Electronic games have huge potential to spark learning, panel says

Many parents rue the time their children spend playing computer and video games — especially when they should be doing their homework.

But what if schools could use the excitement and fun of playing digital games to bolster students’ learning — from elementary school through university graduate programs and beyond?

“The potential is huge,” said Richard Halvorson, head of the Games and Learning Society in the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. He was part of a four-person panel of game experts who spoke Tuesday at a Wisconsin Innovation Network luncheon at the Sheraton Hotel at a session dubbed “Pokemon Go… Or No?”

Some schools have embraced technology and are using games, but many continue to use decades-old teaching methods and focus on test-taking mandates, said Halvorson, a UW-Madison psychology professor.

“Every single kid, every single day should have an experience with a ‘digital making’ or game environment,” said Halvorson, whose research deals with how new technology is changing learning in and out of schools.

“They play digital games daily in their civilian lives, but it should be within classrooms, too. The alignment of bringing games into schools has unlimited horizon for growth. We need to give all kids and teachers the chance to use these tools.”

He said games would be a fun way to teach middle school boys who are bored to the point of drooling.

“When you get them in front of a Madden console or a Counterstrike game, they come alive,” he said. “If they are playing Hearthstone and trying to figure out the card combination that can get them up the ladder fast, they are engaged in the world.”

And he said there is no comparison between using the Civilization V game to teach social studies compared to a regular course.

“It’s apples to dirt,” he declared.

David Gagnon, program director for the Field Day Lab at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, said his lab has an “unrelenting curiosity to understand how technologies might intersect with new learning to create increasingly authentic” education.

He also said he hopes that video games, social media and apps can be used to help explain to the public what researchers are doing at UW-Madison and to bridge that sometimes gaping gap.

“We want people to explore and play with the ‘big ideas’ like genetic engineering that scientists are working on,” he said. “So right now, we’re working on a video game about something called ‘Crisper,’ which is like Google Doc for DNA because it allows researchers to edit DNA sequences just like you [edit sentences] on a word processor.”

Getting computer games into schools, he said, will require a culture change “from the bottom up.” As part of a fellowship program coordinated with the state Department of Public Instruction, teachers in DeForest had students replace their final history essay with an interactive video using their own research to simulate a conflict in Africa.

He said his lab also recently released a set of nine “Yard” learning games targeted at middle school science students. Already, he said, the games are being used 1,000 times a day “and it’s only the beginning of the semester.

“I can imagine a world where we have an entire middle school science curriculum that has been produced through interactive simulation instead of just illustrations and facts,” he said. “We want to make those for free and in many languages. We’re talking about a global shift in how science is taught.”

Gagnon said he is not interested in games that people play for “hundreds and hundreds of hours. What I’m interested in are games that pique students’ curiosity and then release you into the world.”

Dan White, who co-founded Filament Learning 11 years ago while in graduate school, said his company has developed 100 educational games, including one with former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor that deals with civics.

The game is called “Win the White House,” and players take on the role of imaginary presidential candidates who must learn how to compete civilly against opponents with different stances on issues such as taxes, climate change, immigration and gun control.

White, whose company has grown to 40 employees, said Madison has at least three other game companies and many independent developers. They are part of an electronic game economy that is worth “many billions of dollars” and is bigger than the U.S. movie industry.

Mary Romolino, a former advertising executive in Chicago and Madison, said she founded “Acme Nerd Games” to because she believes in the promise of game-based learning.

And not just for kids, either, though the first game her company produced was called “Houston, We Have Spinach” and deals with nutrition, but doesn’t scold. In a nutshell, it’s a rocket-building game that teaches children about the importance of eating right at the same time.

As a marketing expert, she said she also saw how digital games “could help my health care and financial institution clients — who deal with subjects that are a little bit complicated — help patients or members who perhaps aren’t always acting in their own best interest.”

She decided it would be a good idea to create apps and games to teach “the right behaviors,” which was the seed for Acme Nerd Games.

“We want to do good in the world and work with businesses that understand the power of games to engage their customers for learning and help people thrive while having some fun, ” she said.

— By Brian E. Clark,
For WisBusiness.com