Perspectives on Game-Based Learning from the SXSW Edu Committee

Science Explored | Published  March 22, 2013




Video games today often have a bad reputation.  If you close your eyes and imagine a typical student’s after school day, you might picture an reclusive, rarely-seen-outside-of-their-room child staring unwaveringly at a screen as they play the latest edition of Toca’s Hair Salon while concerned parents wait on the other side of her door.  In fact, market research giant NPD reports that 91% of children and teens play video games.  However, although video games are played by the vast majority of students they should not be villainized, as a growing body of research shows that they can give education a big boost by engaging students through the medium they like best.  Nonetheless, those that disagree cite differently stating that not only do video games metaphorically “rot the brain” but also induce violent crime. Other studies counter these claims, saying that violent video games can actually be cathartic, reducing actual stress and violence.  

Curious with the debate at hand about the use of  video games in the classroom, we recently attended the SXSWedu Conference in Austin where we had the chance to hear from several thought leaders in game-based learning (GBL).  From ardent antagonists to faithful followers, there was no shortage of opinions on GBL.  Our hope is that what we learned will offer you a fresh perspective on what place (if any) video games can play in your classroom. 

Three of SXSWedu’s most prominent game-based learning figures were Scott Osterweil of MIT’s Education Arcade, Katie Culp of the Education Development Center, and Greg Chung of National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing.  As three of the field’s giants, they naturally had different perspectives on what GBL should look like.  Keep in mind that none of them are suggesting that we should bring games like World of Warcraft or Halo 4 into the classroom, but instead agree that the power of GBL is in tailor-making video games that are applicable to the classroom.


Education Development Center - opinion 

Katie Culp was a strong supporter of metaphorical games; she showed curious onlookers a few still images of an elementary game in which students guide a robot to mix sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide and make energy crystals to continue the game and keep themselves fueled.  If your thoughts jumped to “photosynthesis,” you hit the nail on the head, but the game never brought up the scientific terms you would expect from an in-class lecture. Culp claims that the power of these games lay in the construction of an “intellectual scaffold”.  This scaffold is an allegory to the real world; the game does not actually teach the student the process of photosynthesis but rather provides context for it.  The hope is that students would play these games at home, and like they would discover in a hands-on experiment, they would begin to make connections to what had happened in the video game. That’s the kind of connection Culp told the audience that an “intellectual scaffold” is designed to produce.  Nonetheless, she openly admitted that it’s virtually impossible to amass data to show that this type of GBL produces measurable gains on standardized tests, but they might holistically improve a student’s thought process.

National Center for Research and Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing - opinion

Greg Chung had a very different view.  Chung states that narrow, skill-based “gamified games” are most likely to be successful both in implementation and in improving student learning outcomes. Confused at the term "gamified games," we asked ourselves what this means.  The answer was that these are "pseudo-games" that take dull activities such as vocabulary practice and give them the glitz and glam of a video game.  In reality, this kind of GBL has no immersive story like Culp’s version – the game is really just a way to do skills practice in an entertaining, lively way.  Chung adopted this view because he knows that the best indicator of whether or not a teacher uses an educational resource is if it measurably improves student success.  Though immersive worlds can be good to develop higher order problem solving, that is not measurable in today’s testing climate and thus not useful.  In some ways, we have to disagree; developing higher order problem solving is necessary, even if a standardized test can verify it.  Chung’s views are nonetheless understandable, and he was not opposed to developing higher-order problem solving abilities.  He just seeks something that also helps kids be successful on the tests that determine how they progress to college. 

MIT Education Arcade - opinion

Scott Osterweil represented the last thought camp on GBL.  His focus was not on the content of a game but how it is designed to maintain student investment.  Osterweil cited three necessary design features:  1) measurable progress towards completion (this does not mean the students are awarded coins or stars as they progress; rather, students can intrinsically feel they are getting better at playing the game and performing the in-game tasks), 2) bite-sized accomplishments that redirect instead of punish failure, and 3) a game narrative with which students can engage (the game is not a story-on-rails; you can choose to follow different paths).  Above all, Osterweil told the audience that a game should feature academic problem solving, but it has to be sandwiched with authentic, frivolous fun.

STEMscopes - our own opinion

The camps are divided - some see game-based learning as progressive, entertaining, and educating while others do not. Without saying it, Culp, Chung, and Osterweil would all agree that the power of small group teaching, hands-on learning, and social interaction are critical to authentic learning.  GBL represents a change in the medium through which content can be delivered to students, and is just one more avenue on delivering the overall message.  Nevertheless, no game (yet) enables students to work collaboratively to solve a problem that they personally identify, research, and solve through application of the scientific method.  One fact is certain, technology is rapidly advancing, and the role of GBL is likely to take on new forms as access to more reliable Internet and mobile device services become increasingly available for schools.



Which STEM subjects are of interest to you?

Ensuring your privacy is our priority. By submitting this form, you confirm that you are over the age of 18 and agree to abide by our terms and conditions and privacy notice, and consent to allow Accelerate Learning to store and process the submitted personal information. Accelerate Learning uses the information provided to contact you about our relevant content, products, and services and is committed to your privacy. You can opt-out at any time.