Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Teaching Tools: Using Online Simulations and Games

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

Students who are passionate gamers can talk a blue streak about the virtual online worlds where they invest their free time and energy. Usually, of course, they get to play only when they're not at school. But why not bring gaming into the classroom? Could teachers tap that same passion to spark learning?

Gaming remains new territory for most schools. As the following examples show, educators on the frontiers are eager to share what they're learning. Here are just a few examples.

Evoke Social Change

This spring, several teachers introduced their high school students to an alternate reality game that challenges players to solve big global challenges. Evoke attracted nearly 20,000 players from around the world during its 10-week run. Game designer Jane McGonigal, who developed Evoke for the World Bank Institute, calls it "a crash course in changing the world."

Here's how it works: Each week, a new chapter from a graphic novel introduces players to a different challenge from the not-so-distant future. These "missions" range from food scarcity to human trafficking. Players respond -- and earn points -- by posting blogs, videos, or photos that convey their proposed solutions or reactions. They also comment on other players' postings, sparking dialogue, collaboration, and critical thinking.

Paul Allison, an English teacher at East-West School of International Studies in New York, has been playing Evoke right alongside his students. He's one of several teachers from the New York Writing Project who decided to experiment with the game as a springboard for digital literacy. These colleagues have been comparing teaching strategies and student responses. They have also taken their conversation to a larger audience by talking about gaming and learning during recent episodes of the weekly webcast, Teachers Teaching Teachers which Allison hosts.

Allison has seen a mix of reactions among students, who are also reflecting on their experience on a site called Youth Voices. Some say they enjoy the novelty of being virtual "agents" who tackle global crises with their own wits. Others are more critical, suggesting that Evoke lacks the excitement of commercial games. One student said being asked to write blog posts about global issues feels too much like regular homework.

Now that the game is nearly over, some students are taking their online creativity into the real world (which was exactly what game designer McGonigal had in mind). Allison's students, for instance, are using a local garden to investigate questions about culture and community.

As Allison explains in this recent blog post:

This work has become such a passion this spring. My colleagues have wondered why. And it has to do with how many of the missions in Evoke can be answered in our garden. It's about Social Innovation, Food Security, Water Crisis, Urban Resilience, and Indigenous Knowledge. Because of Evoke, these words have a resonance that bounces from Africa to India to China and Cuba and back to our wonderful community garden in Flushing, Queens."

WoW and Tech Standards?

World of Warcraft (WoW) is a commercial blockbuster, with millions of subscribers from around the world. Dean Groom, an Australian educator and advocate of the Web 2.0 classroom, suggests that teachers use a free, 10-day trial of WoW to meet standards, such as the Educational Technology Standards for Students.

In a post on his Design 4 Learning blog Groom explains how to use backward design to plan a robust, game-based project that meets important learning goals. The game is a hook to grab interest, but the real learning happens through inquiry. "It's not about what you learn by playing a game," Groom insists, "but how the game can be use to foster inquiry skills, critical thinking, and student learning."

SimCEO: Innovation Platform

When Derek Luebbe was a social studies teacher, he used to run a stock market simulation to teach students about finance. But in six weeks of picking stocks, he found that students didn't learn much more than the mechanics of the market. And they tended to pick companies with well-known names rather making critical judgments.

So Luebbe began imagining a better approach. What if students created their own companies, complete with business plans? What if they could also buy and sell stocks in classmates' companies? What if they could see how stock prices fluctuated over a 10-year period rather than just a few weeks?

The result of that brainstorming became an online simulation called SimCEO. Luebbe, principal of American International School of Budapest, has been fine-tuning his creation by sharing it with educators around the world. They have surprised him by taking projects in directions he never imagined.

He expected teachers to focus on financial literacy and entrepreneurship. But some have brought in different content. "They might set the simulation in Colonial America or New York in the 1920s," Luebbe says, then ask students to consider how historical factors would have affected market prices. Because teachers determine all the content, he adds, "they can bring in demographic data, real or fictional news, historical events -- whatever they want." The game becomes an open platform for teacher innovation.

For Earth Day, for instance, one teacher challenged students to propose ideas for reducing their school's carbon footprint. Using SimCEO, they bid on each other's proposals. Dynamic stock prices gave them immediate feedback for adjusting their plans.

If you're a teacher interested in bringing gaming into your classroom, there's no shortage of opportunities to get started. Luebbe invites teachers to set up a free SimCEO account (use the promotional code: edutopia), and see where your creativity takes you. Meanwhile, the first run of Evoke has just ended, but teachers are already brainstorming a future version customized for the classroom.

Have you used gaming in your classroom? Please tell us about your experience.

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
Related Tags:

Comments (43)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

April Whitstone's picture
April Whitstone
4th Grade ELA/SS Teacher

It was in a prior comment by Suzie Boss. My apologies for printing the wrong name...it's actually McKinley Tech. The video starts by showing several different educational applications, then focuses on the high school's many successes with the program.

April Whitstone's picture
April Whitstone
4th Grade ELA/SS Teacher

Sure: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-GVEANUEVo
It was in a prior post by Suzie. The video describes different educational applications, then focuses on the high school (which is actually McKinley Tech, apologies) which experienced a revitalization of their programs, students, and community as a result of their efforts.

guestgiving's picture

Lucas, If I don't have time to join twitter, then could we google Games Learning Society? I think too many sites/subjects would then come up.

Jessica Sabina's picture

I just wanted to express my thanks for writing such an interesting and informative article on how simulations can be used within the classroom. I am taking a course that teaches how to incorporate technology into the curriculum and I spent some time learning about how online games and simulation can promote a myriad of thinking skills. I titled my post the way I did because my husband is an avid player of World of Warcraft. I had never really understood his fascination with the game. Just recently, I asked him why he enjoyed the game so much and he mentioned that he loved how it challenged his thinking and how he was in control of what occurred. After reading this article I can see why my husband and so many others love this strategizing game. I think that teachers everywhere should take full advantage of games and simulations and in turn use them to foster a love of learning.
Once again thank you for such a thought provoking article!

Cathleen Caves's picture

I loved reading this installment of this blog. I think this a great idea and very useful teaching tool - to use online gaming as a platform for learning. I don't know exactly how I could use it in my context as a K-2 teacher, but am willing to check it out to see how it could be adapted for younger students. I am left wondering though... What do your administrators think of your usage of online gaming in your teaching? Also, in my district ALL of the sites that were mentioned are blocked... Does anyone else have this problem?

Cathleen Caves's picture

I loved reading this installment of this blog. I think this a great idea and very useful teaching tool - to use online gaming as a platform for learning. I don't know exactly how I could use it in my context as a K-2 teacher, but am willing to check it out to see how it could be adapted for younger students. I am left wondering though... What do your administrators think of your usage of online gaming in your teaching? Also, in my district ALL of the sites that were mentioned are blocked... Does anyone else have this problem?

Melissa Scotti's picture

I know you're on to something here because I can't get my 2nd grade boys to write about anything else in their journal except video games. It is all they think about! I'd love to use gaming systems in the classroom and the video you posted "Schools Use Games for Learning and Assessment" was fascinating. If they're able to catch on quickly and willing to spend endless amounts of time on it, then why wouldn't we start incorporating it into the classroom...whatever works, right? Since my "big kid" is here playing video games next to me on Xbox, then I thought I'd share a list of educational games that are available for that gaming system: http://www.xbox.com/en-US/search.aspx?p=1&c=10&keyword=educational

Beverly Lepski's picture

As a student teacher, I have been observing the power of simple engagement through technology within the classroom. The use of something as simple as the Promethean Board seemed to really spark an interest with my fifth graders, but this interest has begun to fizzle after the familiarity. This article really peaked my own interest as a result of the vast presence of video gaming in children's lives. Just today I was discussing activities with my students and over half of the class said they would consider themselves to be "gamers." In a classroom striving to meet student needs of problem-based learning, video games really fit the bill. WoW in the Classroom sounds like a great resource for students. The mere fact that students could uphold extended projects which involve a great deal of strategy and critical thinking gives a great open door to engaging classrooms. I am also really interested in the SimCEO game because of its appeal and real-world application. My only question would be what similar gaming techniques would you suggest for project-based learning in the elementary classroom? Thanks!

Sign in and Join the Discussion! Not a member? Register to join the discussion.