education's digital future

Feb 26: edf forum — gaming to learn

Date: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 - 5:00pm to 7:30pm
Note: Reception is 5 - 6 PM, then the forum is from 6 - 7.30 PM.
Location: 101 CERAS Learning Hall

Malcolm Bauer

James Gee

Constance Steinkuehler

Dan Schwartz

Play has always been central to human learning. In the digital era the potential for learning through games and for tapping the powers of engagement that well-designed games have often fostered has drawn ever more scholarly, practitioner, and business interest. This forum will consider the opportunities and challenges of gaming to learn in education’s digital future. 

- Malcolm Bauer, Managing Senior Scientist, Educational Testing Service; Director of Assessment at GlassLab Games

- James Gee, Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University

- Constance Steinkuehler, Co-Director, Games+Learning+Society; Associate Professor, Wisconsin Institute for Discovery University of Wisconsin-Madison

Dan Schwartz, LIFE Faculty Leadership Team; Professor at Stanford University

What happened in class: 

Jim Gee, sociolinguist at the University of Arizona, opened the evening's discussion with the observation that learning technologies are impactful in isolaton; there are better and worse ways to use them. Books were once held up as a savior of education, and are indeed powerful tools for learning when used in a context of rich dialogue, discussion, and design. Instead, we skim massive textbooks without active engagement. Jim feared that games would fall into a similar trap, becoming "schoolified" and leeched of their potential for rich learning context. Despite this fear, Jim held up games as a powerful medium for learning because they embody what he sees as the inherent functions of the brain: goal-based action, collective intelligence, non-cognitive skills like persistence and creativity, and simulation of possible worlds for planning purposes. He closed with a piece of advice to game designers to not just build games — to build capital-G Games with networks of supportive shared activity.

Malcolm Bauer, managing senior scientist at ETS and director of assessment at GlassLab Games, began his short talk with a story about arcade games. After recalling countless hours blowing up his friends' virtual tanks, he posed the question of how to "gamify" schooling, or how to "schoolify" games. There are a few great examples of software that finds the game mechanics inherent in knowledge. For example, the iPad app Dragonbox challenges children with manipulating colorful tiles to clear a board, and gradually transforms the surface decoration of the ruleset until the player suddenly realizes that he/she is performing complex algebra. This game has selected a small but important bit of math, and operationalized it perfectly into a game. At the GlassLab, Malcolm works as a cognitive scientist alongside game designers, artists, and educators to build games that act as true formative assessments, with properties like clear expectations and immediate feedback. Their pioneering games aim to be an existence proof of rigorous, polished, and sophisticated educational entertainment.

Dan Schwartz, professor in the Learning Sciences and Design program at Stanford, suggested with some amount of glee that his talk would be a "downer," because it held up an exceptionally high bar for educational games. That bar is the expectation that games transfer — that is, they improve learning and life outcomes outside of the game. He described a game, created by his former student Dylan Arena, that taught basic concepts in statistics through a Space Invaders-style shoot-em-up interface. Students who palyed the game performed no better on a statistics test than a control group, but they benefitted far more than a control group when given an opportunity to learn from a standard school stats lesson. Thus, the game was able to transfer outside of the lessons of the game world by preparing its payers to learn from a text. Dan also pointed out that games can serve as effective assessments of smart student choices, capturing information that is overlooked by traditional assessments of facts and procedures. He demonstrated a suite of games, developed by his lab, that offer players the choice to use learning resources, to demonstrate creativity or social awareness, to persist in the face of challenge, or other non-cognitive skills. These choices are powerfully predictive of student academic performance.

Constance Steinkuehler, associate professor in Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Michigan and cofounder of the Games+Learning+Society Initiative, introduced herself by describing her work working with policy makers in the White House. They are interested in games that don't yet exist — games that can help communicate policy and motivate mass behavior change. She illustrated her work on the impact of educational games by describing a study that she conducted with high-school students. When students had a motivating reason to learn, and a choice about what to learn, the gap in reading ability between remedial and advanced students virtually disappeared. In particular, the motivated students self-corrected more, a critical habit of strong readers. She closed with a call to create an educational-games ecosystem with partnerships between the federal goverment, academics, the games industry, and philanthropists. On a smaller scale, each design team needs data scientists, game designers, and content experts to craft entertaining and effective games.