George Lucas Educational Foundation
Game-Based Learning

Teaching Tools: Using Online Simulations and Games

May 10, 2010

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.

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