Viewpoint: Educational software games could leave poor children even poorer

Socioeconomic status should not prohibit technology access.
Socioeconomic status should not prohibit technology access.

The amazing progress of technology used in modern teaching resources herald huge advances in learning opportunities. But are the costs of the equipment that play the new educational games limiting the scope to wealthy schools and families? Could children from economically disadvantaged families and countries get left behind?

Educational gaming software as we know it may soon become a stronghold of select major players. Developments are well underway with technology companies who view the educational market with keen interest. Understandably, they are primarily focused on the commercial opportunity that links the software to their branded products. But the arrival of these big companies could stem the flow of those great ideas that emerged from teachers and educationalists who previously developed the games for educational use.

In the distant past, a key feature of “slate and chalk” learning was its very low cost.  Education using this fundamental communication technique focused on the ability of the teacher and the commitment of the child. It was a level playing field for all.

The onset of technology and computer development in education could become socially divisive. And the rate of change is accelerating. State of the art computers made three years ago have been replaced by vastly more powerful PCs, laptops, netbooks, BlackBerrys, and iPads.  Educational software programs using the newer, more powerful facilities should open the door to a wealth of new learning resources. But the cost to develop software to match the equipment capability is becoming beyond the reach of many historic suppliers.

A key feature of learning is the engagement of children, especially outside the school gate. Turning homework into a fun environment captures a huge element of additional learning time–a function the bigger suppliers are targeting. As a consequence, the commercial interest of these manufactures means the newer resources can only be accessed by matched equipment. This would inevitably exclude children from economically disadvantaged families.

A recent UK government “Home Access” initiative gave laptop computers to poorer families, allowing them to engage with the newer learning platforms. Unfortunately the recession has resulted in this activity being curtailed. An inevitable outcome of the current cuts to school budgets is the ICT budget is generally the first casualty.

Subsequent lower sales of equipment will not provide the manufacturing scaling benefits of volume sales. Costs would stay high, making the equipment accessible by parents with the requisite disposable income. Increased value-added tax and inflation will exacerbate the problem to further pressurize the divide between those using the newer learning resources–benefiting from the practice process in learning retention–and poorer children who could ultimately trail badly in their wake.

Educational games, and in particular video games, are developing exponentially.  It seems only yesterday the gaming market consisted of space invaders and an amazingly simple game of tennis. Playing 3D games online with an unknown party in another part of the world would seem incredulous, yet it has emerged in a very short space of time.

This rate of change in technical development, quality, and sophistication will spearhead new educational techniques to emerge over the next decade. Ultimately, we could see schools and children interlinked in lessons around the world. The original educational games content developed by teachers and educationalists were based on a perceived opportunity to support the curriculum. Inevitably developed on low budgets, the games were a little crude compared to the latest video games, but were content-rich and incorporated teaching practices honed from years of front line teaching. The next generation of games governed by the need to become a commercial success may lack the pedagogy employed thus far.

Contemporary video gaming developments have raised user expectations and displaced developments from even the most resourceful teachers who see the cost of production now beyond their means. Specialist design is needed to construct the graphics and games format. Marketing muscle has grasped the market. A potentially critical loss of educational content could be exchanged for merchandising opportunities.

Other influences have also impacted the sales of educational games.  A scheme to induce schools to acquire educational ICT games came in the form of “eLearning credits.” Schools promptly bought software by the kilo.  School cupboards were suddenly filled with game titles, many of which remain in their supply wrappers.  Once the eLearning credit scheme was exhausted, sales dropped accordingly.  Many games suppliers faced hard times.

In order to offset the loss of revenue, many of the games appeared on free educational gaming web sites. This seemingly altruistic move, in reality, was to gain income from the advertisements that appeared on the site.  There is no such thing as a free lunch!

Although this gave a second life to many games titles, a further blow waited around the corner. Sales volume has now been eroded with the introduction of the virtual learning environment.  Schools and children at home are able to access educational games online through a central network serving the entire schools and pupils.

Children at this leading edge will have a significant advantage. They will be taught with support from systems using high quality graphics, large databases, and a home interface allowing them to pursue schooling projects at home.  Economically disadvantaged children with limited or no access to the technology will inevitably miss out on these benefits, struggling on the sidelines, watching the focus of teaching unquestionably moving with technology and away from them.

This growing divide does not bode well for children in poorer countries. Changes in society, ease of travel, and developments in electronic communications mean children are already seeing vast changes in adult employment. Effective education will be essential for all candidates for employment, regardless of country of origin.

To match this ongoing demand, all children should be provided with the requisite skills to survive and thrive in an international environment.  This will require a massive philanthropic approach to provide the technological equipment needed so all children receive a common educational opportunity. But history has so far proven this to be an impossible dream, even when considering education in the form of the basic “slate and piece of chalk.”

Education is highly competitive, and with the UK government having announced a £950m funding cut for British universities over the next 3 years, it will only get tougher. Youth ages 15-24 make up 16 percent of the total PC-based internet population in the UK, but that figure leaps to 25 percent of users with mobile access.

As teenagers spend more time online using smart mobile devices, education faces the challenges of finding new ways to grab attention and build engagement.

Alistair Owens is an educationalist who operates keen2learn, an educational games web site that supports teachers and parents. Owens comments on key educational issues affecting the national curriculum.

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