A wonderful article posted today at STEMwire on gamification and game-based learning.

Read the original article at: http://stemwire.org/2013/07/15/more-than-just-play-game-based-learning-environments-are-powerful-tools-for-stem/

Article from STEMwire.org

More than just play: game-based learning environments are powerful tools for STEM

Patrick Stinnett, a technology education teacher at Oconomowoc High School, makes sure that students in his Elements of Game Design class understand one thing very quickly: it is not a class “where we just sit around and play video games.” Stinnett’s students use different software applications to test and design their own games.

His class represents a growing movement to recognize the entire gaming universe – from design to play to gamer culture – as a set of tools that could revolutionize educational practices.

Game-based learning environments

Traditionally, the games-for-learning concept has implied the use of games with education content to teach a specific skill or concept. Learning sciences researchers, however, have in recent years expanded the idea of what a “game-based environment” in learning can be.

“I define game-based learning fairly broadly… I think of an environment that offers a chance to either design or play a game that uses a lot of principles of game design that learning sciences talk about, but I see it as a little bit broader than just off the shelf or commercial games,” said Dr. Dani Herro, assistant professor of digital media and learning at Clemson University. “Anything that would be a game like experience, that offers challenge, a chance to design.”

Game-based environments can be implemented in different ways in STEM classrooms. Some teachers use individual programs like Gamestar Mechanic, teaching video game design in additional to their regular material. The Quest to Learn school in New York City, on the other hand, emphasizes an environment that uses principles of game design and game play to teach a normal standards-based curriculum. Emerging research indicates that these non-traditional ways of conveying content, and teaching skills like logic and design thinking, can be more effective than a traditional lecture setting.

“When you have an environment that’s a little more immersive, kids don’t stop, they don’t quit when something becomes challenging,” said Herro. “They push themselves to keep solving the problem because they want their [game] to work. I guess I’ve been so amazed at how hard a child will work.”

A unique medium to develop STEM skills

Stinnett sees this same work ethic in the students in his Elements of Game Design class. The subject matter of game design brings many STEM skills to his students.

“With the programming,” said Stinnett, “You’re going to have to have logic. You pick up technical skills, like using the computer, manipulating the computer. We use Google Docs so they know how to get on the Internet, do email, so they’re picking up those things.”

He adds that programming also brings important lessons in group work to his classroom.

“They know how to collaborate, because they’re going to work as groups, they do peer reviews on each others’ games… they’re learning to collaborate together and give suggestions,” says Stinnett.

Despite these advantages, many teachers avoid incorporating game-based activities or modules into their classes because of time constraints. If, for example, a teacher is not already comfortable with games, they might have to devote significant amounts of time to developing a meaningful lesson.

Strict, assessment-based curricular requirements might not leave room for creative lessons. But Stinnett thinks it is worth the effort.

“There’s no other medium that is like games. You don’t have any other medium where you’re engaged, where you can control the medium… You control the story, the sound, you control everything,” says Stinnett. “Teachers should keep in mind that it’s not just playing games. Somebody makes them, and that making is really where the STEM comes in. It’s designing them, it’s creating them, and that it’s a multibillion dollar industry. It touches everybody.”

Game play and culture can also teach STEM

Just as they do in classrooms like Stinnett’s, game environments outside of the classroom can build critical STEM skills. Dr. Sean Duncan, an assistant professor at Indiana University Bloomington, has studied more traditional, narrative-based gaming platforms such as World of Warcraft and Legend of Zelda to better understand science activities that occur in these spaces. Duncan hypothesized that STEM-like processes occurred in spaces around the games; specifically, he studied what happens when players discuss game activities and design in forums.

“We can identify model-based reasoning, see how they’re using math, see how they’re using arguments, using evidence,” said Duncan. “It dawned upon me that what they’re really doing is trying to figure out how to shape the design of the game. They’re trying to understand how the game works, but also induce the community to get the game redesigned in ways that they would prefer it to be. ”

Duncan thinks that the video game industry could work together with educators, researchers, and designers to actively encourage these kinds of non-formal learning communities.

“There’s a real interest in cultivating these kinds of communities,” said Duncan. “But haven’t been turned on to the fact that thinking about them as learning spaces could be very useful to them as well. So it’s really a matter of trying to triangulate. We have theories of learning, models of practice, and people who pay attention to everyday learning culture and also game design, and they’re not all taking to each other. Helping them all understand each others’ perspectives is where I’m at right now.”

Implementation will require buy-in from teachers

Teachers like Herro and Stinnett face significant obstacles in creating these kinds of learning environments in K-12 settings. Parents who don’t want their kids to just play games all day might seem like the hardest population to win over, but both Herro and Stinnett note that, given the opportunity to understand the educational potential of games, most parents support their use in classrooms. Some can relate games to their own learning experiences.

“I’ve had parents who will talk to me, if they’re a nurse, about how robotic heart surgery is similar to holding a joystick,” said Herro.

Stinnett notes the importance of having “a principal or somebody in the administration to really back [you]” in implementing game-based lessons, especially in convincing reluctant teachers to put time into a new way of teaching.

“You get teachers in the school who are like, ‘eh, it’s games’, and you have the older teachers who don’t believe in it, and don’t think it has any use in the school environment,” he said. “So having an administrator that gets it and understands what kids are learning from the games and how they design them is huge.”

Incorporating games, game design, and game-based environments into K-12 educational settings is just one piece of a growing movement to increase the use of technology in education. The ubiquity of games outside the classroom and the engagement that they create within it indicates that they could be powerful tools for engaging a new generation of students and teachers in STEM.

“There’s a faddishness to education technology… but the thing that’s a little bit different about games is that games were something the kids were already doing, something that the kids are going to be continuing to do as the median age of gamers just goes up and up,” said Duncan. “There’s a lot of value in just thinking about games as culture, as a part of a larger engagement in media in our daily lives… as less like a tool to fill a particular content role, and much more the persistent force in kids’ lives.”