Monday, July 14, 2008

Games and Learning

While I perused some of the many stories and emails I have saved for writing about later, I noticed a theme popping up in a good number of them. It seems that educators are taking advantage of the hold video games have on young people these days by pulling some pretty impressive head fakes with them. Let's see what kids (and adults) are learning while playing.

I came across a list of 25 educational simulators and games on a distance learning website. It reminded me, first and foremost, of some of the classics I used to play as a kid. Take, for instance, Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. I used to play the originals for hours on end (and with only the most basic of graphics and controls, too!). The same list goes on to suggest that Age of Empires will help you learn history, for example, and Railroad Tycoon will teach business skills. I was a bit sceptical about these choices at first, but after thinking about it, I guess I can see where they're coming from. Through the simulations involved, you would get a bit of a sense in how people used to live or what works in the business world, even if the actual details aren't entirely accurate.

My next example takes us away from traditional games to those you might call "edutainment".
[Immune Attack is] an educational video game that introduces basic concepts of human immunology to high school and entry-level college students. Designed as a supplemental learning tool, Immune Attack aims to excite students about the subject, while also illuminating general principles and detailed concepts of immunology.
The educational nature of this game is much less subtle than it is with games like Age of Empires. To master the game, students must learn about how the immune system works, plain and simple. It's also free, which is a whole lot cheaper than setting up complex labs to learn similar concepts (and it also means you can download it and try it for yourself!). It seems to be a successful concept; one commenter mused that "I wish we had had games like this when I was flunking advanced biology in 1969!"

In a news article about how technology is reshaping the face of classrooms in the States, 11-year-old Jemella Chambers talks about her experience with math software that has students compete against each other for the highest score by solving the most math equations. She's quoted as saying "This makes me learn better. It's like playing a game." The software is called FASTT Math and claims to "automatically differentiates instruction based on each student’s individual fluency levels in customized,10-minute daily sessions." Reminds me of the Train Your Brain activity that gets you to fill in the sign for a simple equation as fast as you can. Fun because you want to beat your previous time, and educational because you get really good at fast mental math.

As an added bonus, games seem to help bring out creativity in some students, according to a study described in this article. To quote, "
in real-life terms, the study appears to indicate that after playing the game, happy or sad people are most creative, while angry or relaxed people are not." Perhaps there is an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone here.

While relying on video games (or even computers in general) to replace all traditional forms of education doesn't sound like a very good idea, the power to engage students' interest cannot be ignored. Educational games can serve a very beneficial supplementary role in the classroom, and their design could be an interesting research topic for the computer scientist interested in software engineering or human computer interaction.


Marty Alchin said...

Ah, Life or Death, how I miss it. I got to the point where I could diagnose Appendicitis, but I could never perform the surgery. I wonder if any med students ever actually relied on that game.

Gail Carmichael said...

Marty: love the retro graphics and how "colourful" they are :)

Unknown said...

My 5 y.o. daughter is currently really hooked on a great reading website, and I'm actively encouraging it.

Normally we limit our kids to 1/2 an hour per day on the computer, trying to encourage a variety of play and learning activities, but with sites like this, it's the more time on the better in my opinion.

Gail Carmichael said...

Cute site! Though I don't think I could stand it for myself very long, it seems just right for kids! :)

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