Cornelia Brunner keeps a set of wooden hand puppets that she’s had since her childhood growing up in Germany. They’ve traveled with her over a career of more than 40 years in research, production, and teaching of educational technologies—a career that witnessed the advent of computers in the classroom and the birth of the public Internet.
The puppets have been an inspiration as well as a link from past to present. They remind her, she says, that what she is creating now—educational activities that incorporate elements of gaming—is not so very different from writing dramas for her beloved toys.
Brunner’s work in educational media started at Sesame Street in the 1970s and continues today at EDC’s Center for Children and Technology in New York, where she’s developing a series of gaming modules to engage young learners in science education.
How has thinking about technology in the classroom changed over your career?
We’re actually coming back around to how we thought of microcomputers when they first arrived in the classroom—as tools to support the kind of teaching and learning that makes for progressive education. What happened over the years was that, instead of using the technology to support real thinking, they were used more to deliver information and give kids opportunities to practice skills.
We’ve always been more interested in using technology to connect people, so they can talk to each other, think together, and work things out together. That’s been harder to integrate into the classroom.
Today, the technology is better and more ubiquitous, and we have cell phones that can do things the first microcomputers never dreamed of. So it really is possible to use this medium to communicate with each other in a more meaningful fashion, and to focus on helping kids cope with complexity rather than just learning particular skills.
What elements of gaming translate into opportunities for classroom learning?
Kids respond to all kinds of games, from puzzle games like Tetris and card games like Solitaire—which are soothing and can help you focus, like cleaning your mental palate —to life simulation games like The Sims, which is about people managing their daily lives rather than shoot—‘em-up or epic conflicts between nations.
We wanted to make a set of science-related simulations that would be interesting to children, and in which they’re asked to manage a range of variables using techniques from the game world and applying them to solve problems in the real world. There is also the narrative aspect of gaming—the story that is the scaffolding of the gaming environment—which makes activities meaningful in a way that goes beyond just filling out a worksheet.
Super Sleuths (a working title) is a game we’re developing on the Nintendo DS platform to support that kind of learning in the science classroom. We’re making the kinds of games both boys and girls like to play as the basis for more complex, conceptual activities they can do in the classroom with the help of their teacher.
You’ve described technology as “masculine” and “feminine.” Why is that?
Actually, I prefer to use “butch” and “femme” to avoid confusion with male or female, because this is not about biology but about the social construction of gender. There are many women with a butch perspective on technology. For instance, I’ve been working in gender and technology for a very, very long time, and there are gendered differences that seem to hold up over time—two distinct ways of imagining technology.
A femme perspective on technology sees it as a tool that helps you do something better or more easily, or that connects you. Facebook is an example of a femme technology. It allows you to share ideas and moments with your friends and family and stay connected.
A butch perspective on technology is that it gives you this enormous power to transcend the limitations of time, space, and the body. Airplanes are a butch technology. Butch technologies push the innovation envelope, while femme perspectives tend to be more conscious of the potential side effects of innovation. The Internet is an example of a technology that can be used in a femme or a butch manner—to connect and share or to control and command vast arsenals of information.
What’s been most gratifying about your work?
It’s nice, at the end of my career, to be able to come full circle—back to thinking about how to use these new tools in a way that really is helpful to the kind of education I’ve always been interested in, which is one that helps kids become critical thinkers and critical users of information rather than little test-taking machines. We’re back to focusing on how we can use these new tools to enable more people to become more knowledgeable and be able to participate more fully in a democratic world.