Powering the Global Education Conversation: About edCircuit

What Role Will Games Play In The Classrooms Of Tomorrow?

Dr. Berger: Lee, we’ve been talking off the air, but it’s been a long time coming, at least, from my perspective to get a chance to talk with you about your work at Games and Learning. What are the different things you see populating the airwaves, and the types of research taking place?

What is capturing your attention right now in regards to gaming and game-based learning? There are so many different story lines out there; I’d love to hear from your perspective what is drawing your attention.

Lee Banville: Well, I think one of the things that we’re seeing is a growing parallel industry. On the one hand, we have games that are being built for the classroom. The Department of Education is investing in games; there is activity among traditional academic publishers like Scholastic and Pearson who are focusing on games as teaching tools. You see a lot of buzz about games possibly moving beyond the test. That’s one side of the picture.

On this other side, you have the commercially focused games. They are focused on selling to parents, particularly, selling things to parents of young children. There’s a lot of creativity, but they are less wetted to the skills and less focused on connecting the “common core.” There are two industries, and they’re both using games to teach kids, but they have very different customers, and they have various parameters of operation. What I’m noticing is, there are fewer and fewer developers who do both. It’s kind of like publishing used to be years ago; you either write books that people want to buy, or you write books that schools buy and make kids read. (laugh)

I think there’s a bit of divide right now. The hope was that games would be different, right? Games would somehow bridge the gap. Games would be popular for parents and kids, and they’d be popular in schools. Sure, we can talk about Minecraft, we can talk about a couple of games that bridge, but I haven’t seen many. Most games are either built for school, built to have a teacher use it in her class or built for you to use on your iPad or for you to hand your kid and not be nervous that you’re rotting your child’s mind.

The fact that they are still so separate and maybe even getting more separate is something that I find striking, and maybe it shouldn’t seem surprising, but it has kind of surprised me.

DB: How can we better inform the market or these different sets of customers on the full picture of what gaming can be in learning so that they won’t be so separated? One of the fears that I find in having conversations with people like yourself is that we potentially lose opportunities because of a divide, whether it’s innovation or ways in which kids can incorporate and experience curriculum. Games are engaging, that’s one of their main tenants, but we’re so scared to say that games are fun. It’s as if saying games are fun, means we’re not learning.

LB: Correct.

DB: I don’t know where that started, but I hope it’s eroding.

LB: There’s a lot in there. You talk to anybody, and the thing they all hammer on, the thing that they always talk about are games are engaging. They do not say “fun,” because fun is frivolous, they’re “engaging,” and when learning is made more palpable, kids will want to go do it. It’s not something that you have to force down their throats.

Everyone agrees that games are engaging, yet what we see (although a little disheartening but consistent), is a lot of teachers continue to use games as a reward, or as a time kill between setting up classes. It’s not, built into the class; it’s a tack on. It’s equivalent to what we used to do when we would get vaguely entertaining worksheets in school and get to play a game. Gaming is still separated from the class and made separate from the teaching, at least in a lot of classes. Sure, there have been teachers who have gone all in on games, and it looks like a lot of fun, but it’s very different from how most games are experienced by kids out there today.

How do we inform that audience? It’s interesting because it depends on who the audience is and what they want the games to do. Whenever games and the word, assessment, show up in the same conversation when it comes to learning games, we’re essentially talking about tests. I mean, it might be a fun test, but they are tests. Hence, once it goes into that realm, it becomes very rigid. Schools are not messing around with the tests. They are not doing tests to be purely creative or engage a child. They’re doing it to see if that the child is learning, and retaining information. That’s a very different conversation then, are they engaged? Do they want to learn?

I think we see the most traction in the engagement side, when we get actual teachers, using games in the classroom in a way that that inspire other teachers to replicate it. We see everything from people using live action role-playing to digital games to teach. There are successful programs like iCivics that provide a suite of government and history games that are popular and used by a ton of middle schools. But they are still kind of the outlier; the focus right now is testing. If you look at what The Department of Education just funded through their small business innovation grants, you’ll see that they are focused on testing. They think games may be the way to test in the future.

Now, I’m prattling on; I apologize, but if games become the tests, then we enter a whole new realm because there’s an enormous amount of money involved. We spend a lot of money on tests. They’re very stressful to people; people teach for the test. Testing is one of the prime ways that education is shaping this country, and if that shifted from being a Scantron form to a digital game, that that could have a profound effect on education. It’s going to take a long time, but that’s where we see the government focused. We see teachers more focused on smaller opportunities, engaging the kids around, the presidential election for instance and have them play the iCivics game about running for the Whitehouse. We see more games used in that fashion in the classroom, but testing, the far less fun thing, might have the most profound impact.

DB: Lee, do you think that we can connect it to looking at college career readiness and tie in K-12 to K-20? What are we doing in that way? If we shift to a “world” where games are part of assessments, and working backward, so to speak, are we setting up students to be in a world where they use games to prove competencies even in the workplace? I’m not saying they will be playing games, but will their work environment, no matter the profession, mirror the digital world that assessed them? Am I taking it too far?

LB: No, what’s funny is, the professional world is farther down this road than the educational world. If you are a game developer, and you’re like, “Man, I want to do learning games, and I don’t care about the content. I just love the engagement, and I want to design.” Go into that business because the business of turning retail training, such as a guide to “working at the mall” into a game can be very lucrative. Millions and millions of dollars are being poured into that right now because employers have seen the effects earlier than schools.

We see more and more people entering the workforce using this type of digital simulation to get them used to interactions, whether you’re training to be an EMT or you’re training to work at the Gap. You’re running into these kinds of training facilities because companies find them very effective.

If you start to back out of the workforce into education, we see that essentially Pre-K age has an enormous amount of digital gaming aimed at parents. There’s a lot of money in it, there’ are a lot of games being developed.

It starts to drop off when kids enter school because it moves into the realm of present day school learning. Then, we see it spike back up after middle school because the kids are sophisticated enough to do more with the games because they’re not high school learners who apparently get crabby – (laugh)

DB: That doesn’t happen. (laugh)

LB: – Then it drops right off and comes back up when they enter the workforce. It’s funny to see the cyclical role that games play and the ways that people learn. Not just, “one plus one equals two,” but also how they’re going to do their job.

DB: Whether we like it or not, from the education industry perspective, gaming is not only here, but it’s here to stay with a long-standing impact. All of it is leading to assessments, testing, and various other areas. If I’m taking anything away, it’s that on a bigger scale, not only as an educator but also as a parent, the question is, how are we can integrating learning and then assessing that learning?

Let’s shift a little bit. You talked about the goal in colleges. There was a commentary in Games and Learning, that colleges need to catch up on game-based learning. The sad thing is, you would think these institutions of higher learning would be at the forefront because they are that much closer to the professional practices of corporate America. But, to your point and many others, they are far behind in integrating these components. One could argue that integrating game-based learning is a way to keep students on campus, keep them engaged, even in for a distant learner.

LB: Right. It’s funny because I am, in fact, a college professor, so I can talk about this as both, a person who covers game-based learning, and as someone who teaches a college class.

College professors have an enormous freedom. We don’t see that level of teacher freedom in high school, and we certainly we don’t see it in elementary school where there are rigid standards. These standards are expected to be met and are adopted by the state board of education or local board. There is none of this in college. There are no, structural barriers that say, “We don’t do game-based learning.” They absolutely could force the issue, yet colleges tend to be very set in their ways and very decentralized, and the professor’s given total autonomy over their classroom. It’s academic freedom. It’s a major tenant of higher education.

It’s very hard to walk in and say, “Hey, you know what? You need to do more to make your class more engaging through a game. You need to try one of these digital tools that are out there.” We see very little of that sort of thing. First of all, there are not a lot of people developing for the college market. There aren’t a ton of developers out there saying, “Hey, McMillan, instead of pushing, the latest version of your X-textbook, what if we pushed this suite of digital games that teach the same kind of thing?”

When you look at the academic suppliers for higher education, you will notice that they are still fairly traditional in their ways. You don’t see a lot of digital tools that are more than very basic, like, calculator games, for instance. They are very, very basic. Could the professor go off and do something on their own? Absolutely. But because there is no market pushing it, there aren’t a lot of tools that feel natural to teachers at the college level. Opposed to some eighth-grade standard algebra formula. It’s probably not fun to bring up algebra.(laugh)

DB: Those are bad memories for me, eighth-grade algebra (laugh)

LB: I know. I blocked out most of my math education because I didn’t have games. (laugh)

DB: You see? It’s all because you didn’t have games. (laugh)

LB: Higher education could be a huge platform for this, but it takes a decentralized market. When you talk to a developer, they will say, “I don’t know if I can market to schools because I’d be marketing to, thousands of schools around the country. And at least hundreds and hundreds of districts, and that’s something I can’t handle.” Well, college is even worse, because essentially, every classroom is their little fiefdom and you’d have to come up with a product that could be marketed to all of them.

DB: Yes. Let’s take another shift and talk a little bit about a topic that’s interested me lately, and that is gender and technology, specifically gender in gaming. I saw some stories you had on Games and Learning with the founder of GRID and various stories about women that are entering into gaming as developers, founders of companies, etc.

LB: Correct.

DB: Are we doing a good job, from your perspective, in providing a landscape for women that says, one, you’re welcomed in, and two, you bring a different set of skills and talents that could flush out what we’re trying to do in 21st Century learning? Are we connecting not only education environments but earning professional environments as well? Are we doing a better job of this?

LB: Well, the short answer is no, (laugh), but let me give you the longer answer, too. Game-based learning is an area in which see a higher proportion of female developers than we see in the general gaming industry. There’re a couple of reasons for that. If you talk to a lot of people who go into game-based learning, it always resonates with me when I learn they just had kids. They are feeling, “Man, I’ve been making these games for years, and now, I want to make sure that they can help my kid and won’t ruin my child.” It’s because suddenly they have a child. It occurs with both male and female developers. Essentially, a lot of people who go into the game-based learning field are driven by a desire to create better products for their kids, and the mentality is, “if my kid wants something that’s better and educational but also engaging, probably other kids do too.” Sometimes that can be a problem because that represents the full extent of their business strategy. (laugh) There is a gravitational pull of people toward game-based learning around development who have a personal connection to it.

We see both male and female in that field, but we see a lot more female developers than we see in the greater developer field. There are a frighteningly small proportion of game developers that are women. The thing that’s been probably most promising, at least from my perspective, as the father of two daughters, is to see the degree to which there are efforts to inspire kids at the youngest age to not only play games but also make games. Girls Make Games is an effort; GRID is an effort. We see young boys and young girls excited about everything from character development to coding.

We see an investment that we won’t reap the benefits for another, decade, but I think we have shifted in that conversation. Now, computer science and coding are not the just the realm of nerdy boys in their basement, pounding out “Basic.” Coding is not the black box it used to be where only a handful of people knew how to do it. In fact, they have done a very good job turning the learning of coding into a game in a lot of places.

Even though it’s a much friendlier environment when young, we still have huge problems, in the industry itself. For example, The South by Southwest debacle. There was the issue of “You’re invited then not invited” problem and the subsequent blowback from both sides.

Hopefully, these types of conversations will seem incredibly antiquated a decade from now when we have a much higher percentage of the game-playing public; that is not overwhelmingly male. It’s a pretty even split between women and men across a lot of ages. It’s interesting that the market is gender-unequal, from the developer base. I think until we get past that, we’re probably in for continued conversations that feel like, it’s the 1950s and 1960s when it comes to gaming. I think we will get to the ‘70s and ‘80s soon. (laugh)

DB: Hopefully. As a father of a daughter as well, I agree with you. I hope it’s sooner rather than later. I think that there’s an argument to be made that if we can find a better way to integrate females into the field, there are benefits in education. The irony in education, is there are typically more female teachers.

LB: Right.

DB: There are fewer males in the field, and yet it just seems to be, boy, if we could just move the needle in one area, we could impact the experience in the classroom. We could affect what little kids dream of doing, and how they see technology. It might start out in gaming, but they might take those skills somewhere else, too. I think it’s far-reaching.

LB: Well, a lot of states are moving toward incorporating basic computer science as one of those skills that they need to teach, like chemistry or biology. I’m based in Montana, which is not exactly known as the progressive hub of technology or much of anything. But we have gubernatorial candidates this year that are pushing computer science education as one of their primary ways to evolve education in this state.

To me, it’s heartening, because Montana’s going to make all their kids learn computer science. It’s a long way from where we were a decade ago when computer science was called “teaching kids keyboarding.” That was the term.

DB: Yes.

LB: We’re moving beyond that, but it’s taken a long time. It hasn’t happened fast enough, but the fact that it is moving forward is encouraging.

Educators are very concerned about not screwing up education. You cannot mess up education because if you mess up education, you’re messing up a generation of kids. They’re very conservative, not in a political sense but in an evolutionary way, in adopting change. They do not want to blow it for these kids because they feel like that the bar is too high to risk a lot of things. It may inhibit creativity, but it does make sure that when change happens, it’s a tipping point. It just goes, and it doesn’t come back.

DB: We’ve bounced around some different hot topics and areas around gaming, which I think is compelling, and you brought up things that I have yet to hear which I think is fascinating for the audience. So, let’s take this approach as we close, Lee; if I were to bestow upon you the gaming czar title in DC, what would be some of the changes or platforms you would bring to the national conversation? You’ve got a lot of different things you could be addressing. You could approach it strictly from a learning proposition looking at curriculum and assessment. It could be the field itself. What would you be doing if you were the gaming czar?

LB: Oh, man. (laugh)

DB: You don’t want to move to DC, that’s what you’re telling me. (laugh)

LB: I moved away from DC. I used to live in DC, and I moved to Montana. I like it here. Let’s say I’m telecommuting; if I’m doing this. There are a couple of things I would focus on. I’m a little worried about creating a purely academic game publishing industry, which is kind of, where they’re headed. I think education could use a lot of different digital tools. Let’s get away from the word gaming for a second. We see companies like Google offering Google Docs or Google Drive in the classroom, and that’s super useful. I use that in my class every semester. You use Google to shell out and sort documents versus, other systems. It’s efficient; everybody gets it, and it’s fine.

There’s a lot of focus on developing digital tools like Google Docs. But let’s say you decided you wanted to use Minecraft to do something. And everyone’s says, “Oh, that’s great.” Well, I can do Minecraft, but the problem is, suddenly, we’ve got a room full of 30 kids, and you have to manage the “logging on” to Minecraft. You have to manage how all the students can participate. You’re going to have to manage, and you’re going to have to get some feedback unless it’s just, “go play Minecraft for 20 minutes and stop driving me crazy.” Is it being used to teach something? I’ve seen examples of where they’re using Minecraft to teach quantum mechanics, right? I mean, high-end stuff and if you wanted to assess that, then you would have to get 30 or so reports out of Minecraft to tell you what a kid learned. An example would be, each kid learned how to do X, Y, and Z but didn’t know how to do A and B, that, sort of thing.

So, you start to see that you need a bunch of different things. You need the game. You need the management of kids (i.e. logging in passwords, etc.). You have whatever kind of assessment element you will need. In a lot of ways, it’s three different jobs. There’s some IT, like managing of passwords, groups, organization, making sure everybody can log in, and everything will load onto the computers. But right now, the games are trying to do that, too. We have the assessment side where it’s like, okay, did they learn each of the objectives that you had set out in this lesson? Which is another thing that the client makes the game do, and then finally, it’s got to be a game, right? (laugh)

DB: Oh, yeah, the game, right? (laugh)

LB: It’s an unenviable position. There have been Glass Lab and some other experiments where they try to build a thing that would do all of it. But now I’m starting to see companies crop up like Clever is one that just does logins, they just do the password management. That’s their job, only, and that’s all it does. And it’s super functional but super useful.

We have companies emerging, and we have the assessment of the gaming people still out there. If I were the head of the Whitehouse, I would be focused on having a frank conversation with the school side, if indeed we are focused on getting these in schools. Are we going to use these instead of tests? Part of me is skeptical about that. I would love it to be true. I would love to see that, but maybe I lived in DC for too long. I’m skeptical that the government would stop testing and invest in something called a “game” to assess the learning of students.

I wonder if we can shift education that far actually to get them to view a game as an assessment tool; otherwise, what we’re doing is, we’re spending an enormous amount of time on the “big ask” which is, will you use a game as a test?

If we can’t make them, then maybe we should focus on creating games that will fit into a classroom, and that will engage students and will get them excited about learning X-subject and not worry so much about the giant “A,” assessment. I might be wrong, and I kind of hope I am wrong. I hope they wake up one day, and all the school supervisors around the country say, “Yeah, let’s get rid of these horrible tests that everyone hates, and create a much more dynamic learning environment that is gauged by a digital experience.” Boy, that sounds magical to me, like unicorns would be awesome, too, you know. (laugh)

DB: One (Unicorn) just road right behind you. (laugh)

LB: Right. It would be great, but I worry we’re looking at the long games, the big institutional, structural shift, that we’re missing enormous opportunities to invest in a really a good math game, for instance, that could engage kids. Maybe a smaller math game would help a student get ahead in Algebra in one year, for example.

Companies like Motion Math and others are doing great games, and they’re not getting into schools that well, and I feel that’s because they’re so focused on, “God, if we could just fix the testing system.” I would try to focus on coming up with the platforms that get solid, research-based games into the hands of teachers and see what happens. I think we might see a lot more success than banking on the big shift. That’s where I would focus. I’ve noticed an enormous focus on assessment, and I haven’t seen a huge payoff yet.

DB: Yeah, and I think you wouldn’t have a slow day in DC. You would be very, very busy.

Lee, I appreciate you bouncing around these different topics, and sharing the complexity. It’s as if the gaming industry doesn’t want to be thought of as just games anymore. There’s a lot of information and rigor that is going into development. I believe it speaks to an overarching change, in general, that is impacting us in so many ways.

Go to Games and Learning, and make sure to check out Lee, and all he’s doing.

LB: Yes, thanks.

Lee Banville is editor of Gamesandlearning.org and editorial director of the Games and Learning Publishing Council. He is also an Associate Professor of Journalism at The University of Montana. For 13 years he ran the online and digital operations of the PBS NewsHour, overseeing coverage of domestic and international stories.

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