Written by: Jane Canner, Ph.D, Senior Education Advisor
As learning game developers, we at Classroom, Inc. were heartened by the results cited in the recent Level Up Learning report from the Games + Learning Publishing Council, a project of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. Use of digital learning games is becoming more pervasive and accepted in classrooms, teachers are primarily using games that aim to educate rather than just to entertain, and many believe that games have improved students’ content mastery, particularly for low-performing students.
Since Classroom, Inc.’s mission is to improve reading skills for struggling students through the use of rigorous and engaging literacy games, we are gratified that teachers increasingly believe in the potential of games to help their students.
In the report’s foreword, Dr. Milton Chen highlights three areas where much work remains to be done: developing more creative and complex games, offering professional development, and conducting research on outcomes. At Classroom, Inc., we agree that these are the next frontiers for harnessing games’ full potential in the classroom, and we are leaders in this effort.
Developing a Complex Game that is Worth Students’ Time
First, with our 22-year history of developing educational simulations that have been used widely across the country, we have the curriculum, instruction, and professional development know-how to develop worthwhile and complex learning games. Our games are developed around the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in Reading—and 85% of our pilot teachers agreed that our newest game, After the Storm (ATS), effectively addressed them. When teachers complain that they cannot easily find curriculum-aligned games, as the Level Up report found, they are right; most games have not been developed from the outset to specifically target rigorous learning standards.
ATS is a multi-hour complex and rigorous literacy game for middle schoolers, in contrast to many more widely used short, skill & drill-type games. ATS is a role-playing game that simulates a real-life professional environment and immerses students in that world. Students take on the role of editor-in-chief of an online magazine the day after a major hurricane hits the community, and they solve realistic work problems by gathering information, analyzing situations, and making decisions.
We ensured that ATS would be a complex, worthwhile game by using targeted design principles including role playing (students are empowered as the decision-making editor-in-chief), exploration and interaction with a student-driven approach (students choose paths and interact to gather clues), and embedding reading and other skills in game content.
Helping Teachers Use Complex Learning Games for Maximum Student Impact
Our goal is to build students’ confidence in reading and to improve their literacy skills, and teachers are essential for reaching that goal. Teachers surveyed in Level Up said that they learned to use games largely on their own or through their peers. While this is a start, we know that effective use of learning games requires more extensive initial and ongoing professional development, particularly if we want the games integrated into regular classroom instruction. We plan, train, and coach teachers on how to do this successfully; we know this doesn’t happen automatically. We succeeded in our summer ATS pilot, with most (83%) teachers saying they’d consider using the game again in their school-year program in various ways, e.g., once or twice a week in ELA class, in afterschool programs for struggling readers, or as an interactive form of tutoring. They saw that it was a real curriculum, and saw how it could fit in.
We also focused training and coaching on using game data and the dashboard to drive instruction with positive results. Eighty-one percent of our summer teachers used the dashboard (mostly for monitoring student progress on the game and CCSS performance), 84% used it extensively at least once a day and most several times a day, and 90% found it easy to use.
To enhance these current offerings and respond to teacher requests, we are planning to build out additional online professional development tools, so that we can provide targeted help in short, digestible pieces of content. We will offer teachers a pathway that they can enter at any point depending on their needs; our coaches will provide direct and customized support as needed. We know that substantive and ongoing professional development is key to making an impact on students.
Focusing on Learning Outcomes
Finally, as a nonprofit, Classroom, Inc.’s bottom line is student achievement—getting young adolescents to want to read, to read more, and to improve their reading skills. We follow the work and research being done on learning games, and don’t see enough on the actual benefits and outcomes for students, particularly in areas that educators are traditionally focused on, such as reading and writing results.
We have been committed since our inception to studying our work and impact. Advances in game technology and the power of digital games to provide embedded data is enhancing our ability to study the impact of our games on students. For example, results from our fall 2013 pilot of ATS, along with results from ATS’ predecessor, The Sports Network 2, reinforced our belief that learning games can help struggling students read rigorous text. We found in both studies that students were engaged, that performance on the game’s reading activities was moderately to highly correlated with performance on standardized reading tests, that students performed moderately well on challenging text written to CCSS grade-appropriate text specifications, and that our differentiated learning paths within the game worked as designed (i.e., to give extra support to students who needed it and difficult tasks to students who required a challenge). We are now in the midst of analyzing embedded assessment data from our larger summer 2014 implementation with approximately 350 New York City students, and we will report on those results shortly.
Classroom, Inc. is confident that high-quality learning games can help students learn and deserve a place in classrooms. We are pleased that teachers increasingly are using them and seeing their benefits, and we are proud to be part of these exciting new developments in education.