Classroom Technology

Digital Learning Games Breaking Into K-12 Mainstream

By Leo Doran — May 31, 2016 5 min read
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The makers of digital learning games and their advocates have struggled for years to break into the mainstream of K-12 education. The games suffered from the perception that they were not directly linked to district curricula or that they lacked academic rigor.

But it now appears that the use of digital learning games in schools is rising, as the learning tools achieve a higher level of relevance in the minds of educators.

The number of teachers in the United States using games in their classrooms—particularly with younger students—has doubled during the past six years, according to a large survey released this month that measures national ed-tech use. In 2015, the survey found, 48 percent of K-12 teachers and almost two-thirds of K-5 teachers reported using game-based learning environments in their classes, up from 23 percent of all K-12 teachers in 2010.

“The explosion in teacher interest and usage of videos and game-based learning could be a harbinger of a new awakening for digital learning,” Julie Evans, the CEO of Project Tomorrow, the sponsor of the survey, said in a statement. The 2015 Speak Up survey findings are the latest in a series of reports released each year by the Irvine, Calif.-based nonprofit organization.

The latest report draws from an online questionnaire completed by more than 500,000 students, teachers, other educators, and parents. It suggests that after years of reluctance among many teachers to invite certain types of educational technology into their classrooms, the landscape could finally be shifting.

Use of Games, Other Online Tools

Educators are becoming more likely to use Web-based tools in their classrooms.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Source: Project Tomorrow 2016

Evans speculated that the preponderance of game use in classrooms by K-5 teachers could be linked to elementary teachers being “trained to think about play as part of the learning process.”

“More product in the market” and of a higher quality, combined with growing K-12 purchases of mobile computing devices, could help explain rising trends in overall adoption, she said.

Teacher PD Needed

Michael Young, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut and an expert in K-12 gaming, said he found the survey results encouraging, given the potential upside he thinks games can offer.

Young said the conversation has evolved from initial concerns over violence and sexism in video games to a substantive debate over the potential instructional applications of different products.

Young, whose work includes a 2012 review of over 300 academic articles on game-based learning, has concluded, however, that educational researchers are not being specific enough in differentiating between the effects of high- and low-quality games, or between the effects of fantastical games and those of simulations that aim to closely replicate real life.

“You can’t just say games are good,” he said, because the reality on the ground is “a hodgepodge of unstructured usage.”

Young’s concern that teachers are given insufficient guidance in choosing and then incorporating games in their lessons is affirmed by the 50 percent of teachers who are hungry for game-related PD—up from 27 percent in 2012, according to the Project Tomorrow survey. Meanwhile, only about a quarter of district administrators say they are providing their staff members with training on game-based learning.

Part of the challenge for educators is choosing games that teach students in interesting or innovative ways, rather than what some developers call “chocolate-covered broccoli"—thinly disguised flashcards or multiple-choice questions beneath a glossy surface.

Dan White’s Madison, Wis., company, Filament Games, has been contracted to develop digital learning games by the Smithsonian, McGraw-Hill Education, and other organizations. It also produces its own direct-to-consumer market games.

White’s advice to school officials looking to pick the right game is to ask themselves, “Do the game-play mechanics align with whatever you are trying to teach?”

Some experts, like Evans of Project Tomorrow, have lauded Filament Games for integrating the latest in learning-science research into the company’s products. But Young expressed skepticism about some of the company’s marketing claims.

White said that Filament Games’ methodology hasn’t changed in its 10 years of existence, and that unlike other educational game developers, the company sets itself apart by its mantra that a “good learning game is an experience engine.” In other words, games should be used to give students virtual experiences of places or problems that would be impractical or impossible for them to encounter firsthand—from underwater ecosystems to geopolitical power struggles.

Young and White agree that games are most effective when they’re introduced at the beginning of a unit to engender an emotional or visceral engagement with a portion of curriculum. In classes where games are used effectively, experts say, teachers become comfortable adopting the roles of learning guides, and students are prodded to digest, discuss, and reflect on their gaming experiences.

Those positive perceptions of the value of digital learning games are tempered, though, by concerns among child-development experts about the negative effects of rising rates of computer screen time among young people, as well as concerns that too much game use may lead students to become too driven by extrinsic rewards.

Game-Based Assessments

There is also a growing trend in which teachers and game developers are trying to pull out achievement markers from student game-play as a possible supplement to, or eventual replacement for, traditional testing.

The difficulty in developing game-based assessments, according to Young, is that the complex nature of gaming is such that “in the same way that you can’t step into the same river twice, you can’t play a good game the same way twice.” He said that any effort to build high-quality game-based assessments would require a highly sophisticated set of achievement benchmarks.

“It’s totally possible, but it’s not a small budget project,” White said of meaningful game-based assessments.

Experts tend to agree that games are more likely to develop 21st-century skills in students than to improve their test scores.

The full Project Tomorrow report offers a slew of other findings related to trends in digital education in the nation’s classrooms. For example, the survey found that the use of online instructional videos in classrooms rose from 47 percent of classrooms in 2012 to 68 percent in 2015.

Coverage of trends in K-12 innovation and efforts to put these new ideas and approaches into practice in schools, districts, and classrooms is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 2016 edition of Education Week as Digital Learning Games Breaking Into K-12 Mainstream


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