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Teaching that Works the Imagination

Students Playing DimensionMWhen almost all of the teens in today’s schools report playing video games and half of them noting they played “yesterday”, it is no surprise that more educators are looking at the medium to strengthen their curriculums.

This alternate means of conveying information is very promising and allows students who used to lag behind their peers to catch up and excel in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Putting students in front of educational games creates a hands-on experience, which for many helps develop critical-thinking skills and enhances their understanding.

"Many academically low-performing students do as well as their high-performing peers [in these games]," said Chris Dede, a professor of learning technologies at Harvard Graduate School of Education, quoted in Scientific American. "By stepping out of their real-world identity of poor performer academically, [this] shifts their frame of self reference to successful scientist in the virtual context." Read More...

According to the Software and Information Industry Association, instructional games make up only a tiny portion of the $2 billion-a-year educational-software industry. As the effectiveness of these games becomes more widely recognized, this proportion is set to increase.

"There is a revolution in the understanding of the educational community that video games have a lot of what we need," said Jan Plass, co-director of the Games for Learning Institute which is based at New York University and financed by Microsoft to research how video games can assist learning.

"You can get more data in a video game than in any other education area," said Jim Brazell, president of ventureRAMP.com – speaking at the Florida Education Technology Conference in January 2009.

"Unlike lectures, games can be adapted to the pace of the user," says Merrilea Mayo, director of future of learning initiatives at the Kauffman Foundation. "Games also simultaneously present information in multiple visual and auditory modes, which capitalizes on different learning styles."

"Although traditional education institutions pride themselves on educating citizens they do so at a relatively small scale compared with the media now available," says Mayo, who recently published a study on instructional games in Science Magazine.

She also points out that studies have shown that video games can lead to a 7 to 40 percent improvement in learning over a lecture program. River City for example, a game which looks a bit like Second Life and portrays how three diseases simultaneously affect health in a fictitious city, significantly improved the scores of poorly performing students that played the game, earning them Bs instead of Ds.

And new games keep on sprouting. In December 2008, Software Kids, LLC, released a game titled Time Engineers  which teaches engineering, science, and math in a fun and appealing way. Designed to help middle and high school students explore and apply some of the fundamental principles of engineering, the game takes students to three different time periods presenting them with typical engineering problems to be solved in order to build pyramids, irrigate farm land, command a WWII submarine, raise and lower medieval drawbridges, for example.

"We're driven by two clear facts: that careers in the sciences are somehow perceived as not as prestigious, lucrative, or cool as other careers, and that the gaming software industry has been unwilling to develop quality educational products to address these issues," said  Ray Shingler, co-founder of Software Kids, LLC.

Tabula Digita is already preparing to release a sequel to its flagship title DimensionM. The new game, DimensionM Multiplayer 2.0 expands on the original with an extended curriculum promoting over 200 math skills for students in grades 3-12.

"In the past, when students were taught math, they were taught from a different textbook with little continuity from one grade to the next," said Ntiedo Etuk, chief executive officer of Tabula Digita, in a news release. "With this expansion of DimensionM students will play and learn from the same educational platform with grade-specific content from elementary through high school.”

“The instructions, the activities, even the shortcuts can be applied from early multiplication skills to Algebra II content. We believe this will provide a profound connection from year to year, leading to greater comprehension and quicker mastery of important math skills," said Etuk.

DreamBox Learning is yet another example, having recently unveiled a video game website teaching math to children in kindergarten through second grade. Children pick a scene, like an arcade or an adventure park, and a character, like a dinosaur or a pirate, and play an online game with a hidden math lesson.

“The hallmark of the product is it’s real math, but children think it’s a game,” said Lou Gray, DreamBox Learning’s chief executive officer. “We founded the company with the idea that every student deserves an individually tailored education.”

DreamBox explains that unlike some of its competitors, their game customizes lessons by constantly analyzing how many questions a child answers correctly and how they performed in the past, how long they take to answer a question and how many hints they needed. "There are over a million paths a child could take through the DreamBox curriculum", Gray says.

Emphasising this point, Timothy J. Magner, the director of educational technology for the Education Department of the U.S. Government, explains that games have the potential to become powerful assessment tools. Since computers can capture data about every player move and that teachers can see "at the mouse-click level" how students make decisions and when they struggle, education games can help monitor progress and pinpoint specific areas of difficulty with each student.