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Home arrow Latest Articles arrow Computer games and realising their learning potential:
Computer games and realising their learning potential: PDF Print E-mail
Written by Karl Royle   
Jul 08, 2009 at 09:24 AM
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Computer games and realising their learning potential:
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Crossing Borders, Blurring Boundaries and Taking Action.

Karl RoyleThey do though don’t they though - children learn things from computer games while they play.

There has been considerable interest in the use of computer games for learning mainly due to their ubiquitous nature amongst learners and for their powers of motivation. In 2009 it is generally accepted that computer games not only engage young people, Prachett (2005) found that some 78% of 16-19 year-olds play computer games and 87% of 8-11s and 88% of 12-15s played games on a games console at home in the UK and Lenhardt Et al (2008) who note that 99% of boys and 94% of girls across the socio-economic spectrum in the USA play some kind of computer or video game, but also promote learning. Papert (1998) MacFarlane (2002) Gee (2003) Gee and Hayes (2009), Prensky (2000), BBFC (2006) all espouse the benefits of computer gaming and note the skills and attributes that they promote in learning.

Although lacking in evidence from purely empirical research it is important to consider the types of skills that children learn informally from computer gaming both alone and collectively (either on line or physically together).   The observed and anecdotally claimed skills developed by computer gaming engagement go beyond the more commonly stated attributes such as hand to eye coordination to include: spatial navigation; resource management; team working and communication; literacy development; and a range of problem solving skills and metacognition through reflective practice. They also promote the learning potential of individuals in that they are: non discriminatory (if you have access an access point you can play); allow players/users to gain kudos and status within the game regardless of external constructions of identity (a ‘bad’ speller at school could be a champion player of FIFA 09); and are personalised at the point of use, (where everyone’s game is different whilst remaining similar) and can lead to deep and broad learning chain experiences. Gee and Hayes (ibid) exemplify this latter point through their learning story around ‘Jade’ who developed graphic design and commercial skills through initially playing the Sims and designing clothes for Sims characters.

Similar stories abound where learners have developed interest in particular domains of study through initial game based engagement. These skills and to some extent, knowledge acquisition in games that use more factually accurate content such medieval total war, full spectrum warrior and possibly assassin’s creed, are also firmly located within an interactive, problem based, (Boud and Felletti 1991) social constructivist (Vygotsky 1978) paradigm within situated communities of practice, Wenger (1998).  It is interesting to note that the learning associated with gaming sits quite harmoniously within proposed 21st century skills frameworks. 

According to the partnership for 21st century learning (2007) these skills include: Learning and Innovation, Information, Media and Technology Skills and Life and Career Skills. If some of the subsets of these are examined the skills required for preparing students for  “increasingly complex life and work environments in the 21st century” such as: Critical Thinking and Problem Solving; Communication and Collaboration; Flexibility and Adaptability; Initiative and Self-Direction; are very much aligned with the world of computer game playing. Indeed, if computer games were given the status in the curriculum that their cultural pervasiveness perhaps requires then further 21st century skills such as Information Literacy, Media Literacy, ICT (Information, Communications and Technology) Literacy. Further, if we extend our net to include the personal and social skills required in 21st century learners it could be argued that online and collaborative gaming can also develop: Social and Cross-Cultural Skills; Productivity and Accountability; Leadership and Responsibility.

Learning in games is predominantly informal and has little relationship with schooling

Clearly there are things to be learned for educators from looking at gaming and attempting to apply that within formal schooling, however research clearly places the benefits of learning through games predominantly on the outside of formal schooling as a bi product of a leisure pursuit.  This does not mean that there have not been successful attempts to use gaming in schooling (these are outlined later in this paper) but does argue that such attempts have been problematic and far from universally accepted. Educators and academic commentators look wistfully at gaming perhaps because the see within it a pedagogy that works for individuals and groups and raises questions about what we consider to be a ‘worthwhile educational pursuit’ when contrasted with ‘efficient but effective’ schooling. There is nothing harder to change than an effective school.
“Gamers claim that playing is educational; it familiarizes you with ways of being and doing that you would otherwise not know about. It is sometimes laughingly conceded (by gamers) that much of this learning has little relevance to ordinary life.” (Cragg, Taylor, and Toombs 2006, p10)
What is certainly true is that when gamers are playing games they are engaged in learning of a type that is a sort of Utopia for educators who are constrained by the limits of imposed curricula, the standards regimen and the high-risk climate in which they operate. Hadfield and Jopling (2008) note that schools need learning, which is:

  • deep (reflective, metacognitive, beyond course requirements)
  • authentic (‘real-world’ contexts, meaningful to students’ lives)
  • motivational (task/goal oriented, inspires students to further learning).

These are arguably all qualities of engagement inspired by computer gaming.
Gee and Hayes (op cit) expand on this point illustrating how the attributes of informal learning through popular culture can be seen as a form of ‘public pedagogy’ and argue that the attributes or design of informal learning should be adopted or recreated as a philosophy for schooling/education.
They argue that public pedagogy based on interactive gaming integrates design (for learning), resources (that support learning) and engagement in practice through ‘affinity’ spaces.  This approach echoes the writing of Wenger (op cit) where learning is seen as integral to everyday engagement in practices of all kinds rather than a specialized practice undertaken in educational institutions Thorpe (2004). This notion that learning is something that also happens beyond school and the actual articulation that this kind of learning is both important and natural in and of itself and worthy of replication within schooling is perhaps crucial in harnessing the learning potential of gaming for both teachers and learners.
As Wenger notes:

The difference between mere doing and learning, or between mere entertainment and learning, is not a difference in terms of activity. It is not that one is mindless and the other thoughtful, that one is hard and the other easy, or that one is fun and the other arduous. It is that learning – whatever form it takes- changes who we are by changing our ability to participate, to belong, to negotiate meaning. (Wenger 1998, p226)

Thus one would think that a movement towards designing learning within schooling that emulates the practices of informal learning would be a positive step for both learners and teachers and would remove the separateness from life relevance that many learners feel when faced with formal school based learning. Incorporating or tapping into the existing processes of learning within communities of practice around gaming or other practices would therefore seem to be a sensible plan of action and yet it is fraught with difficulty. And it is fraught with difficulty for three main reasons: first games just don’t fit in with the culture and practice of schooling; secondly communities of practice create strong boundaries – the deeper the practice the stronger the boundary- and these boundaries are difficult to cross or broker both for teachers who might want to incorporate games into their curriculum and for learners who might want to transfer their situated practice based skills to another context; and thirdly, this is connected to the second point – teachers just don’t know enough about the learning potential within games as recent research by Futurelab (2009 p3) points out.

There is a persistent lack of knowledge in the profession about how games might be used for educational purposes and that many young people may not be able to make the connections between gaming and learning.

They also found that teachers aren’t really into gaming finding that;

42% of teachers never play computer games for their own leisure; 34% play at least once a month or more frequently (21% play at least every week). Teachers are not therefore, in the main, a significant gaming population. The fact that over 40% never play games at all is likely to be a contributing factor to the lack of knowledge and skills in gaming often cited as a key reason for teachers not to use games in schools

Yet, there are two important observations to make here, the first being that teachers don’t have to be engaged within a practice to see or realise its learning potential and the second being that even when deeply engaged themselves within a gaming practice they still might not be able to see the connections between games and learning because of the strong boundaries created by that practice.



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