April 23, 2019 | 71° F

Educators weigh virtues of video games in classrooms

Photo by Naaz Modan |

Photo Illustration | Instructors are adapting Minecraft for the classroom to bring elements of the real world into a medium that many students know well.

Playing and designing video games to help students learn skills ranging from teamwork to digital design may sound like a techie's dream, and it may be become reality in some schools.

Video games have the capacity to teach students a much larger skillset than traditional education methods can, said Erica Lucci, a Ph.D. candidate and instructor.

“You can learn so much more and apply skills, if instead of just playing the game you design it yourself,” she said.

A former first grade teacher, Joel Levin, modified the classic video game Minecraft to teach his past students how to research and interact online.

Levin now helps distribute modified versions of Minecraft, known as MinecraftEdu, and other games to help teachers, said Santeri Koivisto, chief executive officer and co-founder of TeacherGaming LLC.

Updating pedagogical styles to include technological advances is critical to student success, said Erica Boling, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education in an email.

“If we only stick to teaching basic principles, we will be doing our students a disservice,” she said.

Minecraft is a free-form game with two different modes, said Andrea Guerra, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences junior. In survival mode, players build structures and weapons to hide from enemies and hunt for food.

In creative mode, players are able to simply build whatever structures, equipment or weapons they want using the game’s different blocks, she said. These blocks simulate different building materials, such as stone or bricks.

A multiplayer mode exists within the game where players can enter each other’s worlds, she said. Outside of survival, no objectives exist within the game.

“This game (gives) more freedom as to what you want to do (than other games),” she said. “It allows the mind to wander … and create anything (it) want.”

Using a game like Minecraft allows students to experiment without fearing failure, Koivisto said in an email. Teachers can likewise demonstrate concepts easily within the environment.

Lucci, who has taught primary school students ranging from the third to eighth grade, said students can learn “higher-order” thinking skills from playing in or designing games.

While they can learn just from playing the game, designing their own game forces them to consider aspects of it they otherwise would not have, she said.

“You have to think, 'What do I need to do to have a successful game?'” she said. “You have to think in terms of the designer and not the consumer, and that requires a lot more thinking on their part.”

This thinking includes creating a narrative for the game, Lucci said. Students then think not only of the technical aspects, but also the humanities aspects of game design, she said.

“On top of that, they get the ability to get feedback from their peers,” she said. “Learning together, teaming up to create things — these are all great skills they can use down the road when they graduate. These are skills they can use in the real world.”

Like with other skills, the more a student practices, the more adept they become, she said. They are able to immerse themselves in an interactive learning environment.

It helps that these systems are not traditional education games.

Gamification is not necessarily the best solution for students, Koivisto said. Creating a leaderboard would set up the classroom to be a competition, which would not help learning.

Developing a learning experience would help them much more, he said. Sandbox games like MinecraftEdu are able to accomplish that much better than competitive games.

Though Minecraft seems to be a relatively unsophisticated game, it can spur creativity amongst its users, he said.

“With Minecraft you just click a few times and it already looks cool,” he said. “It gives you a sense that you can and you should do more. Kids lack that type of experience.”

Educational video gaming is still far from being universally accepted and implemented, Lucci said. Some parents may not understand how the games are beneficial to students.

Ensuring teachers have access to up-to-date technological instruments is important, said Dan Battey, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education. Some educational institutions do not reform their systems very quickly.

“Decisions (on these games) should be based on whether or not these technologies support and enhance instruction while improving student learning,” Boling said.

The best educational technologies have multiple people working on them, he said. These are the ones with both designers and educators collaborating to optimize the final product.

“The main concern is we’re so focused on is testing, things like the (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers),” Lucci said. “There’s so much of an emphasis on prepping kids to take tests that there isn’t time to implement game design.”

Nikhilesh De

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