Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Unorthodox uses of Games in Education

Some people are under the impression that games based learning refers simply to course materials being somehow re-worked into a game.  However, this is not the case.  Games based learning is essentially the gamification of learning (using gaming principles to aid learning).  This is not limited to traditional subject materials, but can be used to teach people any number of things.  Yes, it can be used to help teach vocabulary and algebra very successfully.  However, it can also be used to teach life skills and enable people to learn how to learn and think for themselves.  It can also encourage other features such as teamwork and good communication skills.  And of course, games based learning is not limited to children!  

Image courtesy of the threesisters on flickr 

These are some of the ways that people are using games to teach a wide number of things to people around the world that you may not immediately have thought of:

Second Life
Second life is a virtual online world.  You create an avatar which can interact with people and explore the world.  As this article explains, the game has been successfully used to teach languages (through tutorials, texts, links and online learning groups), train medical students (through discussions, images, videos, patient stories and weblinks) and even to teach genetics and genomics!  Jean-Claude Bradley (a professor and user of Second Life for education) argues that “With the growing popularity of gaming, we anticipate that more students and faculty will use virtual platforms like ‘Second Life’ to extend the education experience. On this platform — where anything is possible — the Library gets to explore new ways of supporting academic programs, research and student learning, limited only by the scope of the imagination.”  The article lists Harvard, Stanford and MIT as users of Second Life. 

Money Island
Another virtual online world type game is Money Island, aimed at people under the age of 21.  Money Island teaches students about financial responsibility, as this article explains.  The students learn how the economy works, about saving and spending, earning and investing, interest, using credit wisely and so on.  The game also features tools for teachers and parents to track their child’s progress and detailed lesson plans.  As a young person myself (20), I feel that financial matters were lacking from my formal education and believe this game would be a welcome addition to the curriculum (and might create a more reliable generation of bankers and investors etc).

I am personally not too familiar with Minecraft, but as this article explains, “ it's a sandbox style game where users can mine for resources, create buildings, fight off monsters, and use their skills in crafting to make weapons, armour, tools for harvesting, and even rollercoaster-like mine carts”.  There is lots of material on the internet about Minecraft being used in schools.  The article afore mentioned talks about children learning skills such as prioritising, efficiency, developing strategies, digital citizenship and the value of hard work.  These are all obviously very important skills and are the types of benefits of games based learning which I am trying to convey in this post.  School shouldn’t be about just teaching children Maths, English, Science etc, surely it should be developing the next generation of adults.  This blog contains a very detailed lesson plan based around Minecraft, which states that the two learning outcomes are to “Apply knowledge of 3 dimensional landscapes to construct a digital landscape and community [and] Collaborate with classmates to plan and create a digital community”.

Angry Birds
Yes, you did read that right.  There are some genius teachers who have found a way to make Angry Birds educational and this lesson in particular looks great!  For those of you have escaped the wonders of Angry Birds, you essentially work your way through a number of levels where you catapult birds which have different special qualities at structures in order to destroy pigs which stole the birds’ eggs at the start of the game.  Yes, this game exists and yes, it can be educational.  This teacher designed a transdisciplinary lesson around the game including maths (velocity, trajectory, angles etc), history (history of the catapult, modern day uses of the technology) and even music and art (the culture of the time around the invention of the catapult).  Children played the game on an ipad, but also built their own catapults and played the game in real life.  All the while, the teachers asked the children questions such as “What makes the catapult more accurate?”, “What are some forces that act on objects in motion?”, “What happens when the arm of a lever is shortened or the load is moved?” and “How do we calculate motion?”.  Genius!  I don’t think I need to say anything else about this one.

Kinect for XBox
The Kinect device, which is basically a webcam which tracks your movements and projects them onto an onscreen avatar, has had huge unexpected success for children on the Autistic Spectrum.  This article explains how the children can do with the help of Kinect what it would have taken them months to do in intensive therapy.  The games work in helping children interact socially with others as the games are “more predictable and less threatening than real life”.  Several games specifically for children with Autism have now been developed.  This article describes similar results with the Nintendo Wii.

And finally…

Nerf Guns 
Have you ever wondered whether it is possible to teach maths with Nerf guns?  Well apparently the answer is yes; yes it is!  This blog shows you how to teach maths and more specifically ‘coordinate graphing’ with Nerf guns.

As you can see, there is a world of games based learning out there and it may take on less conventional forms that one might first imagine.  Games are being embraced to teach life skills, motor skills, communication skills, subject based skills and so on successfully to a wide range of people, in a fun way!  Games based learning may be the way forward and as this article argues, virtual learning may in fact be better than traditional ‘experiential’ learning.

However, having said this, these commercial games may not be perfectly suited to learning.  They largely rely on great teachers developing great lesson plans and crowbarring them somewhat into the curriculum.  This may just be an indication that games based learning is in the early adopter phase and as such, teachers are finding unorthodox answers to their problem.  They want to use games, but the only ones available to them are commercial games or curriculum ‘games’ which do not have the same edge.  An earlier blog post  talks about the uses of games in educational settings and how commercial games can fall short.  It also suggests ways that purpose built games can overcome these factors.  It’s definitely worth a look!  This article talks about what makes a good learning game.  The author notes that if someone can score highly without learning, they will do (which may happen with commercial games) and as such, learning games should contain certain elements.  I think that as games based learning becomes more prevalent, we are likely to see more purpose built games of a similar calibre to some of these commercial games becoming more mainstream.

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  1. This is a great summary. Thanks!

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