Those who have read my blog or listened to my podcast for any length of time are no doubt aware that I'm a fan of using games as a conduit for learning.
I'm not talking about the "Educational Games" market, that will certainly dominate a large part of the Vendor area at this year's MSET (I'm presenting again, yay!), though some of those are good too. No, I'm talking about the games that kids (and adults) choose to play because of compelling content.
Don't think those games have educational value? Well I didn't think art would help me with my math skills either, but I've learned and retained more about measurement, geometry, fractions, and graphing from my years as a visual artist than I ever did in a traditional math classroom. True, the information wasn't crammed into me the same way in my art classes as it was in my math classes, but I think that was part of the problem.
An engaged student (of any age) is a learning student. Once that hook is in deep, it's the teacher's job to facilitate the learning. How the student gets engaged is the tricky part, but fortunately game companies have been working for years on churning out all kinds of games that people love to play. Why? Because failure there leads to bankruptcy unless you're making educational games and can convince people to buy your products anyway "because it's educational."
(Please note that is not a jab at all educational games. I have seen many good ones and use some of them in my classes, but I've seen enough bad ones to be somewhat spiteful that those products have neither improved or gone away.)
So ... games as a conduit for learning.
This is not an original idea of mine. There's some really cool people who are thinking the same thing. The problem, however, is that it's a new idea, and the realm of education is a slow, lumbering beast that learns new skills slowly. Many textbooks still say Pluto is a planet and that Bush is still President of the United States.
I'm not the first to think of using games more in my classes, but my work isn't even cut out for me. It's time to grab my scissors.
I started off three years ago in my last position by introducing select students to Sploder.com. Their age and other factors had us only use the free demo that did not allow for the work to be saved, but the results were promising. My students did not just design easy games or hard games, but instead set out to create a game that was just challenging enough to be fun. When they tested their games they evaluated the difficulty levels of their creations based on their own abilities, and added or removed monsters, power-ups, allies, and so on to make the game better from their own viewpoint.
Sure, some started off making a level they could win instantly, but they found that just wasn't fun after the first couple of plays. They weren't engaged until there was a challenge.
WoW In School
I sort of hovered around the "Sploder" level of expertise until late last school year when I learned about the World of Warcraft in School Program. Here were teachers using a commercially popular game to engage their kids and use it to teach mathematics, language arts (They're reading The Hobbit as a parallel assignment to in-game tasks), and internet safety.
I won't go so far as to say that Warcraft is the best choice for every classroom, or even one classroom per school, but the gains they've made in their program are noticeable and the comments from their detractors have clear and measured responses. (Example: Those against WoW in school because of the violent nature of the game have never seen a football player in high school require multiple surgeries on his knees after several in-game accidents.)
Be that as it may, I'm not quite ready to push for a Warcraft themed curriculum in my building. This is more from my wallflower-ish nature (and some legitimate budgeting concerns) than any argument I've seen against the program.
I first learned about Minecraft several months ago when a few videos made using the game went viral, but did not try the game for myself until one of my students started talking about it in class. I waited until the weekend, tried the free version, and within two hours had paid for the full version. On Monday I yelled at the student for getting me hooked on another video game.
I even made an effort to include Minecraft in some of my lessons, as I showed in a recent podcast. They were fledgling attempts to find out what would work, but the results were promising.
Now I've expanded my lessons around the game to include creating a "skin" for a Minecraft avatar and using other web based 3D editors to plan out what they intend to create in the game.
The Next Level: Make the Class a Game
This is my latest endeavor. I'll talk about this in Games in Education Part 2.