Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Thoughts on Game Based Learning and Gamifying the Classroom

I started this blog eight years ago as part of my master's program. As it changed over the years, I drifted quite a bit from my initial purpose of sharing my classroom games on it.

Of course, the ed-tech landscape has changed a lot since 2011. In my district at the time we had just installed a big round of interactive whiteboards. Only one or two teachers had an iPad. I had never touched a Chromebook and no school I knew of was using Google Apps for Education (as we called them when they first came along).

A decline in classroom games on interactive whiteboards is just a part of the overall trend I've seen in recent years. It's been a gradual shift away from the bells and whistles with more emphasis on the learning. Even though I'm a game designer and even though I had a blast in those years using those bells and whistles for fun projects, the shift toward effective use of tech for deeper learning has always been my real passion.

After returning from Michigan's largest ed-tech conference in March, I was thrilled to tweet this observation. 
But what does this changing landscape mean for a blog with "classroom games" right in the title? Will it necessarily be a thing of the past? I sure hope not!

As we know, right along with the other changes in the ed-tech landscape, we have heard more about gamifying the classroom or game based learning. I actually stayed away from those terms on this blog for the most part, at least in any formal sense. But now as trends change and my blog title stays the same, I figured I'd touch on them directly.

Defining the Terms

Some people have mistakenly referred to gamification of the classroom and game based learning as if they're the same thing. Gamification can be a form of game based learning, but it doesn't have to be. I'll define them this way:

  • Game Based Learning - Using a game to teach a specific topic.
  • Gamification of the Classroom - Using elements of successful games to increase student motivation and engagement.

So if I have students play an online game about genetics to learn about basic terms and concepts, that's Game Based Learning (GBL). In these cases the students could tell you the game they played and what they learned about the topic at hand after participating in the lesson. Though I often didn't use the term and didn't always specify the learning objectives, most of my games highlighted on this site lend themselves to these types of lessons.

Gamification, on the other hand, just borrows elements from games that make them fun and uses that in the classroom. So maybe we take something like leveling up, getting a new avatar or scoring points and we make ways to do that in science class over the course of a marking period. It might be giving students digital badges for meeting specific objectives. We don't necessarily stop and play a game to learn, but the lesson or the overall progression through the course might feel more like a game.

My Observations

After years of experimenting with these two concepts in classrooms, here are some general observations I've made:

  • Students definitely learn from playing games. The challenge (and it's a big one) is to get them to learn what you want them to. I love games and I love playing them in school. They can be a distraction from the content, though, and any actual learning in that regard often is superficial.
  • I maintain that gamification in education is nothing new. School has, in a sense, always been a game. What else can we call it when the players acquire points and earn scores, hoping for credit that at best abstractly reflects their knowledge and skills? One can cheat at chess and on a math test. When I would write my syllabus for high school math, I couldn't deny it felt a lot like writing rules for my game designs. So school has always been gamified. The problem is it hasn't been a very fun game. In fact by today's standards, where gaming outside of school is a huge industry grabbing the hearts and minds of so many of our kids, it's laughable to think of year-long courses and rewards of letter grades as parts of a game anyone would want to play. 
  • So it isn't gamification that's new, it's that we have learned new things from modern, more engaging games.
  • I have not been a fan of gamification, because it's essentially about extrinsic rewards. Certainly badges, upgraded avatars and grading systems based on big scores are more exciting than working for that A- in math. In the end, though, it's tacked on. Call me idealistic, but I still long for the day students will be excited about learning the subject because it can better their lives.
  • While I don't embrace gamification as an approach to teaching, my experience with and study of it point to four very important elements of an engaging, effective learning experience. These same things come out of research that has nothing to do with games. So it's not the games that bring the magic to a good lesson. It's just that game designers have put that magic to use more effectively than most teachers have. The four elements are:
    • A clear goal - Effective teachers make sure the students know where they are headed overall in their learning and what the goal is in the current lesson.
    • Student agency - Students can have some choice and control in how they reach the goal (and possibly in how they show they reached the goal). 
    • Appropriate challenges - Each student is learning at the point he or she needs to be learning. It's not too hard and it's not too easy.
    • Timely, actionable feedback - The learner finds out quickly if he or she is on track and gets some information on how to get back on track when needed.
So there are a few statements about games on my blog about classroom games. Maybe that will provide fertile soil for further on-topic posts in the months ahead! If not, at least I had the foresight to put "and tech" in the title.

1 comment:

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