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Digital games still face uphill climb

Emerging K-12 policies and practices are creating more opportunities for educational game publishers.

For developers and publishers of digital games to penetrate the education market, they must overcome several significant barriers to digital game implementation, including funding and teacher professional development, according to a new report from the nonprofit Joan Ganz Cooney Center.

According to “Games for a Digital Age: K-12 Market Map and Investment Analysis,” the landscape for K-12 educational digital games varies, and games must be flexible to meet different learning needs and environments.

Developers of children’s learning games often split into two categories: short-form games, which offer tools for practice and focused concepts and fit easily into a class period; and long-form games that have more of a research base and focus more on higher-order thinking skills that naturally align with the Common Core.

The report also identifies a number of trends that might indicate more acceptance of children’s learning games in the K-12 marketplace.

(Next page: Barriers to implementation, and key recommendations)

Many barriers exist in today’s K-12 marketplace, and those barriers pose a moderate degree of difficulty for publishers hoping to introduce their digital games into classrooms. Some of those barriers include:

  • A small number of dominant vendors.
  • Schools’ long buying cycles.
  • Locally-controlled decision-making.
  • Federal and state policies that change frequently and affect funding.
  • The need for curriculum and standards alignment and research to back up claims.
  • Professional development requirements.

When it comes to spending, the National Center for Education Statistics predicts that overall public school spending will increase to $627 billion in 2020. Current economic woes don’t make for a too-positive outlook when it comes to 2013 and 2014 ed-tech funding at the state and national levels, and most states have faced tough decisions and have been forced to make deep cuts to education and ed-tech funding.

Still, authors John Richards, Leslie Stebbins, and Kurt Moellering note that “despite this overall downturn in funding, there is promise for educational technology. Technology will receive an increasingly larger proportion of the shrinking pool of funds if it can further demonstrate value in terms of both educational effectiveness and cost efficiency.”

Despite these hurdles, the report notes that a number of emerging policies and practices in K-12 education are creating more opportunities for educational game publishers:

  • An increase in one-to-one computing initiatives, and popular bring-your-own-device (BYOD) programs.
  • Interactive whiteboards for teaching and learning.
  • Improved school infrastructure and movement toward reliable high-speed internet service.
  • The National Education Technology Plan.
  • A focus on STEM skills and higher-order thinking.
  • Schools’ movement from print text to digital texts and resources.
  • Increased awareness of adaptive learning and its benefits.
  • More research on game-based learning.

2012 Pew data indicate that 77 percent of children ages 12-17 own cell phones, and about one-third of those are smart phones. Because even very young children have access to mobile devices, “the BYOD movement could have a dramatic and compelling effect on how student-computer ratios are measured and understood. The impact on the market for software and digital content and resources could also be significant. The resulting increase in access and cost-savings should increase demand and provide resources for applications,” the authors note.

The authors recommend that educational game publishers and investors product shorter, more focused games that can integrate into a typical class period easily; and they should align with school reform leaders to help spread the word about new practices and research touting the potential positive impacts of educational gaming.

In addition, learning game investors, publishers, and developers should:

  • Target the nation’s 3,500 districts with between 2,500 and 25,000 students.
  • Help districts navigate, source, and write state, federal, and foundation grants.
  • Target education service agencies.
  • Support learning games that can be used on interactive whiteboards.
  • Anticipate BYOD by supporting learning games on inexpensive computing devices and mobile devices.

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