Getting an A+ in Gaming

I’m sure most of us are aware of educational “games.”  Video games that attempt to encourage children to learn by taking on the guise of popular gaming franchises.  Some of the more well-known titles include the ancient Oregon Trail (which I can vividly remember playing on the old Macintosh computers in elementary school), Mario is Missing!, the absurd The Typing of the Dead, & the more recent Brain Age.  However none of these, at least as far as I know of, have actually been endorsed by the educational system.  Typically these games are look at more as curiosities than proper games.

That’s not to say schools haven’t ever tried to turn learning into a game to keep students interested.  Along with the Oregon Trail example, I can remember three different computer games I had to play for classes.  In the 6th grade for Geography we played a little navigation game where to goal was the reach the right location by following directions on a map.  Those same computers also had a puzzle game (whose name I can’t remember) where you played as a cat exploring a pyramid to break a curse set on him.  I remember it was a lot of fun & we all used our free lab time to play it.  Then in my high school typing class there was a typing game where you blew up asteroids by typing (similar to The Typing of the Dead, but I really think there’s only one way to make a typing game).

But as technology advances, changes may be on the horizon.

I came across an article on the Escapist today that discussed several new programs that incorporate gaming into the classroom.  Of course I should clarify that these aren’t “games” in the traditional sense.  There are no reskinned World of Warcrafts to teach kids about economics, no Cooking Mamas replacing the Home Ec. teacher, & no Modern Warfares to improve students’ cooperation skills.  Instead, these are more interactive learning programs.

The article talks about a program called SMALLab.  I checked out the company’s website, & it sounds both interesting & promising.  SMALLab uses a combination of projection technology & motion capture to actively get students involved in the lessons.  The projector is installed on the ceiling & shows the image on a heavy-duty mat on the floor.  Students become involved in the lesson through the motion capture tools.  Part of the flexibility of the software is that the motion capture nodes (or whatever they’re called) can be attached to any item to be used in the lesson.  Videos show students holding different objects to mark their locations & interact with the program.  I’m not sure if there’s a curriculum attached to these programs, but I suspect teachers would be (or will be in the future) able to create their own lessons as well.

Several studies have already been done on this program, & they look promising.  Students involved in the program report enjoying the lessons more & report learning more than in a traditional classroom alone.  Students also seem to perform better academically.  Teachers report students become more involved in the lessons because they see them as more fun.  Another study also showed that using these types of programs can improve students’ understanding of technology & digital media.

From a Learning Theory perspective, there’s a lot to support these type of programs.  The sites use fancy terms like “dynamic learning,” but basically it just means the students are more engaged in the actual learning process.  Learning Theory suggests that the more different styles of learning you present a student with, the better they will retain & understand.  Plus, not everyone learns the same way.  Some people do better with reading the information, others do better by hearing, & others still do better with hands-on experience.  It’s also useful from a memory perspective.  By presenting the same information in different formats, students encode (a fancy term for processing & storing information in your memory) the information more than once & in different ways, so there’s a better recall chance.

Common sense also supports the usefulness of these programs.  Students, especially young students, don’t exactly have unlimited attention spans.  Take it from someone who’s had to sit through long lecture sessions; it gets boring.  I’m 26 & my mind still wanders from time to time during a 3 hour lecture.  How much worse is it for kids?  Anything that can shake up the pace & get them actively involved has to be good.

Of course, these aren’t perfect systems.  There are issues to consider.  For one, this certainly seems like a supplemental type of thing.  It won’t completely replace traditional classrooms.  But that doesn’t seem to be the intention of the SMALLab program.  At least from the videos I watched, teachers go to the lab once or twice a week to reinforce things they’ve already taught.

There’s also an issue of cost.  I didn’t see anywhere on the SMALLab site the cost of installing their system, but given the starting price of new technology, I’m guessing it’s not cheap.  Let’s use the county I live in for an example.  We have 22 public schools in total.  If every school has one SMALLab (which I’m assuming is optimum so you don’t have to spend time & money busing students back & forth), that’s 22 labs.  If each lab costs $1000, that $22000 expenses total.  For impoverished counties this isn’t a viable option.  Even in counties that could afford a few labs, chances are they would go to the more affluent schools, which would only further the educational gaps between them & poorer schools.  (However, the company behind SMALLab also produces a few simpler programs using smaller projector systems & more basic computer programs, which may be a better option for smaller or less wealthy schools.)

Also, given the current overcrowding in most classrooms, I’m not sure how well this would work in larger classes.  Because the idea is to get all students involved, it seems better suited for smaller classrooms.  Trying to get 30+ students equally involved in an hour session sounds stressful.  Then again, I wouldn’t be the first person to say they need to fix the overcrowding.

Despite these problems, I’m excited to see where this new development leads.  Sure, it’s not perfect.  But nothing is when it’s just starting out.  Look at computers.  Look at how much they’ve changed education just between ours & our parents’ generations.  Sure, in elementary school we started out with the boxy Apples & Macintoshes, & you had to go to the library to use them.  But by middle & high school, we had large computer labs & faster machines, & the schools got grants to buy more.  Heck, I graduated from high school in 2003, & just in the nine years since I’ve seen changes due to better & more affordable technology.  Now you have classrooms where every desk has a computer & schools giving students their own laptops.

Hopefully parents & educators will see how valuable this technology is.  The world is changing, with technology at the forefront.  If we want children to succeed, our schools have to keep up.  Given the popularity of gaming among students, this seems like an excellent way to get them excited about learning.  As with most technology, I think that as it evolves & becomes more widely accepted, the problems will be ironed out & the price will drop to make it more available to everyone.

So don’t be surprised if  your kid comes home one day & says the teacher gave them an A for their Zerg Declaration of Independence.

If you want to read the article yourself, or check out the author’s suggestions on how video game companies can contribute to students’ education, find it on the Escapist’s website.  “Will Grind for Grades,” by Luke Thomas at http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/features/9323-Will-Grind-for-Grades.

– GamerDame

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