Computer-based video games are time-wasters that get in the way of true learning, not to mention doing homework, right?
We don’t think so. Instead, we believe video games provide rich learning environments that can be used in innovative and engaging lessons, supporting learning and appealing to the learning characteristics of today’s learners … and we have been showing teachers how to do it.
Digital learners are different
There seems little doubt that the current generation of students differs markedly from previous ones. Today’s students are comfortable with many forms of technology and communicate in ways that were never available either to their predecessors or to most of their teachers (for example, eMail, text messaging, chat rooms, blogs, and so on). This has given the students who have grown up with these digital tools unique experiences that concretely affect how they learn and how they expect to interact with new information in learning environments.
Data from a variety of researchers show that digital learners tend to differ in important ways from their predecessors:
- Digital learners are “on-demand,” autonomous learners, proactive in determining needed information and seeking it from the environment to meet their own self-determined goals.
- They process information predominately at “twitch speed,” determining what is or is not useful in a matter of seconds, versus conventional speed, where information is given, reflected upon, and stored for use at a later date.
- This generation relates to graphics first, versus traditional text-first information acquisition.
- Digital learners tend to learn best through trial and error-random-access versus sequential-direct instruction.
- This generation solves complex problems best within collaborative learning groups, rather than using isolationist problem-solving.
- They are active participants in their learning; they “do” first and ask questions later.
- These learners are undeterred by failure, regarding it as a necessary learning experience that simply leads to a “restart.”
In the absence of pedagogical innovation, these students may become instructional casualties of how and what we teach inside the school. Some instructional casualties end up in special education; others simply drop out or refuse to participate by either passively or actively displaying the behaviors that teachers find so confounding. Unfortunately, most teachers are not familiar with new tools and approaches that will positively affect student performance and engagement.
The ‘learning’ in video games
Video games are rich learning environments in which the student must seek information through the setting and the situation and then draw on other resources, both internal and external to the game. These virtual-reality simulations direct learning through four distinct, yet cyclical, stages: The game requires the students/players to gather information autonomously, analyze that information, make decisions, and evaluate consequences. The evaluation step is vividly supported by the game itself, as missteps can result in a spectacular-and premature-game ending. In this case, the player can restart the game and play more successfully the next time, having learned from his or her mistakes.
Computer games provide all of the major components needed for motivation, which is why kids play them endlessly. They provide clear goals (save the world, run a business successfully, win a race, etc.), while operating in an exciting and engaging environment. The player’s confidence and belief that he or she can win are bolstered by the data provided by the virtual environment, as well as by the fact that the player can always restart the game, having learned what does not work in the previous round. Players enjoy the games collaboratively, pooling information about strategies and shortcuts, helping each other win or move to the next level of play.
The goal of the teacher is to take advantage of these same learning and motivational components, designing lessons that will help students extend their learning and practice from the video-game simulation to a variety of settings, while connecting the learning to predetermined standards and benchmarks.
Connecting to standards
Since 2004, we have tested the proposition that commercial video games could anchor standards-based teaching in various classrooms. For example, in two classes we used Restaurant Empire (Enlight Software), a game that requires players to set up and successfully run a restaurant. One was a junior high school class in business computing; in this class, the teacher had the students play the game and report on their progress using a variety of business measures and business application software such as PowerPoint, Word, and Excel. At the end of the unit, the students were polled to learn their reaction to the approach; their responses were strongly positive.
In another class, a group of at-risk students used the same game to learn social studies. Here, lessons were built around demographic measurements of neighborhoods and ethnic ownership of restaurants to meet the standards for cultural and economic diversity. Again, the results-in the form of maps, statistical analyses, and presentations-indicated a high level of success from the point of view of both students and teacher. At the same time, both groups of learners came to realize that success in a restaurant (or any other business) depends on an understanding of profit/loss, attention to customer service, and an understanding of the needs of the market.
The games described above, as well as many other simulation games on the market today, offer teachers a tool by which they can anchor their students’ learning through virtual experiences and extend that learning into the more complex learning of the content standards. But video games are only a tool. They respond well to the digital learner’s need for choice and autonomy, as well as for collaboration and problem-solving; they are not a complete package. The teacher must structure lessons around them, not use them in place of lessons.
The teacher’s crucial role
Video games and simulations provide a wide variety of motivational elements, challenges for players, opportunities for players to set their own goals and make choices, a vibrant and information-rich virtual environment, and immediate feedback. But what they do not provide is equally important:
· Preparation for the learning experience;
· Explanation of the learning experience;
· Extension of the learning experience;
· Bridging of the experience with a deeper understanding of the concepts;
· Opportunities for reflection; and
· Practice in the “real” world.
These are the areas where the teacher’s mediation is crucial. For example, in the business class, the teacher needed to explain the definition of profit and loss numbers, provide opportunities to meet with local restaurateurs, and guide the students in learning how to use the business software. In the social-studies class, the teacher showed students how to interpret and present raw demographic data, how to define and differentiate ethnic groups, and how to integrate that information in a market analysis. Although the activities that a teacher structures around the video-game tool will differ depending on standards and benchmarks required, the teacher will always need to connect the tool meaningfully to the learning process and ensure that its significance is not lost in the fun of the play.
The American Federation of Scientists recently released findings saying that schools and teachers need to take a very close look at the inherent learning in the video-game environment and develop pedagogy that will honor this learning in schools. Thanks to a grant from the state of Wyoming, we have already begun training teachers to use this exciting new teaching tool successfully.
Last summer, we worked with some 40 teachers in Albany County, Wyo., using a unique lesson-planning system that is built around the needs of digital learners. Teachers were introduced to a wide range of commercial, off-the-shelf video games suitable for use in the classroom, all running on the same hardware platforms (PCs and Macintosh computers) found in most schools. The teachers collaborated to write lesson plans using specific video games as anchors for the content being covered in their own classrooms. For example, one reading teacher found a copy of the video game “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (Disney Interactive) to use as an introduction to reading C.S. Lewis’s classic novel.
Teachers and administrators were enthusiastic about the results. Already, an eighth- and ninth-grade science teacher has followed a unit on sustainable environments with a unit using SimCity 4 (Electronic Arts) to see if the students would transfer what they learned from class to the virtual environment when building their cities. Another teacher used 911 Paramedic (Vivendi Universal) to give her nursing and first-responder students virtual “real-life” practice for the skills they were learning in class. More of our teachers will be using video games to anchor their standards-based teaching during the coming semester.
The results have been more exciting and vibrant teaching in our schools-and more engaged and stimulated learners.
Frances Clem holds a doctorate in educational technology and specializes in designing and implementing professional development programs in corporate and educational environments in the U.S. and abroad. Elizabeth Simpson is an assistant professor of education at the University of Wyoming and holds a doctorate in educational psychology. She has more than 20 years of classroom experience as a special educator, college professor, consultant, and researcher.