Educators find videogames engage students in learning
By Ellie Ashford
Middle school students at Suffern Middle School in New York’s Ramapo Central High School District were given some money and a list of items to purchase. They worked on percentages and other math skills as they shopped for the best deals at a flea market, then enjoyed themselves at a beach party. But the students never left the classroom. The instructional material was embedded in a scenario on Second Life, a “multiuser virtual environment” on the Internet.
This exercise demonstrates how educators are using simulations like Second Life, as well as videogames, to engage students in learning academics along with such 21st century skills as collaboration, problem solving, and creative thinking.
Speak Up, Project Tomorrow’s annual national survey on technology’s role in education, notes that 64 percent of K-12 students regularly play videogames during non-school hours.
Students enjoy playing educational games in class because they like the idea of directing their own learning, making decisions, and having the ability to change the outcome, says Julie Evans, CEO of Project Tomorrow. “Kids felt games made it easier to understand difficult concepts.”
By 2010, a billion people will be participating in virtual worlds like World of Warcraft or Second Life, adds Ntiedo Etuk, co-founder, chairman, and CEO of the New York-based company Tabula Digita, which creates multiplayer educational games.
What’s more, the average age of the players is 33, Etuk adds, “which means a lot of teachers are part of that demographic.”
According to the Speak Up survey, 29 percent of teachers play online games during their leisure time. Eleven percent use video games in class and 50 percent want to learn more about incorporating games into the curriculum.
“We’re suddenly getting to the tipping point,” Evans says. “Teachers are becoming less reluctant.”
To be considered a “game,” Evans says a program must be interactive. “It can’t just be drill and practice,” she says. “Students become a character in the game and direct the learning process.”
In contrast to passive learning, which involves a teacher giving a lecture or a student reading a book, games and simulations incorporate such active learning activities as role-playing, learning by doing, and problem solving. Individualized learning is emphasized, and students receive immediate feedback.
Games “increase the efficiency of learning,” Etuk says. “Videogame designers create such a compelling world that kids will fail 100 times before they get it right.” He created Tabula Digita “to apply that kind of motivation to the classroom.”
Nearly 100 games are designed for the education market or appropriate for classroom use. Among the most popular are Tabula Digita’s Evolver pre-algebra game and Dimenxian algebra game for middle school students, which are used in 300 schools in 20 districts.
Students can play individually or in teams and can compete against classmates or against other students around the world, says Etuk. Players log in to see their scores and compare their performance to other students.
Educational games might have lots of action to keep students interested, but they are not violent. Tabula Digita games, for example, are modeled on “capture the flag.” Unlike commercial games where the player usually “kills” the enemy, players use a “transporter” to send their opponents back to the base.
I Support Learning, a Kansas-based company, develops simulations for students in the fifth-grade through the freshman year of college. Students learn through role-playing in a “real-world situation,” says CEO Steve Waddell.
One of the most popular products has students working as interns in a videogame company. Students interact with colleagues and customers while honing math, science, and reading skills and learning about computer science. Waddell calls it an “immersive experience,” where students are “living the learning as opposed to being told what to learn.”
It’s not just the public sector getting involved. The Federation of American Scientists has developed two games that can be downloaded at no charge. Immune Attack teaches students in grades 7-12 how the body’s immune system works by having them navigate nanobots through a 3-D environment of blood vessels and connective tissue in an attempt to save an ailing patient. The federation also produced a game called Discover Babylon.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) is spending $20 million on the development of educational computer games to teach U.S. history and government, says Andy Hoffman, director of the American History and Civics Initiative at WGBH-TV, which manages the program for CPB.
One game expected to be available in fall 2010 calls for students to take on the roles of characters, such as a small town mill worker, from the nation’s past and make informed decisions by reading news reports or speeches from the period. The story could go in any number of ways depending on students’ decisions.
Traditional classroom teaching is “based on linear learning, but our brains don’t work that way,” Hoffman says. The games are based on the idea that there are “many ways to learn with many access points.”
In Ramapo, Second Life is firmly embedded into the curriculum for students in grades 8-11. Students are restricted to their own area -- consisting of six “islands” in the “teen grid,” a section of Second Life restricted to youths 18 and under.
In many traditional classes, some students take an active part in discussions, while others sit in the back and never speak up, says Peggy Sheehy, the district’s instructional technology facilitator. With Second Life, students who “never used to raise their hands are enthusiastically participating.”
Ramapo students used Second Life to create a mock trial based on Of Mice and Men and learned about science by focusing on catastrophic events, such as volcanoes and hurricanes. They developed projects like amusement parks or community centers, but first had to submit a business plan and resume and obtain approval from their peers.
Students hone their writing skills, learn to collaborate with one another, and “become risk takers” in a way that doesn’t happen in a traditional classroom, Sheehy says. Teachers let go of the total control they had when the lesson was all about lecturing and workbooks.
“Teachers are setting clear expectations but are flexible,” she says. “Students are peer-mentoring and peer-evaluating. There is collaborative reflection going on.”
The Clarke County, Ga., school district has used Second Life for professional development, says Virginia Jewell, director of technology integration and support services. The next phase calls for students to take part in the teen grid to enhance the science and social studies curriculum.
Other games already are in wide use in Clarke County. Social studies classes have used The Calm and the Storm, a series about World War II, and Civilization.
When the district pilot-tested Tabula Digita’s Dimenxian to teach middle-school math, Jewell says teachers found that students worked harder to understand math concepts than they had with traditional instruction. “They were less likely to give up on something.”
The Broward County, Fla., school district uses I Support Learning’s videogame design and artificial intelligence games in its eight high schools that have academies of information technology, reports Donna Caplan, program curriculum facilitator for business technology education.
Previously, the curriculum included online lessons on the logic and math used in computer programming. “Teachers hated it; students hated it. They weren’t doing any actual programming,” Caplan says.
When the district switched to games, students “became so much more engaged in learning,” she says. “Games are the hook to get kids involved.”
Despite a growing number of products, it’s still hard to find good resources, Evans says. “The real challenge, because of hesitancy or a disconnect from the education community, is that a lot of big companies haven’t jumped in.”
There were some great products in the past, but they didn’t sell well, Jewell says. And some games “were too much like education and not enough like games, and that’s not fooling the kids.”
Before successfully integrating games into the classroom, Jewell says educators need to consider several issues. What can the games teach? What kind of preparation do the students need? How many students will play on a team? What are their roles? Would students play all the way to the end of a game?
“There’s a big difference between having students play games to learn something that is standards-based and playing a game to have a good time,” Jewell says. “A lot of preparation is needed.”
Hardware issues also exist, she says. Many games require more sophisticated computers with better graphics cards and resolution than those usually found in schools, and “that calls for a whole new level of complexity in terms of technical support.”
Etuk says everyone believes using games in school engages students. “But,” he asks, “does it gain acceptance from educators? Does it increase knowledge and test scores?”
Not much research is available to confirm or debunk the value of games in raising student achievement.
A case study by a ninth-grade teacher at Edgewater High School in Orlando, Fla., demonstrates improved math and reading scores on a state assessment by students who used I Support Learning’s video game design program.
Jewell says it will likely take another three or four years to see whether video games affect student achievement in Clarke County. But she is already seeing improvements in attendance and behavior, including “a huge decrease in disciplinary referrals.”
And when students are engaged and come to class excited about learning, she says, “that will probably transfer to student achievement.”
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