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Here at SXSW’s Ed Tech Conference, there’s a lot of talk about using video games as instructional devices. After all, video games are fun, absorbing and motivating. Why shouldn’t school be the same?

I went to a panel session led by Anthony Salcito of Microsoft, which is experimenting with how to deploy its Xbox game consoles throughout the nation’s schools. And I was struck by how much the panelists were playing down the potential of video games to solve our nation’s educational woes.

Lisa Perez, a Chicago Public Schools administrator, has put carts of Xboxes into 13 schools as part of a pilot project with Microsoft’s new Kinect system that encourages students to get up from their chairs and physically move in front of computer screens. She claimed that discipline issues and distracted students disappear when the Xboxes come out. And she thought it was great how kids can throw a javelin and convert the distance thrown to metric measurements. But she doesn’t think games should become the primary teacher of, say, algebra or geometry.

“Not everything in life has to be a game. If you’re going through your life in a game-ified environment, it loses its attraction,” said Perez.

Another supporter of educational gaming echoed Perez’s thoughts. Stephen Jacobs of the Rochester Institute of Technology has developed a multi-player social network game called Just Press Play, where college students can earn online prizes (he calls them achievements) for doing real things on campus, like attending a guest lecture or conferring with a professor. After the game plays out, Jacobs wants to see if students with more virtual achievements end up with higher grades.

Jacobs told his audience of educators, “It doesn’t always have to be a computer game. Any way you can build fun into your classroom — build (non-computer) games. There are lots of ways to approach this stuff.”

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Jill Barshay is a staff writer and editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth graders for the 2013-14 school year. In school,...

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