Gaming helps students hone 21st-century skills

Online gaming can help students develop many of the skills they’ll be required to use upon leaving school, such as critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity, agreed educators who spoke during an April 16 webinar on gaming in education.

Sharnell Jackson, the chief eLearning officer for Chicago Public Schools and the webinar’s moderator, noted that gaming and simulations are highly interactive, allow for instant feedback, immerse students in collaborative environments, and allow for rapid decision-making.  The webinar was sponsored by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

Studies of the brain have pointed to data suggesting that repeated exposure to video games reinforces the ability to create mental maps, inductive discovery such as formulating hypotheses, and the ability to focus on several things at once and respond faster to unexpected stimuli.

Many education groups, such as ISTE and the Discovery Educator Network (DEN) have active communities in Second Life, a program that immerses users into a virtual world, said Claudia L’Amoreaux, a community developer and educator for Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life.

"I call Second Life an engine for creativity," she said.  "Today’s teens are creating their own content, uploading photos to Flickr and videos to YouTube, and in Second Life they’re making their own games and stepping into them–you could call Second Life a participatory game platform."

This virtual world allows users to create their own virtual avatars, thus defining their own characters, she added.

L’Amoreaux cited a team of students in an internship program studying museum creatorship, who partnered with others for a Second Life activity that involved a recreation of the Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht), an anti-Jewish pogrom in 1938 Nazi Germany.  As participants, the students assumed the roles of reporters, exploring the events for themselves. 

"It helps kids get involved in things and use their own interests and explore a part of something they’re interested in," she said.

Stan Trevena, the director of information and technology services in California’s Modesto City Schools, is at the end of a year-long pilot between four of his district’s high school classes and high school students in a private English-learning school in Kyoto, Japan.

One of the first activities involved live interviews between each pair of students–one from the U.S. and one from Japan.  The next day, all of the students met online in their Second Life island and, based on the information that they learned from their partner the day before, had to interview avatars on the island until they found their partner.

The program also involved cultural and history lessons.  Halloween is a curiosity for Japanese students, Trevena said, so the U.S. students sponsored a Halloween event with a haunted house.

The Japanese students built representations of Japanese architecture and historical landmarks in six areas throughout three islands in a virtual history lesson.  U.S. students had to find answers to questions about location, time period, and country leadership.

"We learned several lessons in our first year," Trevena said.  "Students responded well to planned activities and are full of ideas on how they want to use the technology."

Still, Trevena cautioned that teachers, administrators, and technology staff must work together and be prepared to support a Second Life program.  Identifying sustainable funding sources, upgrading computers and investing in hardware, and having a backup plan if the Second Life platform is down are all necessary.

"Virtual worlds are still very much a cutting-edge technology, so even keeping a blog can be helpful to others who follow in your footsteps," he said.

A 2006 NCES and University of Michigan study found that by age 21, the average youth has watched 20,000 hours of television and played 10,000 hours of video games, said Ntiedo Etuk, the CEO Tabula Digita, which offers games centered on pre-algebra and algebra. 

"The reason that [gaming] is successful is obviously that it’s relevant to students–it allows for the notion of competition, which gets students going, there’s an opportunity for socialization, and there is instant feedback on what they’re doing right or wrong," Etuk said.

Video games also foster collaboration, because instead of a teacher standing in front of a classroom, students begin to help one another and become teachers themselves, he added.

Tabula Digita offers a web site, DimensionM, which is an immersive video game that lets students work alone or in multi-player games to answer math questions, build skills, and earn points.  Teachers can set difficulty levels and receive reports on student data, including the last time a student played their game, what their score was, right and wrong answers, and the topics they covered.

"We found that students in our project have improved their self-efficacy in science," said Jody Clarke, project director of the River City Project in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

The River City Project, funded by the National Science Foundation, is a multi-user virtual environment with a video game look and feel, but it is designed around science standards.

Learners represent themselves through graphical avatars and interact with digital artifacts and virtual content. In one activity, they work together in teams of three as they travel to the years 1878 and 1879 to figure out why people are getting sick.

Bacteria was first being discovered at that time, Clarke said, and students use 21st-century skills and technology to develop an experiment, test it, and help the virtual town understand what is making them sick and how it can be stopped–it’s a virtual representation of the scientific method.

"The environment lets students learn about the scientific method and lets them actually see how their changes can affect the environment," she said.  "It’s design-based research to help students learn, particularly those who are unengaged and low-performing."

Video games engage students and help foster some of the 21st-century skills, such as problem-solving, which may be more difficult to acquire in a traditional classroom with a textbook.

"When you think about the skills that students need when they leave school, like creativity and curiosity…identifying problems and solving them–these are skills that [can be] hard to teach in the traditional face-to-face classroom," Clarke said.  "And a lot of these technologies are being used in the corporate world–IBM is now using games to train its employees, so you see simulations and games emerging outside of K-12 education."

"Video games are among some of the most efficient and best learning tools I’ve seen out there," said Etuk.  "I say that because you could take [students or children] and put them in front of a video game, and they won’t know anything about their character, the rules of the world they’re about to enter, or the problems they’ll have to solve.  But despite all of that, video game creators have somehow created such a compelling experience that, not only will these students go back and fail 100 or 1,000 times before they finally succeed, but they will spend money to get gaming guides, go to web sites, and ask friends."

"If you had a system that could compel a student or child to do so much to make it work, but instead it was teaching them about algebra or science or calculus, I think that educators would–and should–fall all over themselves to understand as much as possible about why that works and how that happens," he said.


The Consortium for School Networking

The River City Project

Tabula Digita

Linden Lab

Modesto City Schools pilot project

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the “ Creating the 21 st Century Classroom ”resource center. Preparing today’s youth to succeed in the digital economy requires a new kind of teaching and learning. Skills such as global literacy, computer literacy, problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and innovation have become critical in today’s increasingly interconnected workforce and society–and technology is the catalyst for bringing these changes into the classroom. Go to Creating-the-21st-century-classroom

Laura Ascione

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