Monday, May 23, 2011

Creating Video Games in the Classroom

Video games have a very basic component that I believe is very interesting to look at from an educational standpoint. The very essence of most video games stipulates that you cannot move on to the next level or stage until you have attained mastery of the current one. In other words, you cannot move on to "level 2" until you have finished "level 1". In order to pass level 1 you have to demonstrate all the necessary skills that the creator deems necessary.

If you look at it from that angle, there are some very clear positives. The ability to make sure basic skills are met before proceeding is important to many subjects. It also allows for a certain level of personalization, as you are not confined by what the rest of the class is doing.

What worries me to some extent is that one person (the teacher or company) could design games that would be as constricting as textbooks. Sure they would be a bit more fun, but does it really deviate from the finish the chapter and answer questions model?  Once you've answered the questions you can move on and are deemed to have a certain level of mastery. Video games can certainly be dynamic and interactive learning tools, but do they really allow students to take control of their learning? I really don't have the answer. Maybe and maybe not.

But what if the students design the video games themselves? They would have to creatively design a system that ensures mastery to move on. Not only does that mean they have to have conceptual understanding of the material, they have to actively design levels that build upon the knowledge they learned or are learning.

Besides middle school history, I teach one period of seventh grade Writing and English. It is always a challenge to make things like thesis statements, prepositions, and phrases come alive and be relative. Last week, I designed a lesson where students had to develop a small game to teach their friends the difference between adjective and adverb phrases. Usually students use something like youtube, jeopardy labs, or powerpoint to design a game. This time the students taught me about a website called Sploder.

Sploder.com is a free website that allows people to develop basic and unique web-based video games. It is extremely easy to use and allows for students to own the process of design. Many students designed games which called for other students to correctly answer questions to move on. If they got it right they proceed in the game. If it was wrong they had to go back. Others had the answer lead them down a path. Enough wrong answers and they would be lost in tunnels and other things. In between questions, the games often called for users to  fight off villains and conquer other obstacles. In brief, it is pretty cool stuff. 

One of my students games


A couple great things are happening here. First, students are active creators using 21st century technology and thinking. Second, they have to design levels that work with their understanding of the material. If they are working with a partner this means they are constantly talking about how they can insert adverb and adjectives phrases into the game. This leads to a learning that is much more authentic than textbook problems. Finally, the students have a product that other students can play and learn from. If you have 15 groups making a game then you have 15 different ways for students to learn and practice.

This also calls for teachers to be constantly moving around the classroom to make sure the different games and levels are built upon correct answers and thinking. I believe that this is another positive because it calls for formative assessment that is built upon conversation rather than bubbling in answers on a quiz. So video games in the classroom pose some interesting questions, but I think if students design them it can be a deeply educational tool full of authentic learning.

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