Computers, laptops, tablets, smart phones, interactive white boards. One look at the plethora of technology inside many modern classrooms can leave you feeling that you have been beamed directly to the world of Star Trek — or that your child’s school has been taken over by a video game arcade. Many parents are not quite sure what to make of learning that gives every appearance of being a video game. After all, most parents make some effort to limit their children’s time with computer and video games. So when the classrooms encourage the games, conflict arises over whether a classroom where the kids get their lessons primarily from a computer screen is truly education. However, Jill Beloff Farrell, associate professor and chair of the department of curriculum and instruction at Barry University reports in her paper, Active Learning: Theories and Research, that the process of constructing their learning through creating video games and participating in online learning communities reaps both cognitive and social benefits. She explains, “Through active engagement with the Internet, video games or CD-ROMS, students are more motivated to learn as they actively construct their own learning paths.” By harnessing rather than fighting the power of gaming to engage children in their education, teachers put “thrusters on full” to boost their students’ brainpower output and optimize the creative potential necessary to excel in 21st century industries.
Justin Marquis, an educational technology professor at Online Universities explains the need for individuals who break the mold in creating new products, services and markets and are able to adapt to the changing needs of modern business. Skills such as interacting with a real world environment in real time, making observations, giving attention to detail, collecting information, solving problems and constructing knowledge along the way, problem-solving, creative solutions, making choices and discovering outcomes, trial and error and perseverance are all part of the gaming experience which translates into marketable skills for your children’s future workplace. But by delivering learning in the form of a game, educators tap into the power of play to enhance the learning experience because games-based learning provides students with a familiar platform that equates to fun in their minds; and fun is conducive to learning. It offers a feeling of success that motivates them to internalize and apply what they are learning more than with traditional memorization approaches to education. Gaming engages children in the process of working a problem to solution rather than just looking for “the right answer.” By doing so, the students are better prepared to face the ever-shifting demands of real life whether in social, academic or work settings.
Gamifying the classroom gives students a chance to gain hands-on experience in real life settings that would otherwise be unavailable in the four walls of a brick-and-mortar school. Games build brainpower by facilitating strategic thinking skills and communication and collaboration skills that positively impact a child’s social skills, according to Microsoft Expert Muhammad Adeel Javaid. The interdisciplinary nature of learning these skills in a gaming context more efficiently prepares students to apply them in a real world context than if learned in isolation, he goes onto explain in his essay, The Benefits of Game Based Learning. In essence, gaming in the classroom teaches students not what to think, but how to think and equips them with the creativity and mental flexibility needed to innovate in the face of the demands of the real world and the workplace.
For all the benefits, parents and teachers alike must stop and ask the question of what content can and should be presented in game form. Online quiz games over factual material and competency-based programs that allow teachers to adapt to the different achievement levels of each student by customizing the material and presentation at their own pace only scratch the surface of the potential of game-based learning in the classroom. So the first decision is whether the objective is simply academic knowledge; or will social interaction, strategic thinking and cross-disciplinary application be a priority? But on an even deeper level, educators must look at the traditional curriculum with a new eye and figure out how to leverage the power of modern technologies to bring the content to students in an understandable and engaging way as well as allowing them to respond through the available technologies for communication and collaboration.
Instead of simply moving traditional assignments into a digital format with some colorful graphics and animations, Microsoft Innovative Expert Educator, David Renton offers several practical suggestions on integrating traditional content with the new technologies so the result is more than digitized flash cards. For example, many video games have a storyline so students can hone their writing skills by writing the back-story for a game creation project. Every game involves art of some sort, so learning to create or insert artwork into a game could be an opportunity for students to explore graphic design as part of the art curriculum. Similarly, the music curriculum could include the creation of sound effects and music for a game. Students can create and solve math problems to integrate as challenges within the game. Depending on the nature of the game, there is room to incorporate historical and scientific research to add layers of reality and authenticity to the backdrop and storyline of the game. Even if you do not have the resources to take on a game creation project with your students, the storyline and challenges within an existing game can provide opportunities to explore deeper concepts in history, science, art, music and more and use presentation software or online communication tools to share and collaborate in the knowledge building process.
Dr. Marquis explains that although children’s many hours spent playing online games and socializing in virtual worlds have prepared them for the onset of games-based learning, teachers, parents, politicians and the gaming industry still have some catch up to do. Schools need time to develop funding for adequate hardware and software acquisition and maintenance to support gamification. Teachers need training in how to use GBL effectively in the classroom and come along side students as a “coach” or “mentor” rather than the traditional dispenser of knowledge by lecture. Parents and politicians need a paradigm shift that allows for gaming as a valid and valuable resource for education that teaches children important life and work skills to justify the cost; and the gaming industry needs to develop more educational content rather than focusing primarily on the entertainment value of the games. “Widespread understanding of and support for a major shift in how we teach and assess must come first, well before adopting any technology, including online and blended learning,” cautions David Cutler, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, an independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, “Placing a tablet or computer in front of students before undertaking significant design thinking and professional development (which too many schools are guilty of) is a big waste of resources. Don’t let technology become the ‘gift that keeps on taking.'”
By Tamara Christine Van Hooser