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Gaming technologies alter classroom, textbook models

Madison, Wis. - Educators and video-game developers gathered last week in Madison to explore how learning technologies can alter traditional classroom and textbook education models, which speakers agreed early e-learning projects failed to achieve.

The first annual Games+Learning+Society conference was sponsored by Games And Professional Practice Simulations, a joint project of the Advanced Academic Distributed Learning (ADL) Co-Lab and a group of instructors at the UW-Madison School of Education.

"I think...we're beginning to see the era of collective intelligence. We're now moving our focus on the individual to the community, to the collective," said John Seely Brown, a professor at the University of Southern California and former director of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. "And the whole catch is how do we harness the capability of the collective to solve fundamentally new problems, to be able to build on each other's kind of partial understandings to construct the best idea around.

"The whole dream of e-learning kind of failed because in some ways it was just doing more of the same thing, which is just chalk and talk, but put it online," said UW-Madison Professor Constance Steinkuehler, a co-chair of the conference. "And now what's happening is we're saying, no, technology fundamentally changes how you do everything."

Steinkuehler said the UW is well positioned to be at the forefront of new advances in education, as it is one of only six universities to conduct a comprehensive program on the uses of gaming in learning and pedagogy.
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Simulation and immersion

The foundation of understanding games as a learning process in many ways starts with basic simulations. Jason Robar, a consultant and developer for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, discussed the use of simulations in the military to build experience and therefore reduce casualties, mentioning a veteran soldier who "died" in a game because he was scanning the ground for danger when the real threat was a sniper located far above. "I'd much rather he learned that lesson in a game than in real life."

The games go beyond mere simulation, however, and into total immersion in an environment and a different psychological approach. UW-Madison professor James Gee explained how games represent a totally different kind of learning, one in which the player is immediately transported into an alternate identity and set to performing the tasks associated with that identity, as opposed to traditional pedagogy where students learn background information through extensive study rather than on the fly.

Gee said the education process must be based around the principles of games, of building identities and then approaching the lessons through real practices. According to Gee, schools of the future will "realize there's so much more information out of the room than in it that learning will be much more in-time and on-demand, done in small collaborative groups that come together for certain purposes, and done not just in the room but out of the room."

One example was that of Maya Kadakia, a teacher at Cherokee Heights Middle School in Madison. Kadakia used a role-playing game to get students discussing moral and ethical choices, such as what circumstances could justify theft or dishonesty.

"These were all issues that they came up with as we were talking about it," Kadakia said. "I did not lead them in a particular direction for the discussion, I just said `how is the game similar or different to reality?'"

Online communities and medicine

One focus of the conference was on massively multiplayer online role-playing games, or MMORPGs, and other online communities. James Cook of the Second Life online community discussed how the collective creativity of Second Life members led to the creation by users of such sections as an online simulation of schizophrenic hallucinations or an "island" where people with Asperger's syndrome, a highly-functional form of autism, could congregate and construct proper social rules.

"You don't actually have to be an employee of the company to make interesting things," Cook said.

One attendee, Frederick Kron of the UW-Madison Department of Family Medicine, saw great potential in gaming to reduce the costs associated with medical error and miscommunication, overcoming what he saw as problems in the system from learning based off of texts.

"Unfortunately, all the knowledge and the facts constitute about 50 percent of what you really need and practice. The art of medicine either is not addressed or is addressed in an inconsistent way that can't ever be validated."

To further this, the UW is exploring the creation of an MMORPG based around doctor-patient interaction, providing a model of the human level of medicine to students and the medical community in Wisconsin and possibly the whole country down the road.

An entirely new direction

One of the more radical ideas offered was that of Marc Prensky, CEO of New York-based Games2Train. Prensky argued that many of the more mechanical tasks of teaching like assignment generation and basic teaching and even more advanced areas of individual attention could be off-loaded to computers and games through more advanced algorithms and interface design.

More than one person in attendance took issue with Prensky, however, and with the full ramifications of taking his arguments to their more extreme conclusions. University of Chicago-Illinois computer science professor Tom Moher asserted that as far as technology can go teachers will always be important as guides independent of content, and game-designers will not be able to fully understand and apply the science of learning.

"They [teachers] have expertise that I don't have in terms of understanding kids' prior knowledge and in terms of understanding the trajectories that take kids from their current state of knowledge to a new state of knowledge."

While there are questions over where technology will go in education, all in attendance agreed that technology opens up new avenues for students to explore on their own. Jay Lemke, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Education, spoke of the need to diversify the curriculum and the approaches for individual students and then see the group form, rather than impose strict standards.

"It's basically a lost hope to say everybody in the universe should know the same 200 things, at least beyond the fourth grade," he said.

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Eric Kleefeld is a writer for WTN based in Madison. He can be reached at eric@wistechnology.com.

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