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Administrator Magazine: Curriculum
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Video Gaming During Class

Numbers Plus Games Equals Learning
Numbers Plus Games Equals Learning

it’s a Saturday, and the sprawling Alfred Lerner Hall at Columbia University is packed with hundreds of New York City high school students. The stage lights up. The rock anthem “We Are the Champions” blares from the sound system. Students erupt into cheers as their classmates file onto the stage.

But this isn’t a pep rally. The students taking the stage aren’t donning jerseys. This is a new kind of competition. The students on stage take their places at a long table lined with laptops and gear up to go head-to-head in the first citywide multiplayer educational video game tournament.

Once viewed by educators as the equivalent of junk food, video games—at least some of them, anyway—are now being embraced by schools as a way to teach students key concepts and skills.
Take the competition at Columbia. The video game being played, Evolver, designed by Tabula Digita, is not your usual shoot-’em-up. Players navigate a 3-D landscape of an alien planet in an effort to collect glowing spheres which they then use to … solve algebra problems.

performance before competence

One of the earliest advocates of using video games as tools for helping kids learn was James Paul Gee, a professor of literary studies at Arizona State University. Gee, the author of the landmark 2003 book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, as well as a recent collection of essays, Good Video Games and Good Learning, first made the connection between video games and education by watching his then 6-year-old son play video games. “I was blown away by how difficult they are,” he says. “People pay fifty bucks to be entertained by something that essentially requires them to solve very long and very difficult problems. It’s hard to get kids to do that in school, yet they’ll go out and pay for the opportunity to do it in a video game.”

Part of the reason for that discrepancy, Gee says, is that video games use very good learning principles—something that schools don’t always do. When playing a video game, you’re called on to do things within the game immediately. You may fail initially, but then you work to become competent. In other words, video games emphasize performance before competence. School, Gee says, usually operates in the opposite way: It stresses competence before performance.

In school “you have to be competent before you can do anything,” he says. “But people don’t learn well that way. If I hand you a chemistry textbook, and you’ve never done chemistry, and I say, ‘Read this 500-page book, and then maybe I’ll let you do some chemistry,’ you can’t remember what you’ve read when it’s time to do chemistry.”

“People learn best when they’re having experiences with clear goals,” Gee continues. “Video games tend to give you clear goals and lots of feedback, two things that are very effective for human learning.”

video games go to school

Sharnell Jackson, the chief officer of e-learning in the Chicago Public Schools, has seen the positive effect of video games in schools firsthand.Chicago teachers have been trained to use an online multiplayer game called River City. Originally developed in 2004 by researchers at the National Science Foundation and other academic institutions, River City is focused on simple scientific inquiry. Students work together in small research teams, collecting samples and performing simple experiments to understand why residents of a virtual 18th-century town are becoming ill.

“Our teachers are beginning to realize that we can address academic concepts and skills in the video game environment,” Jackson says. And believe it or not, sometimes video games can offer a more rigorous learning experience for students than conventional teaching techniques.

“When students enter River City and explore why a certain disease is spreading there, they’re analyzing, they’re writing in their journals, they’re working together. Meaning, they’re learning the science, writing, and communication skills we want them to have.”

Jackson points out that a lot of students are already learning via video games outside of school. Atari’s RollerCoaster Tycoon series, where the player must build and administrate an amusement park, and Take-Two Interactive’s Civilization IV, where players build an entire culture from the ground up, are just two examples of “entertainment” that requires complex problem-solving.

Not only are kids excited to play video games, but they’re excited to show off what they’ve learned. “If I ask students to write a five-paragraph essay, I get all kinds of sighs,” Jackson says. “But when they’re writing about what they’re learning in these [virtual] environments, you can’t even stop them from writing.”

educators get into the game

One important difference between “home” and “school” video games is that games designed for school keep classroom limitations in mind. The math game Evolver, for example, is designed “so that you can get into it for a brief time and jump out,” says Ntiedo Etuk, chairman, CEO, and cofounder of Tabula Digita.

Educators, for their part, are jumping in to use Evolver. The game is currently used in 150 New York City public high schools, and Chicago Public Schools just started using the pre-algebra and algebra Tabula Digita Dimension games in four of its after-school programs, and plans to expand the program if successful.

Etuk already considers Evolver to be a success story, but he also thinks it can become an even greater one. He points to a survey conducted at the 2008 Florida Educational Technology Conference, in which 89 percent of the teachers who participated in the conference’s inaugural State Challenge Multiplayer Educational Games Tournament said that their opinions about educational video games “had been impacted in a favorable way.”

“Video game designers have created such an engaging system that [kids] don’t care if they have to fail 100 times before they actually succeed,” says Etuk. “If you ask any teacher how she would feel about a child failing 100 times at algebra, but never giving up and even asking his friends to help him succeed at algebra, that teacher would say, ‘That’s the dream.’”
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