At an event at the White House in September, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the establishment of the Digital Promise, a nonprofit initiative created to promote digital technologies with the potential to transform teaching and learning. Experts on digital media and learning cheered this latest signal that robust experimentation with technology based on rigorous research and development would take a more prominent place in the national education reform debate.
In tandem with the Digital Promise rollout, our organizations—the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and E-Line Media—announced the second year of the National STEM Video Game Challenge. This video-game-design competition is intended to motivate interest in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, learning among America’s young people by tapping into students’ natural passion for playing and making video games.
Why games? Are video games really a key element of an untapped “digital promise”? We believe the answer is yes. But we are also acutely aware that realizing this promise will take a concentrated effort by dedicated scientists, game designers, teachers, supervisors, educational publishers, policymakers, philanthropists, and entrepreneurs.
Here are some of the challenges reformers face that well-designed game-based-learning platforms could address:
• The literacy crisis. Foundational literacy skills such as reading are completely stagnant among low-income and minority students; despite billions of dollars spent on early intervention in literacy, we have made scant progress in 25 years. Tragically, only one in six African-American 4th graders is proficient in reading, according to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress; time has run out on our 20th-century approach to this wholly preventable national disgrace.
• The engagement crisis. According to Child Trends, as many as one in five minority youths are dropping out of school, and in some urban and rural communities, this number approaches 50 percent. Clearly school is neither engaging nor relevant to far too many of our youths. Meanwhile, video games are played, according to recent industry research, by more than 90 percent of school-age children.
• The global imperative. According to recent international comparison data, U.S. students are falling further behind other industrialized countries in everything from math (25th place) and science scores (17th) to the proportion of young people with college degrees (12th). The challenges our young people now face in an interconnected, digitally driven global landscape require a new set of competitive and cooperative skills.
Clearly, games aren’t a silver bullet, but they can be a significant driver of innovation and a major component of a modern education reform strategy.
Let us explore the surprising alignment between the elements that make video games so promising and the best practices that many effective teachers employ in the classroom.
• Foundational skills. New evidence from the U.S. Department of Education’s Ready to Learn program and from the Success for All Foundation show significant gains in vocabulary-development and reading-comprehension skills that can be facilitated by embedded media, like games, that personalize and deepen literacy learning. Television programs such as “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company” can now be delivered in multiple digital formats anytime, anywhere to promote literacy and STEM learning “right from the start.”
• Project- or inquiry-based learning. Games are interactive and participatory. They enable players to step into different roles (e.g., scientist, explorer, inventor, political leader), confront a problem, make meaningful choices, and explore the consequences. Games can help make learning more engaging and relevant in ways that static textbooks simply cannot.
• Personalized or adaptive learning. Games are designed to enable players to advance at their own pace, fail in a safe and supportive environment, acquire critical knowledge just in time (versus just in case), iterate based on feedback, and use this knowledge to develop mastery. Games can help teachers manage large classes with widely divergent student capabilities and learning styles through embedded assessment and individualized feedback.
• Cooperative learning. Games are increasingly social. Whether they involve teams jointly accomplishing missions, asynchronous collaboration over social networks, or sourcing advice from interest-driven communities to help solve tricky challenges, games naturally drive peer-to-peer and peer-to-mentor social interactions.
• Development of 21st-century skills. Games are complex. Whether it is a 5-year-old parsing a Pokémon card or a 15-year-old building in SimCity, games can foster critical skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and systems thinking. Given that many of the jobs that will emerge in the 21st century have not yet been invented, these portable skills are particularly important.
Whether it is a 5-year-old parsing a Pokémon card or a 15-year-old building in SimCity, games can foster critical skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and systems thinking."
• Design thinking. Youths today are crossing the boundary between consuming and creating content. While there is great potential for playing well-designed educational games, there is also learning in making games. To design a good game, a student needs to think analytically, to experiment and test out theories, to solve problems, and to effectively create and collaborate with peers and mentors. It’s hard, and students love to do it!
While there are an increasing number of exciting proof points of research-based games that are beginning to be scaled up and make an impact (check out “The Electric Company” games from Sesame Workshop and the Gamestar Mechanic youth-game-design platform from E-Line Media/Institute of Play), a significant gap exists between the promise of game-based learning and the current reality. This gap is especially evident in transforming games from effective research trials into financially sustainable products that can reach and affect students through either formal or informal channels.
To help close this gap, E-Line Media and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center have recently undertaken a major project with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the John L. and James S. Knight Foundation. (The Gates Foundation also provides support to the nonprofit corporation that publishes Education Week.) Our game-based-learning initiative includes the convening of an intersector council to conduct a business-market analysis, case studies of effective models, and a national survey of teachers to understand market dynamics, practitioner perspectives, and areas of innovation that are ready for scaling up. The council, which is chaired by Milton Chen of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, a leading expert on educational media and technology in schools, will release its analyses next year, along with research-based resources for researchers, entrepreneurs, practitioners, and funders.
Finally, realizing the potential of video games in education will also require strong public-private partnerships. We have convened a powerful consortium of partners for the National STEM Video Game Challenge. These partners include our sponsors, the AMD Foundation, Microsoft’s Xbox 360, the Entertainment Software Association, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—PBS Kids Ready to Learn initiative. We have also assembled a unique group of outreach partners, including the American Library Association, the American Association of School Librarians, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the International Game Developers Association, Brainpop, the George Lucas Educational Foundation, the Girl Scouts of the USA, and One Economy Corporation. Together, these partners reach more than 10 million young people, many of whom have had inadequate exposure to engaging STEM initiatives and 21st-century skills, and nearly all of whom are active gamers.
The learning potential of video games has yet to be fully realized, and much work remains to be done to use their distinctive qualities to personalize and deepen learning while aligning with critical new educational standards. In the years ahead, policymakers and industry leaders may well look to the power of video games to help build an education system in which every school levels up, and every student realizes his or her digital promise.
A version of this article appeared in the November 09, 2011 edition of Education Week as The Video Game-Learning Link