Muzzy Lane Software, maker of the Making History series of instructional simulation games for middle, high school, and college students, in collaboration with the Game Institute, a provider of online game design instruction, is offering the online course to help educators understand why gaming can be an effective learning tool in the 21st-century classroom, how to work gaming into their curricula, what kinds of games suit what kinds of subjects, how to pitch gaming to administrators to get the funding to pursue it, and more. The course, normally $195, is being offered for a limited time for $150 per user. Educators interested in signing up for the course can do so by visiting the Game Institute’s web site.

Muzzy Lane says its “Using Games in Education” (UGE) course is an interactive online course designed for educators seeking practical knowledge about using video games to improve student achievement. Though Muzzy Lane uses its own games as examples, the company claims its course is vendor-neutral and does not push any particular solutions.

Nick DeKanter, vice president of business development for Muzzy Lane, said that while much attention has been paid to the theory that gaming can affect educational outcomes, there has been no formal effort until now to create a course around how to use gaming in the classroom effectively.

“The main reason we designed UGE is that, as we talked to users [of Muzzy Lane games], potential clients, and just people interested in the use of gaming in education, there was … a tremendous amount of excitement about gaming in the classroom; but very little has been put out about tying gaming into the curriculum and affecting educational outcomes,” DeKanter said. “We realized we had some knowledge to share in this area.”

Kevin McKiernan, director of business development for the Game Institute, agreed. Calling Muzzy Lane’s approach “trailblazing,” he said the two organizations share a belief that video gaming can be used in an instructional format successfully.

McKiernan said the Game Institute is providing the platform for the online course. Its highly interactive learning management system is intended for teaching video game programming; the environment, he said, lends itself to teaching gaming in the classroom.

“Our platform can accommodate really anything they can throw at us in terms of interactivity,” McKiernan said. “The system we’ve designed provides a really robust learning experience. We’re providing [Muzzy Lane] with the ability to conveniently reach [educators] in a highly interactive, distance-learning format.”

DeKanter said today’s “digital natives,” or students who have grown up immersed in digital technologies, learn differently from many of those who are teaching them. He said teachers are increasingly desirous to “take advantage of the fact” that students who have grown up with technology do not think in as linear a fashion as their parents–and are therefore more able to recognize patterns, have very good “data filters,” or are able to interpret useful data quickly and discard those bits of information that are not useful to the task at hand.

Muzzy Lane is staking its growing business on the idea that video gaming can uniquely address these different learning styles, company executives said.

“What kinds of things can you capitalize on in the digital native’s natural environment? The technology not only provides the tools these students use to be productive, it also provides them with a social environment,” DeKanter said. “Games are only a part of that social environment, but–for a long time–teachers have wanted to make use of game-type exercises in the classroom. They just haven’t had the time.”

DeKanter said it’s important that these kinds of courses be developed on a self-paced, online, anytime/anywhere instructional platform similar to the one being offered through the Game Institute.

“Some teachers will say they can crank out the course in two weekends, while others will say they needs six months,” DeKanter said. “Tactically, it’s important that [both groups are] able to take the course in the way that best suits their schedule and learning style.”

UGE students are given sign-in privileges for four one-week periods. The 10-unit course is grouped in four different subject blocks that correspond with these sign-in periods. During each of these periods, users can sign in and out as often as they would like. The four activation periods can be used consecutively or spread out over several months. When signed in, users are permitted to post in the UGE forum and participate in live, biweekly chats with instructors.

The first four-unit subject block includes a flash-animated presentation that helps define a game; important key terms; readings from the Journal of Interactive Media in Education; lessons on the history of the digital native; genres of games and principles of how games teach; and an introduction to a blog for people learning to play the game The World of Warcraft, an online, multiplayer fantasy game from Blizzard Entertainment Inc.

In this initial block of instruction, teachers learn how to pitch the concept of in-class gaming to school administrators and to secure funding for their various projects.

“If you’re a teacher, and you’re teaching to standards, you need to be very clear about how [adding a gaming component] is central to [those standards],” DeKanter said.

“It was important to address how teachers can get money to support the idea that their students are going to get something from educational gaming–in addition to enjoying it,” he added. “The kinds of things that make digital natives tick are different from how many administrators may have studied in school. In this unit, we provide information on points to which educators who [want to use gaming in class] can present an argument for funding to administrators.”

The second instructional unit focuses on what makes games educational and on selecting the appropriate game for the content the instructor is trying to present. DeKanter offered an example of how different kinds of games are well-suited to different instructional goals.

“If you’re looking at a game that will get students to understand concepts in ecology, then a first-person [point of view], walk-around game that places the student in a virtual natural environment might work best,” he said. “That game might [permit students to manipulate] various outcomes [that] certain decisions might have on the ecology presented in the environment.”

He continued: “To teach history, something along the lines of a third-person strategy game would be more appropriate. Teaching history demands a lot more critical distance to the decisions that were made, and facilitating a better understanding of cause and effect in the student.”

The third area of instruction focuses on the materials and media that will help the instructor use gaming in the classroom. UGE students are taught to install the selected game, shown strategies for taking notes and analyzing the game experience, and taught how to identify teachable moments and how to develop or learn strategies for successful gaming experiences in the classroom.

Included in this third instructional unit is a strategy guide for Muzzy Lane’s Making History: The Calm and the Storm. Every student enrolled in the course receives a free copy of the game that functions as a common point of reference. DeKanter said examples from other games also are used throughout the course.

The fourth unit block offers UGE students in-depth solutions for how to plan a gaming-based course for the classroom. Key topics include setting learning goals for students, mapping games to state standards, student briefing and tutorials on the games, planning game-play, post-game analysis and assessment, preparing a lesson plan, and preparing the technology.

“The experience introduces new pedagogical strategies for teachers, and they learn alongside game developers,” said Michael Berson, an associate professor of secondary education at the University of South Florida and a long-time consultant for Muzzy Lane. “People taking the course can also work with other teachers as they are going through the process. [This element] offers educators a sense of collaboration [among their peers] as well.”

Berson said the course ultimately offers a safety net for teachers, many of whom often are intimidated by the prospect of walking into a classroom where students are naturally more comfortable in the gaming environment than they are.

“I think we shouldn’t think of [gaming’s significance to education] in terms of games [being] good for learning because they’re fun,” concluded DeKanter. Instead, the thinking should be that “games are fun, because theyre good for learning. People like to acquire new skills, they like to learn new things … Games facilitate that very well.”

Links:

Muzzy Lane Software
www.muzzylane.com

Game Institute
www.gameinstitute.com

Blizzard Entertainment Inc.
www.blizzard.com

University of South Florida
www.usf.edu