Saturday, May 2, 2009

Video games in classrooms?

A recent article published on USA said that nearly one in ten children and teens in the US who play video games show behavioural signs that may indicate addiction and this has led to poor test results by skipping homework for video games. This article also reminded me about a debate I had some time ago with some staff at Opoku Ware School, Kumasi, Ghana, when I was a teacher during my national service. The debate was about the relevance of technology in all context of education and I encountered questions like “What if technology dies out? Don’t you hear about internet frauds (popularly known as Sakawa)? And also what if another thing comes to replace technology?

It amazes me how in all the debate these days about the decline of education we ignore the most fundamental of its causes. Students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer suitable for the old educational system which is still being used to teach and assess. Today’s students have not just changed incrementally from those of the past, all their ways of live have also changed and not exclusive to their slang, clothes, body adornments, or styles, as has happened between generations previously.

Video/computer games, cell phones, internet (instant messaging and email) are integral parts of their lives. This ubiquitous environment and the sheer volume of their interaction with it, today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors. Marc Prensky refers them as the Digital Natives.

For those of who were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in their lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology are, and always will be compared to them, Digital Immigrants.

The importance of the distinction is this: As Digital Immigrants learn – like all immigrants, some better than others – to adapt to their environment, they always retain, to some degree, their "accent," that is, their foot in the past. There are hundreds of examples of the digital immigrant accent. They include printing out your email (or having your secretary print it out for you – an even “thicker” accent); needing to print out a document written on the computer in order to edit it (rather than just editing on the screen); and bringing people physically into your office/desk to see an interesting web site (rather than just sending them the URL). I’m sure you can think of one or two examples of your own without much effort.

Should the Digital Native students learn the old ways, or should their Digital Immigrant educators learn the new? Unfortunately, no matter how much the Immigrants may wish it, it is highly unlikely the Digital Natives will go backwards.

Computer and video games are so engaging – and education is often so not engaging. Not because that is the “natural state of things,” or “the nature of the beast.” Although many hold the opinion that “learning hurts” and “games are fun,” any of us easily can think of enough counter-examples to prove this isn’t a universal truth.

The reason video games are taking most time of students is because the primary objective of the game designer is to keep the user engaged. They need to keep that player coming back so that the person feels like he has gotten value for his money. That is their measure of success.

The goal of keeping users (students) engaged is, of course, not the primary concern of educators. The primary goal of educators is to instruct, that is to get the material across with most times less engagement.

How can we make games educational without sucking the fun out of them? It is high time instructional designers, educators/teachers and game designers collaborate to produce games for students across all levels of the educational curriculum. This will transition from not learning by what students are being taught but being exposed to things in the context by which they are already interested in. We inherently care about what we are doing when playing video games, the enthusiasm is already there, and so game designers just have to channel it.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if there were video games on all subject areas in school? For example a game that says, play this game and you’ll pass any statistics or economics test or having a database of games online (like Youtube for videos) that allows anyone to search games on any topic.

Games can influence students to learn a new concept in life. For example playing SimCity 3000 introduces players to the model of urban life, complete with simulated citizens (Sims), traffic, commerce, industry, utilities, taxes, and other important aspects of city life. This allows students to learn as they assume the role of mayor by creating and managing their own city. Games above all are fun! Games can enrich audience’s lives.

When children put down the controller they should have the opportunity to bring something from their recreation into their lives by simply exposing them to new concept and game designers can lay down the grounds for extra learning. For example getting interested in and research on topic, story or the character in the game.

Children and teens assimilate information better through things that they are already interested in rather than in things that they are forced to learn at school or at work. Games produce learning with engagement and once students experience this, they’ll want to learn with engagement all the time. All educational curriculums should be designed with engagement as a very important component than content.

Simulators in the form of video games are been incorporated in pilot and military lessons and other technical fields of endeavours. Anyway, technology has come to stay for good so let’s learn to channel it in all our endeavours to facilitate and achieve our goals in the 21st Century.

© Harry Tetteh


  1. Hubert Kyeremateng BoatengMay 5, 2009 at 1:07 PM

    I agree with you totally.......

  2. Hello Harry. Gaming, I believe, is the way students learn best. Check out Indiana University's work with simulations for students at I'm hoping to get teachers interested in participating next fall.
    When did learning not become fun? Does learning always have to be hard work? Can we create situations where students do both and feel accomplished? Thanks for the blog!