“The key to learning, Negroponte’s fellow panelists agreed, is to engage children rather than simply talk at them. And one of the most effective ways of doing this is through play.”Educating Players: Are Games the Future of Education? | Observations, Scientific American Blog Network
Currently, education in America is caught between two movements, the standardization craze (with national assessments) and the hope for cooperative and constructive learning where educators tap into the prior knowledge a student has mastered to help them learn. The standards movement aspires to measure student progress on a national level, while the cooperative learning model is more concerned with building bridges between concepts to enhance student learning (Bursuck & Friend, 2012). The first movement imagines the student as a product, with specific skills that can be assessed through testing. The second movement envisions the student as a participant in the construction of knowledge, and an adventurer in the journey to learn. However, games are continuing to construct a third model of the student – the learner as player, creating meaning and knowledge through play.
There has been hope for a long time that video games would provide a natural link between student motivation and learning content. After all, video games are adept at teaching skills through play, and forcing players to want to learn more and more in order to experience a new level or ability. However, while the link seems natural, the transition is far from easy.
Questions about Effectiveness
One of the major challenges to video game use in the classroom includes skepticism regarding its effectiveness as an overall teaching tool. Some teachers have reported mixed reactions to entertainment media on the social and academic development of students according to Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project (2012). Evidence that this kind of education is more effective than more traditional methods has been scarce. At most the use of video games has been shown to increase student motivation about schoolwork, but not necessarily their ability to retain material.
The same study also identified the monetary burden that teachers face when attempting to give their students games to play for learning. For example, the recent attempt to use MinecraftEDU as a mod to the traditional Minecraft game (a kind of virtual lego world) for students to explore concepts about resources, building, and a range of other topics in school, requires about $20 per person to set up. If the software is bundled for all students in a typical middle school grade level this would amount to $600 per class (given 30 students per class). A subsidy has been suggested by the creator of Minecraft to help with the financial burden, but the cost still remains too high for most teachers.
Because teachers most of the time have not learned from educational games themselves, they are often at a loss in how to use games or gaming concepts effectively to teach students following best practices. Using a book requires basic knowledge that all teachers are equipped with, while using a computer program often requires training in the use of the game itself, a greater time strain for educators. As video games continue to populate schools, hopefully more educational materials will be produced that allow teachers to follow evidence-based practice in creating games, and evaluating student work.
Emerging Gaming trends in Education
Although there are considerable challenges to using video games in the classroom, nevertheless the model of student as player is growing ground in a number of educational initiatives inside and outside of schools.
Minecraft EDU, (the mod mentioned above) has been enthusiastically adopted by some teachers for the use in educating students. Rather than simply taking the students on a field trip, Minecraft allows for the full customization of a working environment that all students can explore, manipulate (in some cases) and work at their own pace. Assignments become in-context assessments and reflections using the environment rather than something external to their lived experience. Because of how tangible the world is, students who have not yet developed abstract thinking to solve problems (something which occurs in the later years of high school, Bursuck & Friend, 2012) are able to directly experience important elements of these concepts through play.
For example, one assignment created using the Minecraft EDU mod throws students into a world in which there are very few natural resources left, and the students have to interact and figure out how to solve the problem of creating a rocket and repopulating a world with forests. Another assignment allows students to go on virtual tours of ancient civilizations and explore the Hanging gardens of Babylon, Ancient China, or other features of a world through this style of immersive play and exploration.
Kahn Academy and its derivatives
Gaining prominence in 2009, the Kahn Academy practically revolutionized both the gaming world and online education by applying game-like rewards for gaining proficiency in a variety of traditional school topics. Students follow a game-like model by attaining badges for each level of education. Because of these virtual awards and the way it advances students progress like leveling up, Kahn Academy has been labeled as a “gamification” resource for students. Although the practice model only includes math and science concepts, a similar “gaming” system that rewards streaks, gives rewards performance, etc. provides motivation for students to do better as well as provide an immediate boost in self-esteem. Other sites like Codeacademy include the similar rewards, streaks, and badges as a motivator to help students master material. Codeacademy is particularly successful in creating a tutorial lesson in which students get to practice and develop advanced coding skills.
The Future: Student as Player
Cooperative learning suggests the student is a coauthor in the creation of knowledge, not simply a bucket that is periodically filled with facts and then forced to regurgitate them. The “gamification” and gaming movements currently reverberating through the field of education suggest the learner is something also fundamentally different. He or she is an explorer in the world of knowledge-working. The learner as player manipulates existing knowledge and evaluates its efficacy in real time. Rather than simply creating, he also evaluates, tests, synthesizes and manipulates information in a transformational way. Games have this power, but not without some potential drawbacks and it has yet to be seen if games will truly transform the learner or entrap him in skinner box-like pursuit of gimmicks, badges, and meaningless “level-ups.”
Bursuck, W. D. & Friend, M. (2012) Including Students With Special Needs. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Merrill.