GlassLab Opens Opportunity for Education-Game Makers

By Benjamin Herold — August 19, 2014 6 min read
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Developers hoping to transform digital learning games from lightweight classroom fun to serious instructional tools could soon have access to powerful new technologies to help make that happen.

GlassLab, a nonprofit made up of a highly regarded team of learning scientists, assessment designers, and software developers, announced last month that it will make its assessment and analytics engines available for free to third-party developers of digital learning games, beginning with an initial cohort of five groups this fall.

Observers say the effort reflects growing pressure on game makers to show evidence of actual student learning, which, if achieved, could open the door for much wider and more regular use of digital learning games in schools.

“Right now, the typical use of a game in classrooms is around engagement or trying to meet the needs of struggling students,” said Michael Levine, the executive director of the New York City-based Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a nonprofit research organization that studies children’s learning through digital media. “But some are beginning to experiment with a lot more beyond that. It’s becoming engagement-plus.”

Much of the new work aims to make use of telemetry or “clickstream” data. During the course of digital game play, every decision a player makes—each click, hover, delay, or movement—generates a detailed log of information.

The problem, though, is that most game developers are ill-equipped to process all that information for valid, reliable signs that students are mastering academic standards.

Technology Investments

Experts say it can also be challenging to ensure that developers are looking for evidence of meaningful student learning—the ability to solve problems, not just the memorization of facts, for example.

“Sometimes people are more driven by what they can do with technology than by a thoughtful model of learning,” said James Paul Gee, an education professor at Arizona State University in Tempe who is widely regarded as the godfather of learning-game theory.

“There can be a danger that we’re collecting the data that is easy to collect, because it’s digitized, but we’re missing [other] information that is equally or more important,” Mr. Gee said.

How It Works

GlassLab, a nonprofit dedicated to popularizing high-quality digital learning games, is making technology, learning analytics, and assessment services available to third-party developers seeking to demonstrate that their digital games help students learn.

GAMES: Students play digital learning games created by GlassLab and the organization’s third-party partners

SOFTWARE DEVELOPMENT KIT: Developers use computer code to access data management, learning analytics, reporting, and other tools known as GlassLab Game Services.

FEDERATED DATA STORE: GlassLab stores the data generated by students playing digital games in its secure database.

FEDERATED DATA STORE: GlassLab stores the data generated by students playing digital games in its secure database.

PLAYFULLY.ORG: This fall, GlassLab will release a Web portal that lets teachers and students access games and progress reports, and also lets developers and researchers access computer code and data.

SOURCE: GlassLab

GlassLab was launched in 2012 as a collaboration of the Institute of Play, the Entertainment Software Association, Electronic Arts, the Educational Testing Service, Pearson, Analytics and Adaptive Learning, and others. The Redwood City, Calif.-based GlassLab is now housed at Electronic Arts and Co-Lab, an accelerator for ed-tech startups focused on learning games.

Last November, the group launched the first of its own digital learning games: SimCityEdu, a classroom version of the popular urban-planning game originally released in 1989.

GlassLab’s executive director, Jessica J. Lindl, said in an interview that two-thirds of the group’s investment went into technology and services around the game, compared with one-third for design and development.

GlassLab, whose mission involves helping spread the use of high-quality digital learning games, now hopes to leverage that investment to benefit others, she said.

“It’s a huge value proposition to open up [our] technology services so other game developers can provide insight into what kids are learning using our assessment engine and learning-analytics models,” she said.

GlassLab’s newest game, Mars Generation One: Argubot Academy, offers an example of how that technology works.

In the game, players—typically middle school students—find themselves in a settlement on Mars where disputes are resolved through formal arguments. To succeed, players must search for evidence that can support the claims they are trying to make. They also must critique others’ arguments, determining whether the evidence presented supports the claim effectively. Players advance by winning argument “duels” against opponents.

Over the course of a complete 90-minute cycle of game play, players might engage in eight or more such duels and be asked to critique 20 claim-evidence pairings, said Seth M. Corrigan, a research scientist for learning analytics with GlassLab.

The tools that the group has developed are used to gather, organize, and analyze the torrents of resulting data to create a model of what students know and have learned.

First, the types of telemetry data generated by players’ clicks and other in-game decisions deemed relevant through extensive analysis are located and stored in secure, custom-built databases. Then, that information is fed into an “assessment engine” that determines what students’ game-play patterns reveal about their mastery of three specific common-core standards related to argumentation and reading informational texts. Finally, those results are reported back to students, teachers, parents, and others by digital dashboards.

Building that system took more than a year of “enormous effort,” Mr. Corrigan said, with each project containing “enough speed bumps to take a lot of developers out of the game” if left to do the work on their own.

Now, though, GlassLab is making the tools available for free, beginning with an initial cohort of five third-party developers to be announced this fall.

“Hopefully, there is no starting from scratch anymore,” Mr. Corrigan said.

Classroom Applications

GlassLab officials said that over 100 groups—including research organizations, small startups, and established commercial players—applied to be part of the initial cohort of partners given access to the group’s technology services. Among other benefits, the winners will receive computer code that integrates into their existing games to help collect data and get access to versions of GlassLab’s assessment engine.

Ms. Lindl, the executive director, said assessment experts from Pearson and the ETS who are part of the GlassLab team will also work directly with the third-party developers to figure out how the data generated by their games connect to academic standards.

The model for the new partnerships will be a recently completed pilot effort involving GlassLab and iCivics, a Washington-based nonprofit that develops Web-based learning games such as the immensely popular Argument Wars, a game that company officials say has been downloaded 1.5 million times. The game is meant to help students learn the common-core skills related to evidence-based persuasive argumentation.

“We’re good at designing games with instruction embedded,” said Louise Dube, the executive director of iCivics. “What’s not necessarily easy to do is dig deep into the data and understand how every piece is or isn’t related to a desired learning outcome.”

Through the partnership with GlassLab, Ms. Dube said, iCivics has been able to generate a much more robust portrait than was previously possible of what students are learning in Argument Wars.

Seeing How Students Learn

In addition to knowing if a student won the game and was engaged while playing, iCivics can now see a portrait of the reasoning strategies and other mental processes used by the student. That information is aligned to academic standards and fed back to teachers to help them know what type of instructional help each student needs next.

“In order for gaming to be taken seriously by educators, it needs to have an actual application for them in the classroom on a daily basis,” Ms. Dube said.

As part of its new effort, GlassLab is also preparing to introduce a website that teachers will be able to access directly to find games and related instructional materials, and monitor students’ progress.

Ultimately, said Mr. Gee, the Arizona State professor, who is on the boards of both GlassLab and iCivics, attempts to quantify student learning based on game-play data will be most powerful if they occur in a standardized way that allows for different learning games to be compared with each other.

But the challenge, Mr. Gee said, will be maintaining digital games’ power to promote higher-order thinking skills, such as problem-solving, even as games gain mainstream credibility.

“There’s the potential to change assessment,” he said. “But there’s also the potential to parrot [traditional] schooling.”

Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 20, 2014 edition of Education Week as GlassLab Opens Opportunity for Education Game Makers


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