Game...check. Research...check. Practitioner buy-in...?

Just about four years ago I became involved in a project to develop an online game to engage students in the college application process. I had been researching college access for a decade and knew a few things about best college outreach practices and greatest challenges that first generation students face. Together with Bill Tierney and researchers and outreach staff from the Pullias Center for Higher Education at USC and game designers Tracy Fullerton, Elizabeth Swensen and Sean Bouchard and their team from the USC Game Innovation Lab, we developed the Collegeology Games project. Our first game was a strategy card game called Application Crunch where players role-played college applicants. Through interactive play infused with a “snarky” tone, players master balancing a variety of activities conducive to building a strong college application. Application Crunch served as a prototype for a Facebook game, Mission: Admission. We now have a suite of four games including: FutureBound, targeted at middle school students, and (soon-to-be-released) Graduate Strikeforce, a game about college choice, financial aid and financial literacy.

Before joining the project, I was not much of a gamer. Yet as I started to observe high school students playtesting the games, I became more and more fascinated with the power of play. I had given many talks to high schoolers, imploring them to take the necessary steps to become college ready. But more often than not, students would zone out before the period was over - despite my best attempts at humor, a high energy presentation and cool break-out activities. Teachers and counselors shared the same frustration. Presented with a game, however, students engaged very differently. I was amazed. When we conducted qualitative observations of game play (with over 400 11th and 12th graders), their attention was sustained for a full 90 minute period; students collaborated with ease, often waved down teachers to ask real-life questions inspired by game play (ie. What is a subsidized loan?), and were extremely animated. Quantitative pre and post tests illustrated that if students played the game two or more times, their college-going efficacy increased significantly. In interviews, students were able to articulate what they had learned by playing. They were clear about changes in strategy they would make in subsequent game play– and how they thought lessons from the game related to reality. Players did share, however, that even though they enjoyed the games, they were more likely to play them at school than at home. Teachers and access practitioners responded favorably to the games and used them as tools for college guidance.  As we developed and playtested new games, we saw similar patterns of learning and engagement: the games were effective as learning tools and worked particularly well in schools and/or after-school programs.

As a game convert, I was ready to preach the power of play to practitioners across the country. Equipped with research data, I spoke at practitioner conferences and meetings. I was usually met with one of two reactions: with enthusiasm for what we had developed (you know the type, laptop or tablet open, browsing the project website during my talk) OR with great skepticism, even fear.  And here is where my question/concern lies. It’s one thing to conduct research on the utility or efficacy of games for learning. But if we don’t involve practitioners and/or parents/guardians in the process of how best to implement games, then we run the risk of creating great games for learning that face gatekeepers in school and home contexts. I taught high school for seven years and remember the pressure to cover material and how taxing the job was – so I understand teachers and counselors not wanting to take on new projects, especially if they are not tightly related to their core curriculum. And as a parent, I'm often overwhelmed by the countless games and apps boasting to be the newest and greatest educational learning devices created - and am frequently underwhelmed when I relent and the kids and I download a game/app and don't find the content or format compelling. I’m curious if readers have suggestions for sharing new products (games/apps) and related research with practitioners and families/guardians. What venues and formats are most accessible and well-respected?

Image on front page by VFS Digital Design and available on Flickr. 


As a parent, I’ve watched my girls, ages 10 and 8, become active in online games. They are engrossed for hours at a time (if they are allowed) in the alternate worlds they inhabit. As I’ve watched them play, I’m realizing that they learn a great deal about the real world by gaming. They’ve learned how to navigate using a map. They’ve learned to keep practicing to get better at a skill. They’ve learned to earn virtual money to make purchases and to save their money for more expensive, more meaningful rewards. They’ve learned to work together, sharing the computer (always a bone of contention) via a meaningful, if sometimes fractured, truce. These are skills they could have learned more traditionally, but this learning was fun. It didn’t feel like school or piano lessons or swim team. It felt like play, and play is what their lives are all about right now.

The idea behind the games Corwin discusses is right on target, and the qualitative research she and her team have done demonstrates their real-world usefulness. These games meet students where they are and where they like to be; even if students wouldn’t play them at home, they do play and do learn from them at school.

My wife and I actively seek the recommendations of our girl’s teachers. If they suggest a website, my wife and I check it out and generally encourage our girls to explore the site and its resources. If they recommend a program or curriculum, we’re likely to consider thoughtfully those recommendations. So if their teachers were to recommend an online game as a method to address a specific aspect of the curriculum (as they did for us, recommending Scholastic’s Fastt Math), we would (and, in this case, did) jump at the chance. In short, one way to get parents on board is to get teachers on board.

Getting classroom teachers on board, of course, is the Holy Grail. One method we use at the University of Richmond to engage teachers in specific topics is by offering intensive summer institutes for professional development. These workshops focus on an interdisciplinary topic—recent examples have included Holocaust and genocide, arts integration in the general curriculum, and the year 1863—and spend a week training the teachers to incorporate the topic into their classrooms. The teachers earn recertification points for the experience and generally have an option to earn graduate credit, too.

What if USC, or a coalition of schools, were to offer an intensive institute focused on gamification in the elementary or secondary classroom? Teachers would learn vital components of game theory, immerse themselves in role-playing games, and design units and modules that could incorporate game theory and/or gaming into their existing curricula—all tied to state and national standards. Such an effort would start small, but word of mouth in a local market can be a powerful incentive to try out a new idea well implemented. Because the institutes are held in the summer, teachers can better focus on curriculum. And sponsorships with game manufacturers and educational partners could offset the costs of attending the institute. An institute, well planned and implement, could build a cohort of gamification advocates among local teachers, and such a cohort could have powerful influence on their colleagues, on their students, and on the parents who rely on their recommendations. It’s a start toward addressing Corwin’s closing question.

A university-sponsored institute makes great sense. Teachers are starting to organize PD independently - but universities could serve as a hub for this type of learning - and should! We are hosting a daylong event next week to bring together practitioners, games and scholars to discuss college access - but a longer, summer (more convenient for educators) meeting would make good sense. Emphasis on teachers brainstorming curriculum could be very exciting.

My older daughter shared with me yesterday that the subject she likes most in fifth grade is math—because of the "problem of the day." And she likes the problem of the day because "when you get the problem right, you get a piece of candy." It dawned on me that even this might be a simple example of the learning process being gamified. I'm a novice in the field, so I'm just starting to open my eyes to gaming that's already been happening across the curriculum. It was a cool, if elementary, breakthrough.

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