsing and content management. The browser in the game allows a player to navigate the web safely with scaffolded learning supports using mechanics geared toward younger users. Second, there is a Help button a student can use if he or she feels threatened. It is built into the program and immediately sends a message to the teacher who goes into the game to investigate what prompted the call for help.

When asked what was next after Answerables, Mark responded, “As an entrepreneur you are making decisions every day. I’m happy with Answerable and when we get a big win like partnering with other companies or a school district interested in what we’re doing, that’s a good day. A high point was when we were surprised and pleased by the Librarian’s Association Award announcement.

Answerable was awarded for Social Networking and Communications -Standard for the 21st Century Learner in 2015 by the AASL (American Association of School Librarians). Since that time this unique learning system has begun to form partnerships with schools and other companies in the United States. Interested schools in California, Pennsylvania, New York and rural Kentucky have all been in contact with Answerables about their system.

Recent partnerships include the Fullerton School District a district that uses gaming to engage students and the Florida Virtual Schools system. Desire to Learn (D2L) and Bright Space (both college level) will combine their LMS with Answerables’ technology to more effectively engage students in a supplemental virtual classroom to the real classroom. “Rizzsley’s heroic or epic learning quest based LMS realized that they could better meet the needs of the younger students if they added Answerables to their system. They have a lot of great content. When connected with our virtual learning, it makes a great combination,” Mark said.

Who are your competitors?

The LMS already in school districts are the major competitors to Answerables. Districts may be unwilling to add the fee for another component to a system in an already stressed budget. Answerables is not a competitor but a partner that can better address the needs of the younger elementary students. With the new partnerships forming, the new year will be more exciting for Mark Wu of Answerables.

“I am pleased by what we have accomplished with Answerables. I enjoy being an entrepreneur, being my own boss. After Answerables, I would remain in education but probably not as a teacher. I might build another company,” Mark added with a smile.

About Mark Wu

Mark has been working with diverse groups of students for more than 15 years as a classroom teacher, Special Education Resource Teacher, and school administrator. He has a wealth of experience teaching learning disabled children and supporting their parents and teachers.

A firm believer in philosopher Lao Tzu’s philosophy of "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime," Mark has spent much of his career exploring the goal of giving students and teachers a framework that would allow them to explore and discover their own answers and solutions.

As both a veteran educator and a proud papa of two children in elementary school, Mark’s motivation to co-found NexEd was ultimately born from a deep understanding of the need to support teachers who want to engage students in the learning experience, and the students who thrive when engaged.

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