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Games as constructivist learning

April 15, 2011 Leave a comment

When first contemplating the use of commercially available non-educational games into a classroom environment, it is reasonable to believe that the curriculum will have to be wrapped around the game. The idea that the game itself can actually move the understanding of the curriculum forward takes a little getting used to. However, from a constructivist point of view, using games in the classroom is not so great a leap.

Falance (2001) discusses how practitioners of constructivism believe in creating environments of learning through cognitive apprenticeships. Learners must interact with experts to experience how they think and solve problems. In many ways today’s commercial games follow this model. Gee (2003) argues that the underlying architecture of commercial games helps foster mastery of content by pushing players to the limits of their abilities, but always staying within those boundaries, creating a sense of both pleasure and frustration. In this way players gain new knowledge, and are motivated to continue to gain new knowledge.

Another aspect where game playing and constructivism coincide is in collaborative work. One of the most rapidly growing game genres is the massive multiplayer online role-playing game concept, like World of Warcraft. In these games, players are able to work on their own to learn and level up, but the game favors the use of team play. As social animals the act of sharing new information and learning experiences is important in contextualizing what we learn (Falance, 2001). These games provide us with an opportunity to not only learn from our immediate peers, but also to interact with players and students all over the world.

Games can therefore help to create a constructivist learning environment for students, and the teacher can become a facilitator of learning rather than a provider of non-contextual information. In order for appropriate learning to occur, the students must have an opportunity to reflect on what they have learned, and must be provided guidance to avoid missing the learning opportunity because they were too distracted by the game content (CitEd Research Center). Teachers must therefore provide guidance to students to understand how to apply the learning that occurred in the game back into the real world, and provide a safe classroom environment for students to explore these new concepts.
The rapid rise of new technologies actually creates greater opportunities for creating constructivist learning environments. The belief that the best way to learn something is through authentic interaction has always been hindered by the sometimes limited opportunities for interaction caused by socio-economic realities. However, the increasing availability of computers and the games that drive them creates new opportunities for authentic interaction for all students.

References
CitEd Research Center. (n.d.). Learning with Computer Games and Simulations. Retrieved April 15, 2011, from cited.org: http://www.cited.org/index.aspx?page_id=143
Falance, T. (2001). Constructivism. In K. L. Medsker, & K. A. Holdsworth (Eds.), Models and Strategies for Training Design (pp. 213-234). Silver Spring: International Society for Performance Improvement.
Gee, J. P. (2003, May). High Score Education. Retrieved April 2011, from Wired.com: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.05/view.html?pg=1

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Using games in education

April 15, 2011 Leave a comment

When I first returned to education as a teacher rather than a learner, I was in Europe in a country still recovering from 50 years of communist rule. Technology was still overpriced, and internet access was limited and relatively slow. Strikingly, what I found when I entered a classroom of young elementary students was a driving desire for more technologically driven lessons, and vastly more access to technologically based content.

On returning to the US, I entered public education with a strong belief that education had changed dramatically since I was a student. I expected computer based learning, student research and discovery through the internet, and computer savvy instruction. Unfortunately, what I found, at least in the urban school district in which I work, was a drive to teach students how to pass tests, computers too old to function, and teachers with no understanding of how to integrate technology in their classrooms. As Prensky (2001) points out, today’s teachers and learners are from different worlds. Every day in my classroom, I struggle to engage students in paper and pencil, competing for their attention with the console games they have been playing at home. To today’s students, 3D virtual worlds with a constant level of excitement and activity are a minimum expectation for their attention.

As I have been playing games and trying to view them both as a gamer and as an educator, I have given extensive thought to how to capture that excitement. I have thought about using games at both extremes, from completely immersive classrooms to trying to build an environment without games that is somehow competitive. Obviously when looking at this question, the instinct is to push to the middle, and try to find a way to use games to capture attention, and then bring the students back to a more traditional form of learning. Since the ultimate goal of this course is to design instructions for teachers on how to use a particular game in the classroom, I starting thinking about how I would build a lesson plan. I began thinking back to a lesson I had taught this year, and about one of the games I have played for this course, Settlers 7. One lesson I taught in Social Studies this year was about community interdependence. My students, who are all from low-income families, have, in large part, never left their communities, and had difficulty comprehending this global subject. One of the most engaging aspects of this game to me was the need to manage the interdependence of the conquered communities in this game. Each community has specific resources that can only be properly utilized in combination with other resources. Communities must trade and share to survive. We worked on this concept for a week, with varying levels of success, and I wonder if I might have had better success with a day spent on this game. The game has a very effective tutorial that would have been sufficient for most students to gain a rudimentary understanding of the game details. As Carvin (2008) points out, games need to strike a balance between pushing the skill level of a student, without being too difficult. Given that new background knowledge, it might have been easier to scaffold the real world implications for the students to understand it more deeply.

References
Carvin, A. (2008, March). Should Video Games Replace Classroom Learning? Retrieved April 2011, from pbs.org: http://www.pbs.org/teachers/learning.now/2008/03/should_video_games_replace_cla.html
Prensky, M. (2001). The Digital Game-Based Learning Revolution. Retrieved April 2011, from discoveryproject.net: http://www.discoverproject.net/italy/images/the%20digital%20game-based%20learning%20revolution.pdf

Categories: Learning Games

Game Review from an educator perspective

April 10, 2011 Leave a comment

When I first began playing World of Warcraft, I was trying to imagine how I might use this in a classroom. I started out, as I imagine everyone does, with a weak character and no knowledge of my surroundings. Unfortunately, I immediately forgot why I was playing and set out to improve my character and learn about the world I now inhabited. I believe this is the challenge we face as educators. If these games are this immersive and engaging, how exactly to we either steal that attention, or borrow it for our own purposes.
Fortunately, when the headphones came off, I began to think about how engaged I had been, and began running through the various cognitive skills I had been using during the game. I began to think back and I remembered, that since I was trying to experience as much as I could as fast as I could I ran off and got myself killed very quickly. After that, I began thinking a little more strategically. Which monsters can I beat easily, and which ones will provide me with the greatest risk-benefit ratio. Soon I was challenging my character to the limits, but shying away from battles that I knew I could not win. Instead of dying quickly, I now found myself leveling up, and gathering loot. This found me in my next dilemma, as my carrying capacity was soon used up, and I needed to sell to make some space. I found my way to a village and began selling what I had. I soon found that some of the loot I had collected was very valuable, and some of it was virtually worthless. This knowledge would later help me strategically collect the best items on my quests, in order to be able to carry as much as possible.

While in the village, I found my first quest and set out. Along the way, I encountered increasingly powerful creatures wanting to kill me. While I was not interested in socializing during this gaming research, I did find that a limited amount of cooperation with the people around me was demonstrably helpful. A few shared combat experiences, and I was feeling more and more a part of a greater community. Given a stronger desire to befriend those around me, I might have communicated more, or even been a more effective quester.
Finishing the quest, I left the game behind, and put back on my educator’s helmet for a while. What had I learned from the experience? As a professional adult educator, I had learned lessons in cost-benefit ratios, strategic thinking, economics, and social dynamics. Many of these same lessons, I have already learned in real life, but many students have never had the opportunity. I began to see areas toward which I could direct students. I began to think of ways to bring groups together for guided team building, and strategic planning. I started to image a chance to excite students productively with something that already excites them.

Gee (2003) points out that video games tend to focus on building toward mastery at each level, only to have that mastery taken away or challenged at the next level. I realized that, except for my initial foray into excessive violence, the game had presented me with a world that became increasingly difficult as I progressed. With each level I gained, there were new stronger monsters that challenged my new strength, but also offered greater rewards. Traditional schooling on the other hand appears to be moving in exactly the opposite direction. Classroom under incredible pressure to produce test scores at any cost, are more often teaching to the middle creating mastery for none.
In my final reflections, I find that World of Warcraft is a dangerously engaging game. With immersive 3D graphics, and exciting game play, I truly forgot my mission as an educator. Trying to compete against that level of interactive fun seems a lost cause. Finding ways to borrow some of the built in engagement that students already have, and tap into that excitement with games like World of Warcraft appears to be a necessity, not an option.

References
Gee, J. P. (2003, May). High Score Education. Retrieved April 2011, from Wired.com: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.05/view.html?pg=1

Video Game Review

As part of a study into how mainstream games can be used to increase or capture student engagement, and still be used in an educational way, I was assigned to play a modern mainstream game and write a review of that game from the point of view of the gamer. While this doesn’t on the surface seem like a terribly good way to think about using games in the classroom, it paves the way for separating myself as a gamer from myself as a teacher. In my next assignment and my next post, I will be looking at a game from the perspective of teacher, and already having my on perspective as a gamer will allow me to contrast the two perspectives and hopefully help me guide the use of games in the classroom. So without further ado, here is my review of Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom.

Welcome to the world of the Settlers: Paths to a Kingdom, Ubisoft’s latest incarnation of its popular Settler’s series. If you are interested in all night skirmish battles or massive empire building this is probably not the game for you, but if you enjoy some basic economy building and engaging competition for resources and land, then Paths to a Kingdom is nearly ideal.
Paths to a Kingdom brings to the table a rich graphic environment with engaging, though somewhat cartoonish characters and scenery. Despite the seemingly deliberate silliness of some of the characters, the attention to detail creates a very immersive environment that draws the player in. The detail remains strong even when zoomed in close enough to listen to your citizens individually or zoomed out enough to take a glance at the entire world that you are trying to rule.
Army
(Gamespot, 2010)
The game is surprisingly simple to play, but can also quickly get out of control if you are not paying attention. The game is mostly about building a well-balanced economy in one of three branches. Players can choose to focus on military, trade, or research to build their empire. A decision as to which branch the player will take is crucial early on in the game, so that decisions can be made about which resources to pursue, which territories to conquer and which buildings to build and upgrade. Not making this decision quickly, or trying to change your decision late in the game, can ultimately prove disastrous. Your first instinct might be to immediately believe that military strength is the most logical direction to take, given the difficulty in constructing a game that can be won in any other way. With Paths to a Kingdom, however, the use of “victory points”, help keep the play more balanced.
Victory Points
(Gamespot, 2010)
That’s not to say a military is not necessary, since your opponents, human or computer, will certainly have their eye on your territory. Still, if you can build a military strong enough to fend off the land grabbing hordes, the game offers some very interesting non-combat storylines, and if you can keep your opponent from racking up victory points, it is possible to explore more than one economic branch in a single game, leading to additional replayability.
There are some challenges with the new game, beyond game-play. Ubisoft requires that you be connected to their servers at all times in order to play the game. At first this seemed to overload the servers making it difficult to actually use your newly purchased game, though as time has passed this seems less of an issue. There are a few benefits to this constant connection, including saving all games, which can then be played from any computer in the world. Ubisoft has also added some interesting social media aspect to play, including linking your game to Facebook accounts to brag about victories. Players can also register with Ubisoft’s Uplay, which allows them to upgrade and personalize their in-game castle, buy additional game content, and download game related goodies. Once you have completed the campaign mode, which is really just an extended tutorial for the game, another limitation you will find is in the number of maps. While you can certainly customize these maps to extend game play, and new maps have been added (or can be purchased form Uplay), it’s clear that Ubisoft meant to focus game play for online play rather than individual skirmishes against the computer.
Despite the beautiful graphics, engaging play, and social additions, there are also some challenges with the game play itself. Once you have conquered a few territories and have created a medium to large sized economy, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember where you have put everything. There are no shortcuts for finding your buildings, or trying to find breakdowns in supply lines. Also, you can’t use the minimap to direct your armies to territories, meaning you have to select the army, and then scroll across whatever territories are in between to select the territory you need them to be in. This can be time consuming and dangerous if an enemy is on the way.
All in all Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom is a solid addition to the Settlers series of games. Players will find its rich graphics engaging, its gameplay balanced and fun, and its additional non-game attachments useful and fun.

References
Gamespot. (2010, April 4). Gamespot. Retrieved April 8, 2011, from Gamespot: http://www.gamespot.com/pc/strategy/thesettlers7pathstoakingdom/images.html?tag=tabs%3Bimages