Games: To “win” is not necessarily to “learn”

From a virtual roundtable April 22nd to May 8th on GETideas.org:

“Why are games so promising for real learning?” The other day my home PC got one of those computer viruses that pretend to be virus-checkers. This one was pretty scary – preventing any other action, even web-browsing, before I purchased the fiends’ product. It black-screened my desktop, my applications and my files started disappearing. So I started browsing on my other laptop and long story short found several click by click recipes to follow, one of which I selected as the easiest and which worked. But as usual in my OMG-my-computer’s-about-to-die mode, I just clicked my way through what were “black boxes”, to me. If I got another virus tomorrow, I’d go right back to browsing for the “right” recipe. If this whole scenario were a computer “game” I was “playing”, well I found a recipe to “win”, but I didn’t understand anything. I wasn’t even trying to learn; I just wanted to “win”.

So why are games necessarily so promising for real learning? Might they not similarly just have students get to “wins” without really learning anything valuable?  I’m going to start with five oversimplified, perhaps provocative statements with the objective of getting an interactive conversation going with you.

1) Effective learning requires an interactive conversation, beyond passive browsing/listening/reading/viewing.

2) An interactive conversation within a computer based learning environment is called a game. It has an objective, it has rules, it is sustained, it requires posed solutions and gives feedback, and it can (& should) get quite challenging.

3) Games have a “duty cycle” of time & attention on actual subject matter (experiencing concepts or practice) vs. unrelated background info or entertainment value. It is entirely possible to have students deeply “engaged” in a computer game, but what they are engaged with is gameplay and not learning subject matter.

4) Computer games can deliver a new learning environment impossible to deliver in the physical world, even by a 1:1 with an  expert teacher.

5) Computer games can successfully address equity, access, and motivation challenges. “There’s no achievement gap in videogames,” Quentin Lawson, NABSE.

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