Why should we use computer games as instructional tools?
Insane enthusiasm matched with good teaching is a hard mix to beat. Spend a moment listening to your kids talking about computer and video games. Look at the energy they spend, watch their unbridled excitement, see them write and read voluminous amounts about their passion.
Stitch the game into a well designed curricular lesson, and you’ve got the recipe for harnessing student energy and making learning exciting.
COTS -commercial, off the shelf
There has been an emergence of a fourth category of game, I’m calling it kick-ass-game-for-schools (kagfs). The qualities of a kagfs include:
1. Very high production value
2. Content-accurate information (like, accurate representation of history, medical information, government structure, etc…)
3. Really good tools for reporting individual student progress to teachers
4. All the stuff that make COTS games good like:
4.1 ...dynamic, adjustable difficulty
4.2 ...easy early goals
4.3 ...play experience invites entrance into Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of “flow”
4.4 ...allows different player types to enjoy the game
4.5 ...is a game a kid would want to play at home (this is kind of my ultimate litmus test for games in education)
It looks like there is some snazzy instruction stuff on the front end, and then the kids explore a pretty cool-looking interactive world, applying the math skills they are studying.
The only thing I don’t enjoy: stopping the game while the kid solves a math problem. Update: after playing their demo, I kind of nudge this particular game into the edutainment arena. Gorgeous production values, great tutorial, but zapping all the transmitters that have an even number? That doesn’t quite fit into my kagfs category.
I think about computer and games learning in basically two ways. Informal learning and formal learning. These aren’t exclusive viewpoints, nor are they necessarily contradictory.
Formal learning using video games happens in a classroom with highly structured lesson design, and clear assessment of learning objectives. As a teacher, I know from my personal experience that formal learning and games is a perfect match. I’ve always been focused on proving that video games are effective instructional tools. if you are interested in a quick guide for games in education, click here (you can also click here to see everything I’ve written about games in education).
Informal learning refers to the inherent, automatic, and natural learning that happens when people play video games. It is this area that scholars like Gee and Schaeffer write so eloquently about. My summary of their thinking is that games are inherently educational and computer games are excellent and complex learning systems. Just playing a complex computer game is educational.
I happen to agree with the informal learning ideas, but I spend more time thinking about formal uses.
In comes the above article, which is really good for understanding why computer games are inherently educational. The article discusses design, resources, and what the authors call call “affinity spaces”.
You can not sit a child in front of a computer for an hour and expect something magical to happen. There has to be planned, deliberate, and conscious teaching. While this is true for all technology use in education, it is especially true for the use of computer games in the classroom.
Look at the energy, enthusiasm, and excitement our students show when playing computer games. I am stunned at the discrepancy between how our students respond to traditional instruction, and how they interact with computer games. It’s amazing to see how excited they are about games, how motivated they are, how much work they are willing to do! Even students labeled as “not interested” in school or even “low achievers” display a very different profile when talking about video games.
Enter common sense.
Am I saying we should forsake good teaching and assessment with Team Fortress 2? Of course not. But I am saying there is a disconnect between adults and kids; and this disconnect is defined by multimedia, television, and the internet.
Using games in education requires a higher standard of educational efficacy than other, more traditional forms of instruction.
Because it’s a game.
Because games are thought of as strictly recreational tools.
Because many people think “students spend to much time in front of games”. Because we can’t stick a student in front of a game and expect miracles.
Because games are not thought of as educational.
Because public education is the last industry in the United States to still be debating the efficacy of technology as a whole.
Are we using Civilization 3 to teach the relationship between science and civilization prosperity? Prove the understanding with authentic, accessible, assessment. Demonstrate the learning. We are teaching students to think about the game and to develop those higher order thinking skills. To evaluate and analyze subtle and complex interrelationships. We need to be able to point at the game and say “See? It’s working!”
How do we know a student knows? Are there different levels of knowing something? Surely simple memorization is different than analyzing, evaluating and synthesizing. Computer games (and technology in general) confers a deeper lever of knowledge than simple drill and recall learning activities. Therefore, we must use correct assessment tools.
When this lesson is over, what is the learning going to look like? What is going to be different? What lasting understandings will the students be able to demonstrate? The best place to start planning a lesson is at the end.
Using computer games in education is more than sticking a student in front of Civilization 3 and hoping for the best. Very specific learning objectives, accurate assessment, consistent feedback, and an engagement in the learning process are critical for the successful implementation of computer games in education.
It’s really no different from any instructional activity. Well organized lessons and instructional activities make for a more successful learning experience.
It is important to include as many national, state, and local state standards as you are able. Make sure the standards are truly linked to learning activities, and not added as an afterthought. You should be able to clearly point to something a student is doing and connect it with a state standard.
Take into consideration different learning styles, different ways of using the game to illustrate understandings. For example, could a student take a series of screen captures in Sim City, and create a large artistic collage in the hallway to show the growth of an urban and suburban areas? Could another student interview a mayor of Sim City, with a decidedly cynical slant, and post the interview online? How is our lesson plan addressing different intelligences and learning styles?
At the end of the day, well planned, well organized lesson plans will define the success of computer games in education. The more specific our objectives, the better we will be able use computer games to teach.