An Investigation into using Games to Educate

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Education is no longer about sitting in rows of desks unable to move or talk without being reprimanded. Neither is it about copying out of textbooks or completing page after page of monotonous sums. It is about interaction, collaboration, engagement and involvement in the personalisation of the curriculum.

Learning in the 21st century is exciting, and with the increase of digital technologies in schools the opportunities are extensive. It has been recognised that the use of games technologies within education advocates numerous benefits to the attribution of skills in learning. (Papert, 1998, MacFarlane, 2002, Gee, 2003, cited in Royle and Colfer, 2010a).

In agreement to this, Prensky (2009) states that the skills learners acquire through the engagement of games outside formal education should somehow be transferred into formal learning. In recognition of this ideology, Games Based Learning (GBL) is being employed in schools throughout the country with seemingly great success in improving the levels of attainment and motivation in learners. There is also empirical evidence to suggest that a number of skills can be developed through playing games within the everyday curriculum. According to Derek Robertson (2010) "games are about creating a context for learning, from which you can introduce concepts. They can open the door to learning in a powerful way."

Researchers and teachers are beginning to ask how this powerful new medium in education might be used to support children's learning (Kirriemuir and McFarlane, 2004a). Pupils are now coming to school equipped with the knowledge and skills surrounding the theoretical underpinnings associated with game play. According to Sanford and Williamson (p.5, 2005), studies into young people and games have suggested that they are "engaged in learning activities that are more complex and challenging than most of their formal school tasks." This means that in order for GBL to be successfully used in schools, educators must realise what skills the children are bringing into the classroom in order to take them further. (Scottish Government, 2010).

Since 2006, the Scottish Government has recognised the potential of Games Based Learning and has established the 'Consolarium', otherwise known as the Scottish Centre for Games and Learning. It is intended that games will be used at the centre of a curriculum topic as a stimulus to support learning (Royle and Colfer, 2010b). The use of games within the curriculum can engage and motivate the most reluctant pupil and place them in a staged environment where they can strive to become successful learners.

What Skills Are Developed Through Games Based Learning?

It has been suggested by Brown (2002) that the framework and environment in which pupils are exposed to fosters their learning rather than the result of the teacher. This view is also backed by Garris et al (2002) who state that in order for games to enhance learning, it first needs to be put into an instructional context. In order to appreciate this concept, the word 'learning' has to be understood. In most dictionaries learning is defined as 'the acquisition of knowledge or skills gained through experience, practice or study' (Kearney, Pivec 2007a). This definition can then be used to look at how knowledge and skills are developed through Games Based Learning.

Through the use of computer and console games in the classroom, learners can immerse themselves into challenging yet entertaining environments from where they can explore, probe and hypothesise information to suit their preferred learning styles. Castell and Jensen (2003) consider that it is this immersion through games that fosters deep learning.

It is also believed that games teach players how to multi task and problem solve at an unconscious level. Bruner (1966) cited in Kearney and Pivec (2007b) considers multitasking as being one of the cognitive skills that improves the ability to learn. However, studies conducted at Futurelab have raised questions as to whether children are in fact able to move from intuitive problem solving in the game to identifying problems and effective solutions to these in other contexts and in particular, real life (Kirriemuir and McFarlane, 2004b).

These proposals have therefore made way for research into how the skills used from Games Based Learning can promote the learning and development in maths and language. (cut?)

Games Based Learning in Maths

Speculation has surrounded whether Games Based Learning can be used to improve children's maths skills if used within the curriculum framework. In particular, the use of the Nintendo DS handheld consoles and Dr Kawashima's Brain Training.

A research study on the effects of using a computer console had on children's mental computation skills and self-perceptions was carried out by Miller and Robertson in 2009 and again on a larger scale in 2010. The study compared two groups - the experimental group, who used DS consoles to practice mental maths, and the control group who used traditional methods of practicing mental maths. Their findings highlight an increase in terms of faster processing of information, enhanced selection of relevant material and high levels of engagement. However, they also accept there is limited evidence to suggest that pupils' learn new skills through GBL.

It was found that the mean gain in the experimental group was approximately 50% greater than that of the control group in terms of accuracy in calculation. In terms of the speed of processing, significant improvements were recognised in both groups. However, the mean improvement in the experimental group was more than twice that of the control group.

The analysis of these results highlighted that in terms of accuracy, the less able children improved more than the higher ability children (See appendix 1) and the middle-ability children tended to improve their time more than the children at the top and bottom of the ability range. (See appendix 2). The study also found that there was a much stronger intrinsic motivational drive amongst pupils for self- improvement.

They conclude these set of results by acknowledging the fact that "competence in mental arithmetic does not guarantee success in mathematics...basic numeracy is a fundamental building block for children in primary or elementary education." (p.13)This means that although learning through games can improve surface level skills, it is this deep learning through relating problems to real life contexts that may only be achieved through a teacher.

Miller and Robertson (2010) also draw attention to the fact that there is limited direct evidence of the effects of computer games on classroom learning. Condie and Munro (p.2, 2007) reiterate this point by saying that "the evidence is neither extensive nor robust." This means that no assumptions into the benefits of games teaching skills can be made without further research being conducted.

A similar research study was carried out in New Mexico by Fengfeng Ke (2008) on 10-13 year olds over a five week period. Its purpose was to investigate whether maths game-playing improved student's maths learning outcomes. The data from this study suggests that there was no credible evidence suggesting that computer games facilitated students' achievements in cognitive maths skills or metacognitive awareness. However, it does state that the reliability level of metacognitive awareness was not satisfactory.

On the whole, it can be proposed that gaming in maths does engage and motivate learners with skills being developed to an extent. However, more research into whether they teach maths skills needs to be carried out in order to state whether GBL in maths is feasible.

Digital Literacy and Games Based Learning.

The definition of game play as a new literacy and the use of games as a means of teaching and learning literacy skills have been the subject of significant attention by educators for a number of years (Buckingham and Scanlon 2002; Gee 2003; Prensky 2001). Merchant (2009) (cited in Gillen and Barton, 2010) implies that digital literacies can be introduced through game play and that experience of these is likely to have a positive effect on learning in general and on literacy.

In accordance to this, Walsh (2009, p.169) suggests that "computer games are texts in the broadest sense of this term: they are cultural objects which both reflect and produce the meanings and ideologies of the setting in which they are both produced and received".

It is important to mention that there is a difference between digital literacy and learning literacy skills through digital media (such as games). Being digitally literate involves having the skills, knowledge and understanding that enables critical, creative and safe practices when engaging with digital technologies in all areas of life (Futurelab, 2010). Whereas learning literacy skills are moving on from traditional methods of just reading or writing a text and more towards learners actually experiencing the story through multimedia platforms. This type of learning is suggested by Gee (2003) as being 'embodied experiences'. Meaning that learners when playing interactive games will become so involved with the experience that they will feel as if they are inside the virtual world.

Gee believes there are 36 learning principles to be achieved through gaming. In terms of learning literacy through the use of games, one of the main learning ideologies would be the 'multimodal principal'. This suggests that meaning and knowledge from games are built up through various modalities such as images, texts, symbols, interactions, abstract design, sound and not just words. Kress (cited in Gillen and Barton 2010) believes that multimodality requires learners to think newly about reading and writing and the meaning that contributes to these through the meaning of each mode present in the text being understood separately.

Another of Gee's principles which is associated to reading is the 'bottom up' skills approach. Again, in terms of gaming this suggests that basic skills are not learned in isolation or out of context but are discovered 'bottom up' by engaging in more and more of the game.

In opposition of the 36 learning principles, Prensky (2003) criticises that they are not useful when it comes to teaching language through games as they are not effective strategies. He argues that they give little explicit guidance of how to achieve the results they describe and if they were 'jargon free' then their meaning would be more precise.

Leander (2009) questions if digital technologies are a distraction to literacy education, and if they are a part of literacy itself. He indicates that the resisters of technology see new literacies as interfering with print literacy practices that have gone on in schools for generations. Buckingham (2004) concurs with this idea by stating that games cannot be said to require specific 'games literacy'.

However, opposition to this stance include teachers and researchers who argue that much of what schools teach as literacy is outdated and irrelevant, with McFarlane et al (2002, cited in ELSPA, p.17, 2006) stating that "one of the primary uses of games in today's classrooms is to stimulate discussion, writing and collaboration." Therefore, by using Games Based Learning with literacy pupils will be more engaged, and even the most reluctant writers will be encouraged to use their imaginations (Rylands, 2011).

One of the most successful computer programmes ever made, and has been used as a platform for language is the award winning 'Myst' series. One teacher, Tim Rylands uses the game as a stimulus for discussion, to develop speaking and listening skills, to inspire children's descriptive writing and as a way of improving confidence in their language work (ELSPA, 2006). He comments that there has been an increase in children's literacy skills through thorough engagement with the game and a high level of collaboration within the classroom. Between 2000 and 2004, level 4 literacy attainment for his school had risen from 75% to 93% and with the level of attainment in boys reaching 100% compared to the national average of 70% at that time (Freitas, 2007a).

Although the Myst series presents surface level benefits, there is no in-depth analysis to support the educational skills that are achieved through using it as a tool for literacy.

Assessment of Games as a Potential Learning Tool

Since there is little evidence to suggest whether Games Based Learning can develop academic skills and improve attainment, this has led the way to sceptics who feel that games do not have any impact or effect (Kearney and Pivec, 2007). Among these critics are teachers themselves with 49% of them believing that games cause anti-social behaviour (Futurelab, 2009). An additional argument into the success of Games Based Learning lies with Harris et al (2001) (cited in Dillon, 2004) who found no clear relationship between academic performance and the use of computer games.

According to Freitas (2007b), there is a need for more rigorous baseline studies that can quantify how much and in which ways games are currently being used most effectively to support learning. She also proposes the need for guidelines, case studies and exemplars from current practice to inform and improve the use of Games Based Learning in education.

Sanford (2006) (cited in Freitas, 2007c) found that successful achievement of educational objectives was more dependent upon a teacher's knowledge of the curriculum rather than their ability in the game itself. Whereas, research conducted by Futurelab (2009) argues that it is the teacher's lack of knowledge with games and technology that prevents successful learning through games. WeGeirf and Dawes (2004) believe that learners need to be scaffolded in the early stages of a learning task by the teacher, in order to move gradually towards self regulation. Again this relates to the proposal that teachers are needed to foster deep learning through the use of games, and that it's not games themselves that teach new skills.

In contrast to this, Prensky (2002, p.13) states that if games can be implemented into educational content and still be fun, then "computer games will become the greatest learning tool we have ever known." This therefore emphasises his enthusiasm for games to be used in education.

The Future of Education: Games Design vs Games Based Learning.

If children are to succeed in the technological 21st century in careers which do not yet exist, how can schools prepare them? Livingstone and Hope (2011) believe that the future of education does not just stop at Games Based Learning being used as a platform in which to enhance the curriculum. They believe that allowing children to design their own games in order to learn and develop will enhance the quality of their skills set, which they will need to succeed in the digital age.

Within their review, they dispute that the education system in the UK is failing children in terms of developing skills in games design and visual effects. Therefore, this has had a knock on effect in transforming the UK into the world's leading talent hub for video games industries.

"Learning in the technologies provides a strong foundation for the development of skills and knowledge which are, and will continue to be, essential in maintaining Scotland's economic prosperity." (Scottish Government, 2011)

The Scottish Government has realised the importance and potential for the use of games and games design in schools from 3-18 years old. Within the Curriculum for Excellence, they have implemented experiences and outcomes through 'computing science contexts for developing technological skills and knowledge'. Thus, highlighting the importance of games and games design within Scottish education.

It is important to note that within the technologies experiences and outcomes, there is a difference between ICT skills and computer science skills. When addressing Games Based Learning as part of the curriculum, the Scottish Government defines computing as providing a deeper theoretical and practical approach to understanding how computers work. This prepares children and young people for the challenges of rapidly changing digital technologies and enables them to be prepared for more advanced specialised study and careers within computing science.

Within the Livingstone and Hope Skills Review, they argue that there is an absence of computer programming in schools, which inevitably results in children not realising the potential of the digital creative industries as future careers. They outline that the key skills and subject areas needed for games design are science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). However, only 15% of teachers believed that maths was the best subject for Games Development Education. It is argued that "there are too few opportunities for cross curricular learning across STEM" (p.30).

Nevertheless, this is not the case for one primary school in South Ayrshire who featured in the review as being a great British example of Games Based Learning. Denton (2011, p.1) actively uses Games Based Learning in her class to teach maths and language. She encourages creativity in her pupils through the games design programme, Kodu and states that through games "we're teaching problem solving skills, maths skills and language skills and Kodu motivates them."

Based on this, it could be suggested that it is important for learners to be given the opportunity to be involved in the culturally relevant creativity and challenge that the 21st century has to offer. Robertson (2011)