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Headlines from Games, Learning & Society 2014

Written by: Anne Richards, VP, Product Development

I recently got back from one of my favorite conferences of the year—Games, Learning & Society in Madison, Wisconsin. This amazing gathering, which brings together academics, designers, teachers, distributors, and many other bright lights of the learning games community, was celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and feels more relevant than ever.

As more and more people are exploring the power of games and how they can impact learning in a wide range of areas, this year’s conference presented a terrific opportunity to take a break from the noise for a second and gain insights from some of the folks who’ve been at this for the last decade (and much longer than that, in some cases). The presentations, panels, and sessions offered perspectives from professors, game designers, developers, publishers, research and innovation groups, classroom teachers, and many others who have a stake in the present and future of learning games. Here are some of the most resonant takeaways.

picstitchCo-Dependence Can Be a Good Thing
I was fortunate to organize a panel called “Anatomy of a Learning Game: From Design to Development to Distribution,” with some of my rockstar colleagues and collaborators, including an assessment expert, a creative director, a games curator, and a public school teacher, all of whom have in one way or another contributed to Classroom, Inc.’s new learning game, After the Storm. (You can read more about the panel in this terrific post from panelist Leigh Hallisey, creative director for FableVision, an awesome learning games developer and our partner on After the Storm.)

The panel helped to remind me just how much goes into making and distributing a successful learning game, and highlighted how much we all rely on each other. None of us work for Scholastic, or Pearson, or departments of education. We’re all “little fish” in a way—some at small to medium-sized companies, some working individually. Our teacher panelist, Heather Robertson, is working in a larger system while focusing on the individual needs of her diverse students and the technology environment of her school, something she brought to life vividly in her presentation. For all of us, we only have so many resources at hand, or so much expertise in-house, and so pairing up and working together is an inevitable —and often quite delightful—part of the process.

Cross-disciplinary partnerships are also critical to making learning games a valid option for schools, parents, and others who care about real quality, rigorous research, and definable results. If we as a community believe in games as real vehicles for learning, we don’t have the luxury of ignoring each other. We must support each other, inform each other, and teach each other. If we’re going to have learning games taken seriously beyond the App Store, and to actually make a positive impact on student outcomes, people who care about learning games have to recognize we are an affinity group of our own, and our ultimate success depends on a rising tide lifting all high-quality boats.

Digital Games Are Already in the Classroom in a Big Way
The Joan Ganz Cooney Center released a preview of their forthcoming report on the use of digital games in the classroom and it contains a TON of excellent intel for anyone who’s interested in making games for schools (or really, anyone who wants to get a snapshot of critical trends in the education system and its relationship to technology).

An amazing 78% of teachers surveyed report currently using games in the classroom, with a majority of those using them at least once a week. As of right now, 72% of those are using desktop or laptop computers, though tablets are gaining ground as well. I encourage you to read the highlights yourself, but the report suggests the opportunities around learning games for schools are huge. It also, however, takes a clear-eyed picture of the challenges teachers face implementing them, and for those who want to truly serve educators and design for student success, having a firm sense of those obstacles is key.

Remember the Three “E”s
Jessica Lindl of GlassLab, the organization behind SimCityEDU, wrapped up the keynote talks with her presentation, “Join in the Ultimate Game: Closing the Engagement Gap in Education.” The speech was an excellent and cohesive look at what games need to do to be taken seriously in schools, and Lindl spoke persuasively about the three “E”s that learning games need to provide to teachers and administrators: Engagement, Ease of Use, and Efficacy.

Engagement is probably the first argument many of us can think of in favor of using games in schools. There’s no question that drawing kids in is one of the most obvious reasons to use games in schools (and the Cooney Center report bears this out, as teachers cite low-performing students, those who may be disengaged, as seeing the greatest benefit from learning games). There is plenty of research showing that games can be an engaging way of presenting curriculum, so this one is fairly straightforward.

Ease of use is just as critical, however, and often a lot more challenging for developers to provide. Classrooms frequently lack consistent broadband connections or space on their tablets for large applications. In an ideal situation, a teacher might have a laptop cart in their classroom with one laptop per student, or a tablet for every desk. But, it’s also possible they might have limited computer access in a lab once or twice a week, or that students might have to share machines.

Even in the best tech setups, sometimes applications fail to run properly, and if a teacher has a class full of students waiting for a lesson, they’re unlikely to have the time to troubleshoot a buggy or unresponsive program. Heather, our teacher panelist that I mentioned earlier, says she has a “three strike” rule with games for her class—if she can’t get it to run three times when she needs it, no matter how good the game, she just isn’t going to bother anymore. Teachers truly don’t have the time to waste to figure out how to make a program work for them if it’s not intuitive and easy.

Finally, efficacy needs to be shown, whether it’s through assessments or other data that prove to those making the schedules that games are a valuable use of teacher’s already thin-stretched time. Assessments and data were all-the-buzz at GLS this year as they have been at many others, and we all have heard plenty about big data and its potential in education. But the bottom line is teachers and administrators don’t need to be barraged with unsorted piles of student data and statistics. What they need is actionable information that can help them with what is most important to them—helping their students grow and learn.