It was your typical night at parent-teacher conferences: eager parents waiting to hear how their child was doing in class, and teachers, weary from the long school day, hoping to satisfy their curiosities while eagerly watching the clock. I was tidying up my room, waiting for the last couple of straggling parents to head home, when in walked a parent determined to talk to me.
“You’re Ms. Marsh?”
“That’s me, whose parent are you?”
“I’m Diego’s mom and I just wanted to say Diego cannot stop talking about Cell Command! He used to just grunt when I’d ask how school was, now he can’t stop talking about completing his missions to help save Jasmine from the pathogens!”
I had noticed the change in Diego as well. He was bright but often unfocused, distracted and had difficulty socializing with other students. From the first day of incorporating the educational game, Cell Command, into my lessons, Diego was a changed student. He was on-task, ready at the first opportunity to begin playing. Not only was he focused on his own game play, but also he socialized with other students and offered tips and suggestions if they became stuck or frustrated.
Many parents are apprehensive about the increased use of digital media in the classroom, as they are under the assumption that screens are simply “used as electronic babysitters." This concern can be met head-on by allowing transparency to exist in your classroom. When teachers inform parents from the outset of the digital media you hope to implement, and explain the benefits of using such tools, they tend to be more comfortable with the tools. SRI Research cited in a recent Mindshift report has shown that students playing educational video games score 12 percent better on standardized tests.
At the start of the new school year, my goal was to find new ways to engage my students. Trying digital learning games was one of my experiments. Video games in my classroom were not a replacement for my teaching. They supported my instruction, engaging students in new and exciting ways.
In Peter Lang’s book, Children's Virtual Play Worlds: Culture, Learning and Participation, he explains that video games allow for youth to learn by guided participation rather than through direct instruction. The classroom becomes student-focused, allowing them to work at their own pace and explore without the fear of failure. A worksheet full of red marks is discouraging to students, but a computer screen saying “Game Over: Try Again” is motivating. Who hasn’t felt the satisfaction of finally beating that level you’d struggled with for hours?
There is no passive learning when playing educational games; they demand that all players are active participants. Pac Man isn’t going to move forward without a player doing so. Video games also allow students to explore novel situations. My students commanded a ship the size of a human cell in order to help solve cellular crises in Cell Command, an experience they would be incapable of having without this digital learning.
In my letter to parents, I not only explained why I was using educational video games, but also encouraged them to play the games with their children at home. Parents often imagine playing video games as solitary acts, devoid of interactions with others. However, research has shown that video games do not weaken family interactions, but rather help foster them. Older siblings can help younger siblings with tips and tricks to defeating a game level, or tech-savvy children can explain gameplay to parents. When surveyed, the number one motivation for gamers to play games was the social component. This social component exists within educational games as well. They foster relationships between students who would not normally interact. Students with more gaming expertise are able to share their knowledge in a situation they may normally not encounter in the classroom.
Playing educational video games allows the child to show their knowledge and expertise to parents, introduces to parents to what they are learning in class, and allows parents to monitor their child’s learning in order to understand where they are struggling and what they are mastering. No family wants to sit home re-doing a worksheet together, but with educational video games, children can invite parents into their new world, asking for parents’ help in completing quests and redoing levels to demonstrate their level of achievement.
The day after my parent-teacher conference with Diego’s parents, he told me that he and his mom completed the game together, just as I had suggested. Additionally, Diego took on a new role in class as “Game Master.” With the knowledge he gained from the computer game, he was able to help tutor other students and guide them in completing the game as well.
Christine Marsh is a science educator with past experiences teaching in New York City and New Orleans public schools in both formal and informal educational settings. She concentrates on finding ways to connect learning for students of all ages and levels with emerging digital technologies, specifically, educational games.