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GameDesk Opens New Game-Based School

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By Andrew Miller

GameDesk, an organization that's developing a variety of game-based learning initiatives, is venturing into new terrain with the opening of a new school and the development of new digital tools, with millions of dollars in funding from both the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and AT&T.

The PlayMaker School, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, will open in Los Angeles on September 7, with 60 students in 6th grade, and will operate as a "school within a school" at New Roads, an independent middle school.

Like Quest to Learn, the game-based school in New York, PlayMaker will incorporate principles of game-based learning into the entire instructional model, but with an additional focus on making and discovering. The goal is to engage students in both high-tech and low-tech games and modular, instructional activities. Individual students will work with an “Adventure Map” that will guide them to choose their own path, allowing for students to control how they learn and when they learn it. These modules will be not only individual tasks, but will also include group work. In a unit on kinetic and potential energy, for example, students will watch videos, play games, create digital roller-coasters, and create real-life models.

With ongoing formative assessments tied not only to the Common Core, but also practical digital skills, collaboration, critical thinking, and social emotion learning principles, the focus is meant to go beyond traditional schooling goals. Instruction will focus on providing context for the content, whereby students understand the relevance of what they're learning. Teachers will play the roles of questioners, facilitators, and reflective agents.

More information will soon be released about the specifics of the program.



Lucien Vattel, the executive director of GameDesk, said he wants to scale the company's tools and learning models to schools and other groups across the country. To that end, the company received $3.8 million from AT&T to fund two new initiatives: a learning laboratory called Learning Center, which will include a "classroom of the future" where new digital tools will be developed, tested, evaluated, and aligned with academic standards; and free access to an online portal of digital learning content, as well as support for teachers to learn how to integrate it.

"We see this as being a clearing house for all the best work in this space and we want the entire education community to contribute content to the site, from the professional developer, to the educator in Kansas, to the creative and tenacious parents and kids at home,” Vattel said.



As part of the professional development for the PlayMaker School, GameDesk also initiated a collaborative called DreamLab focused on not only creating many of the GameDesk’s projects, but also how to implement and sustain them. Instead of simply creating and implementing, however, they design in collaboration with student and teachers, to ensure that real needs are being met well.

Although still in its infancy as a component of GameDesk’s work, DreamLab hopes to provide professional development for teachers on site. In addition, they hope to build a portal where teachers can collaborate on lesson design and share their ideas for implementing the games in the classroom. In the past months as they prepared for the new school opening, new teachers received intensive professional development, learned to design games, played games, and understood the pedagogical principles around using games for learning.


GameDesk is also creating and collaborating on games that target the Common Core standards. Mathmaker, which GameDesk created, is focused on having students take on the roles of engineers to learn math concepts. This game, as well as others, is directed at amplifying STEM curriculum, and is being piloting and used in large urban high schools.

GameDesk also uses another math-focused game called Motion Math In-Class, created by the team at Stanford University Learning, Design and Technology Program, which is part of its math curriculum. This interactive iPad app helps students learn fractions, proportions and percentages.

Another unique game is Dojo, which uses play and biometrics to work on emotion regulation (not to be confused with Class Dojo, which helps teachers with classroom management). So far, it has been used successfully with diverse populations and even youth within or exiting the juvenile justice system. Players experience real-life challenges that test their emotions, but also gives them strategies and feedback on how to overcome these challenges.

More to come, as GameDesk continues to grow.

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