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Will Gaming Save Education, or Just Waste Time?

Today's sophisticated digital games are engaging students and conveying hard-to-teach concepts like failure and perspective. So why aren't more classrooms playing along?

This article appears in the August 2013 issue of T.H.E. Journal
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Illustration of school with students entering

If the use of technology in education is about meeting students where they are, it seems like gaming would be a good place to start. After all, as far back as 2008, the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported that 97 percent of kids ages 12 to 17 were playing some kind of digital game every week; about half played daily.

And why not? When Neil Postman wrote his classic, Amusing Ourselves to Death, about the shift from a typographically focused society to one that was ruled by television, his title could just as easily have been foretelling the increasing use of gamelike activities in all aspects of life. Consumers spent about $21 billion on the game industry last year. Half of all American households have dedicated game consoles; many have two. We don't fly without getting our miles. We can't shop without handing over our rewards card. We seem to be a species well-suited for seeking "pleasure and reward," notes Janna Quitney Anderson, director of Pew and Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center. Gaming and its trappings play right into our appetites.

Proponents say gaming provides a compelling way to engage students and make educational efforts more effective. Others believe it simply provides a merry diversion from what should truly be happening in the classroom. Where do the golden tokens reside? Let's click for a roll of the die and find out.

"Failing Up"
Games and playing have been part of classrooms "for a long time," declares Katie Salen, well-known game designer, DePaul University professor, and one of the masterminds behind Quest to Learn, a public school in New York designed around game playing. "Play is the way that human beings learn about the world…. That's how we discover how things work."

Besides providing an environment in which to "learn by doing," games offer several other educational benefits, according to Salen. For one, games structure problem-solving in a way that helps the player to "fail up," as Salen puts it. "Every game designer expects every player to be successful in their game," she notes. The best games are designed to makes the problem to be solved both hard and fun so that students will "want to continue to persist on that problem."

Sometimes, the learner will have to try hundreds of times to find success. "You know you're getting better at that particular skill every time you try, and you're learning something about how to solve that particular problem," Salen says. The failure is productive. Rather than hitting some kind of wall and just stopping--which is "what kids tend to experience in the classroom"--failure becomes "a fantastic thing because it's about iteration and discovery. When I try it again, I'm going to apply that particular piece of learning."

Data Rich
One of Salen's arguments for the use of games in education should sit well with most policymakers: Games are rich with data. "They're filled with information for players around how they're doing, where they need to go, how they need to get better," she notes. That data can be used by teachers as well as students, she adds. "Games open up assessment, so it's really kid-facing, and that can be incredibly powerful."

Kristen DiCerbo, a senior research scientist at Pearson, agrees with Salen and offers an example from the world of SimCity. A collaboration between Electronic Arts and GlassLab has produced an education-oriented update of the decades-old city-building simulation game built specifically for the classroom. Called SimCityEDU, the game challenges learners to solve problems such as combating pollution, and a multitude of data can be captured to show what students do first, what actions they take, and where they linger. DiCerbo says, "By starting to look at how long people spend looking at information--all those little things that we could never gather from a paper and pencil path--we hope to be able to get a finer and better measurement of what kids can do."

The Sweet Spot for Gaming
For Jessica Millstone, education fellow at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and adjunct professor at Bank Street College of Education, the sweet spot for gaming in education is helping students grasp concepts that are tough to learn out of a book.

She cites the example of Mission US, an online PBS game that immerses players in "missions" about US history. Backdrops include colonial America and the Underground Railroad, and players become characters who might have lived during those times. Millstone says, "These are very abstract for a third- or fourth-grader to consider or to think about what that part of the country looked like 400 years ago…and even play out some scenarios that are not historically accurate but that involve you making decisions and problem-solving and thinking as somebody would during that time period."

Yes, Millstone acknowledges, those same lessons could be emulated in real life, through dress-up "pioneer day"-type activities. But the online versions provide a number of benefits, such as "a huge amount of support for the teachers. They have all the curriculum materials; all the structure is there." On top of that, the kids like it. "They are so fluent in using these kinds of online tools," she adds. Plus, gaming generates learning data "that is not just anecdotal--not just what the teacher is observing, but actually providing some real information about what the kids are learning or not learning as they go through this content material. That's something [teachers] can feed back into their teaching."

Adapting to the Classroom
While game playing is knit into the fabric of schools such as Quest to Learn and GameDesk Institute's Playmaker School, based in Los Angeles, most public school classrooms' digital gaming hasn't gotten much past the experimental stage. Pew's Quitney Anderson quotes futurist John Smart, a respondent to a Pew/Elon survey on gaming, who told researchers, "We simply don't have the artificial intelligence necessary to build really good versions of this yet, and educational software remains pitifully poor at creating games that improve rather than distract from learning."

One component that current games lack is "adaptivity," says DiCerbo. "Right now, most games respond to player behavior in basic ways: Once you get five of these problems right, you move to the next level, or if you pursue this path, you'll be taking this action; if you follow that path, you'll take that action." Those are fairly mechanistic responses.

The real goal is understanding not just what the behavior was but also the player's "underlying" skill. "That may be based on the combination of lots of different actions we've seen them do," she notes. "Once we know that skill, being able to really get them to the content that's going to hit that magic spot where they're able to learn and they're challenged, but they're not getting frustrated." In learning theory, she explains, that's called the "zone of proximal development," which differentiates what a student is able to do independently from what he or she can do with adult help.

Another challenge is that most game designers aren't focusing on content areas. "When they're making a commercial game that is adaptive to skills, they're thinking more about how good of a shooter you are," says DiCerbo. "In the [education] game, we want to know: How good are you at understanding that things can have two different causes or understanding how to gather evidence? It's taking different kinds of skills and adapting to those and making the game content adapt as well--as opposed to the game-play skills."

The Gaming World vs. the Real World
Yet another lingering challenge to wide adoption of gaming in the classroom is the jarring difference between the traditionally structured schools and classrooms and the playing itself. When learning games are relegated to an hour a week in the computer lab, for example, students don't have time to really consolidate what they've learned, argues Ron Smith, an art and media teacher at Helen Bernstein High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

He does believe that games have a place in learning. "But you can't do it piecemeal," he insists. "You have to be all in or all out." Given a situation where every student had his or her own device, "I'd be the first in line to try gaming as a platform," he insists, because a 1-to-1 environments allows students to "take what we did and keep going on it after they walked out of the classroom."

Lucas Gillispie, a gamer and instructional technology coordinator at Pender County Schools (NC), would prefer that all educational activity take place in the world concocted in the game. If students need to write something, for example, they shouldn't have to get out of the game's simulated environment and get into a separate application for word processing. "They'd take out their scroll and quill and write," he says. Then what they've composed "would come out of the system somehow and back to me as a teacher so I could assess it and provide feedback. I would never have to pull the kid out of that space to give me that content. That's my ideal world."

The problem as he sees it is that if a student is having a "really compelling experience" in the game and then has to come out of that experience and log into a system to write about it or do something else that "smells like school," it sets up a dividing line in the student's mind "that play is fun and school and learning are boring."

Gillispie, who resides in the real world, is doing everything he can to help teachers introduce game playing into what they do. Besides his day-job duties, he runs edurealms, a site dedicated to integrating gaming into education. There, he and associate Craig Lawson offer a free download that provides curriculum and guidance for teachers who want to use World of Warcraft or its subscription-free competitor Guild Wars 2 in the classroom. He also advises those who would want to implement the program through the WoWinSchool Project.

Right now, though, introducing online gaming into schools is about as intense as staging a raid on fel orcs in Hellfire Citadel, because it requires the commitment of individual teachers who have a passion for gaming. In Lawson's own district, out of a staff of 750 or 800 people, Gillispie can count on two hands the number of teachers who are exploring gaming. In the wider world, his project has drawn active participation by 11 schools.

The ones who do sign up--at Pender County and other places--are teachers "who have had their own experiences in that space, and they realize the value of it and what it's meant to them personally," he says. "So helping them make the connection between that and classroom instruction is really simple. It's not a hard sell." But it is a tough hurdle to convince teachers who are not gamers themselves to "devote the extra time and energy and resources above and beyond what they're normally called to do on a day-to-day basis in the classroom."

A Gaming Generation Grows Up
That hurdle may just dissipate as the latest generation of teachers moves into the classroom. Why? Familiarity. "They're all gamers," says Millstone. "They also know that their students are all gamers, whether it's casual games you might play on your iPhone or tablet, or video games you'd use a console to play, or multiplayer games. People have a lot of fluency in the language of games."

"I think we're only at the very beginning of how games are going to be used," Millstone observes. "We're going to see more games built into standardized tests, for example, and more use of data that comes out of games in sophisticated ways to improve student learning in all kinds of ways. And we'll actually let students get some of that data too, so they can see how they're doing and can get feedback and start to craft their own learning trajectories in the classroom."

In the meantime, there's a game out there for everybody, declares DiCerbo. "It's not one game for everybody; different kids will like different games. But eventually we could find games that engage and teach kids throughout their K-12--and into higher ed--experiences."

 

Minecraft in Schools

Anyone who knows a middle-school-age child likely also knows about Minecraft, an interactive building construction environment that takes the idea of "immersive" to serious depths. Kids start out building structures that protect them from monsters, but end up spending hours, weeks, or months creating imaginative objects and environments. Think Legos and Erector Sets meet Madeleine L'Engle and J.K. Rowling.

Not surprisingly, Minecraft has been discovered by educators. Go to YouTube and search for "Minecraft in schools" and you'll get more than 800,000 results. Minecraft in education has its own wiki. TeacherGaming created MinecraftEdu.com, which provides a suite of tools to use this immersive environment in the classroom. Custom versions of the game include features that support classroom use, such as server software that simplifies the process of getting multiple players up and running; functions to integrate curriculum; and a free library of worlds, levels, and activities to teach multiple subjects.



The Research on Gaming

Research is showing that playing games can improve student achievement. Both Pearson's Kristen DiCerbo and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center's Jessica Millstone point to a meta-analysis study done by SRI with Gates Foundation funding. "Digital Games for Learning: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis" looked at a compilation of all studies in the literature published between 2000 and 2012, sorting out the effect across all of them.

Preliminary results of the study found that "when digital games were compared to other instruction conditions without digital games there was a moderate to strong effect in favor of digital games…. Students at the median in the control group (no game) could have been raised 12 percent in cognitive learning outcomes if they had received a digital game."

Research led by DiCerbo herself with 11 pairs of students playing a simulation game found some evidence that game play encourages players to use particular cognitive processes, access prior knowledge, and apply skills as intended.

A research project out of Florida State University in Tallahassee examined the use of "stealth assessment" (in which assessment was built into the game itself) to measure the impact of gaming on learning physics, and found significant gains between tests given before and after students began playing.



Gaming vs. Gamification

Any discussion of gaming in education has to address game playing versus gamification--the latter a term that has picked up a lot of attention the last few years. In the educational realm, "gaming" refers to digital games that have learning objectives. Gamification involves introducing the mechanics of games--the use of points, rewards, and leaderboards--into activities that don't have to be digital and don't necessarily have anything to do with playing a game; the "game factors" are intended to inspire engagement like real games do.

But what are the benefits of gamification without game playing itself? According to Lucas Gillispie, a gamer and instructional technology coordinator at Pender County Schools (NC), "We're really missing out on some of the elements that make real games compelling when we just boil it down to the leaderboard and achievements levels and badges. If you don't have the fun factor in there, I'm not sure that it really qualifies as a game." Gamification, he proposes, is "really just getting back to the old gold star on the chart. 'If you do this, you get a gold star.'" What gamification lacks is novelty: "You need unexpected things, you need hard, difficult choices--all the elements that make people want to play our most compelling games out in the commercial world."

Kristen DiCerbo, a senior research scientist at Pearson, agrees with Gillispie. Gamification advocates are "really missing some of the point," she insists. "When we talk about gamification, people like it because they think it's like a game. But the big things that make games great are the narrative, telling a story that sucks people in, the continuous feedback, giving kids a challenge at just the right level, where it's tough, but not frustrating. When people say 'gamification,' they aren't talking about those things."

DiCerbo--who works with simulations, games, and large-scale assessments--suggests that game-rewards structures are really "behaviorism in a disguised form." She says, "We've been doing [game rewards] for years," referring to the use of tokens, points, and other artifacts that make up the backbone of the gamification movement. For some things--like very rote tasks--and for students who aren't motivated, "yes, that does increase kids' general interest in the short term," she says. The problem is that for learners who are already intrinsically interested in something, "Sometimes giving them rewards makes them think, 'Oh, I'm just doing this to get the reward.'" The result: a decrease in motivation. In the long term, she believes that games are more likely than gamification to succeed in the classroom.



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