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UW gets $3M to explore educational gaming

Madison, Wis. - An education research team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison will receive $3 million from the MacArthur Foundation to study the impact of digital media on youth culture, learning, and literacy.

MacArthur's total $50 million investment will support 24 national studies of different aspects of the digital revolution and its educational and societal implications.

"What MacArthur is actually trying to do, with this grant to us, is establish the field of video games and learning," said James Paul Gee, principal investigator in the UW-Madison project.

"It's a new field," Gee said, "We will do the research to establish what the key issues, topics, and approaches in the field ought to be, and the implementation of new programs."

An emerging field
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A MacArthur report found that 83 percent of young people between ages eight and 18 play video games regularly, and nearly 75 percent use instant messaging. Some educators believe that digital technology and video games - because they put players into simulated worlds where the application of knowledge is central to success - could be developed into powerful tools for cultivating problem-solving skills, creativity, and professional or technical skills.

One of the central goals of Gee's group is to demonstrate how and why video game technology might work in an educational setting.

"Certainly policy-makers, educators, and the government are taking this quite seriously," Gee said, "especially because we need to get our kids doing more innovation and creativity and less skill-and-drill if we're going to be competitive in the world.

"The core message of our work is that young people today are producing knowledge, not just consuming knowledge, through the use of technology," Gee added. "In fact, some of the knowledge students are acquiring outside of school can have greater value and relevance than what they're learning in the classroom."

A multiplicity of approaches

At UW-Madison, the Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Laboratory is working with the Games and Professional Practice Simulations group to study and develop e-learning systems through a variety of projects. The ADL team, comprised of seven teachers from three different departments in the School of Education, has been exploring this topic for the past five years.

For instance, Kurt Squire, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction, is leading projects on how to integrate games into classrooms with popular and complex historical strategy games like Civilization III, which teaches children how to create games about their local neighborhoods and environment.

One MacArthur project, funded for $1.2 million, is a partnership between ADL and the New York game publisher GameLab to develop software platforms that allow students to build their own computer games.

"The UW-Madison group has a particular focus on gaming," Squire said. "Video games are the medium of the computer - and the technology of choice for the millenial generation. They are having an impact on business, the military, entertainment, and now finally education."

David Shaffer, assistant professor of education psychology, studies the development of "epistemic games" like Sim City, which are new types of complex software games that can simulate different professional responsibilities, such as those of engineers, scientists, or urban planners.

Constance Steinkuehler, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction, researches how game users develop complex societies online and navigate "massive multiplayer" online worlds, or MMOs.

Richard Halverson, an assistant professor in educational leadership and policy analysis, is building new multimedia tools to communicate new ideas in the world of educational leadership.

Elizabeth Hayes, a professor of curriculum and instruction, is investigating gender learning and ways to keep young girls interested and engaged in technology past the middle school level, when interest declines dramatically.

"What MacArthur is interested in is how all of those fit together to create a bigger picture of what the possibilities are in this area," said Gee, who authored the books What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy and Why Video Games Are Good for Your Soul.

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