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Teachers, Students, Digital Games: What's the Right Mix?

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By Holly Korbey

When St. Louis fifth-grade teacher Jenny Kavanaugh teaches history, she uses her laptop to look at a map, or to give kids a virtual tour of the historical landmarks they're studying. “Students can interact with history in very cool ways online,” she said.

But when it’s time for math, she puts the computer away. Even though Kavanaugh thinks technology is a great tool to enhance and deepen certain lessons, for drill and practice of key concepts in class, she finds one-on-one practice to be much more effective than its technological equivalent - digital practice games.

“The goal is that a student can do division problems with speed and accuracy, and can also describe to me exactly what division is," she said. "I have found that my advanced students can move past division of fractions in the online game, indicating mastery, but when I ask for a verbal description of what it is they are really doing – what is the division of fractions, or when would you use that in the real world? – they have no idea. I think that the rote practice is wasted time if the student does not have that conceptual understanding first. Many online games do not teach that part of math as well.”

While experts like Gary Stager, founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge Summer Institute, recommend that computers be used to add “deep and meaningful experiences” to teachers’ lessons, much of what the 91percent of teachers with access to computers are doing may be just the opposite.

According to a recent teacher survey conducted by PBS, 43 percent of classroom computing goes to playing educational digital games, while a Joan Ganz Cooney study showed that nearly 50 percent of teachers use digital games in class. But with nearly half of all classroom computer time dedicated to games -- many of which are played to reinforce basic skills like phonics, spelling or multiplication tables -- some teachers are wondering if games really are innovative techniques used to enhance student learning. Or are they just flashy, colorful ways of dishing out more of the same?


While Kavanaugh encourages online games for students’ home practice, especially for math, in the classroom she thinks that old-fashioned interaction between humans makes for deeper understanding. She says, in her experience, kids are learning more math from hands-on activities than computers. “What they truly love is to get out of their desks and act things out,” she said. “I think many technological learning tools seem to bring do I say this?...a backseat way of thinking from my students. Part of their brains seem to disconnect."

Kavanaugh observes that when her students are up doing an activity or engaging in serious problem-solving, they're much more proactive and aggressive with their learning, and with the things they produce. "Imagine the difference between a student who's playing an online math video game and a student who's sitting in a small group with a teacher, working out problems and receiving immediate, individualized feedback and guidance," she said. "There is no comparison.”

When comparing digital learning games to teacher instruction, the first thing to realize, said Marc Prensky, author of Teaching Digital Natives, is that not all games are created equally. “Games, like teachers, come in a wide variety of ‘goodness.’ Unfortunately, most games are not good. In fact, most are bad, often drill in disguise.” The second, Prensky pointed out, is that teachers may not necessarily know how to use games in classrooms most effectively. “There are many ways to do this [use games effectively], but letting kids sit and play games individually is not one of them. The best, complex games require specialized teacher knowledge, interest and skills to use effectively.”

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Prensky said another question teachers need to ask when looking at using online games in class is what they want students to get good at. For teaching curriculum, he said, there are very few games that do it well. “This is partly because games lend themselves to skills rather than stuff, and the curriculum is mostly about stuff. In games, ‘stuff’ is learned—as it is in life outside school— mostly incidentally, as background to achieving goals. So, for example, l know that the capital of Sri Lanka is Colombo because I chased Carmen Sandiego there.”


One game that holds the promise of achieving all the complex goals educators is SimCityEDU, the learning version of the popular city-management game due to be released in the fall of this year. Michael John, Game Director for GlassLab, the nonprofit creating the game, said that, in reality, most practice games are not that fun or interesting for kids. “I would say that most of the drill-type games I have seen and played have fallen very far toward the Tetris end of the spectrum. They're repetitive, self-similar, and to be honest, pretty dull.”


But as a learning game, SimCityEDU wants to offer much more than drill -- student players will be assessing data, interpreting information, taking documentation, and like many complex games, will have the ability to level-up when certain skills are mastered. The game has the ability to make formative assessments along the way that are also aligned with Common Core State Standards; teachers can use an online tool to see whether children have mastered the necessary skills.

It’s the ability to gather such specific data, says Nashville elementary educator and ed tech writer Dan Nemes, that makes online learning games so helpful, even the drill-and-practice kind. As far as being innovative on the learning front, Nemes questions whether a computer game can really replace a great teacher, but acknowledges that not all children have access to a great teacher.

“That question of environment is the real kicker," Nemes said. "Ed Tech provides access. That can't be argued. Many of the folks who are developing programs to help children learn are, in my view, saying, ‘The offline world has failed a large number of children. Children don't have the space and time and tools they need to learn, so I've created a virtual world in which they can learn.’ They want to leverage data and ready-made lessons (some of them made by great teachers) to lessen the inequality so many children face.”

Michael John is quick to point out that SimCityEDU, or any learning game, no matter how challenging and complex, is in no way out to replace individual attention given by real teachers, and called the idea “folly.” He said the game “should work in tandem with a human teacher, and we are investing a lot of creative and technological energy in creating views for the teacher into the students' activity and even giving them some control over that activity - the ideal learning environment is assumed to be in the presence of a human teacher. So the audience for our formative assessment data, even if it works perfectly, is the teacher every bit as much as the student.”


As we are just entering the era of digital games and learning, research is still scant. The Joan Ganz Cooney Center recently released an in-depth analysis of how schools are using games for learning, and other organizations are starting to tackle this broad, complicated subject. Williams College sophomore Mpaza Kapembwa is part of an education class that received a Verizon grant to write a fourth-grade science curriculum for low-income students using iPads, recording whether or not students are more engaged when using the iPad versus non-digital methods. The most effective use of the iPad so far, Mpaza said, is not digital games, but more hands-on techniques, like using apps that build presentations or take video and slow it down to demonstrate a particular physics concept.

But this summer, Mpaza’s research will focus on turning all physical worksheets into practice on the iPad, and will inevitably turn part of the curriculum toward digital games. “We are very cautious not to replace one with the other, it’s very challenging because when they’ve got the iPad in front of them, they just want to play," he said. "We do let them play in the very beginning, but then try to get them used to the fact that this is not a toy. This is work.”

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Dan Nemes agrees that, when kids are playing games on iPads or other digital gadgets, it can be hard for them to remember that they are working -- a different but important kind of “backseat thinking.”

“Even at its most active, swiping and clicking are passive approaches to learning," he said. "Using a pencil -- the smell of the wood and lead, the indentation on your pointer, the sound of the scratch on the page -- gives a child the sense of doing hard work. And learning is hard work. The tools children use to manipulate and change the world and their own neural pathways should reflect the profundity of that phenomenon; we should have some blisters, form calluses, break a sweat. Computer games don't demand that from children.”

The feeling of work, Michael John said, is important to kids when playing a digital learning game, too, something they found out when testing SimCityEDU on middle schoolers. And that work feeling may be what helps kids distinguish between entertainment games and ones that are for learning. “If they understand that their role is to learn, and to think in the context of school, they seem to be almost primed with an expectation of a higher workload.”

Even as he innovates new ways of using digital games expressly designed for student learning, John’s overall comments on learning and gaming seemed to reflect a feeling that computer games, whether drill-and-practice or complex, are meant to enhance, not replace, other more human learning experiences. He doesn’t seem at all concerned that drill-and-practice digital games will replace hands-on teacher-led techniques. Nemes’ comment about the sensory experience of holding a pencil was quite personal to him, and John called it “poignant.”


“As an old-school game designer, I am accustomed to doing my work on graph paper and using mechanical pencils.” While John has come to accept that all of his games are now programmed using spreadsheets and vector drawing software, he also understands the value of hands-on. “I do still value the tactile sense of the pencil however, and keep a pad of graph paper on my desk at all times, and I hope that at least for me, that never goes away.”