Teachers re-evaluate value of video games

Switched on: North Fitzroy Primary School teacher Rebecca Martin has embraced gaming technology in her class. Students Eamon, left, and Hemi, enjoy building worlds in “Minecraft”. Photo: Simon O’Dwyer

Ten-year-old North Fitzroy Primary School student Hemi Dietrich and his classmate and collaborator Eamon Pereira, also 10, are huddled around a laptop at their desk, conducting a digital tour showcasing the fruits of their Minecraft project efforts.

Minecraft lets gamers build pretty much anything they want out of virtual blocks – such arrangements are known as sandbox games – and the boys are experts. Hemi says they’ve used maths, internet communications technology and architectural skills to fulfil their vision of constructing a life-like soccer pitch.

“A lot of the time people think, ‘Oh, I play Minecraft on the computer at home. It’s really fun. How could this have any learning?’ So they just jump on and do whatever they want,” he says. “But when you actually think about it, there is quite a bit of learning involved.”

Several Victorian schools would agree with Hemi. Some have been involved in recent trials and research to advance evidence and understanding of how video games-based learning can affect educational outcomes.

Griffith University professor of education Dr Catherine Beavis, an expert in video game-based learning, says schools still have a way to go before they can harness the full educational potential of video games.

“We know games can be highly motivating,” she says. “We know the ways they are organised can lead to deeper factual and conceptual understanding, but we need to find ways to use them that are consistent with the ways teachers teach.”

North Fitzroy Primary teacher Rebecca Martin is a proponent and practitioner of video games-based learning and teaching. She has been in Queensland recently, teaching teachers how to use iPads as gaming resources for learning. She has devised a checklist to help teachers critique whether the games they’re introducing to the classroom are effective learning aids.

Ms Martin says she fields many inquiries from Victorian teaching contacts seeking advice on integrating video games into the classroom. “I’ve got a lot of friends in different schools who are ringing up now and saying, ‘Can you tell me all the apps you were using in prep?’

“So I can tell that it’s coming through a lot of other schools now, which is awesome.”

Although there’s a dearth of specific national evidence about the incidence of video gaming in Australian schools, Interactive Games and Entertainment Association (IGEA) chief executive Ron Curry says the proliferation of edu-games – largely skill-and-drill-type games designed for use in education settings for the specific purpose of education outcomes – has intensified in the past decade. A 2011 whitepaper by 3P Learning concluded that 70 per cent of the 1100 Victorian teachers surveyed use online maths learning platform Mathletics for maths activities in class.

Vincent Trundle, digital education producer at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), says teachers are using video games to create diverse learning experiences:students playing video games at school are critiquing them as texts; sandbox learning games such as Minecraft are allowing students to create their own worlds within the games; students are drawing on their analytical skills to review the experience of participating in games; and many are learning through the experience of advancing through obstacles commercial and educational games throw at them.

At many Victorian schools, kids are making games too; 64 Victorian students recently made video games they entered in ACMI’s Screen It 2014 competition.

Ewan Breakey, 13, a year 8 student at Belmont High School and a finalist in the secondary schools’ video games category, created a game called Procedure. In it, tourists find ways to make money in the community they’re stranded in so they can get back home. Breakey says he’s now interested in a career as a software programmer.

Many educational researchers recognise that games, game design and programming need to be incorporated into contemporary education. The Australian Council of Educational Research Foundation this year ran its first Australian STEM Video Game Challenge, a contest sponsored by PricewaterhouseCoopers, in which secondary school students designed their own video games.

Begun in the US in 2010, as an initiative of President Barack Obama and under the watchful eye of the Smithsonian Institute, the STEM Video Game Challenge taps into students’ passion for playing and designing video games, but the main aim is to spark students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

Australia’s first winners in the years 9-12 Advanced Category were Elwood College year 12 students Josh Caratelli and Liam McLachlan, who designed Smog Game, which focuses on pollution and how it can destroy ecosystems. Their win was announced at the recent video game convention PAX, and the duo also won the (Facebook voted) People’s Choice award.

ACER’s STEM project director Christine Rosicka sees games in schools as the future and says the Elwood students deserved to win. “The game was developed for iPad and has wonderful graphics, well-constructed gameplay and clearly demonstrates the value of reducing pollution,” she says.

At North Fitzroy Primary students, grade 3 students already make their own video games, using “Scratch”. The school’s students are also undertaking a term-long Minecraft project in which they will try to solve the problem of sustaining human life on another planet. Teacher Rebecca Martin is assessing them on the 21st-century learning skills such as collaboration, organisation, technology, communication and creativity and design.

“I think the real focus for our school is to choose games that are open-ended and creative, rather than skill and drill or digital work sheets,” she says. “We’re always looking at open-ended creative games that integrate into a rich learning project.”

Although there’s a large and growing body of evidence of the educational benefits of video games, Ron Curry says finding out more about video games’ educational worth is difficult.

“It’s been difficult to have wide-scale research,” he says. “We need it to be in the classroom so we can test its efficacy but the classrooms are asking about the efficacy before they put it in there.

“We’re happy that the research is being done but certainly we’d like to see some more longitudinal, in-depth, wider research into the benefits.”

Six Victorian schools – including North Fitzroy Primary – are participating in the Australian Research Council’s project Serious Play: Using Digital Games in School to Promote Literacy and Learning in the 21st Century, which is scheduled for publication in 2015.

Conducted by Griffith University, Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and Deakin University, the project examines the way students with different gaming and digital interaction experiences and preferences engage with computer game-based learning in the classroom. It also investigates areas such as how game play varies in different contexts, the most effective pedagogy for game-based teaching and how video games drive creativity, production and innovation.

Dr Beavis is one of the project’s researchers. “I think there is tremendous potential for games-based learning, but also the potential for things to go seriously wrong if the current enthusiasm for games-based learning leads to the introduction of games into the classroom without knowing more about how they actually affect learning, values, understandings … and about how to do this well.”

According to 2011 research into video games-based learning commissioned by the Victorian department of education and early childhood development, principals from the 40 Victorian schools involved expressed concerns about whether the time invested into video games yields similar or greater educational outcomes compared with the non-games approaches to developing the same skills.

Melbourne-based edu-tech expert and author Daniel Donahoo, creator of 2013 pilot program Infinity Learning, a six to eight-week program for 10 to 12-year-olds rolled out in six Victorian schools (using Xbox gaming consoles and video game Disney Infinity) to teachnarrative development, story boarding and character development, says the educational effects of video games are diverse and complex, and can be applied to assist learning in ways other tools – such as text books – can’t.

“It’s actually the culture and community that’s built around the games, and that’s what people don’t realise. Kids playing World of Warcraft or Call of Duty are learning a whole bunch of those leadership skills and all the rest of it,” he says.

IGEA report Digital Games 2014 concludes that 98 per cent of Australian homes with children have computer games. But while technological advances in the digital world continue to enhance the potential of video game-based learning,Vincent Trundle says some of the barriers to using games and gaming are deeply entrenched.

“There is still a very deep underlying idea that video games are naughty things that naughty boys play in their dark room on their own, and they breed anti-social behaviour,” he says. “So much Western opinion is tainted by that.”