Serious About Games

How can educators get the most out of game-based learning?

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Filament Games Lee WilsonInvolved seriously in gaming as education since 2004, Lee Wilson, an executive at companies serving K-12 schools and most recently of Filament Games, has degrees from Wharton and Princeton. Based in Madison, Wisconsin, Filament Games is a game production studio that develops teaching and learning games to engage students in inspiring interactive experiences.

“I believe people lead fuller lives if they have a clear connection to meaningful work,” says Lee (pictured, left). “Meaningful work comes from solving big problems as part of a team. Focused teams tackling big problems are also the most effective way to deploy capital. My

Adding games to the classroom media mix produced a 12 percent improvement in student outcomes. The impact was higher with games designed specifically for classroom implementation.

value is in organizing and motivating teams to drive this virtuous circle,” he says. In this interview, Lee draws on his own success in the field to share his knowledge of game-based learning, its impact on education and its potential for learning.

Why is game-based learning beneficial?

Lee: At root it is the famous saying, “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.”  Games involve doing, so when you want students to develop understanding, they are a good tool.

That said, there is a set of activities that games do uniquely well compared to other media. We break those down to cost, time, danger, and abstraction.

Cost – We can simulate things in games that would be too expensive for students to “do” – e.g. running a genetics lab or launching full-scale rockets.

Time – We can compress time so that the connecting themes of processes that unfold over months, years, or decades can be observed inside of a single class period  – e.g. running for President or the lifecycle of a plant.

Danger – Students can tackle projects that we would never risk them doing in the classroom – e.g. running nuclear reactors or performing surgery.

Abstraction – Finally, we live in a world of complex systems that can appear abstract from the outside. Games place students inside of complex systems so they can understand the context – e.g. engineering a catapult or navigating using Newtonian physics.

How can teachers get the most out of game-based learning?

Lee: Games engage students with content, expose them to new vocabulary, help them develop new problem solving skills, and encourage them to dig deeper through research. Teachers should look at games as another way to create context for rich classroom discussions and student projects.

Are there certain games that work better in classrooms than others?

Lee: There is an incredibly wide range of games that work in learning contexts. Rather than focus on type of game, we think about the general design constraints of GBL classroom deployments.

First, we have to create a feedback loop for the teacher. Commercial games have feedback loops for the player, but nothing for teachers. Teachers want to know when students are stuck — those are teachable moments. They also need some basic reports that show alignment with objectives and standards (where appropriate). Because we build for formal learning environments, we include a teacher dashboard.

Beyond that, we think a lot about the context of the classroom when we design our games. Given bell schedules, game experiences need to fit within a class period. Schools have a lot more technology these days, but for good reasons they hold on to equipment for much longer than businesses. Bandwidth also remains a challenge in some places. That means we don’t build for the latest bleeding edge computers and tablets.

Are there certain subjects that games work better for?

Lee: We don’t think so. We have built games across all the major subject areas of Reading, Math, Science, and Social Studies. We are also working on career development games for adults and games to help students with special needs. The more important question is whether the game technology is being used to target one of the areas where games add unique value (cost, time, danger, abstraction). Games should not be used where there are less expensive or more appropriate media can tackle it. For example, text is brilliant at delivering large volumes of background knowledge and facts.

What trends are you seeing within educational gaming?

Lee: More of the games designed specifically for classroom use now have companion curriculum materials to give teachers some ideas about how to implement them. We and other providers are also venturing into professional development because we hear from people that they want to use games in the classroom but need guidance on how to be successful with it.

We also have some nice large-scale successes we can point to — with the games we built for iCivics being the largest in the world. To date, those games have been played over 33 million times and they are being used in roughly half the middle school social studies classrooms in the US.

Are there any trends you’ve seen die out?

Lee: Gamification is dying out. We never viewed this as a very good idea — removing leader boards and badging from the context of games doesn’t have long-term legs. Why? Because almost all of it is extrinsically manipulative — trying to force kids to do something someone else wants them to do. Sooner rather than later the kids figure this out and it stops working. These tools work in games precisely because students have an intrinsic interest in playing the game.

Don’t confuse gamification with learning games – they are completely different things.

What does research say about using games in the classroom?

Lee: We encourage folks to read the SRI meta-analysis of the research on game-based learning that came out about a year ago. Basically, adding games to the classroom media mix produced a 12 percent improvement in student outcomes. The impact was higher with games designed specifically for classroom implementation. The study walks through the various components that have an impact on outcomes. Some surprising insights include things like the nature of competition. It turns out that head to head competition is negatively correlated to improvements but team competition or solo play are positively correlated. Teachers looking to implement GBL should be aware of these kinds of issues.

How has game-based learning evolved?

Lee: In many ways, we have gone full circle from the early days of Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego. Those games were deeply immersive and the things you did in the game were directly associated with the learning objectives. We then went through a period where cheap quiz and practice software drowned out everything else. As teachers’ sophistication about what really supports learning improves, we are returning to richer games where the learning objectives are embedded in the action.

We see a lot of work these days connecting games to the larger context of the curriculum rather than having them be an isolated activity. For example, we just completed four games for McGraw-Hill that are deeply embedded in their new K-5 science program, Inspire Science. We worked closely with their instructional design team to identify areas where games could make a unique contribution to the broader scope and sequence.

How do you see game-based learning impacting education over the next few years?

Lee: As teachers build familiarity with the current generation of learning games, we expect them to become more discerning about what good design is. Things like Classroom Jeopardy and Cool Math will hopefully fade away and projects like The Radix Endeavour (MIT) and Inspire Science will become more popular.

As implementations become more widespread, we are looking forward to the things teachers are going to push towards — more sophisticated and challenging games that take kids deeper into the content and which encourage them to write, to talk, to code, and to take the lessons learned into the world at large.

Ten years ago, when you mentioned video games in the classroom, you got a lot of skeptical side eye. Now, we hear consistently that people see the benefits of using games, they just don’t know how to do it — hence our focus on PD. As implementations become more widespread, we are looking forward to the things teachers are going to push towards — more sophisticated and challenging games that take kids deeper into the content and which encourage them to write, to talk, to code, and to take the lessons learned into the world at large.

What would you say to a teacher who’s considering implementing games in their classroom?

Lee: Start by playing some games yourself. Games are about doing – so go do. You do not need to become “a gamer” but you do need some background experience. Pick something you are interested in personally, not something you expect to use in the classroom. Go online in the forums and wikis around those games and see how knowledge is crowd sourced (you may be surprised at how rigorously scientific most of the inquiry is). Once you have some comfort with games and some appreciation of the culture you will have a better sense of what students already experience with games they play at home and how you might leverage that in your classroom.

Do some research. We recommend Gregg Toppo’s new book, The Game Believes in You as the perfect place to start. There are more scholarly dives into the content, but that should lay a solid foundation for further exploration. You might also get some ideas about games to play in there.

Use the students as the game experts – don’t be intimidated by the games yourself (easy to say, sometimes hard to do). You are the content and process expert who can help them construct meaning from the game experiences – you don’t need to know the arcana of the crafting system.

What are your thoughts about efforts to bring together various sector representatives such as here with G4E – Games4Ed?

Lee: There are lots of opportunities to collaborate and work together. Games Learning & Society is over 11 years old. The Serious Play conference covers all the sectors that are using games (schools, corporate, indies, higher ed, therapy, military, etc.). G4E is tackling some of the implementation issues we all face in schools. SXSWedu has had good learning game tracks and expos. Even the White House held an Education Game Jam this past year – which was a hoot.

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:

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Gaining Insight

Creating a new culture of learning ten minutes at a time.

GUEST COLUMN | by Karl Mehta

CREDIT edcastA new culture of learning requires three interrelated elements:

1) Learning with peers,

2) Free and real-time access to experts, and

3) The ability to actively engage.

Before, only a privileged few gained access beyond the ivy gates or the corporate front desk to interact with “experts”. Now, it’s possible to interact with a plethora of professors, executives or innovators across the globe through live streaming video.

Learning requires active engagement and human interaction — even through technology. 

The lines of formal and informal learning are blurring and our 10 Minutes Insight Series serves as evidence of this change. As a platform for social collaborative learning, we are harnessing the power of real-time video content in our learning network. This can be used as a supplement to a traditional formal classroom experience or for employees in a corporate setting.

Some background

For a long time, the industry tried to use advances in technology to replicate the classroom and the industrial model in which it was developed. But we know, unequivocally, that learning requires active engagement and human interaction — even through technology. Learners not only need expertise that educators, thought leaders and influencers provide, but an opportunity to engage with those experts in real time while including members of their own network who may be interested in the subject matter.

Learning is now a lifelong journey that we must all travel. The reality for Millennials is that the knowledge required for successful careers in the years ahead has not yet been created. They want tools that resemble their social media experiences — intuitive, built on social networks, easy to use, something that encourages engagement with peers and something pleasurable enough to become a daily habit. I think about learning as a continuum of offerings, from formal online classes to informal bite-sized tutorials with real practitioners and specialists in certain fields. The real-time element is critical.

The creation

To build an outstanding series, our executives reached out to personal contacts in their network and experts in their community who understood our vision from early on and were excited by it. These innovators and early adopters were eager to launch this series to engage the EdCast network and their own audience.

Recruiting influencers

Recruiting for the live Insight Series was straightforward once they demoed the prototype with top influencers. Part of our secret to success was engaging Kym McNicholas, a seasoned Emmy Award winning journalist who really got behind the idea and led the interviews. We found that influencers were eager to share their insights more broadly, particularly if it didn’t entail a significant time commitment.

One of EdCast’s leaders who participated was Jeffrey Sachs from the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Jeffrey was yearning to find mechanisms to easily engage and inspire the global community committed to sustainable development. The live Insight Series added another tool to his already highly popular set of courses powered by EdCast.


Knowledge diffusion is the key outcome we strive for as the series continues. The aim is to demonstrate how easy and impactful it can be to share knowledge with others in real time, where asking questions and sharing answers and comments is instantaneous. You don’t have to write a peer reviewed journal article or even a blog. You just need a few minutes to share your insights.

The effect this will have on edtech 

EdCast and the 10 Minute Insights Series are redefining the culture of learning by focusing on user behavior on social and mobile networks and creating the ability to build a focused network around sharing knowledge. The end goal is to empower, ignite and engage people around the world with one another through global knowledge sharing.

Karl Mehta is Founder and CEO of EdCast, a personal learning network. He was selected as a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow in 2012-13, has spoken at TEDx, GDC, CTIA, Innovation Project Harvard, among other places, and has been published in BusinessWeek, WSJ, New York Times, Wired, and elsewhere. Karl has over 20 years experience founding, funding, and building technology businesses from the ground up. He edcasts @

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The Many Avatars of Gaming

Stepping back from the intersection of two vital worlds for a big-picture view.

GUEST COLUMN | by George Schalter

Gaming is so all pervasive in our society that we sometimes overlook that fact that the technology driving it is fairly new, and easily available to many — only in these last few years.

Early Games

Gaming has been an offshoot of the development in computer science and technology. In 1940, Edward Condon, the nuclear physicist, developed a computer to play the game of Nim. Displayed at the World’s Fair, thousands played it. Over the next two to three decades, came shooting games on a CRT hooked to an oscilloscope, programming to play Chess and Tic-Tac-Toe against a computer, war game practices by the U.S. military, primitive tennis games on an analog computer, space wars, etc.

CREDIT unit videogamehistory on wikia

CREDIT video game history on wikia< The unit and display of Tennis for Two.

Many of these games were developed as an offshoot of other areas of exploration, e.g., human machine interaction and Artificial Intelligence. In spite of all this development, there were practically no commercial spin offs.

Gaming for Entertainment

Gaming really took off when arcade games came on to the scene and these coin-operated games became the haunt of many young adults. As technology progressed, the element of interactivity increased in arcade games. Newer controls were introduced even as games became more sophisticated, with the introduction of the microprocessor. Pong, Space Invaders, and Crazy Taxi were just some of the games which caught the imagination of people.

Play had always been a great way to learn effortlessly. Now, the latest in play, computer gaming, was getting the educational makeover. 

Meanwhile, inside universities students were using the power of sophisticated mainframes and minis to play and program games. Though these games contributed to building sophistication into digital games, they never made it out into the commercial world. As Personal Computers (PCs) became popular and affordable, games were bundled with the software (remember Solitaire bundled with Microsoft’s OS?). Games were delivered via cartridges, floppy disks, and CDs. Fans built libraries of games which included adventures, shooting, stealth missions, space invasions, races, first-person narratives, racing, theft, dancing, and a host of other genres.

At this juncture, just as it has been throughout history, technology and education decided to hold hands again.

Gaming for Entertainment with an Educational Element

CREDIT Curiousity-Fa

Twentyfour Students by Curiosity-Fa

Although education and technology are very disparate, they have intersected through a long part of human history. Writing was a technology that evolved in different civilizations. Moving from oral traditions to written ones meant a development of writing media (clay and stone tablets, metal plates, skins, palm leaves, papyrus, manuscripts etc.) and the so-called hardware to write (instruments made of bone, wood, metal, ivory, stylus etc.)

Once the printing press became popular, it was only a matter of time before classrooms as we know it came into existence. Teachers could use inexpensive textbooks to impart education. This was followed by a steady march of other technologies which brought us the projectors, electronic screens, interactive boards, computers, the Internet, and finally devices like tablets into classrooms.

As observant and progressive minds noticed the fascination kids and teens had for gaming, an educational element was introduced.

Play had always been a great way to learn effortlessly. Now, the latest in play, computer gaming, was getting the educational makeover. The Minnesota Education Computing Consortium( MECC) was a partnership between the University of Minnesota and the state government. This partnership saw the release of the widely influential game The Oregon Trail. One of the biggest successful names in educational gaming from 1980, The Learning Company, is still going strong.

As the PC made itself comfortable in homes, educational entertainment, or ‘edutainment’ was coined and in its wake followed educational games like Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, Math Blaster, Number Muncher and a bunch of other games. As the prices dropped, and speed, graphics, sound, color and memory in the PC got better, gaming increased in popularity. Over the last couple of decades, the reach of Internet technology has widened, making possible Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMO Games), where players in various avatars collaborate to solve problems in the game world they inhabit. Radix Endeavor from MIT STEP and School of Dragons from Jumpstart are games designed around school curricula. MinecraftEdu is a remix of the hit game Minecraft, but ready for usage in schools to teach skills like reading and problem solving!

Using Gaming Judiciously in Education

As more and more research pointed to children enjoying gaming, teaching faculty explored the idea of gamifying educational concepts. A national survey on teaching with digital games opens our eyes to extensive usage of gaming in American schools. Some math teachers designed games whereby their students could play and learn their way through math concepts. If not learn new concepts, they helped kids practice their math while playing a game. Teachers like Eric Nelson used gamification techniques to get his class enthusiastic about social studies.

Though digital games are extensively used in classrooms, it must be remembered that they don’t always help a child with learning a concept. No game is better than a good teacher, but good teachers frequently use digital games to supplement their teaching. The teacher, as always, is key to a lively classroom.

Holding Hands and Heading Off into the Sunset

Gaming is now available on multiple platforms and distributed in many ways. The more interesting thing to note is the sheer variety and number of people who are gaming. With rapid advancement in technology, more people are using smart phones and tablets today, as they have become affordable and easy to use. Men women, children, teenagers, mothers, fathers and even grandparents are gaming. In fact many a time grandparents and grandkids bond over games!

As supporting technology becomes available and affordable, educational games based on augmented reality might become the norm — playing a digital game in a real-world environment. It is surprising how much people want real-world-like environments in virtual-world games. In spite of all the technology, faces, eyes and hair lack that something which makes them real. Backgrounds don’t react the way they do in reality. Things don’t collapse as they do in everyday life.

The Next Big Thing in gaming might be getting everything to look and feel real. Game developers are working on simulating multiple elements on a screen to produce a more natural effect. Everything in our real world is intertwined and is in a constant interaction — light, shadows, movement, textures, colors, and a host of other things. Perhaps the next big thing in gaming will be to wipe out the difference between the real and virtual worlds — photorealism?

Just like a good movie where the leading pair walk off into the sunset holding hands, technology and education seem to be doing the same. To know what happens next, we’ll have to wait for part deux of this technology in education revolution.

George Schalter loves being a dad. He and his wife share the joys and responsibilities of bringing up their two children. As believers of a good, well-rounded education, they spend a lot of time playing with their children and outdoors. George is the writer in the family, and he blogs at Educational Kids Games.

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EdTech Experiment

A math teacher takes an un-calculated risk to yield an exponential value. 

GUEST COLUMN | by John Choins

CREDIT EdmodoI’ve been a teacher for 16 years, and for the last 9 years I’ve taught middle school math. Before the start of every year I would think to myself, “There has got to be a better way,” but then I would find myself in the same struggle of trying to fit in all the material in a limited amount of time without giving students time to absorb, or even play with the math to a level where they actually internalized it. Two years ago, my district launched a 1-to-1 iPad initiative. Teachers got their iPads at the beginning of the school year so we could have time to play with the new tool and experiment with ways to use it in our classrooms, while receiving training on best practices. The students received their iPads in January of that school year. We spent the semester experimenting with ways to engage students with the iPads in a very new environment. Our district selected Edmodo as our LMS, so I started experimenting with communicating and collaborating with my students through this platform, as well as leveraging other edtech tools.

I’m not afraid to experiment with new ideas or new technology, but to completely change the way I teach seemed like a bit of a stretch, even for me.

During this semester of implementation, I started hearing about a new concept in teaching called “flipped learning.” It sounded intriguing, but I was a bit skeptical. What works in one teacher’s classroom, hasn’t always worked in mine. I’m not afraid to experiment with new ideas or new technology, but to completely change the way I teach seemed like a bit of a stretch, even for me.

After spending the summer reading about all of the positive results from teachers who implemented flipped learning, I decided to give it a try. I came up with a way I thought would work for me: a four-step process. Step one was to create my own videos. I thought this would take less time than searching through the myriad of videos already available online. Since I had an iPad, I just recorded myself with the iPad camera. I recorded short segments in case I made a mistake so it would be easier to fix. The last segment of the video was always a series of practice problems for the students to do, which was designed purposefully so I’d know how much of the concept they had mastered. I then combined all of the clips using iMovie. Once the video was complete, I uploaded it to my YouTube channel, as well as to my channel on SchoolTube.

The next step in the process was to share the video link with my students. I gave instructions to the students, attached the link to the video, and a notes page, all in Edmodo. The students were then required to watch the video at home and take notes. Students were able watch the video as many times as they needed. Upon completion, students worked the practice problems, took a picture of their work, and uploaded it back onto the platform.

The third step in my flipped learning process was for me to check all of the students’ practice problems and give them quick feedback. I was quickly able to review their work, checking in on the students who had mastered the material, and identifying problem areas. I quickly gave students feedback by letting them know how many problems they got correct. This was the most important step in planning for class time the next day, which is the fourth step in my process.

My plan for the class the next day was dictated by the students’ practice problems. If the majority of the students missed one or more of the practice problems, then we started class with a mini-lesson over the misconceptions that I noticed. If the majority of the class got all of the problems correct, then I worked with a small group while the other students jumped right into the activity for the day. Either way, the majority of the class time was spent on using what the students learned through some type of game, activity or project that required them to use their skills instead of just spending time in class learning about the skills.

The results were so overwhelmingly positive that I decided to flip my classroom for the entire year. Student engagement skyrocketed. Learning increased as evidenced by scores on standardized tests. More time was spent in class using the math, than during any other year I’ve taught. This was definitely an experiment I’m glad I tried. I am now a firm believer in flipped learning, and will never go back to a traditional way of teaching again.

John Choins is an Algebra teacher at Midway Middle School in Texas. Write to:

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The Case for Tech in the Classroom

Kivuto’s Kelly Smyth talks barriers, benefits, and timeframes for change. 

INTERVIEW | by James O’Brien 

CREDIT Kivuto Kelly SmuthThe time for classrooms to bring powerful learning technology to students is now, if you ask Kelly Smyth, vice president of business development at Kivuto Solutions.

In advance of Simplified Summit 2015 —  a leading ed-tech conference, presented by Kivuto and headed to Los Angeles on October 6 — Smyth discusses barriers, opportunities and what the future holds for technology in the classroom.

When we talk about technology in the classroom, how might we lower costs and barriers so that students from families of all income types — and schools in all kinds of districts — have a more level footing when it comes to hardware and content? 

Kelly Smyth: Whether you’re in higher-ed or K–12, you know the cost of hardware, the cost of software, the cost of content, and, at the higher-end models, certainly the cost of tuition — these things are always significant. But that cost is going to come down. It’s really just

Based on the data, students having these resources on the first day of class means they don’t get behind, and if they don’t get behind, they’re less apt to drop out.

economics. Certain hardware companies are competing, as we know, to develop low-cost devices, and you’ve probably seen some of them yourself … And they’re building things to serve international markets — India and Brazil are examples — where the nature of volume is going to have a really significant impact. Those impacts will make their way to the North American market for sure.

If the results of putting tech in the classroom already exist in an empirical way — student success, higher scores, greater district standing, these sorts of things — can they serve as a further argument for funding, that being one way of lowering barriers?

Smyth: Yes, absolutely. We know this can make an impact on retention and student success. Schools have seen an almost 6 percent increase in retention and they’re seeing a much higher level of students with As and Bs. Based on the data, students having these resources on the first day of class means they don’t get behind, and if they don’t get behind, they’re less apt to drop out — and they’re much more capable of keeping up with their homework.

What kind of timeframe can we talk about, when it comes to lowering barriers and getting this technology — and the results we’ve just talked about — to students in the classroom?

I think it’s absolutely within the next three years, I would say we’ll see significant growth in that timeframe. And I think, over time, within 10 years, we will see between 50 percent and 70 percent of institutions going this route because it just makes sense. They need this technology to be there.

James O’Brien is a technology and business writer with articles appearing in Mashable, Marketshare and other publications. To learn more about education, technology, and the future of the classroom, join Kelly and other leaders at the upcoming Simplified Summit in Los Angeles on October 6, 2015. Note at the time of this post a select number of complimentary tickets have been released courtesy of EdTech Digest for a limited time only.

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