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Video game learning has no traction in K-12

Madison, Wis. - The mission to reform traditional education, promote innovative thinking, and prepare students for the globalized, high-tech economies of the future is expanding into virtual worlds.

Someday, the curriculum for physics, history, engineering, or management classes could be delivered through computerized simulations, an idea that some members of the MySpace Generation are well suited to embrace.

Complex, immersive games like Rise of Nations, Civilization III, and Black and White II are being juxtaposed with classic pedagogical games like Reader Rabbit, Sim City, and Oregon Trail as researchers investigate ways to develop compelling learning environments on computer screens and in online communities.

But is it realistic to expect educators to adopt video games in the classroom anytime soon?

According to Kurt Squire, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Games and Professional Practice Simulations group, the answer is a qualified yes.
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“It's not going to replace print resources or teachers, but my gut says you'll have multiple formats, one of which might be where classes will be entirely game-like,” Squire said. “A good game, if it is brought into a class wholesale, will tend to get everyone excited.”

Digital education research

In some places of higher learning, educational video games already have made inroads into classical education. At the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, economics professor Jeff Sarbaum teaches his microeconomics course, worth three college credits, in the form of an online video game where students take on the role of Sarbonian aliens trying to master the “economics of survival.”

This class and efforts like it create educational games for the classroom, and develop authentic video games for professional development, but they are still scattered and marginal within the educational community even though research in the field is moving beyond its infancy.

Working to understand the fundamentals behind digital learning are groups like the Serious Games Initiative, a project founded at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C., and Education Arcade, a partnership of game designers, publishers, scholars, educators, and policy makers from the Comparative Media Studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and UW-Madison.

“While e-learning has a reputation for being dull and ineffective, games have developed a reputation for being fun, engaging, and immersive, requiring deep thinking and complex problem solving,” Squire writes in a paper for the Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Lab, a collaboration to expand the understanding of academic tools established by the U.S. Department of Defense, UW-Madison, and the Wisconsin Technical College System.

Research is one thing, but coaxing modern educational systems to adopt curriculum built on the ideas that make computer games and simulations good candidates for instruction is another matter entirely.

Contemporary digital learning

Steve Sanders, director of the instructional media and technology team at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, said he supports the goals behind researchers like Gee and Squire, but simply making computers and Internet connections available to schools in the state has been a more immediate goal.

“I'm excited about the possibility, but real video games of the same quality available commercially are not available in classrooms,” said Sanders, who noted that 97 percent of the classrooms in the state have Internet access. “I sometimes joke that one of the few places where you can go and still see desks without computers on them is schools.”

Squire said elements of the current social-political climate, with a back-to-basics movement driving federal policy, makes it difficult to predict how likely educational gaming initiatives are to flourish.

“Within that agenda, it will be really hard to get a game going,” Squire said.

However, direct instructional tools designed to teach advanced content are likely to gain traction.

“There is a real interest starting to build up behind creativity and innovation - the ability to reason with data and make, say, complex arguments - that games tend to do pretty well,” he added. “But at least for now, it's very decentralized. I think it will continue to grow, but it's really hard for me to see a day anytime soon where you'll have [school] districts really embracing this full on.”

Next generation vision

Squire anticipates that an entire generational shift will be required before educational gaming gains widespread adoption, but pockets of innovation will continue. Geographically distributed virtual schools, alternative schools, home schools, and certain classrooms in higher education are particularly suited for innovations, he said.

The out-of-school market, including after-school programs, summer school, and parent buying, could drive commercial demand for successful virtual tools, Squire added. Another possibility would be a distributed learning, online game-based experience targeted toward advanced placement students with credit opportunities designed by standardized testing companies.

“If they can get you playing a game for, say, 50 hours outside of class because it's fun, that would be better than, say, 20 hours that you did just because you had to, and was like you were pulling teeth,” Squire said.

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