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C21U Blog

Wed, 09/07/2011 - 17:00


Parents lament the tens and hundreds of hours their children (and often spouses) spend paying online or console games. However, many educational innovators see this behavior as an opportunity to improve the educational experience.  Researcher and game designer Jane McGonigal notes how the appeal of games is that they operate "on the verge of what [users are] capable of” and “create opportunities for learners to fail productively.”  For McGonigal there are  four distinct characteristics to qualify as a game: Games contain: 1)  a goal that the player is working toward. In particular, one that the player feels is challenging, but achievable; 2) rules that confine and construct the environment in which gameplay occurs; 3) a feedback system that notifies players of their progress and 4) voluntary participation requires that all the participants of the game accept the goal, rules, and constructs of the game.

Unlike McGonigal, who has dedicated her research career to studying the affects and potential of online games, Sal Khan inadvertently came upon his career as a leader in the field of gamification of education.  Sal Khan began posting videos to YouTube as a way to remotely tutor his cousin who struggled in math. Once these videos gained a wide viewership, Khan expanded his repertoire from high school math to topics to differential equations and finance to history, astronomy and physics, and in doing so Khan identified the problem with traditional lecture methods. By teaching to the “average” student in a class those who quickly understood the concepts presented were disengaged and bored, while those who struggled to comprehend felt disengaged because they failed to acquire the necessary foundational skills in previous classes to learn the new lesson.

When Sal created his Khan Academy, he recognized that by incorporating the aforementioned characteristics of games into classroom lessons, students could learn more effectively. The first step of this transformation he had already done: he had broken a traditional 60 to 90 minute lectures into two or three five- to fifteen- minutes videos that could be paused, rewound and reviewed until the concept was understood. Then, by incorporating other gaming components, such as a feedback system in the form of badges, students were learning more effectively. Further,  he included the ability to work at one’s own pace or alternatively, to the edge of their ability. Increasingly, educators and educational institutions have begun to incorporate more games into their curriculum.  


However, gamification is not limited to subjects that continue to build in a linear manner the way that math does. Quest to Learn, a public middle school in New York, employs game designers to develop their curriculum into 10 week lessons or “missions.” An example of one such “mission” included a scenario where the students were locked in the basement of the National History Museum with a number of “ghosts” who represented the different perspectives and experiences of different groups of people during the founding of the American colonies. This scenario demonstrated these 12- and 13-year old students to comprehend how people can experience the same event, but have vastly different interpretations of the occurrences. This exercise merged concepts from history, social studies and writing, and allowed students to look at the primary sources from that era to confer the conflicting accounts of the events.

Ultimately, the act of gamifying education is engaging students in their educational experience in a way that traditional pedagogical practices have failed to do. The degree to which these practices will permeate traditional education have yet to be seen, but many anticipate this will revolutionize the learning experience.



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