Michael D. Clark reports:
Tiny Scarlett Mejia of Hamilton’s Brookwood Elementary loves playing video games.
She’s no different than scores of other kids who spend much of their spare time staring at a screen and coaxing characters from one level to the next in ever-expanding feats of derring-do.
Except she likes to do it in class.
The third-grader smiles big as she describes her new favorite, with a character who jumps ever higher toward the coveted winner’s flag with each of her correct answers.
“It makes it more fun and it teaches me multiplication,” Scarlett says. “With math in a (text) book all you do is read. When you play and learn math in a game, the game moves.”
Welcome to 21st century learning, where variations of the video games kids love to play are increasingly being used in their classrooms – with experts warning schools and parents to be wary of “learning games” that are more about games than learning.
“In the future, it’s not going to be how you teach your students, but how your students allow you to teach them,” says Brad Henry, director of learning technology for eStudent Services for the statewide Ohio Tech Consortium.
The learning games movement isn’t new. Indeed, it already counts among its advocates the most powerful voice in the country.
“I want you guys to be stuck on a video game that’s teaching you something other than just blowing something up,” President Barack Obama told America’s students in 2011.
Advocates stress quality, not action figures
Some educators and digital learning experts caution that the gaming software and academic principles taught to America’s students must be educationally sound – even as the trend continues to expand within the 63 school districts in Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky.
University of Cincinnati Assistant Professor Sarah Schroeder, the lead instructional designer for the Learning Design Collaborative in the UC College of Education, warns “there are a lot of bad learning games going on out there.”
“A lot of learning games out there are glorified flash cards. They are just memorization and repetition,” says Schroeder, who also coordinates the Leadership in Online Learning and Online Teaching and Learning graduate certification at the college.
And using the wrong learning games, or not properly reinforcing the academic subjects during other classroom time, can impede student learning, she says.
“If teachers are just giving students games and expect those to teach them, that is when you get bad outcomes,” says Schroeder.
Experts cautious about overuse, ‘gamification’
“Gamification” is one of those psychological ink-blot tests now buzzing through the digital learning community.
And the way digital learning advocates define gamification often defines their own philosophy toward learning games.
For some, it’s a negative term, says Schroeder, but it shouldn’t overshadow the strong upsides.
“It’s very engaging to students. It uses specific tasks and provides rewards and it provides teachers with individualized and instant feedback on each student, which is fantastic.”
Pam Theurer, principal of Brookwood, is a fan – with some qualifiers – of learning games.
Theurer, an education veteran of 22 years, says the number of games designed for classrooms began spiking about three years ago.
“(The games) have to be challenging. Students have to move on in the game program for accountability,” she says.
Henry says school parents should use the same criteria and monitor games for academic soundness, accountability in allowing children to advance in the game and age appropriateness when judging whether a learning game is right for a child.
Henry also cautions teachers and parents that “the prettier and flashier (a learning game) looks, the greater likelihood people will become enamored with it” whether it has merit or not.
Still, he decries the skepticism and lack of digital learning training among some educators, who cling to traditional textbook instruction with a few tech bells and whistles tossed in, he says.
Henry tells teachers “nothing will bore your students faster than a Power Point or overhead projection presentation and you talking them through it.
“ It’s like trying to get them to watch TV from the 1960s.”
Kings Schools in Warren County is among the area’s leaders in incorporating digital learning, including instructional games, in its classrooms.
Parent Denise Manderfield is a cautious supporter as long as it doesn’t contribute, she says, to a generation already wired to distraction.
“If teachers can use (learning games) to keep students learning and interested, then I’m for it,” says Manderfield.
“The downside is that so many kids have problems with attention and focus that (learning games) could contribute to kids’ short attention spans.”
And nothing can replace the one-on-one interaction of teacher to student, says Brian Martin, principal of Ross High School in Butler County.
“A computer can’t tell whether a student came to school hungry or angry or whether they had a fight with their parents or boyfriend. In our rush to force-feed technology into our schools, we have to make sure we haven’t forgotten about the human component,” says Martin.
“It’s like anything else, it needs to be done in moderation,” he says.
Theurer agreed, saying learning games “can’t be the only tool (teachers) use.”
“Human contact is still one of the most important things, and more kids still need a lot of human contact.”
What teachers think about learning games
According to an article at Games & Learning website, a national study of teachers in 2013 showed:
• 62 percent said it was their own comfort level with technology that was one of the biggest barriers to incorporating games and tech in the classroom.
• 68 percent of science teachers, 58 percent of math teachers, 54 percent of history/social studies teachers and 53 percent of English/language arts teachers are “very confident” in their ability to use the latest technology.
• 74 percent of teachers reported technology as “an exciting way of communicating with and motivating students.”
• 68 percent of teachers said their school or district offered some sort of technology training, and 32 percent had no such training.
Source: Games and Learning Publishing Council, produced by Joan Ganz Cooney Center with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates
Local educators recommend these learning game websites
A sampling of some of the many online learning game sites used by K-12 teachers.
Most of the websites are free, but some charge nominal prices for certain instructional games:
(Source: University of Cincinnati, Hamilton Schools)