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A game changer

As games-based learning continues to grow, are teachers still hesitant to blur the lines between 'learn time' and 'play time?'

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | June 10, 2015 | Primary

Young people today are surrounded and immersed in technology, and have grown up using the latest devices and gadgets from an incredibly young age. Video games in particular are an intrinsic part of their everyday life – the average young person racks up somewhere in the region of 10,000 hours of gaming by the age of 21. Many parents and a teaching generation that perhaps were not exposed to such technology when growing up see this as time that could be better spent on other endeavours. Some of the time this may be true, but as the gaming medium has gripped the 21st century generation, perhaps we should look at the skills it does develop and how we can harness that to aid educational development.

“Problem solving, collaboration, IT literacy and confidence are all evident in every game, every day,” says Steve Holt, Product Director at Frog Education. Frog supplies e-learning software to more than 11,000 schools and educational establishments, and was also named ICT Company of the Year at the Bett Awards in January.

Holt continues: “Blurring learn and play time does not have to be to the detriment of teaching and learning. As young people use technology throughout their lives, activities in the classroom can be continued at home and learning becomes increasingly personalised to a particular child, as they are able to access resources wherever and whenever they want.” 

Enjoyment facilitates learning

It is increasingly clear that enjoyment facilitates learning, so perhaps gaming should be viewed as a valued channel for learning, not a distraction. “The easiest way of thinking about this is to compare gaming to physical education,” explains Sarah Marks, Director of Education, MyCognition. It is undisputed that PE is good for children’s health, and that sports games help motivate children, teach them teamwork and encourage them to exercise – enabling them return to the classroom mentally refreshed.”

The challenge for game developers is to convince teachers and parents of the similar benefits of gaming. “Evidence from trials in the US suggests that gamification can raise educational performance by over 10%,” she continues. “MyCognition has contributed to this research process with a 600-strong trial to evaluate the benefits to cognition from playing our games: the trial found statistically significant gains to performance in key cognitive domains for the children who played the games – an encouraging result which tells us that gaming can make a real difference to educational outcomes.”

Growing the resource box

Games are powerful motivators and integrating them into education can give educators another tool in their resource box to get students learning. “Gamification does not simply imply creating a game,” says Jayne Warburton, CEO, 3P Learning, Europe & ME. “It means making education more fun and engaging, without diminishing or undermining pedagogical credibility,” she adds.

Gamification is about more than making boring subjects 'fun' – though this is a common perception, as Warburton explains: “It’s more accurate to say that gamification is about engagement. It works largely by providing instant feedback – quickly rewarding even the smallest level of progress.

3P Learning offers a range of online learning resources for maths, literacy and science for pupils aged from Reception to Key Stage 4. Its digital resources, Mathletics, Spellodrome, Reading Eggs and IntoScience, are aligned with over a dozen curricula and used by more than 18,000 schools internationally. “We know (and teachers are constantly telling us) that 'game'-based digital resources boost learners’ motivation – and thereby their learning – by leveraging cognitive, emotional and social needs,” adds Warburton. “The narrative of a game helps achieve mastery in challenging academic tasks, simultaneously invoking emotions such as pride and frustration, while also allowing learners to test out new social identities that grant them academic kudos.”

Getting in the game

For schools wishing to test out the games-based learning technique, perhaps the first thing to remember is that ‘gamification’ is actually quite a broad term covering a vast spectrum of activities. “Gamification is not always about playing actual games, comments Frog Education’s Steve Holt.

It includes the techniques around gaming for engagement too, so consider if there are any easy methods of trying these without needing the game itself. For example, rewards and achievements are a core component of gamification – badges, certificates and stickers are not new and are all tried and tested methods for engaging students. Traditionally these are largely generic for ‘good work’ or ‘Headteachers' award’ and so are uncertain in when a student can achieve them or sometimes even what the criteria was.”

Holt explains that an easy enhancement would be to expand this to create specific ‘challenges’ for the student to ‘unlock’ new badges and to have a journey of many different achievements to aim for. “Many commercial games, particularly apps and ‘mini games’ use challenges and achievements as the principle engagement method. Games may use things like logging in daily, spending X amount of time, doing something 10 times – all short-term goals that are easy steps for the student to clearly understand, define and achieve. Rewards used in this way are a really easy way to encourage the behaviours we want to replicate – perseverance, effort and problem solving – which don’t create work or fundamentally change teaching. They are an easy first step into gamification.”

Part of your teaching armoury

The flexible nature of gaming means that gamification can be introduced both as a school-wide initiative and by individual teachers as part of their teaching armoury. “Games designed to teach children subject-specific knowledge, such as Duolingo for languages, should be embedded into those lessons, potentially as a starter or plenary, making it clear that gaming is a valued learning tool,” says MyCognition’s Sarah Marks.

“Our games, however, are non-subject specific, and have a broader intention of improving children’s cognitive health meaning that they do not have to adhere to a specific part of the curriculum. Our experience tells us that the best results are evident in students playing just after lunch when attention and concentration are hard to maintain – providing a focus which puts them in an optimal state for learning.”

Freemium options

Schools wishing to trial games-based learning can also tap into the number of free trials many suppliers are now offering. Events such as the World Education Games or the recent Chemical Reaction Challenge also offer schools a free way of introducing the concept.

“This time of year can be a great time for schools to explore gamification,” says 3P’s Jayne Warbuton. “Once the dreaded SATs are over, the summer term can often feel like a slow rundown to the summer break, so why not take the opportunity to try out various digital resources? It can be particularly beneficial when suppliers sometimes offer extended subscriptions over the holidays to help offset summer ‘learning loss’.”

With the UK schoolchildren of today being the first generation of ‘digital natives’ and with many classrooms equipping pupils 1:1 with tablet devices or running BYOD schemes, it is inevitable that gamification will increasingly feature in e-learning too. While some teachers will understandably remain uncomfortable with technology and the techniques now necessary to engage young people, fundamentally gamification can improve both attainment and the teaching and learning experience, and is here to stay.

We've only scratched the surface of games-based learning. If you’ve got something to say about gamification, email the editor: rebecca.paddick@wildfirecomms.co.uk 

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