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Updated 8:00 AM March 9, 2009

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Class examines videogames as learning tool

For students, the first-ever listing of a Videogames and Learning class surely sounded like fun.

But while fun is part of the class experience, now nine weeks into the semester, there are deeper lessons to take from the class, presented from 10:30 a.m.-noon Mondays and Wednesdays in the School of Education.

Matthew Leach, a senior in kinesiology, evaluates a video game as part of a class presentation. (Photo by Scott Galvin, U-M Photo Services)

On this day Nic Neinken, a junior from Atlanta, Ga., majoring in engineering, is evaluating “Gears of War 2,” about super soldiers fighting an alien invasion. He stands against a classroom wall upon which he taped color images of art from the game along with his printed observations. From chairs turned toward him, a dozen of his classmates listen as he takes his turn making a presentation.

A good quality of the game, he says, is that being shot doesn’t mean elimination from the game, allowing players to try again and hone their skills. “You can recover,” he says. “It makes you feel you’re in the game, it’s not so rigid.”

Amy Gilbert, a senior and sociology major from Chicago, evaluated “Grand Theft Auto Vice City” for the group. She presents a list of “Important Learning Principles” in her wall-mounted poster presentation. Principle No. 2 is: “Learners can take risks in a space where real-world consequences are lowered.” In the class, students learn that one way videogames promote learning is to encourage experimentation and lower the costs of failure, allowing players to explore different potential solutions until they learn the best path. In school, by contrast, students are often taught that failure is only negative, instead of an opportunity to learn and develop a more robust understanding of the eventual solution.

Gilbert and some other students preface their presentations by saying they’re not big videogame fans, but Neinken responds, “I’m addicted. I’ve been up till 3 in the morning trying to beat part of this game.”

The class filled quickly after it was offered in November. It includes students from across the university, including LSA, engineering, Art & Design, business, kinesiology and education.

The use of various technologies encourages student participation and engagement in the class. They include wikis and a question tool that lets the 70 class members suggest topics, ask questions, and vote live with their cell phones during class discussion. Students also are expected to develop skills as presenters, discussion leaders and writers.

While students don’t actually play games in class, they do share evaluations of videogames and the creative ways game designers teach rules and concepts, which players must grasp to play well.

Developing understandings of how successful games motivate and teach and of how their underlying design principles engage players and keep them engaged are the keys to this course, says instructor Barry Fishman, associate professor of educational studies and learning technologies. “There is much that we can learn from these games about how to design better learning environments in school.”

While the educational community in general is dubious about the value of videogames for teaching and learning, he says, some are taking a different view — among them a charter school slated to open next fall in New York City, its curriculum guided by videogame learning principles.

“A well-designed videogame has clear learning goals, continuous monitoring of the player’s progress and a ‘just right’ level of challenge. It offers endless opportunities for practice and reinforcement, encourages exploration and inquiry, and is highly motivating and goal oriented,” Fishman says. “These ideas are consistent with our best understanding of how people learn and are entirely consistent with how we approach the study of high performance teaching and effective learning environments in the School of Education.”

“We understand that the best teaching is sensitive to the students’ level of ability and adapts to ensure that all students are optimally challenged,” he says, noting that games are great at teaching people how to play them and then gradually increasing the level of challenge as players’ (or learners’) skills improve.

While there are game studies programs or courses at several U.S. universities including the University of Wisconsin, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, Fishman says his course presents a unique combination of theories of learning, motivation, and evaluation. The class is drawing interest: Its Web site has been visited by people in 21 states and seven countries.

The objectives of the course are for students to use videogames to develop critical perspectives on learning, interactive media and games; an understanding of basic theories of learning; and how empirical research and evaluation can be used to assess the relationship between games and learning. In addition to examining commercial games, students hear from a variety of guest speakers who are designers, researchers, and critics of games in education. And for the final project, students take what they have learned and design their own games to promote learning.

Now decades removed from the days of Pacman, Atari and the original Super Mario, videogames are a bigger industry than Hollywood, Fishman says. “They’re bigger in terms of dollars, and in terms of the time kids spend with them. People play at home on consoles, on computers, and even on their iPods and cell phones.”

The first studies of games and learning centered on their potential value for training simulations, such as for the military. Fishman’s class examines this history, but also explores a broad variety of games and learning applications.

Fishman says one key to the best video games is the way they encourage identity play — the player is moved to identify with the game’s hero. “How would science class be different if students were encouraged to put themselves in the shoes of a scientist?” he asks. “By creating a productive context for students to explore science within, motivation is higher and students are more likely to retain and be able to apply what they have learned later.”

Liz Kelly-Sell, a senior studying education from Ann Arbor, says she took the course because it offered a unique view of her field.

“I’ve learned that every game, even games like ‘James Bond’ or ‘Halo,’ teach us something, maybe not in a traditional sense but learning principles can still be found,” she says.

Fishman argues that the ultimate goal is not to learn from commercial videogames like Halo, but rather to understand why well-designed games are so compelling and then figure out how those design principles can be translated into school-based learning environments.

“What's unique here,” Fishman says, “is the context in which students encounter core social science ideas about learning, education, and research. Using a real-world context that they encounter every day, students learn to think critically about the effects of games and how games might lead to improved learning, a critical challenge for our society.”

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