With the intention of revolutionizing current pedagogy, Microsoft Corp. is bringing researchers and businesses together to develop a game-based computer learning environment to be used by classroom teachers.

The idea behind this partnership—known as the Learning Federation—is to take the same video-game technology that lets you virtually fly airplanes or build amusement parks, and use it for educational purposes.

“There’s a very strong attraction to video games, and it crosses age and … culture,” said Randy Hinrichs, group research manager for learning and science technology at Microsoft and principal founder of the Learning Federation.

So, Hinrichs figures, why not use this attraction to engage students in learning activities?

The Learning Federation plans to make “significant investments” to do just that, but Hinrichs estimates it will be at least five years before the group is finished.

Currently, the federation is recruiting members to participate before it starts funding any research projects. Corporations are invited to join for $100,000 each.

Microsoft, however, has already teamed up with several academic partners, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to build some prototypes. MIT’s Games to Teach Project is Microsoft’s largest, long-term current investment, funded at approximately half a million dollars per year.

MIT already has produced a few prototypes. Hinrichs has been demonstrating them at conferences to get feedback from educators.

One CD focuses on a bio-hazard attack in a city and how an emergency team would respond. Another CD explores engineering principles as students have to rebuild the world on another planet after Earth is evacuated. A third one has students build houses in unusual places, such as under the ocean or suspended in air.

As in popular computer games, students can use different “virtual” tools, like a crane, to help complete their quest. They can also consult virtual experts to give them pointers.

Microsoft is developing this “next-generation learning environment” in the research arena because this eliminates profitability pressures, Hinrichs said. If researchers build a prototype and it doesn’t work, they can just throw it away without much harm done, he said.

Also, Hinrichs hopes educators will adopt this learning tool more readily if it is developed by researchers rather than a corporation like Microsoft. “If MIT can’t build it, then who can?” he said.

Microsoft is also funding similar projects at Brown University, Georgia Tech, and the University of Southern California.

Other independent research projects also exist in this field. With a $1 million National Science Foundation grant, for example, representatives from Nobel Learning Communities, Harvard University, George Mason University, and the Smithsonian Institution have worked together to determine what impact—if any—the gaming environment has on learning.

For this project, researchers built a computer-based bicycle simulation that incorporated historical content from the Smithsonian. (See http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=2848 for more information on the project.)

Chris Dede, Timothy Wirth professor of learning technology at Harvard University, wrote a paper that offers preliminary evidence of the effect that gaming environments can have on learning. The paper can be downloaded from http://www.gse.harvard.edu/$7Ededech/MUVE.pdf.

“I have been tracking the group doing this at MIT,” Dede said. “They are working through a variety of creative ideas. I think it is a good initiative.”

To help develop its own game-based learning environment, Microsoft will leverage the expertise of its Xbox and Microsoft Games groups. Xbox, which debuted in February, is Microsoft’s new video-game machine, which challenges similar products from Sony and Nintendo.

“We’ve got the tools and the platform and the know-how,” Hinrichs said.

The game-based learning environment that Microsoft hopes to create will have assessment tools and digital student portfolios embedded inside. It will enable students to collaborate on projects and learn by doing.

Hinrichs said Microsoft’s dream is to build a component like Xbox to put in schools. It would be a plug-and-play technology that teachers could use to customize and build their own lessons.

“The idea is to get it down to … where teachers could get the components and build their own models,” Hinrichs said. “Microsoft is always about enabling. We are not going to build the content. We are just going to build the platform.”

To implement a game-based learning environment, educational pedagogy must change, Hinrichs said.

Gaming best suits the instructivist teaching method, he said, because students can use video-game technology to do expensive, inconceivable things virtually—like explore the human body. “It allows you to involve yourself in activities. You don’t just read, you do stuff,” Hinrichs said. “You’ve got people engaged deeply.”

Kids will start demanding the same kind of engagement and stimulation in the classroom that they get from television, the internet, movies, and video games, Hinrichs said. “What are you going to do when these kids show up?” he asked rhetorically.

But trying to adapt gaming technologies for learning poses some challenges.

Video games have limitations that need to be overcome before this environment will be suitable for education, Hinrichs said. Each movement and possible outcome in a game requires a great deal of programming. The ideal learning environment would have to support an infinite number of outcomes, he said.

Researchers also have to figure out how to incorporate all the intricacies of the learning process. And, getting accredited by the education community is a “political obstacle” that Microsoft’s initiative will face down the road.

“We are going to have to do this by exemplar,” Hinrichs said.

Related links:
The Learning Federation Consortium
http://www.thelearningfederation.org

MIT’s Games to Teach
http://cms.mit.edu/games/education/proto.html

Company search “Microsoft” at
http://www.eschoolnews.org/buyersguide