REDMOND, Wash., Sept. 24 2003 — A group of college professors, technologists and scientists sat rapt recently on Microsoft’s Redmond campus while a series of Jeeps was blown sky high on a screen in front of them.
In front of the screen was Kurt Squire, a professor at the University of Wisconsin. His presentation was one of many at the two-day Higher Education Leaders Symposium held Sept. 9-10, an event exploring the evolution of technology and education — and the ways in which games and lifelike simulations can create virtual worlds that teach real-life lessons.
“The players noticed the excellent physics simulation going on behind the scenes in this game, Halo, and started playing around with how the simulated environment works,”
“Halo is a good example of the kind of open-ended environment, use of genre to stimulate interest, and rich, interactive play that’s possible today. But if you look at the pure physics simulations out there on the market right now, you’re not going to be able to do these kinds of things.”
Although pyrotechnics are not normally a topic of discussion at Microsoft, Squire’s presentation made an important point for the day: video games have a way of holding students’ interest, engaging them in practice, and helping them get a handle on more traditional academic subjects — in this case force, angle and trajectory — even if the students aren’t aware they are participating in a learning experience.
“Exploding jeeps may seem like a strange example, but games have a way of depicting historical, physical, forensic or ethical situations in an educational and engaging format,”
says Diana Oblinger, executive director of Higher Education at Microsoft.
“We want to better understand the potential value this medium can bring to collegiate learning environments, and what role Microsoft can play in helping to facilitate the discussion.”
According to Oblinger, games and simulations have become part of the fabric of college life, albeit mostly in a recreational way. Studies from the University of Illinois-Chicago show that nearly two-thirds of U.S. college students are regular or occasional game players — with many college-age men today reporting that they play games more than 15 hours per week. Students integrate games with their daily routines, playing while visiting with friends, listening to music or even doing their homework.
It’s a phenomenon that many who attended the recent Microsoft symposium have noticed in their own work. Don Marinelli, co-director of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, says that the time students spend with games today is on a par with the time earlier generations spent reading.
“It is common for young people to spend 50, 60, 70 hours or more in a particular virtual world playing a game,”
“We could just as easily say it took 60 hours or so to read ‘War and Peace.’ The difference is that games provide a ‘multi-sensorial’ environment. The students are there in body as well as in spirit, and hence the effects in terms of memory and stimulus are all the more enhanced. So to me, gaming as a means of teaching this next generation of students makes all the sense in the world, and we’re going to have to look at how these games and other technologies today can fit into the classroom environment.”
On that point Oblinger agrees.
“Students in college may have more years of experience with games than with reading. So it is a natural evolution to integrate that into the traditional portfolio of learning tools — provided it has learning value.”
The evolution of learning
During the Higher Education Leaders Symposium, much of the discussion over the use of games in education centered on the actual process of learning. Participants agreed that learning is often hard work, but it can also be enjoyable — the key is that students learn best when they are active, when they are solving problems and when they are engaged.
“We do many things well in higher education.”
“But as important as learning is to all of us, personally and professionally, there is an ongoing desire to do better. We know things about how people learn today that we didn’t years ago. Our students have different attitudes and aptitudes. Technology allows us to take approaches that have never before been feasible. As all of those things converge, perhaps it isn’t surprising that many people are beginning to look at games and simulations as effective learning environments.”
What games represent, she says, is the concept of learning by doing, which colleges have long recognized. Mock trials, for example, have been practiced for decades at law schools. Role playing is common in colleges and even high schools as a way to help students understand both a subject as well as the interplay of human interaction.
“I believe the word ‘relevant’ has an important place in the classroom,”
“To just teach history without underscoring how that history applies to the world today — and to students’ own lives — is to do a great disservice in my opinion.”
According to Randy Hinrichs, group manager for Learning Research at Microsoft, this focus on context and the application of knowledge in lifelike settings makes games a valuable addition to learning curricula. Games and simulations, he says, allow faculty and students to experience a broader range of situations firsthand.
“In these simulated worlds, students are able to learn more effectively by assuming a different role, perspective, objective, even a different gender or age, and they can begin to explore what they think that character would most likely do,”
“If the human and artificial intelligence models built into the game are accurate, it allows students to learn pretty effectively what it would be like to be President Lincoln or to be a woman in colonial Williamsburg and think about how to solve problems that they might have faced. It gives them a perspective they wouldn’t have just sitting in the classroom.”
According to learning experts, this kind of role play can help students achieve one of the primary goals of education — self reflection, or the ability to analyze situations objectively and empathize with the way somebody else would be making decisions.
Beyond self reflection, Hinrichs says that games bring a wealth of other characteristics that help enhance the learning process.
“Games provide scenarios to think critically and problem-solve; they can provide rich feedback in context, they increase time on task, they motivate. And with the technology we have today, games can immerse students in a different world, in a personalized way.”
Another dimension that games can bring to learning is the ability to synthesize knowledge from various subjects and put it into practice within a social dynamic. The game Civilization III, for example, requires players to deal with political, scientific, military, cultural and economic issues spanning six millennia. Environmental Detectives, another game developed by Squire and his associates, uses handheld global positioning devices and Pocket PCs to interact with students as they sleuth out an environmental disaster, using their own campus as a real-world backdrop for the game.
In each situation, cooperation and teamwork are needed, along with the ability to make deductions based on a variety of information.
“In many of these games, students must collaborate to achieve a goal,”
“They have to negotiate objectives very clearly up front. They need to understand what resources are available and what partnerships they need to engage in. Then on top of that they’re making decisions about the right way to do things. In the case of Environmental Detectives, that means the most effective plan for cleaning up a toxic spill. So you have social concerns and ethics enter into the scene as well.”
This kind of collaborative, multi-tasking approach is actually closer to the way kids today think and work anyway, according to Oblinger.
“Beyond the fundamentals of how people learn, we are discovering that students today possess a new type of ‘information literacy,’ based around the multimedia environments they’re accustomed to.”
This means that students’ understanding of a subject is no longer based primarily on text or authority-based learning, but on discovery or experiential learning methods developed through exploring the Internet, working in teams, and yes, playing games. This can create a disconnect between the way earlier generations experienced learning and the way today’s students prefer to experience it.
“The focus today is more on comprehension and problem solving than on memorization and recall,”
“These students favor a different learning style that tends toward teamwork, experience, engagement and the use of technology.”
According to Marinelli, these changes in how young people learn should be central to how we approach education in the age of technology.
“We have to start by reordering the classroom topography,”
“We can’t just incorporate new technology into the standard classroom, which has largely been the same since Socrates. It’s time to think out of that box and move beyond it. Get the movie projectors in there. Take advantage of technology with input devices and display devices. Get these kids to look up from their note-taking and participate.”
Games in the Classroom?
Games and simulations have been used by the military and civil service organizations for years to train soldiers, firefighters, police and others to respond to situations, without actually putting themselves in danger during the learning process.
It’s become a proven method for these fields, but whatever potential games hold to enhance the way people learn, they may not appear in classrooms tomorrow. While most attendees at the Higher Education Leaders Symposium are eager to bring the future of educational games to fruition, most agree that both the games themselves and the market for them need to evolve before games and simulations explode into the classroom.
According to participants, the tipping point is near. One area where educational games can improve on current technology tools is in quickly providing useful feedback to participants, and allowing them to apply more and more knowledge as the game progresses.
“In a game designed for entertainment, you can play forever and never achieve the outcome, because it’s the game play itself that is exciting,”
“But in an educational setting it’s pretty clear that you have to achieve a certain objective by a certain amount of time and apply that knowledge to some task moving forward. That’s when you know you’re being educated.”
According to Oblinger, there’s also the matter of finding a useful and seamless way to integrate games and simulations into the learning experience — and educational institutions — as we know them.
“Institutions are confronting the challenge of integrating the strengths of the classroom, the one-on-one experience with the faculty member, the interaction with other students, as well as technology and a new learning experience to see if learning can be improved, she says.”
As we experiment, learn and share, everyone will benefit.
“We think games can be a big part of enhancing learning, but how do we bring that to life? Where will the leadership come from, both in terms of the industry that develops these games as well as the institutions that will implement them? What principles will guide the development of games that are truly effective in helping students learn? Are we even ready to believe that games can be serious and deep learning experiences?”
These questions, she says, are the reason behind events such as the Higher Education Leaders Symposium.
“As interest in educational games continues to increase, and the promise they hold becomes clear, we need to find the best way to make that promise a reality. Bringing these great minds together and starting the discussion is the first step.”