Game On

One of the most interesting investments that I’ve made was a grant to Zoran Popovic ́ a young professor at the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science. He is the creator of Foldit, a puzzle-solving, scientific computer game in which users design proteins that can help prevent or treat serious diseases. In fact, Foldit players are currently tackling the Ebola challenge.

Popovic ́ was asked to develop an algebra game that had all the great qualities of Foldit (engagement and learning) and make more transparent to teachers what their kids were learning where they were stuck.

Working with the nonprofit Engaged Learning, Foldit turned one of its algebra games into an adaptive challenge so that real-time data and curriculum could be used to truly personalize the learning for each student. Challenges across Washington, Minnesota and even Norway are resulting in 95 percent of students reaching mastery of 7th grade linear equations—even by 1st graders and all under two hours.

But more students won’t get the opportunity to learn this way if their teachers aren’t taking advantage of all that digital games have to offer.

This week the Games and Learning Publishing Council, a project of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, is releasing “Level Up Learning: A National Survey on Teaching With Digital Games.” The report tells us which teachers are using digital learning games with their students, how they are using them, and the challenges they are facing. In videos on its website, the Council is also featuring five video case studies showing how games are also changing the way teachers learn.

The national survey shows that almost three quarters of K-8 teachers are using digital games in the classroom, and half of them do so on a weekly basis. Younger teachers and those who play digital games themselves are more likely to use them in the classroom. Games are also more common in schools serving low-income students.

Games are leading to improvement in their students’ skills—particularly math—the teachers report, but the survey also shows that finding games aligned to the curriculum is a struggle. For now, teachers are largely teaching themselves and leaning on each other for ideas on how to use digital games, suggesting that many might not know about the full range of instructional strategies possible as well as the resources available to them.

learningOne of the critical statements in the repot is that teachers need support to use games well in their classrooms. If more teachers are going to move in the direction of using digital games, they need adequate preparation—both as part of their pre-service training as well as through ongoing professional development.

As one teacher told us: “Teachers have never had as many tools to increase student engagement or share ideas on practice as they do today. Innovative educators are using these new techniques and tools to give students a voice, allowing them to take center stage in their education.”  But, the teacher continued: “Teachers need time to adapt—and training on new technology—in order to lead the transition to the learner-centered classroom of the future.”

This week’s report recommends the creation of a framework for describing and evaluating learning games so teachers can find what best fits the needs of their students. Online training resources should also be promoted because few teachers even know they exist.

The potential to improve student learning of basic as well as more complex skills through games is great. Let’s give teachers the tools to take advantage of these exciting opportunities.

– C.