Game-Based Learning Gains Ground in Higher Education
Jun 12, 2012 Comment
Discussions of game-based learning tend to focus on K-12 classrooms, but educational gaming isn't just for kids. From simulation-based games, to Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games, to Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), to Serious Games that take on real-world social issues (see Purdue University's Serious Games Center), higher education is on the path to widespread integration of all sorts of games in all sorts of classrooms.
In its 2012 report on technology trends in higher education, the New Media Consortium predicts that the horizon for widespread adoption of game-based learning is just two to three years away. Despite some challenges, including economic pressures and institutional barriers, it's a good bet that game-based learning will soon be commonplace in most college and university classrooms.
For some quick perspective on the potential power of game-based learning, a good starting point is Tom Chatfield's TED talk "7 Ways Games Reward the Brain." One of Chatfield's key points about digital gaming is that everything can be measured, which means that rewards can constantly be calibrated to keep players engaged.
In the commercial gaming world, this ability to fine-tune reward cycles based on billions of data points from millions of players is used to keep people spending time and money. In educational gaming, the ability to capture immediate, in-depth data about each student's performance opens the door to entirely new modes of measuring progress and achievement, in ways that reward and reinforce engagement.
Assessment can be ongoing. Feedback can be frequent. Students can know where they stand day-by-day, not just at test time, and exactly where they need to work (play) harder or seek assistance. Rewards for effort can motivate students to keep trying when they might otherwise give up, and educators can adjust what and how they are teaching based on immediate feedback about the individual and collective progress of their students.
At The Atlantic's Technologies in Education Forum in May, Robert Torres, a senior program officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (and a former teacher and principal), spoke to this aspect of game-based learning, saying that the foundation's agenda had shifted over the last two year from games as learning environments to games as assessment environments.
Torres talked about the importance of designing immersive, deep-learning game environments that place students in authentic problem contexts and explained that "we have the technology available now where we can design assessment mechanics into these environments." And the assessment goals are wide and deep. "We're interested in assessing how kids apply skill and knowledge, as well as assessing complex skills, like collaboration, problem-solving and systems thinking," Torres said. "Unless we really innovate at the level of assessment, we're not going to have big impact."
I'm not a gamer (unless you count a lot of hours spent playing Asteroids and Centipede in the early 80s), but I find the case for game-based learning very compelling, especially when looked at from the assessment angle. Here's why: I would posit that the best educational experiences have many elements in common with gaming. For those students who are 'natural' scholars, succeeding in school has always been based on the kinds of emotional rewards and neurological triggers that Chatfield discussed in his TED talk.
All I have to do is think about the qualities shared by my best professors: they encouraged healthy competition, showed me the pleasure of playing with ideas, facilitated formative "aha!" moments, gave me assignments and tests that pushed me to prove myself, and regularly rewarded me (not only with good grades, but with approval and encouragement).
Not every instructor rose to this level of pedagogical virtuosity, of course. But enough of them did that I was hooked on higher education and prepared to follow a path of lifelong learning.
In my eyes, the promise of game-based learning in post-secondary education is twofold: it leverages 21st-century technology to support essential aspects of great teaching, and it also gives educators new ways to engage a wider range of students, not just those who are already in the metaphorical front row.
Sounds like a win-win situation.
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