Interview | Traveling through DimensionU with Nt Etuk

Nt Etuk founded DimensionU (formerly Tabula Digita) on the premise that the education system needed to become truly “customer-oriented,” where the real customer in education is the student. It was Nt’s belief (pronounced EN-tee) that, prior to DimensionU, most emphasis was placed on creating tools to help teachers teach or creating tools to help schools, districts or governments figure out whether teachers were teaching, but very little was being done to ensure that the tools we were putting in front of students were communicating with them in the way they needed to see or hear (social networks, video games, SMS text, etc.) to truly engage this new, digitally active generation.

Victor: Could you back it up and recall a moment, an epiphany—if you had one—in creating DimensionU? 

Nt: The ah-ha moment came during my days of volunteering with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in Delaware with a young man whose mother wanted me to teach him Algebra. Unfortunately, this was a young man who was having trouble with some of the basic arithmetic skills that should have been mastered far earlier. The system had failed him, and now he was really going to suffer for it. I placed him on a hardcore intervention diet of basic arithmetic and pre-algebra requisites because I felt we needed to get him up-to-speed, fast. It was difficult. It was no fun. It was all we did—and it was working. I could see slow, steady progress being made. But after about two months, in a slightly traumatic moment for me, he asked his mother to ask me to stop—it was like I was doing medieval torture or something! When I approached him to ask why, he said, “I really like you, but we never have any fun.” That was when I realized that I had committed the cardinal sin. Like many of his teachers before him, I had taken the fun out of learning.

It was in that moment that I realized that perhaps our biggest problem in education was not class size, or teacher proficiency, or teacher tenure, or even facilities—it was that we had ignored the fact that the most important person to get committed, engaged, and involved in the education process was the one who we were actually trying to get to absorb the knowledge: the student.

We were failing our kids because we weren’t getting down on our knees and speaking to them at their level—in the way in which they were used to interacting with, manipulating, and absorbing information, and as a result we were losing them.

That’s when I decided to bring kids’ voices into the educational conversation because if we could show a system where millions of kids were engaging in education, having fun, and still learning—boy, that would change the world.

Victor: What does the name mean?

Nt: DimensionU is a ‘universe’ of educational videogames in which students can play with or against each other, globally, while learning key concepts in math, science, social studies and literacy.  The data supports this—in the next 10 years, there will be over 1 billion virtual world users. In the U.S. alone, by the time a person reaches 21 they have played 10,000 hours of videogames—in 8 hour work days, that’s 3.5 years—more time than you spend in your average first job out of college! Forty-three percent of videogame players are women meaning that such solutions can cover a broad spectrum of the world, and of the approximately 53 million public school students, about 93 percent of them play videogames. Educational videogames are one way to begin to truly engage this generation of kids in education. 

Victor: What is it? Who (else) created it?

Nt: DimensionU puts kids in control of their future by giving them a new way to learn that’s fun, rewarding, and relevant in the 21st-Century. Our system taps into the passion kids have for video games and peppers the experience with the core math skills they’ll need to take over the world in real life. Our mission is to make learning so cool that kids fall in love with it for life.

Specifically, DimensionU is a gaming and rewards platform that makes learning math fun for kids age 8 – 14. In DimensionU, students play fun, free multi-player educational video games with their friends. As a reward for getting the answers correct kids can earn virtual currency to buy in-game items to make their experience more fun.

Our team at DimensionU, made up of skilled game developers, created the game with valuable input from our educational experts—including team members who were teachers and involved in curriculum development—as well as our product and software development teams. In addition, we have regularly received 360-degree feedback from students, parents and teachers over the last four years. We have product advisory teams in place for kids and their parents.

Victor: What does it do? What are the benefits?

Nt: The games are enthralling and fun. They create an environment where it’s safe to fail and try again.  And, they offer the ability to offer extrinsic rewards for learning.  That’s where DimensionU is really, really different. Our games reward players with tokens, power-ups, premium content, digital assets and all sorts of other cool stuff.

We’re also the only company to offer Educational Allowance. This is revolutionary.  Educational Allowance gives kids the chance to earn real-rewards for their work. Parents pledge a small weekly amount for the completion of weekly educational challenges that enforce the skills they’ll need to succeed in the 21st century. U Game. U Gain. Beat the challenge, get the reward—sort of like the real world, where you’ve got to work to get paid. This reward system puts kids where they want to be: in control of their life and their future.

But it’s not just us saying that. Data from independent studies by The University of Central Florida Study and a district-wide study in Broward County, Fla., show that over 80 percent of students who play DimensionU improve their test scores, while 75 percent of DimensionU players pass state assessment, compared to just 35 percent of non-players.  I’m most excited that when asked, 100 percent of girls and 92 percent of boys said DU was their favorite math-related activity in summer school!

Victor: How is it unique from other similar products/services? What companies do you see as in the same market?  

Nt: We connect with kids like no other educational company. In our world, kids are the consumers: We make learning something they want to do, not something they have to do. It combines research-based, collaborative, social games that have proved effective in differentiating instruction, engaging students in their own learning, increasing time on task, enhancing student motivation, and improving academic achievement for elementary, middle and high school students, alike.

Victor: When was it developed?

Nt: The company was launched in the K-12 education market in 2007. Over the past several years, DimensionU focused on getting the games into schools, having success with more than 1,500 schools across 75 school districts including some of the nation’s largest including New York City, Dallas, Chicago, and Miami. In addition we work with organizations like Computers for Youth and Connections Academy, who have made DimensionU available to over 40,000 virtual school students.  The team has worked closely with teachers and students, honing the curriculum and the games—keeping it fun and making it a more and more effective learning tool.

2012 is the year DimensionU goes big. This year we’re making games available to anyone with an Internet connection. We’re getting big names involved in a campaign to make learning cooler and more fun than ever before.

Victor: Where can you get it now?

Nt: Just go to www.dimensionu.com

Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?

Nt: For kids and parents who wish to give their kids access to play DimensionU at home, just sign up and play for free on www.dimensionu.com

In addition, parents and guardians can now actively participate in motivating and reward their kids to play, learn and earn on DimensionU by signing up their kids for the premium services called Educational Allowance, for low yearly fee of $9.95 plus the weekly pledge amount a parent should decide to choose for their child in Educational Allowance—check out the short video on Education Allowance – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SiTaN5C14TY&feature=player_embedded

For school districts, they can contact our Schools division to get more details on for DimensionU in the classroom – http://educator.dimensionu.com/Educator/home/default.aspx?MainNav=home&Section=dimU&ref=topnav

Victor: What are some examples of it in action?

Nt: James Wilson, a math teacher at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg, Florida, began using DimensionU three years ago as an intervention tool for his intensive math students in grades 10-12.

Bored, not motivated and persistently struggling, test data showed his students were not performing near or on grade-level. Mr. Wilson put in place a plan to improve their math skills. It began with a powerful combination wherein students rotated between small group instruction, independent practice, and time spent playing our rigorous, yet engaging DimensionU video games during their 90-minute math class three times per week.

Their data clearly supports this model of game-based learning—his students showed definite gains. In fact, the FCAT Math Score for Gibbs High School 10th-grade students scoring at or above grade level enjoyed a nearly nine-point jump in test scores in just three years (see below) and that is what I would call a real game changer!

2009 – 45%

2010 – 47%

2011 – 54%

Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it not for?

What is great about our games is they have something for everyone—struggling students and students who want to be challenged. And for parents who want to be more actively involved in motivating and engaging their kids in learning.

Victor: Alright, now for something a little juicier: What are your thoughts on education these days?

Nt: In many ways, the world seems unfamiliar to those of us who grew up in past decades.  But this is our kids’ world. And as educators, parents, or friends, if we are going to get today’s youngsters to listen to us, we have to understand where they’re coming from—and what they’re doing.

The use of games in education—previously known as “edutainment”—began around 1984 when a teacher named Jan Davidson created a software program for use on a newfangled contraption called the Apple personal computer. Math Blaster was a huge success, followed by many other early titles: Reader Rabbit, Oregon Trail, and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. These early edutainment hits presented educational subjects in a way that was both new and exciting.

Fast forward to the new century. Technology and the students who use it have evolved considerably. And so have educational “games,” thanks to companies like DimensionU who believe that today’s products must be anchored in more specific pedagogical design principles. They also believe that to stand the test of time, today’s games must not only engage but also teach—a requirement that was missing from prior enactments of the genre. When children pick up a new videogame, they know very little about the game.

They know little about the world the game operates in: the rules of the world, the rules of their characters, or the rules of interaction in that world. They don’t know what problems they have to solve to advance through the world, and in many cases they don’t even know how to solve those problems ahead of time.

Yet to win—and that is the goal of most video games—they must learn those rules, master those rules, learn the problems, solve the problems, and fail several times before finally succeeding.

This is the basis of today’s most successful educational games. Those that do this well are so ingeniously designed, so pedagogically efficient, that they take children from beginner to master grade in 40 to 60 hours—the standard amount of time a game plays. They force players to fail dozens of times before achieving ultimate success, but are so inspiring and so engaging that the students solve the problems on their own, actively ask friends for help, and even do research to find answers.

How inspiring it is for educators and parents to know that what a child has mastered in these games, what they’re curious about, what they ask for help on, and ultimately what they succeed in is not Super Mario Brothers, but Math, Science or Literacy!

Victor: And how does DimensionU address some of your concerns about education?

Nt: We are on a mission to make learning a lifestyle; we want students to talk about learning, to talk about their education the same way they talk about games or dating or sports.  We want their learning achievements to be a character trait they talk about as easily and proudly as they do about the new jeans they bought with hard-earned savings.  We want education to become fun again. We want to make it so that kids can’t wait to get onto our systems and when they do, they don’t want to leave.  We want to make students partners in the education process, to motivate them so much that they ask the questions about the things they don’t know, that They beg us to learn more—to solve the challenge, to finish the puzzle, to gain the knowledge.  That’s why we created DimensionU!

Victor: Any quirky, funny or interesting stuff you could share with our readers?

Nt: Victor, check out these videos and link them from the article…

Hawaii kids rock:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNdEd-NWnOM&context=C3da8017ADOEgsToPDskJ8ZmZC8GzmKaOaM_kNsuS_

Everybody scream: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XnqA2ApyUek&context=C30cf74cADOEgsToPDskIFIjlnXZbZEJutBfRdV6QX

A teacher and one of their kids: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDxFmSYLcko&context=C365157aADOEgsToPDskKgCYcf4QM8glp_agmN8Vbm

Victor: Very cool! Thanks, Nt. What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of DimensionU?

Nt: The idea of using immersive gaming to learn is long overdue in the classroom setting. While games are a traditional method of teaching subjects, video games effectively engage modern children who live in a world of cell phones, text messaging, Web cams, Internet connections, and downloadable music and movies.

Victor: What makes you say that?

Nt: According to a 2007 survey conducted by the national education nonprofit Project Tomorrow, 51 percent of the students surveyed felt that educational gaming made difficult concepts easier to understand. Those students’ beliefs has been supported by numerous researchers who argue while regular instruction tends to present information as abstract ideas, gaming places the subject matter within a meaningful context.

The impact is clear: students love the games and teachers have reported seeing definite gains in students’ knowledge not to mention that students have also displayed faster mental processing because winning many of the games depends on speed.

In any case, the games are about more than scores, they are about motivation. Educational gaming has had the desired effect: getting students to spend more time exploring complex math concepts before, during and after class time. Students forget that they are learning about complicated topics such as coordinating systems and scatter plots, order of operations or proportions, but they are able to carry what they mastered in the game over to their work in the classroom. In addition, because of the task-oriented nature of the games, players have become incredible problem-solvers.

In all, the games’ capacity to cultivate social interaction, team problem-solving, and the motivation to improve math skills are of tremendous benefit to the 21st century student!

——-

Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com

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