By Rachel Bolstad
"I find gaming a great way to help my learning".
That’s something a New Zealand learner might casually remark in the near future, according to the Ministry of Education’s draft document illustrating a vision for education in 2025. So how realistic is this vision?
With the recent announcement that digital technologies are to be more explicitly a focus in The New Zealand Curriculum, it's timely to consider the future of digital games for learning from a research perspective. While there is plenty of research and theory to support the idea that games can be good for learning, it’s fair to say that the research base around games for learning in New Zealand schools today is still relatively sparse. We’re trying to help fill that gap with our Games for Learning project, now in its second year.
Games for learning, or games or learning?
If findings from NZCER’s survey of Secondary Schools in 2015 are any indication, the idea that playing games might be useful for learning might be quite revolutionary indeed. Rather than “games for learning”, the NZCER data suggests that some secondary school teachers currently see it as a case of “games or learning”.
Overall, games and gaming didn’t get a lot of airtime in the Secondary Schools in 2015 survey, so we can’t draw too many conclusions about the prevalence of games for learning (or otherwise) in NZ secondary schools based on this survey alone. For example, in an open question about teachers' experiences of teaching and learning with digital technology, only 26 of the 930 teacher comments (less than three percent) even mentioned games or gaming. What’s interesting to me is that most of those comments – 21 out of 26 – position games squarely in opposition to learning. They are described as “time-wasters”, “distractions”, and something teachers must work very hard to “monitor” and “prevent” and “police”. Here are some typical examples:
Students do not grasp the idea of using devices for learning. Used for socialising and gaming. This interferes with the learning.
Students playing games instead of doing their work is a major issue.
Students always get more distracted on devices with things such as Facebook/YouTube/games.
Students have to be monitored, not to go on Facebook, or load games.
Students know how to use digital technology for games – not so good at using it as a learning tool.
Many students just see using [the school’s Chromebooks] as an excuse to play games or to engage in off-task behaviour
Reading between the lines, it might be reasonable to assume the games these teachers are trying to keep out of the classroom (despite students’ best efforts!) are of the non-educational variety. But what about games that are designed – or easily repurposed – for learning? Are they being used in secondary schools to support student learning? Perhaps, but the data suggests this isn’t particularly common. Only 8 percent of secondary teachers surveyed said their students “often” play games or simulations as part of their classroom learning, although a further 22 percent say this happens “sometimes”. (A further 6 percent of teachers said they don't currently, but "would like to").
The use of digital games or simulations at least some of the time, reported by a combined total of 30 percent of teachers, still pales in comparison to other common uses of digital technology for learning, such as to research using the internet (93 percent often or sometimes), or to compose, edit, and format written work (83 percent often or sometimes). Unfortunately, we don’t have other data from the national survey to identify what kinds of games or simulations are used, how they are used, and why they are used in some secondary classrooms. (Next year we will have data from NZCER’s national survey of primary and intermediate schools, so it will be interesting to see whether games for learning have a different profile in the Years 1-8 school curriculum).
We can speculate on all sorts of reasons why using games and simulations for learning may happen infrequently in today’s secondary classrooms: Perhaps there just aren’t that many good games for learning out there. Maybe they are out there, but they aren’t easy for learners and teachers to find when they need them. Maybe teachers aren’t confident to bring game-based learning into their classrooms because they aren’t interested in games or gaming themselves. Perhaps they simply don’t have time to explore the learning potential of games amongst other pressures on their time. Or maybe teachers aren't convinced that games are proven in terms of their value for learning, compared with other teaching approaches and strategies they already use. I suspect all of these things are probably true, and it is useful to note that 28 percent of teachers’ comments abut learning with digital technologies identified a need for teacher professional learning and development (PLD), and more time, to enable them to embed the use of digital technology in their teaching practice. But I’m also interested in the idea that there may be a deep underlying stigma associated with games and gaming that seems to manifest itself as a form of binary thinking, whereby games are in some way symbolic of what “not learning” looks like. Is this view fair? Or could this view limit teachers from seeing the unrealised educational potential of games?
We’ll be exploring these idea further in future posts. In the meantime, feel free to post your comments below!
Image Copyright: michaeljung / 123RF Stock Photo