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 State of the art computers made three years ago have been replaced by vastly more powerful PCs, laptops, netbooks, BlackBerrys, and iPads.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.

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Laura Ascione

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