Refining “Game-based Learning”

In case you hadn’t noticed, education is full of jargon and rife with an alphabet soup of programs, policies, and practice.  It’s often challenging for me as a professional in education technology to keep my terminology defined.  What’s the difference between CIPA and COPPA?  When you say PBL, do you mean problem-based learning or project-based learning?  Of course, my own area of passion in education, the use of games and game principles for learning is faced with a similar, murky sea of words and ideas.  Recent discussions, between David Warlick, Mathias Poulsen, and myself via Twitter during ISTE 12, forced me to consider the issues.  For me, it’s time to refine the definition of “game-based learning.”

It’s exciting to watch the idea of game-based learning gaining market share in the discussion on educational change, especially, since I’ve been pushing it for a few years now.  There is, however, some confusion among educators, and even in my own mind, about how we define the different terms associated with the use of games and game principles in the classroom.  What’s the difference between using games to teach and gamifying the classroom?  Let’s take a look at some of the big ideas:

Playful Learning

One of the best things that game-based learning is bringing back to the education reform discussion is the value of play and a playful approach to learning.  This is nothing new (see Vygotsky, Piaget, and others), of course, but it’s an idea that has seen hard times in an era of standardization and high-stakes testing.  The value, here, is in encouraging learners to “play” with ideas.  In doing so, the idea of failure is either not possible or is an accepted part of the process.  Using this sort of approach also provides learners with opportunities to test ideas and hypotheses to solve ill-defined problems.  Some key thinkers in this area that you should review include:  Papert, Brian Sutton-Smith,  and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  Though an integral part of game-based learning, it’s a only a component of the bigger picture.

Using Games To Teach

First off, notice I’m saying “using games to teach” not “using video games to teach.”  I think this in an important first distinction.  While most of my work has been in the application of video games to instructional goals, I think that focusing solely  on video games is too limiting.  There are some incredible games out there that are not electronic at all.  Secondly, I think it’s important for educators to distinguish between simulations and games.  Simulations provide experiences through which participants experience concepts and are certainly valuable for learning, however, they lack many of the elements that games bring to the learning process.  So, how do we define “game,” then?  According to Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, “a game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.”  Others include variations on the definition, but the fundamentals of rules, challenge, and interaction are foundational.

I see the idea of “using games to teach” as the use of a pre-designed game to help learners reach an instructional goal.  In the world of video games, this breaks down into two areas that I feel are distinct:  the use of “educational” games (think Math Blaster) and the use of commercial, off-the-shelf games for education (think using Civilization V to teach World History).  The quotes around educational are intentional.  All good games are educational even if they weren’t designed with the classroom in mind.  My personal passion is exploring the use of games not designed for the classroom to help learners understand concepts.

Serious Games

Serious games is another term that you’ll often hear in discussions on game-based learning.  According to Wikipedia a serious game is, “a game designed for a primary purpose other than pure entertainment.”  That definition can encompass a broad range of games including “educational games,” games designed for training, games designed to solve real-world problems, etc.  I believe that the Games for Change movement would also fit as a subset of serious games.  Consider the game Re-Mission, designed to help cancer patients not only learn about the disease but also fight it.

Gamification

Gamification is applying the principles of games and game design to a non-game-related system.  This concept is quickly gaining momentum in the corporate world, spurred on by increased access to social media and mobile technology among consumers.  Take a look at FourSquare, for example.  When gamifying a business, consumers unlock badges and awards for being frequent patrons and earn points for participating in events and activities much as they would by completing activities in a game like Call of Duty or World of Warcaft.  When applied to the classroom, the discussion focuses on ideas such as replacing traditional grades with experience points and levels, player groups, and redesigning lessons to be more akin to the quests (see quest-based learning) that players might experience in a game.  It’s important for educators to distinguish, here, that this idea can be applied to any subject area and doesn’t necessarily involve the use of a pre-designed game.  A video by the folks at Extra Credits does a decent job of summarizing the idea – http://youtu.be/MuDLw1zIc94.  This is also another opportunity for me to plug 3DGameLab, an online system that makes this process manageable for classroom teachers.

For my own sanity, I’ll be lumping the ideas of using games to teach and gamification under the bigger umbrella of “game-based learning.”  Of course, I’ll still have to ask others using the term what them mean when they say it.  If you’re interested in learning more, follow the #GBL tag on Twitter.  If you’re looking to engage with other educators in the trenches who are wrestling exploring these issues, take a look at Jennifer Lagarde‘s Level Up Book Club (#levelupbc on Twitter)

(Edited 7/2/12 – Added Serious Games)

-Lucas

Want to do a WoW-Based Project in Your School? Here’s Everything You Need…

Over the past two years I’ve been approached by several people from around the world inquiring about our World of Warcraft in School Project.  Yet, despite the numerous contacts, I’m only aware of two other schools/school systems who’ve started similar projects.  Of course, there are many potential barriers from costs to people-barriers.  Craig Lawson (@midlawsondle) and I have worked over the past year to create a full-year, standards-aligned language arts course that is based on World of Warcraft.  We have several goals in doing so:

1.  We want to demonstrate that there is value in considering commercial, off-the-shelf games for curricular integration.

2.  We want to share our work with anyone else who might take it on, and in doing so, expand the network of educators who are exploring the potential that games like this hold for the classroom.

3.  We want to create a model (using the term loosely, here) upon which similar projects, perhaps using other games might be built.

4.  We hope that others will look at the work and expand on it, improve it, and share it.

5.  We want to show that, “Yes! You can do this.”

Last Friday, we decided to kick it out of the nest.  It’s a work in progress and we sincerely welcome your feedback.  If you want to start something similar in your school, it contains most of what you need to get started.  For what’s missing, well, that’s where the power of networking comes into play.  Contact me, especially via Twitter (@PCSTech), and I’ll do my best to fill in the gaps.

If you’d like to download the .PDF of the curriculum, you can find it on the project wiki or preview it below:

WoWinSchool: A Hero’s Journey

-Lucas

12 Tips For Starting A Game-Based Program At Your School

I see the fact that I’m creating this post as a fantastic sign.  Why?  Because, it means that the idea of using games for learning is spreading and that people are moving from an “ideas” phase to a “let’s do this” phase.  Several people have asked me how we got started with WoWinSchool and if I have any suggestions.  From experience, here are some suggestions that are emerging:

WowinClass1CV_1011171.  Put the kids first. It’s all about them anyway. You really must have a heart for them and what’s good for them.  Recruit educators who believe this first, because they’re the most important factor, then, recruit your gamer teachers.  Let this first suggestion frame every decision made.  (A big thanks to Diane Lewis for nailing this one at her VWBPE presentation on the topic.)

2.  Find the principals who will support you, champion for you, and advocate for your kids and the awesome things they’ll be doing.  Find the ones who “get it.”  If you can’t find those, find “the willing to get it” crowd.  Involve your district leadership as well.  Not only do they need to know what you’re doing they can also be a huge resource.

3.  Recruit your IT folks.  You’re likely to need some special attention from them.  Bring them on board as partners with your project.  Praise them and market how awesome they are as they support your project.  (They too often are overlooked or get a bad rap for doing their jobs.)  They’ll need to know what impact any games will have on things like bandwidth,  your filter, etc.  You may have to gather that research for them because they’re probably very busy with other issues.  My IT people have been amazing and have really gone above and beyond (such as providing bandwidth impact graphs, and helping to set up a MineCraft server on our local network).

4.  Start as a club.  Starting as a club is a great way to begin.  Clubs are a safe place to fail and they’re typically voluntary.  After-school, before-school, or during a club period is a great time to for your kids to meet, play, and learn.

5.  Find your “at-risk” learners and “fringe” kids.  Really, most of our students are at a minimum, at-risk for extreme boredom, and many of our labeled “at-risk” learners are simply bored with school and don’t see relevance.  These students are ideal and usually need something engaging and relevant to anchor them in school.  We’ve also seen some incredible things with students who are identified ADD/ADHD and even the mildly autistic.  Let the kids “own” (or “pwn“) their learning.

6.  Read and share your reading.  Have some supporting research.  We’re building a list at http://wowinschool.pbworks.com/w/page/5268741/Supporting-Research.  Also consider having a few copies of Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy and Prensky’s Don’t Bother Me Mom — I’m Learning on hand to loan.holiadore

7.  Tie your project to one or more instructional goals.  Our primary charge is to foster learning, right?  It’s a big step for many to see video games as tools for learning so a clear alignment to instructional goals really helps.  This doesn’t have to be especially formal, particularly with a club format, but alignment to existing learning goals is a great idea.  Also, don’t neglect the opportunities that arise to address topics such as leadership, digital citizenship, and media literacy which are too often overlooked in our standard course of study.

8.  Get parents on board.  Communicate with them clearly and often about the project and your expectations, goals, and what will be involved.  Consider hosting a parent orientation event or informational videos that explain your project.

9.  Market your program.  Be transparent about everything, both success and failures.  Document everything because you’re a pioneer in an emerging area.  Market your learners’ work and connect them to a global audience.

10.  Invite visitors.  Even after you’re underway, many people still won’t understand what you’re doing.  Invite them to come see.  This not only broadens their understanding of the possibilities of game-based learning it’s another opportunity for your students to showcase what they know.

11.  Connect.  Connect and network with educators who are doing similar work.  Have them talk to your decision makers and district leadership.  Once your project is started, connect your kids with other kids!

12.  Remember suggestion #1.

These are some points that have helped make mine, Peggy Sheehy’s and Diane Lewis’ projects successful.  What would you add?  What have I left out?

-Lucas