The Halo 3 Question

By Katie Ash — January 23, 2008 3 min read
A person dressed up as a Halo 3 video-game character appears at the September 2007 launch of the product in London.
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Since its release in September, students have logged millions of hours playing the popular video game Halo 3, according to Xbox Live, the Web site that lets players link up and play. The sheer amount of time spent on the game has educators and parents asking: Are any of the skills honed by Halo 3 applicable to what students are learning in the classroom? And how can teachers tap into that interest?

“What turns out to be the education is the collaboration the kids will generate to play the game,” says Elliot Soloway, a computer science and education professor at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor.

The first-person shooter game—the final chapter in a best-selling trilogy designed exclusively for Microsoft’s game console, the Xbox—allows players to log in to Halo’s interactive Web site to link up with other players around the world.

“It’s the epiphenomenon of kids working together with kids they don’t necessarily even know to achieve a common goal,” Soloway says.

In Halo 3, the player must battle and defeat alien enemies to progress to the next level. Extra points are rewarded for actions such as killing multiple enemies in succession, or deducted when the player dies or kills a teammate. Multiple players can link up through Xbox Live—Microsoft’s online multiplayer gaming service—and battle each other.

Kurt D. Squire, an assistant professor of educational communications and technology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, agrees with Soloway.

“What’s particularly interesting is that in games like Halo, it’s self-organizing, so that kids are putting together their own teams and are responsible for managing their own learning,” he says.

“This type of disposition,” says Squire, “is what I and many others believe is the real ‘walk-away’ for education: an orientation toward learning that is proactive, believes that learning happens best through trial-and-error experience, and is accustomed to organizing their own self-learning.”

But while collaboration, teamwork, and organization are important skills for students to learn, the game may set unrealistic expectations for classroom lessons, Soloway warns.

“The problem is when those same boys go to school and are placed with a boring book, a pencil, and a piece of paper, and they turn off,” he says. “[The game] … implies school will be as much fun as Halo 3. The challenge for the teacher is to channel the kids and have them find [learning] enjoyable.”

‘Creative Teaching’

Video games with potential educational value may have their place in schools, says Soloway, but adjusting teachers’ instructional strategies is critical.

What turns out to be the education is the collaboration the kids will generate to play the game.

“Technology only gets you to first base, but to round home plate, you need the teacher,” he says.

Cathleen Norris, a professor of technology and cognition at the University of North Texas in Denton, also has reservations about the educational potential of Halo 3.

“There’s no doubt that children do learn skills like collaboration, cooperation, and problem-solving, but the question is whether or not the skills they learn are transferable to other situations, or are they just good in that context?” she says.

For example, Norris recalls a push to teach students computer programming because it reinforced linear thinking, but researchers later found that teaching programming skills simply produced lots of computer programmers—not necessarily better linear thinkers.

“The skills aren’t necessarily transferable to other contexts,” says Norris.

The effective transfer of skills from one aspect of a student’s life to another has a “long, sordid history,” says Squire of the University of Wisconsin.

Halo 3 Demonstration

Never seen the Halo 3 game before? This video clip of a game expert, courtesy of YouTube, shows you the ins and outs of the game.

Still, he says, Halo 3 may have untapped educational potential. The environment created in Halo is one that realistically adheres to the laws of physics, he points out. As a result, some players have performed virtual physics-based experiments—such as tying together bundles of explosives to see how far they can blast objects into space, he says.

“Something I’ve speculated on in the past is that physics teachers could in theory use Halo as a microworld, setting up measurements to see how the physics behaves, if it is realistic, and so on,” Squire says. “In the 1990s, educators invested millions of [National Science Foundation] money seeking to build these kinds of environments—now we have them ‘for free’ and with a much higher level of fidelity. However, they aren’t really designed for classrooms or learning, so you’d have to do some real creative teaching to make it work.

“If nothing else, after watching a round of Halo 3, it does make you appreciate just how primitive our educational system is in comparison.”

Katie Ash is a reporter-researcher for Education Week and Digital Directions.
A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2008 edition of Digital Directions as The Halo 3 Question


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