Good Game!

eLearn Magazine, Education and Technology in Perspective published What Makes a Good Learning Game? Going Beyond Edutainment in February of this year.  The author,  Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen, outlines components in useful buzz words for non-techie educators and the sleek-edu-geeks alike to quickly evaluate the utility of the tons of “learning games” out there when looking for meaningful ways to integrate technology and curriculum.  The buzz words stay with you, and I can see them crossing my mind as I type ready to shoot them down with my semantic knowledge; ready, set, here we go.

1. Substantives – the signifiers and signified – the nouns that set-up the scene,

2. Verbs – the things learners have to do to meet the challenges and get the rewards,

3. Problem-solving – the challenges have to be interesting, and if I may add my two cents, culturally relevant,

4. Rewards – the rewards must definitely be culturally relevant,

5. Feedback – I remember an old mentor always used to say “Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.”   So be weary of games that do not offer corrective feedback if the educator is not present., and

6. Alignment – while Egenfeldt-Nielsen doesn’t explicitly say to look for games that are tied to standards or even lesson objectives, I am.  If a game has all the first five components without this last one, you might as well just flush your professionalism down the toilet and admit you’re using gaming to baby-sit your class.

That said, Egenfeldt-Nielsen validates drill-and-practice games describing them as a “sound learning principle”.  I use drill-and-practice games aligned to standards and lesson objectives in order to pull small instructional groups for more support toward mastery. (Boy, o boy, a traveling tablet lab would be nice!)

Both drill-and-practice and mission-based games can be used to get that much closer to the Holy Grail of buzz words in education today individualized and differentiation.  So let the games begin!

Engage Your Student’s Brain with Dopamine

Reluctance is only one of the words that comes to many a teacher’s mind when thinking about letting students play video games in class. After all, video games ruin your brain, so they say. They turn you into passive, drooling vegetables and will ultimately ruin your grades and your life and nobody will ever want you.

But seriously, the idea that video games can be a beneficial and engaging tools in a classroom  no longer seems as controversial as before. Millions of students around the globe have learned their times tables by shooting rockets  at asteroids,  or learned their spelling words by guiding a frog across a river of drifting logs, or gone on web quests around the world collecting artifacts,  and learned a multitude of skills without even realizing they were learning,  simply by playing video games.

Recent studies have found that what makes video games so addicting and so engaging can also help in making learning irresistible.  The brain, according to Tom Chatfield in this TED Talk,  is rewarded  when put in a game environment. Those rewards are intrinsic in our chemistry, and if we as educators can learn how to tap into those veins, we can make students into learning junkies.

It all has to do with dopamine and how the brain craves more of something it finds rewarding.

Watch the video to find out the 7 ways in which video game architecture can be used to engage students, as I don’t want to repeat what he says. However the ideas he advances should be taken very seriously by todays education gurus. Here are a few points that I think could be furthered developed:

Experience Points

Current assessment models that track student progress are known for being obtuse and non-immediate. A student report card is usually a collection of grades weighed with different considerations in mind like homework, test results, effort, etc.  They are mere summaries of a grading period and especially in the elementary grades, provide very little feedback.  Instead, students academic progress should be measured by experience points, starting in Kindergarten and ending at graduation. These records could follow a student throughout her or his educational career and would provide a greater motivation than simply getting an A here and a B there, year after year. It would make learning into a cohesive continuum in which students move at different speeds and accumulate points as they move through life.  Furthermore, a student would not be limited to gaining these points by attending a particular school  or completing a regular course, but in theory they could accumulate them through other means, as long as they prove they master the essential steps (in our case academic standards). They could learn from home, or accrue more points though real life learning situations. A whole variety of programs and curriculum would exist to permit students to play and gain points though video games, simulations, brick-and-mortar learning,  digital portfolio evaluations, and even peer review.

 

Learning Missions

Chatfield mentions that engagement is greater when there are mini-missions to complete. Huge tasks are overwhelming, but smaller, more manageable ones are a lot more fun and will give the brain a better “high” in the end. These mini missions would essentially replace the typical lesson.

“Today, class we will work on dividing decimals by two digit whole numbers. Take your textbook and turn to page 89!”

or

“Today we will see how well you can use conjunctions in a sentence with correct punctuation. Open you practice books and try not to fall asleep.”

Quotes like the ones above will hopefully be a  thing of the past one day.

“Today we are going to play a game with some students in Singapore who are challenging our class to divide decimals in order to escape a labyrinth they made! Make teams of five and log on to…”

This example shows how students could complete a quest as part of a team (this part is key) and move through to the next level only if they problem solve and use the skills above. They could complete the mission at home on the Wii, or on their mobile device, in the learning lab, or in their portable holographic projector while they run on their treadmill. (Hey, learning does not mean sitting on your butt).

In fact a student could go on a hunt and take pictures, video, and gather evidence, to later present to their peers and show how they were able to use decimals and conjunctions and earn a digital “badge” like scouts.

 Learning Teams

Students should not have to be limited by their particular school in order to make progress. They should be able to connect to students at the global level and work on solving problems in teams, like in the virtual worlds described by Chatfield.  I would also expand this to include a peer-teaching component. It is no secret that students often learn faster from each other.

Any sort of online learning collaboration should, as a fundamental part, include an element of peer review and instruction. Those students who have more experience points can team up with those who are starting out and lend them a hand.

Competition could still play a role, but students would be compelled to make sure everyone on their team was up to task in order for the team to complete a mission.

Bright Horizons?

The challenge in all of this is not merely to change the way we teach our children. Many of these ideas are already permeating the educational world in smaller, more limited settings. Others are still in their infancy. What is truly worrisome is that these changes will arrive and that they will become centralized and monetized for the for-profit world.  The last thing we need is for all of this to be handed over to Pearson or some other large conglomerate whose only concern is reaping a profit and who see our students not as the leaders of tomorrow, but as items on a quarterly report.

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Also of interest is a study by Stanford Medical School that found that the male brain is more likely to be rewarded by video games than the female. Hmmm…definitely throws another wrench into the equation!

Also, check out this podcast for some funny insight on the world of video games:

A Life Well Wasted

 

 

Mobile Devices for Learning

We’ve been hearing lots of talk on the great potential of mobile devices, ie. cell phones, to bridge the digital divide. Proponents, such as Dr. Elliot Soloway, co-founder of GoKnow, suggest that given the portability, accessiblity, and ease of use of these devices, they are likely to be a major force in education.

In the future, zapaTECHISTA will be focusing on these developments with a critical eye. Yes, we see the great potential, and new ideas are being hatched everyday, but we must also be wary of the power and influence of telecommunications giants who might also be interested in these changes and who might view our students as “new markets”.

See this video from Verizon to see what we mean: click me to see!

It is estimated that about 70% of students now own their own mobile devices. It is unclear if this includes ipod touches, or just cell phones, but the reality is that that number is steadily growing. Already we are seeing a variety of efforts to tap into this phenomenon.  Many educators, tech mavens, and even Arne Duncan, the Education Secretary, have weighed-in on the subject.

Here are some issues to consider, besides the aforementioned:

1. With budget cuts bleeding districts dry, are we now outsourcing our technology to students who, presumably, already possess their own phones? And if so, what does it mean for other forms of technology?

2. Can hand-held and mobile technology be used to strengthen  the information loop between schools and the home?

3. And the obvious, what is TOO MUCH in terms of screen time? Are we willing to give up the old paper and pencil? It’s been suggested that future classrooms will spend less and less time teaching kids how to write, and most writing will take place on a keyboard. What are the implications?

4. Mobile phones are great, but they are still very limited compared to a lap-top. Even the zapaTECHISTA favorite, the ipad, still has some way to go before it can be considered a game changer.  With so much content requiring Flash, when will the mobile market move beyond this limitation? We still can’t see BrainPOP, or Livemocha in the classroom.

We’ll look at others in the future. In the meantime, here are some articles to review:

Mobile Devices in the Classroom by    

November 2009  in District Administration

Why Mobile is a Must by Mary McAffrey,  in T.H.E. Journal 2- 8-11