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Teaching Tools: Using Online Simulations and Games

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
Related Tags: Game-Based Learning
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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 (42)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

Thanks, Lucas.
And thanks for sharing the link to your WoW in School wiki. This is what I love about all these examples. Teachers like you (and Peggy Sheehy from Suffern MS, Paul Allison in NY, etc.) are willing to learn in public as you investigate new methods and tools for engaging students. Everyone can benefit from what you pioneers discover.
It's also interesting that you're starting in an after-school setting. More and more, I'm encountering examples of rich learning happening in these informal settings.
Look forward to updates on your project.

Amy Barnabi's picture
Amy Barnabi
Amy Barnabi, CEO of THIINKFit©, sixth grade teacher, Dennison, OH

My sixth grade students have been working out BEFORE school starts twenty minutes a day, five days a week using Wii Fit. The THIINKFit(c) Project is currently writing grants to put this successful project in all public and private schools in Tuscarawas County by the fall of 2010 (that's over 50 schools). This project has shown that exercising before school increases attendance, achievement scores, and self-esteem! Nearly 75% of my students could not touch their toes before this project started. My kids are getting an extra 100 minutes of exercise per week in school! Check out our project at: http://web.me.com/abarnabi/THIINKFit(c)_Action_Research/The_THIINKFit(c)_Project.html, or email me at abarnabi@me.com

THIINKFit(c) - Integrating Innovation One Child at a Time!

Daniel Siegel's picture

Thiinkfit is a fantastic program that helps so many kids in such a positive way!

At Full Sail University, we teach a class called Game Strategies and Motivation (GSM). Students play Farmville, Faunasphere, World of Warcraft, Spore, Quest Atlantis, and a variety of other games to understand the motivational aspects of gaming and figure out how to utilize the power of gaming in the classroom. Rock on, Edutopia and Suzie! Excelsior!

LearntoTeach's picture
Tech and Secondary Teacher

I've used SimCeo before, and as a history teacher I have to say I was pleased with the results. One of the benefits of it is the adaptability--when I used it we were studying Imperialist India. I was able to ask them to study the geography of India and think about the historical/political status of the late 1800s, then create businesses that would have existed at that time. Then, because the teacher can influence the stock prices--there was a "natural disaster" (which actually happened in real life) and the students were able to see how events such as this affect economies.
I'd definitely like to try it again

~M from Michigan

mariacge's picture

Games are great for practicing basic concepts in math. My son uses www.smartygames.com. They have awesome math games. They just posted one for 2-Players. Best of al is free!

Derek Luebbe's picture

[quote]Great article. We're exploring these issues right now with the WoWinSchool Project. We currently have two participating schools, Cape Fear Middle in NC and Suffern Middle School in NY. The project was designed to use World of Warcraft as a means of exploring everything from leadership and digital citizenship to literacy and mathematics. We're documenting the whole experience on our wiki - http://wowinschool.pbworks.com.[/quote]

Lucas, your project (and the wiki to support it) are very cool. Best of luck with it, and congrats for using the initial / genuine hook to generate the student interest and then weave in the curricular goals ! Great context.

John Rutherford's picture

I have been using and developing a games-based learning site (what2learn.com) for a few years now. It has been a real success in engaging difficult to reach groups within the school (particularly unmotivated boys). We have found a very real and tangible increase in exam results through the use of it. Access to What2Learn is free for teacher and students. Thousands of games are already there but teachers can use a range of game engines to add their own quizzes. Automated record keeping reduces marking which is always welcome!.

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

Curious what gaming looks like in the classroom? Check out Edutopia video, "Schools Use Games for Learning and Assessment":
I love the comment by one expert that games not only engage students, but help them move quickly from novice to expert. I heard the same observation from game designer Jane McGonigal. In her words: "When you put that much time in--and you do it because you love it--you're going beyond normal learning or normal skill acquisition into the world of superpowers."

Wendy Gilbert's picture

Nowadays you are no longer regulated to simply walking to the right and jumping up and down in a video game. Instead, kids play games in open, free roaming environments where the choices they make have an impact on their gaming experience. Kids make conscious choices about what skills or missions they are going to take on each time they sit down to play. It's incredibly self directed and self motivated - nobody is telling them how to play or what to work on.

I was joking with my 15 year old son that students might find school more interesting if they acquired achievements instead of grades. He laughed but said it would be nice if school were more like a free roaming game..."you just completed a lab...you're science skills have improved 15 points."

The thing about video games is that there is a direct correlation between what you choose to do, the skills you earn, and what new options open up because you have acquired new skills. As a person who plays games, I can tell you, this is very satisfying. This is what we need to tap into in education.

Lucas Gillispie's picture
Lucas Gillispie
Director of Academic and Digital Learning, Surry County Schools, NC

[quote]It's also interesting that you're starting in an after-school setting. More and more, I'm encountering examples of rich learning happening in these informal settings.Look forward to updates on your project.Best,Suzie[/quote]

Taking that approach has served us well. With an after-school/club approach, there's not a great deal of expectation/pressure like you might find if this were conducted in a classroom. So, it gives us a place to experiment and learn from successes/failures. There were so many unknowns going into this, we felt it was the best approach.

Now that we have our feet wet, we can take a more focued approach next school year. In fact, we're considering the possibility of doing a sort of blended WoW/Fantasy Literature elective for the middle schoolers next year. Should be a blast.

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