Classroom Technology

Virtual Courses Feature Gaming to Raise Interactivity

By Katie Ash — February 07, 2013 9 min read
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Middle school students using Connections Academy online curricula analyze parts of speech and build sentences to complete grammar “missions” in an interactive game. Students taking classes through K12 Inc.'s online curricula access mobile apps to play games as a way to reinforce what they’re learning in class. And students in the Pender County school district in North Carolina are learning language arts and leadership skills through video games such as Minecraft and World of Warcraft, thanks to a new learning-management system specifically designed for game-based learning.

"[Students] are engaged every day in activities that are fast, active, [and] involve problem-solving and exploration—that’s what’s happening outside in their world,” says Pat Hoge, the senior vice president of curriculum and instruction and the chief academic officer for Connections Academy, a Baltimore-based company that provides online courses and curricula. “How does learning in education mirror that?”

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Because of advances in technology that make it easier to build online games, and the growing belief in the power of games to engage and motivate students, creators of online courses are finding new ways to incorporate interactive, game-based learning. Yet designing high-quality digital games for learning can be costly and time-consuming, and not all schools have the technological infrastructure necessary to integrate digital games.

Connections Academy’s Guardians of Grammar uses superheroes to teach about verbs, participles, and proper nouns. In the game, students create their own sentences to demonstrate knowledge of grammar concepts, analyze different grammatical parts of sentences, and build sentences by adding words from a word bank to an existing sentence structure.

“We’re focused on providing students with multiple ways of engaging with curricula,” Hoge says.

The curriculum also uses simulations and other game-related elements to engage students. Connections recently made the switch from sending out physical rock and mineral kits to online students to implementing a digital rock and mineral simulation. According to the feedback from students, the ratings for that lesson increased after the switch to the digital simulation.

“It’s the reality that technology is here. It’s a part of our lives every day, and it’s not something to be ignored,” Hoge says. “The individualization, the personalization—that’s the power of technology in an online learning environment.”

Experiment, Fail, Learn

Integrating games into online curricula also provides students a safe place to experiment and to fail, says Abha DasGupta, the senior director of product solutions and innovation for K12 Inc., the Herndon, Va.-based online school operator and online course provider.

“There’s not as much pressure on a student” not to make mistakes, she says. “It gives them an opportunity to fail within a game scenario and not feel as though it’s a failure, because it’s a game.”

In the past two years, K12 has created 15 game-infused applications to reinforce what students are learning in their online courses, including apps that time how long it takes for students to read a certain passage, apps that teach students how to count, an interactive periodic table of the elements, as well as an Algebra 1 review and study app.

“We’ve really focused a lot on science and math because those are the areas where students are struggling,” DasGupta says.

Games are also integrated into K12’s online courses, she says.

“There are a lot of tools and game-like pieces built into the [remedial] courses because when a child is already struggling, you’ve got to make sure that they’re engaged, and they’re learning at a pace that they’re comfortable with,” she says. “If you don’t have those multimedia pieces—video or interactives—you lose the students.”

But creators of online content have to be careful about what games to develop and how to incorporate them into the curriculum, says Jill Dickinson, the director of curriculum for the Florida Virtual School, the country’s largest state-sponsored online school, which served 259,928 half-credit enrollments in the 2010-11 school year.

Games can be costly and time-intensive to build, she says, so choosing the right kind of game for the right kind of learning objective is critical.

“You don’t want kids focusing their game play on a standard that is a low complexity standard and could easily be taught with a few definitions and a drag-and-drop,” she says. “That’s not a good use of technology.”

In addition, the amount of game play should be commensurate with the amount of time that would normally be spent on a concept, says Dickinson.

“If you’re not careful, you can get a little out of balance,” she says. “Some of the ways to address those concerns are to spend some deliberate time in your storyboarding and planning to determine the places where concepts can be best taught through gaming.”

After the game is developed, lots of user testing is also required to ensure that the game is teaching what it’s intended to teach, and that students are motivated to play it.

In 2009, the Florida Virtual School developed an entire game-based course called Conspiracy Code that taught students reading concepts or American history. But the course has since been shelved because of changes in academic standards.

“All innovation has risks and challenges, and we did run into some technological challenges with delivering the game,” Dickinson says, adding that many of the students using the game did not have access to computers with enough bandwidth to allow it to run smoothly.

“While there are statistics that more and more students are having access to tablets and computers, there’s still quite a few schools in the state and country where access is limited,” she says.

An efficacy study done on the Conspiracy Code: Intensive Reading course found that students using the game increased their reading achievement significantly, compared with a control group of students receiving traditional instruction. Because of those results, the Florida Virtual School is aiming to develop a new course that would be game-oriented, says Dickinson.

“There are a lot of components of gaming that, based on the research, do increase student achievement: learning in communities, critical-thinking skills, and problem-solving,” she says.

‘Play Is Powerful’

In North Carolina’s 8,500-student Pender County district, instructional technology coordinator Lucas Gillispie has helped incorporate online game play into the school day, creating classes that blend face-to-face and online learning.

Gillispie created a curriculum around the commercial multiplayer game World of Warcraft and has since expanded the curriculum to include the commercial game Minecraft as well.

“Video games have been a point of connection between my students and myself, especially a certain group of students who were hard to reach otherwise,” he says. Using World of Warcraft as the base of the curriculum, Gillispie developed lessons within the game to teach students about leadership skills, digital citizenship, and language arts.

For instance, in the poetry portion of the course, each student has to write a rhyming riddle poem that he or she uses to interact with other players in the game. If another player successfully answers the riddle, the student’s online avatar gives away a prize.

The program began as an after-school club, but after gaining support from teachers and administrators, it became an in-school elective for students at Cape Fear Middle School. The class has expanded within the last year to another middle school in the district, West Pender.

“My goal is to make [my students] intentional and thoughtful consumers of their game media and extract learning from it,” Gillispie says.

Nautica Robinson, a 13-year-old 8th grader at West Pender Middle School, has participated in two semesters of learning with Minecraft. She says at first she was hesitant about the approach.

“I really wasn’t so sure about the game,” says Nautica, “but I began to enjoy it because every day that I had a bad day, I could know that I would be able to exit and be in my own fantasy world.”

In addition, Minecraft has helped her learn science and social studies concepts, she says.

“It really teaches you a lot subject-wise and real-world-wise because ... you learn how to be independent, and that is what you need to survive in the real world,” Nautica says.

Abigail Lopez, 12, a 7th grader at West Pender, is using Minecraft to learn about science. She says learning through games is “fun and educational.”

In her class, students use the game to build a Hunger Games-inspired arena where students compete against each other to build colonies that ensure their survival. Because there are limited resources, students also have to use teamwork in order to survive, Abigail says.

One of the biggest challenges in incorporating the game into the classroom was finding the right platform to house the curriculum, says Gillispie, who started with the open-source learning-management system Moodle but found that its structures were too rigid for his game-based course.

Gillispie then discovered the 3D GameLab, a game-based learning-management platform created by Boise State University and now run by Boise, Idaho-based GoGo Labs, which aims to use education research to design and build educational technologies that support game-based learning.

3D GameLab uses experience points, virtual badges, and scorecards instead of percentage-based grades to track students’ progress. The platform allows for a nonlinear progression so students can choose where they go next, rather than being forced to follow a specific path. A leaderboard within the platform encourages players to keep playing even after they’ve completed their mandatory activities, says Lisa Dawley, a former researcher at Boise State who is the founder and chief executive officer for GoGo Labs.

The platform was made available in a limited beta release that could be accessed only by going through a “teacher camp” where teachers learn how to create quests within the platform, incorporate games into the classroom, and do other tasks. Dawley expects to open it to a public beta early this year.

“It’s been part of our strategy to focus on early-adopter teacher types who are willing to play and explore,” Dawley says.

Gillispie uses the platform as the foundation for his class. “Kids access it and work on it at their own pace, choosing what quest or what area they would like to explore,” he says. He emphasizes that choice is an essential component of game-based learning.

Support from administrators in the Pender County district has allowed Gillispie to move forward with a learning approach that can often be a tough sell to education officials—especially because the students in his World of Warcraft class actually play within the game, often interacting with nonstudent players. He feels such interaction is critical to their education.

“We can talk about teaching kids digital citizenship and how to be responsible there, but we’re blocking their access,” Gillispie says. “They’re going into the Wild West with no one to help them navigate that wilderness.”

In the class, students are supervised at all times, he says, and the parental controls on the students’ games do not allow them to access World of Warcraft outside of class time.

But the biggest challenge can often be convincing teachers and other adults that students can learn through game play, Gillispie says.

“It really depends on whether they have a vision for this or not,” he says. “The challenge is just reminding adults that play is powerful.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2013 edition of Digital Directions as Online Courses Turn on Gaming


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