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Instead of making serious games for education, why not embrace traditional gaming? Two innovative educators at the Edinburgh Interactive Festival talk about how Guitar Hero and Nintendogs can be invaluable learning tools.

August 13, 2008

4 Min Read

Author: by Mathew Kumar, Leigh Alexander

Instead of making serious games for education, why not embrace traditional gaming to enhance kids' lives? Much is made of the potential for games to enhance education for today's kids living in a so-called "digital world," but traditional approaches seek to make gaming conform to education. At the Edinburgh Interactive Festival, two innovative teachers suggested that teachers ought to embrace -- and employ -- all the ways in which kids are already playing. Dr. Graham Brown-Martin is the founder of the Handheld Learning UK organization for research and education, and at the Edinburgh Interactive Festival, he was joined by Learning and Teaching Scotland's Derek Robertson to present a new way to look at games and education that embraces the way kids already play, as an alternative to traditional "edugaming" approaches. Most students in primary school, Brown-Martin says, own phones, and at least one console, including portables. The "Digital Divide" "The PC industry is bending over backwards to be seen as inclusive, but yet mobile and entertainment devices are outselling PCs and laptops by three to one," says Brown-Martin. "They are more inclusive than any other, and as a result there are powerful devices in the hands of many learners. Good teachers can use off the shelf software as ‘powerful contextual hubs for learning’ in and out of the school." The education industry, Brown-Martin asserts, expects that "technology happens after you're born." In other words, he says, students live in a tech and media-rich environment -- but find there is a "digital divide" between their experience of learning inside versus outside of school. "As a consequence, many kids are bored of school," he says -- but adds that this is not about "serious games." "I have great respect for that industry," says Brown-Martin, "but I think they're still looking for the door marked entry. Serious games are seriously boring.” Not Learning Games He explains that bringing off-the-shelf games into the classroom is like bringing a skateboard into a school – it’s not just a toy, you can use it to teach physics, explain the mechanics, and take them apart for rebuilding. "We're not talking about serious games -- we're talking about game-based learning." He cites obvious examples like Brain Training, as well as less-obvious ones like Nintendogs, Guitar Hero and Endless Ocean that "offer big improvements in learning without needing to be didactic or boring." Fellow educator Derek Robertson also agrees. "The domain of the school is presented to kids, but we have to pay more attention to children’s own domains -- in this case merging the games domain and school domain," Robertson says. Kids pleasantly surprised by the discovery of Guitar Hero, he says, are open to the excitement of writing about and learning more on the musical experience. The impact is particularly significant on at-risk youth, he says, who challenge educators in conventional channels. "This is to have an understanding that children don't come to school from a vacuum -- they come from homes, a society, a culture, and we have to take this on board," he says. "Children come to school from a world where everything involves technology. Schools dismiss this, and will become irrelevant if they don't pay attention.” The Nintendogs Budget As a result, Learning and Teaching Scotland have created The Consolarium, a Scottish center for games and learning. Robertson brings educational managers from regional councils and encourages them to try hands-on with current games to think about how they can be used for learning. "They come in with their power suits on and go, ‘what is this pish?’ -- and walk out raving," says the ebullient Robertson. And it’s not all anecdotal – Learning and Teaching Scotland is measuring the impact of these games on learning. After measuring the impact of Brain Training on children’s arithmetic across a 10-week study - 20-25 minutes in the morning with one brain age check per week compared with a class not using Nintendo, the pre versus post scores "rocketed up" from 20 percent scores to over 65 percent in tests. Kids also worked on their math skills by using their budgets in Nintendogs to calculate how much they'd need to get the pet accessories they wanted, and honed writing skills as they blogged about their experiences raising the virtual dogs. The message to educators is to embrace, not dismiss off-the-shelf games, says Robertson. "Be wary of the development of 'worthy' education games," he warns. "Kids can spot the phony."

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