An Unexplored Opportunity: Video Games as Educational Tools

Jackie Mader of The Hechinger Report’s HechingerEd blog wrote of a panel at last month’s NBC Education Nation summit where many educators brought up some concerns about the emerging technology of video games in the classroom. One teacher faced a challenge with his students having trouble moving between games and more traditional learning:

Todd Beard, a K-12 technology teacher in Flint, Mich., said his students have trouble transferring skills they learn playing educational games in class to paper-based tests. While his students may appear to master skills during a video game, they forget it when they’re taking an assessment later. Beard tells his students, “It’s the same thing, you just did that,’” he said. He believes his students aren’t as invested in tests because they aren’t as fun as the games. “I feel like they’re learning [skills], but I have to prove that on an assessment,” Beard added.

Parents appear to have well-placed concerns as well. It is commonly known that an average child spend about 7.5 hours a day in front of a screen offering some kind of entertainment media. Do parents really want their kids in front of more screens at school?

Note: This picture is a joke.

(To that, I’d interject that you can’t actually stop screen-time from becoming the fundamental content-delivery method for kids. Books are going out of fashion and e-books are taking their place. The internet is becoming cheaper and easier to use. Computers are more prevalent and smartphones are becoming increasingly common with younger kids. I would argue that simply being in front of a screen isn’t a bad thing, so long as you offset it with a healthy lifestyle and don’t sit down as much.)

It all comes down to a lack of verifiable data. We simply don’t have official, reliable numbers on the effectiveness of games in the classroom.  We posted an infographic with some loose survey findings about teachers who used games in their curriculum, but for the most part it was a rather limited examination. It is perfectly understandable that educators remain skeptical about their incorporation into their classrooms because we’re still lacking hard data on the matter. And as Jackie Mader wisely concluded, “there are still basic issues that need to be fixed in education before more teachers will utilize technology.”

I believe games can be used as educational tools, but I acknowledge that you can’t just toss games into the classroom and expect it to work immediately. It is an emerging technology in education that startup companies and game developers are dedicating time to exploring. As the MIT Education Arcade pointed out, “Game players regularly exhibit persistence, risk-taking, attention to detail, and problem solving, all behaviors that ideally would be regularly demonstrated in school.”

Ntiedo Etuk, the CEO of the K-12 game company DimensionU, identifies that video games have motivating power. When introduced to games, children practice a try/fail/try/fail behavior, playing the game for longer and longer periods until they achieve mastery. “Why can’t that happen with algebra? Why can’t it happen with chemistry?” he asks. Here he offers some words about the educational value of games and how he believes they have a place in modern curricula:

Games are an untested, unexplored opportunity in education, and teachers and parents have rightful concerns about their usage. At the moment, we don’t have enough data to prove their effectiveness, and we also don’t have enough games with purely education in mind. Sure, there are educational apps and core-subject games available to download and play, but what if we had major, triple-A title video game developers focusing on producing high-quality educational games? What if Blizzard hopped on board? What if Ubisoft or Electronic Arts participated? Could we see this form of technology influence student learning? Is it a dream to envision this future?

I’d like to invite readers to check out a couple of my earlier articles on games in the classroom:

  • Zooey Deschanel

    This is literally the greatest article i have ever read in the history of my short, sad life.

  • Guest

    As the reigning king and tyrant of technology, I have to say this meets my extremely high standards for gracing my golden eyeballs. Please submit your resume to my firey mountain castle and I will be sure to review it and consider you for employment as one of my many toilers in my underground education caves.