19 Jun Gaming conference explores interactive media in learning
Madison, Wis. – Between the “leetspeak” of chat rooms and instant messaging, the jargon of programmers, and an infinite library of obscure game-related terms and rules, it’s readily apparent that devotees of computer games speak their own language.
What’s less apparent is the possibility that this language may be vital to the future of education.
This possibility was the topic of a symposium that kicked off the second annual Games, Learning, and Society Conference of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where researchers studied how the media landscape is evolving to a new, active level, and how gaming could thrive in that landscape.
James Gee, a professor of education at UW-Madison, said the new culture of media – encouraged by the growth of blogs and wikis – is one in which the mindset is no longer to consume media but to produce it. There is a new drive to integrate all topics, even science and art, and operate on a plane where “vocabularies are all married to each other.”
“The problem is they [consumers] are so cynical about media they don’t believe any message,” Gee said. “In the end, they’re not very cynical at all about their own participation.”
The traditional view is that media literacy is separate from academic literacy, but the culture of education is far behind the existing technologies in the media world. Core concepts of science such as system analysis and counter arguments have been forgotten in favor of rote memorization, leaving many students frustrated and their learning incomplete.
“The whole idea is that science is not a bunch of facts, not a bunch of questions on a multiple choice test – it is a way of reasoning about the world,” said Constance Steinkuehler, assistant professor of education UW-Madison.
Within this traditional framework, education is suffering, according to UW-Madison education professor Elizabeth Hayes. From 2001 to 2005, there was a 42 percent decline in undergraduates majoring in computer science. Students are not getting the opportunity to participate to the level they would like, which Hayes said is leading to a growing gap between sophisticated positions and people prepared to fill them.
The new scientific community
Traditional education may not encourage the trends of new media and reasoning, but in the world of Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games such as “Lineage” and “World of Warcraft,” those skills are not only present but prevalent.
Steinkuehler, in a study of message board posts for “World of Warcraft,” observed that 89 percent of posts exhibit characteristics of social knowledge construction, 67 percent build on others’ ideas, and 48 percent use counter arguments – all of which are scientific discursive practices. Using their past experiences and multiple tests, players were working through the game’s quests in a collaborative effort that seldom takes place in traditional classrooms.
“The average person does not do things like provide counter arguments, [or] leverage mathematical data to provide a claim,” Steinkuehler said. “The [MMO] community gets together, they solve a problem, and that solution gets used elsewhere.”
Not only are gamers using scientific reasoning to go through their quests, they are interacting heavily with the system and modifying it for their own needs. Players can create potential quests and items to be downloaded by their peers and, depending on feedback, they can roll out new versions with relative ease.
Hayes said while the practice of modifying the game is not simple, the interest level is stunning compared to traditional education. “Gamers want to rebuild the entire world piece by piece,” Hayes said. “How come you have kids like that doing all that work, while on the other hand you have kids saying ‘computer science is boring and I don’t want to do this?'”
The speakers said this level of interest on the part of gamers, combined with the benefits of interactivity, make electronic games a valuable tool in the education world. However, gaming has to overcome several hurdles to make it into the mainstream. Chief among them are the educators, themselves, who come from a completely different media perspective and find the new technology incompatible with existing methods.
This prejudice will have to be overcome, Gee said, especially because games are replacing education as the most complex language students know. This is a fact the education community must come to grips with – and soon. “The single most important variable is not learning phonics, it’s the child’s ability to handle complex oral and written language – the technical language you don’t speak in bars and you don’t speak in the corridors,” Gee said.
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