Special Report
Classroom Technology

Digital Gaming Goes Academic

By Katie Ash — March 14, 2011 7 min read
Rice University created CSI: Web Adventures to introduce middle schoolers to forensic science through cases based on the popular TV-show franchise about crime-scene investigations.

Educators at Ocoee Middle School in Florida have built an online game lab to engage students and sharpen technology skills. Researchers at Rice University have created a virtual game to teach forensics to middle schoolers. North Carolina State University’s IntelliMedia Group has released a digital game to teach microbiology to 8th graders.

Digital games for learning academic skills change depending on each student’s ability and course of action. Such games provide personalized feedback in real time—something a traditional classroom often doesn’t offer.

“The technology and the research have evolved to the point where we can actually have a sense of the impact games are having on learning,” says Lee Wilson, the president and chief executive officer of San Antonio-based PCI Education, which makes instructional materials for students with special needs. “We’re just starting down this path.”

Part of the appeal, and the value, of games is the perspective they bring to students, Wilson says. “One of the things we can do for these kids,” he says, “is to give them exposure to different contexts that they would never otherwise encounter.”

That idea is one that Leslie Miller, the executive director of the Center for Technology in Teaching and Learning at Rice University, in Houston, hopes will inspire more students to explore careers in the stem fields: science, technology, engineering, and math.

“If you create a game that’s cool to play, maybe we could change the possible selves [the students see themselves as],” she says.

Rice University partnered with the Forth Worth Museum of Science and History, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, and CBS, with funding from the National Science Foundation, to create CSI: Web Adventures, a game designed to introduce middle schoolers to forensic science through cases based on the popular TV-show franchise about crime-scene investigations.

“When you put yourself in that person’s shoes and actually begin role-playing, you create a growing sense of science identity,” says Miller. “The authenticity of the role-play is the key thing.”

During the game, students identify shoe prints, test DNA, and interview suspects in order to crack the case.

But it’s not all fun and games, Miller emphasizes. “Teachers can’t really afford to play games that are interesting but irrelevant,” she says.

The game outlines which academic standards it covers and was crafted with learning objectives in mind, Miller says, pointing to the difference between educational games and commercial off-the-shelf games.

Students as Microbiologists

James Lester, a computer science professor at the Raleigh-based North Carolina State University, has also noticed an uptick in enjoyment of STEM subjects through a digital game called Crystal Island, designed by the IntelliMedia Group at his university, a research initiative that studies human-computer interaction.

Crystal Island, which targets 8th grade science students, begins as the students virtually arrive on the island with their research teams. Soon after their arrival, people on the island begin to fall sick, and it is up to the student to determine the origin of the outbreak.

“It’s absolutely the case that kids are very engaged [while playing the game],” says Lester, who is also the head of the IntelliMedia Group. “You can see it on their faces and the way they interact with the software.”

Students interview people on the island and gather data, ruling out hypotheses as they go. “Scaffolding” built into the game allows students to keep track of what they’ve learned and the conclusions they’ve drawn, according to Lester.

Eleven-year-old Anisa Guedira played Crystal Island in her 5th grade class at A. B. Combs Elementary School in Raleigh, N.C. She enjoyed being able to choose her own character in the game and make her own choices about what to do.

“The game made me like science a little bit more, because in science sometimes you have to look through a textbook and that’s not fun,” she says. “But in a game you actually get to choose your character and pick out [choices based on] your own interests.”

At Ocoee Middle School outside Orlando, students don’t take the role of scientists, but rather are game designers themselves.

Last year, Principal Sharyn C. Gabriel built a gaming lab in the school—a project that involved upgrading computers and investing in game-design software. The school now offers digital art, digital media, and digital video-game design.

Crystal Island, a game designed by North Carolina State University researchers, aims to teach microbiology concepts to 8th graders.

Each 6th grader takes a digital-media class for an introduction to the concepts and can continue to a more specialized digital-based class in 7th and 8th grades.

“It’s hooked a huge percent of these kids back into school,” Gabriel says. “They finally see a legitimate use for the [concepts] they learn in algebra.”

In the video-game-design class, students create about four games per semester. They produce their own graphics and provide storyboards for the game design.

“It is deliberate and conscientious that I am putting technology in kids’ hands,” Gabriel says. “You can’t teach them if they’re sleeping or disinterested. It doesn’t work.”

And if her school can do it, any school can, she believes. About 65 percent of her students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

Tina Rooks, the vice president and chief instructional officer of Turning Technologies, a company based in Youngstown, Ohio, that provides audience-response systems to schools and other markets, has observed the work at Ocoee Middle School.

“The reality is these kids really are engaged in this digital world,” she says, “and we bring them into kindergarten and say, ‘Power down.’ We lose them, and we lose them early.”

Using games to teach taps into the engagement and motivation students feel when they’re playing games for entertainment, Rooks maintains.

Focus on Outcomes

Ron Tarr, the program manager of advanced-performance technologies at the Institute of Simulation and Training at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, has built game-based training programs for government, private industry, and K-12 education.

Focusing on outcomes—what you want students to take away from the game—is the highest priority, he says.

“What technology brings to the table is an almost unlimited opportunity to practice what you’ve learned,” he says. “But you really have to understand who your audience is and what they’ve done before, and you’ve really got to understand the environment that you’re developing this tool for.”

K-12 education, for instance, has some unique considerations compared with other sectors, Tarr says.

“The bottom line is: Games in education, I think, would be wonderful if we really had a good handle on what our objectives are, and we were prepared to standardize curriculum,” he says.

Part of the challenge of designing games for K-12 students, Tarr says, is figuring out how to measure achievement against learning objectives. Figuring out that piece is essential to designing an effective educational game, he says.

Precollegiate students and teachers are held to standards different from those for higher education or the military—a situation that can make it hard to incorporate games successfully, says Bill Watson, an assistant professor of learning design and technology at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind., and the director of the Purdue Center for Serious Games and Learning in Virtual Environments.

“The current way that we run schools is not well suited to learner-centered approaches,” he says.

Still, games have enormous potential to teach students, says Watson. “A good video game will do what a good learning environment will do,” he says. Mainly, it will provide good feedback to students and teachers, ramp up the challenge level appropriately, and free the teacher to facilitate learning, he explains.

And an important but sometimes overlooked aspect of effectively implementing educational games is the role of the teacher, Watson says.

“It’s a misconception among some people that games will do the whole job. If you ask students to play a game, they will play a game, but they won’t try to learn from it,” he says. “The teacher very much needs to know what objectives they want from the game.”

Leading discussions before and after the game to draw connections between the game and what the students are learning in class is an essential part of achieving the desired learning outcomes, experts say.

Play as Learning

Because other markets do not have the same restrictions and expectations as K-12 education, Christopher Stapleton, the president of Simiosys, a company that creates experiential media and is a research affiliate of the University of Central Florida, designs interactive-learning experiences for museums and hopes to bridge that work into schools.

“With informal education, it’s much easier to build it there and transport it in,” he says. “Play is the new paradigm for interfaces. It invites you in and draws you into experiential learning.”

Paul Horwitz is a senior scientist at the Concord, Mass.-based Concord Consortium, a nonprofit educational technology research-and-development organization.

Part of what games do is provide an authentic context for assessment, he says.

“All games have to have some kind of assessment; otherwise, you don’t know whether you won or not,” he says. But devising a game that actually assesses what it’s supposed to can be difficult. Providing professional development for teachers so they know how to use the game effectively, he says, is “absolutely key.”

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