Some educators swear by them as valuable high-tech teaching tools but little is known about their impact on learning
September 12, 2014 |By Elena Malykhina
A student plays MinecraftEdu.
Courtesy of TeacherGaming LLC
As kids all across the U.S. head back to school, they’re being forced to spend less time in front of their favorite digital distractions. Or are they?
Video games are playing an increasing role in school curricula as teachers seek to deliver core lessons such as math and reading—not to mention new skills such as computer programming—in a format that holds their students’ interests. Some herald this gamification of education as the way of the future and a tool that allows students to take a more active role in learning as they develop the technology skills they need to succeed throughout their academic and professional careers.
Few would argue that video games can do it all in terms of education, says Scot Osterweil, a research director in Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Comparative Media Studies program and creative director of the school’s Education Arcade initiative to explore how games can be used to promote learning. But games are a powerful learning tool when combined with other exploratory, hands-on activities and ongoing instruction from a teacher acting more as a coach than a lecturer, he adds.
Others, however, question whether a greater reliance on video games is in students’ best interests, indicating there is little proof that skillful game play translates into better test scores or broader cognitive development.
In the past decade schools have become preoccupied with meeting national Common Core standards, which dictate what students should be able to accomplish in English and mathematics at the end of each grade and use standardized testing as a way of tracking a student’s progress. Such demands are not conducive to creative teaching methods that incorporate video games, Osterweil acknowledges. He adds, however, that a growing backlash against the perceived overuse of standardized tests is starting to encourage creativity once again.
Testing fatigue, combined with more pervasive computer use in and out of the classroom and continued experimentation with games as learning tools, suggests that such video games will play a significant role in the future of education. The Quest to Learn public school in New York City offers a glimpse of how gaming is already transforming not just how students learn, but also what they learn. The teachers there have been using the principles of video game design to write their curriculum since the school opened its doors in 2009. This curriculum—organized into missions and quests—focuses on multifaceted challenges that may have more than one correct answer, letting students explore different solutions by making choices along the way, says Ross Flatt, assistant principal at the school.
More than simply playing video games, Quest to Learn students also study game design using Gamestar Mechanic and other computer programs. After students successfully complete Gamestar missions, they are awarded avatars and other tools they can use to build their own games.
If educational video games are well executed, they can provide a strong framework for inquiry and project-based learning, says Alan Gershenfeld, co-founder and president of E-Line Media, a publisher of computer and video games and a Founding Industry Fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Games and Impact. “Games are also uniquely suited to fostering the skills necessary for navigating a complex, interconnected, rapidly changing 21st century,” he adds.
Digital literacy and understanding how systems (computer and otherwise) work will become increasingly important in a world where many of today’s students will pursue jobs that do not currently exist, says Gershenfeld, who wrote about video games’ potential to transform education in the February Scientific American. Tomorrow’s workers will also likely change jobs many times throughout their careers and “will almost certainly have jobs that require some level of mastery of digital media and technology,” he adds.
Gaming the system
Parents of school-age children are likely familiar with Minecraft, a digital game that promotes imagination as players build various structures out of cubes. MinecraftEdu, a version of the game that teachers created for educational purposes, teaches students mathematical concepts including perimeter, area and probabilities as well as foreign languages. SimCityEDU, a version of the popular city-building game, is likewise a learning and assessment tool for middle school students that covers the English, math and other lessons they need to master to meet Common Core State and Next Generation Science standards.
Beyond teaching, video games can also offer useful information about how well a child is learning and can even provide helpful visual displays of that information, says Brian Waniewski, social entrepreneur and former managing director of the Institute of Play, a nonprofit that promotes the problem-solving nature of game play and game design as a model for learning in secondary schools. Video games can also provide instantaneous feedback—typically via scores—that teachers and students can use to determine how well students understand what the games are trying to teach them.
For all of the enthusiasm around games and learning, very few studies have examined whether video games improve classroom performance and academic achievement, says Emma Blakey, PhD researcher in developmental psychology at the University of Sheffield in England. “Because we know memory is a crucial cognitive skill for school learning, practice at playing games that challenge memory should, in theory, lead to improvements in classroom behavior and academic skills,” she says. But only additional research can say if that notion is correct.
A 2013 University of Cambridge study joined by Darren Dunning of the University of York, found that the improvements in game scores for children with low levels of working memory did not extend to broader skills. Working memory is the cognitive system responsible for the temporary storage of information we need to support ongoing everyday activities, such as a locker combination or a friend’s Twitter handle. The study gave seven- to nine-year-olds up to 25 sessions of either video games set to challenge their working memory—the so-called “CogMed” approach—or the same video games set at an easy level. The researchers then examined whether playing the more difficult games improved performance on additional measures of working memory as well as enhanced other skills, including math, reading, writing and following instructions in a classroom. The study concluded that brain-training video games improve children’s performance only on very similar games, an effect that likely results from practice.
Digital games cannot be treated like the latest quick fix to the education system, Waniewski says. “They can seem like a godsend, a next-generation digital textbook that further reduces the need for human resources,” he notes. Yet games alone will not make schools more efficient, replace teachers or serve as an educational resource that can reach an infinite number of students, he adds.
Video games are not necessarily the most cost-effective option for schools with tight budgets and crowded classrooms, either. They require computers, tablets or other specialized technology as well as dedicated Internet servers and other communications systems. There may also be a need for additional infrastructure, personnel and teacher training. A full, game-infused curriculum could cost millions of dollars and require ongoing support, Gershenfeld says.
The extent to which video games are the future of education remains to be seen. But if the present is any indication, teachers are embracing the medium and are likely to continue to do so. In fact, of those teachers who use video games in the classroom, more than half have kids play them as part of the curriculum at least once a week, according to a national survey released by education researchers at Joan Ganz Cooney Center in June.
Perhaps the biggest impact of video games will be on students who have not responded as well to traditional teaching methods. Nearly half of the teachers surveyed say it is the low-performing students who generally benefit from the use of games, and more than half believe games have the ability to motivate struggling and special education students.