games, learning, & a ghost

I spent most of last week at the 8th annual (“8.0”) Games, Learning, & Society conference at University of Wisconsin Madison.  Attendance –  educators, researchers, game developers, geeks – set a record, and the energy was palpable.  But I think I sensed, hovering over the elegant rooms of UW’s Memorial Union, the ghost of Adam Osborne.

Osborne, who died in 2003,  introduced the world’s first portable computer in 1981.  Also among the first to demonstrate the high mortality rate of innovative tech companies, he went from $70 million in annual sales to bankruptcy less than 2 years later. But he changed the world in the process, and along the way, he demonstrated keen insights into how new technologies are really adopted.

Osborne commented once on the ’80s vision of the “smart home”: a house where all systems (heat, lighting, security, etc.) would be controlled by a central home computer.  Nonsense, he retorted.  The many home appliances using electric motors, he pointed out, are not all powered by belts running to one big motor in the middle of the living room.  Instead, each appliance has its own motor specially designed for its task.  Osborne predicted that smart appliances would house small specialized computers.  “The future lies in designing and selling computers that people don’t realize are computers at all,” he told Time magazine in 1983.   And he was right: that’s how the world became “digital.”  There were signs at GLS 8.0 pointing to a similar future for educational gaming.

Most in the gaming space would assert that games, or a gamelike environment, provide advantages over traditional learning or teaching approaches.  But few would maintain that all learning can be a game.  Even those calling for a total revolution in the structure of school (see Disrupting Class) hesitate to predict total “gamification” as the way to get there.  But games  and gamelike simulations are popping up in many corners of schools.

Attendee BrainPOP, whose animations are widely used as interventions and supplemental materials in math, science, social studies, and elsewhere, is adding more pure games to their offering, including “You Make Me Sick” (a primer on contagious disease) from fellow attendee Filament Games.  Filament itself recently received innovation awards at the SIIA’s annual education conference in San Francisco, thanks to programs like their Game-Enhanced Interactive Science series.  And from the smallest to the largest: Microsoft was in attendance with a number of initiatives, such as its Kodu game programming language that teaches kids how to create games – and the skills of planning, reasoning, design, and attention to detail which are integral to successful game development.

Games are also coming in through the back door, as it were, in the form of assessments.  New standards like Common Core, which call for increased emphasis on performance and reasoning skills, may be best assessed by having students make decisions in structured, hands-on situations – which is another way to say “games.”  And even games not explicitly intended as assessments can generate reams of data on student behaviors and competencies; several groups of researchers are plumbing those data to learn how to extract reliable measurements.

Some of the most practical commentary at GLS came, as one might expect, from an actual K-12 practitioner.  Jeremiah McCall, who with a PhD in Ancient History is not your stereotype of a gaming geek, has taught high school history for 12 years and believes strongly in the use – the proper use – of games.  His keynote presentation constituted a report from the trenches on teaching with games.  He started by demolishing several “myths” about educational games, including:

  1. All students love them [actually some prefer lectures and papers]
  2. Students learn to play games effortlessly [in this like all things, the teacher has to work for results]
  3. Games do the teaching [Jeremiah is in constant motion during classroom periods:  checking for challenges, probing for insights, encouraging reflection on learning]
  4. It’s all about fun and play [games can be hard work, like all learning]

Jeremiah made a number of other excellent points about game-based learning, of which I’ll select two.  One is that some learning objectives lend themselves to games much more than others.  There is a place for learning facts, linear procedures, precision, and single outcomes.  Such material is better learned conventionally.  But a game (or simulation) may be the best tool if the objective is to learn to make meaningful choices, practice procedures, test alternatives, or experience varied outcomes.

And to that last point, another key aspect of true games: they embrace failure.  Failure, even repeated failure, must be possible or it’s not a game.  But for optimal learning, failure must be non-devastating, instructive. and surmountable.  The role of the game designer and the teacher is to help the learner find the learning and the path to success from the experience.  Good games seem to offer free choices, says Jeremiah, but elaborate structure and constraints are hidden behind the scenes, and that’s crucial to a successful experience.

Games and learning.  Games as learning.  Games as learning experiences aimed at goals.  The possibilities are multiplying in a way I think Adam Osborne would appreciate.

Mike Baum
Sophia Consulting LLC

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About mhbaumk12

Mike Baum has 40 years of experience with all types of direct marketing, has run several companies, spent 25 years as a consultant in franchising and in K-12 education, and currently helps companies find solutions to growth challenges.
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5 Responses to games, learning, & a ghost

  1. Dr. Hot says:

    A great review of GLS 8.0. One of the key points of this post and GLS is that “fit” is vitally important. Technology for the sake of technology and gamification without purpose or fit is generally doomed to failure.

  2. Robert Clegg says:

    McCall fails to warn of the Guide on the Side fallacy. He describes a classroom where he is able to walk from student to student engaged in a game. But imagine a fantasy football game sponsored by the NFL in a math class. If the teacher doesn’t know anything about football, how will she be able to answer strategic questions? Imagine an advanced game about railroading teaching kids about networks and traffic movement. How many of you reading this right now know anything about railroads? Do you know how, when, or why to classify cars? Do you know what tracks to use, what engine power or priorities to assign? How will you answer a child’s question in context? Just a few rich, highly engaging and complex environments would require teachers to have to spend hours and hours in a number of games. This won’t happen.

    The result being that while kids are playing at the computer, the teacher will not know how to help the students or understand the complex content and context from which the questions arise. She is then no longer accountable for what is happening in the classroom. And this accountability structure can’t be maintained in a school.

    This even happens with just one game in which the teacher is not particularly interested or adept. In very short time the student is embedded in challenges that require prior knowledge and context. The result, the game is relegated to the “lab” or done as a fun Friday activity.

    The Guide on the Side is a fallacy and is highly problematic for schools.

    • mhbaumk12 says:

      Robert’s comments carry the weight of coming from a noted veteran innovator in serious gaming, but I think he’s a little hard on Jeremiah McCall. I don’t think Jeremiah ever uses a game he hasn’t played extensively himself. And his games are selected to illustrate, and give kids hands-on experience with, concepts he has covered in class. Accountability is one of the reasons he doesn’t just let kids go off by themselves with their games but incorporates them into structured parts of his class day. Admittedly he teaches in a private school and this model might not work as well in other environments, but I’ve seen him in action and I think he keeps pretty good tabs on what’s going on.

      Robert makes a broader point, though, about pedagogy and how directive a teacher should be. It’s a perpetual debate going back at least to Rousseau, and probably Socrates. In the past couple years I’ve gained a tiny new amount of insight by watching my wife get training in Montessori techniques. Maria Montessori might be termed the mother of discovery learning, and yet when you really study the techniques you see that the exploratory environments created for the kids have to be structured extremely carefully, with huge amounts of forethought, to ensure that the kids will come out of the experience with specific learnings. It’s like any lesson planning: Much of the hard work is upfront, and during the lesson you have to include ways of keeping tabs on things to make sure it’s unfolding as planned. Jeremiah actually made a similar point about educational gaming in his presentation. He said (paraphrasing) games provide an environment that looks free and unstructured (at least compared to traditional lessons) but much of this freedom is an illusion since what players can actually do is informed by the deep structure of the game.

      • Robert Clegg says:

        It sounds like Jeremiah is doing an amazing job in his classroom. I just meant that a) only a select few will take the additional time to play games at the level he has, and b) when we actually have a choice of games to use, the “guide on the side” paradigm fails.

        Jeremiah is an exceptional exception to the rule.

        It is the outdated bureaucratic model of teacher accountability that will be the bottleneck stopping innovation.

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