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Will Grind for Grades

Luke Thomas | 9 Jan 2012 17:00
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Let's take a moment and remove ourselves from the debate about mainstream videogames and their future or lack thereof. Just for a small while, put aside your position on Dragon Age II's limited scope or your rage about those egregious glitches that contaminate the world of Skyrim, and have a look at the sterling output of a different gaming world in 2011: educational videogames.

The real question, however, is not whether children want arcades in their classrooms. It's whether these programs improve learning.

I'm not referring to the Windows 95-era mainstays like Carmen Sandiego or Reader Rabbit, either. New charter schools that run curricula fully dedicated to the idea of using videogames and digital media to teach are popping up in major cities. Quest to Learn, a New York school at the locus of the movement, opened a sister academy in Chicago at the beginning of its sophomore year this fall. Their franchise is spreading. Most gamers may not have realized it, but 2011 was the year that videogames as education went Triple-A.

Schools and after-school programs focused on games are beloved by the students who attend them. This is no surprise-these classrooms taught PS3's, Nintendo DS', and rigs that combine motion-capture with projection graphics that expose the Kinect as a bargain bin commodity. Of course kids love these places.

"It would be awesome to play videogames at school," said a young man who participated in an NYU study about whether gaming would improve how well he learned. "Right now I would be so happy. I would be so happy I would cry."

The real question, however, is not whether children want arcades in their classrooms. It's whether these programs improve learning. The good news is they do. The motion-capture rig, for instance, is called a "SMALLab." A peer-reviewed journal published a study in 2009 found that SMALLab programs that taught chemical titration and geology to high school students caused them to score significantly better on tests than students who received typical earth science instruction. The study also found that the kids interacted more during the lessons, helping each other learn. The conclusion was that SMALLab "is poised for broad dissemination into mainstream K-12 contexts."

SMALLab is not the only company vying for that lucrative "broad dissemination." The founder of Atari, Nolan Bushnell, has been garnering attention with claims he has developed a product that can help students learn a typical high school curriculum three times faster than normal. He described his setup as "Dance Dance Revolution meets step aerobics meets drilling practice." This system, called Speed to Learn, is presently more under wraps than SMALLab (and less tested), and his claims sound a bit like something out of Ender's Game, but the existence of competition signals the potential for a growing industry.

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