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Video games in education

Two very disparate sources shared insights this week on the role of video games, and by extension, technology more broadly, in 21st century learning. James Paul Gee, a venerable yet cutting-edge education researcher and social critic, spoke about the topic to the Digital Media and Learning center of the MacArthur Foundation, and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, the research center on children, learning and media founded by the founder of Sesame Workshop, came out with a big “market map and investment analysis” of “games for a digital age,” meaning, games in K-12.

1) All games are not the same.

“Many video games are very good at creating motivation and creating engagement, but they are not good for covering a whole curriculum.”–Gee

The Cooney report made a distinction between games based partly on how long they take to play, a rough measure of complexity. Although long-form games (an open-ended quest like Minecraft) are better supported by research, short-form games ( a vocabulary quiz like Murray’s Word on the Street) have more market potential because they fit better into a traditional class format.

The Cooney report includes a taxonomy of games, to fuel more directed research on efficacy.

1. Drill and Practice 2. Puzzle 3. Interactive Learning Tools 4. Role Playing 5. Strategy 6. Sandbox 7. Action/Adventure 8. Simulations.

2) One to one and “Bring Your Own Device” will be transformative.

“The thing that will revolutionize education, but not necessarily for good, is the iPad-like device… once you mandate that the curriculum come on an iPad-like device, it’s no longer text — it’s media. It is going to have images, video, and games. It’s multimedia. This opens up a wonderful opportunity for good in that we can customize and crowd source all kinds of simulations, games, graphs, and videos, and we can open source material, therefore getting rid of big publishers and fixed textbooks. It also has the potential for huge bad…”–Gee. The Cooney report also highlights One to One and BYOD as infrastructure transformations that will hasten the growth of the games market.

3) Monopoly is an issue.

Three players, notes Cooney, dominate in all categories of educational content, with a collective $2.6 billion in annual revenue: Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. “This certainly presents barriers to entry that for new players can appear insurmountable.”

Gee sees this as a danger. “it is possible that as we open up all of these niches for multimedia curriculum that can be based on problem solving and situated learning, big publishers will just monopolize that, and we will go back to more exciting skill and drill.”

4) The relationship between digital technology and equity in education is fraught.

Gee’s understanding of the connection between games and social opportunity happens at a very high level. It’s not just about playing games–it’s about making games. “If you play a game, it may not necessarily be good for your future, but if you are modding the game and you are joining a complex critical discussion, then you can connect your interest to the world and to other skills. So the question of equity is, how do we give people these rich set of experiences at the highest value-added level where they become producers and not just consumers?”

The Cooney report advises games manufacturers to concentrate on larger and better-funded school districts, noting that “economically healthy states and more affluent communities more likely to devote resources to educational technologies,” but is silent on the social implications of that divide.

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