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By Jason Kohn, Contributing Columnist

As I’ve been reading about technology in education, one of the most interesting trends that keeps popping up is gaming. As a casual gamer myself, I’ve heard the arguments about how gaming improves hand-eye coordination and problem solving and all the rest. (In fact I tried many of them with my mom when I was 12 years old)

But the arguments for gaming in education today are far more advanced and compelling than I’ve realized. A lot of very smart people are working on this subject, and a lot of innovative educators are putting it into practice.

The Rationale for Gaming

A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that video games really can be beneficial. Discover Magazine profiled learning sciences professor James Gee’s research into the metabolic and cognitive processes at work when kids are gaming. The article is a few years old, but worth reading:

Bolstered by the results of laboratory experiments, Gee and other researchers dared to suggest that gaming might be mentally enriching. These scholars are the first to admit that games can be addictive, and indeed part of their research explores how games connect to the reward circuits of the human brain. But they now recognize the cognitive benefits of playing video games: pattern recognition, system thinking, even patience. Lurking in this research is the idea that gaming can exercise the mind the way physical activity exercises the body: It may be addictive because it’s challenging.

All of this, of course, flies in the face of the classic stereotype of gamers as attention deficit–crazed stimulus junkies, easily distracted by flashy graphics and on-screen carnage. Instead, successful gamers must focus, have patience, develop a willingness to delay gratification, and prioritize scarce resources. In other words, they think.

Sam Laird at Mashable wrote about another study last fall:

“To explore the growing role of electronic games in schools, the Internet education portal OnlineSchools.com recently surveyed a number of sources, including Education Week, Ed.gov and the NEA Foundation.

Among their more notable findings, 3,500 Chinese students used an online learning course that included digital games to help them learn English. In a survey of their teachers, 95% said the digital program increased motivation among the students. Similarly, another study found that students who used a computer-learning program that included game-like elements scored 5.5 points higher in regional percentile rankings.

Gaming in the Classroom

The scientific consensus is now fairly clear: gaming can be very much a learning experience. The question is how you can use it effectively in the classroom to help students succeed. There are innovative efforts under way right now to do just that.

Greg Ferenstein of Mashable, wrote about some examples in geography, biology, and job skills training.

The Federation of American Scientists   has developed a first-person shooter-inspired cellular biology curriculum. Gamers explore the fully-interactive 3D world of an ill patient and assist the immune system in fighting back a bacterial infection. Dr. Melanie Ann Stegman has been evaluating the educational impacts of the game and is optimistic about her preliminary findings. “The amount of detail about proteins, chemical signals and gene regulation that these 15-year-olds were devouring was amazing. Their questions were insightful. I felt like I was having a discussion with scientist colleagues,” said Stegman.

There is also a dedicated effort to bring massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) to the classroom, led by the World of Warcraft (WoW) in School program. The program was launched a few years ago by Lucas Gillispie, instructional technology coordinator in the Pender School District in North Carolina, and has expanded to a larger group of educators who are avid gamers. Their efforts now also include another MMORPG, Minecraft, aimed at elementary-age students.

There’s a great profile of Gillispie and two other North Carolina teachers using games in the classroom at the Charlotte Observer. Education Week also wrote about Gillispie and several other examples of gaming in the classroom for Education Week last month:

“Video games have been a point of connection between my students and myself, especially a certain group of students who were hard to reach otherwise,” he says. Using World of Warcraft as the base of the curriculum, Gillispie developed lessons within the game to teach students about leadership skills, digital citizenship, and language arts….

The program began as an after-school club, but after gaining support from teachers and administrators, it became an in-school elective for students at Cape Fear Middle School. The class has expanded within the last year to another middle school in the district, West Pender.

Gillispie hosts wikis dedicated to the WoW and Minecraft projects to provide a hub for educators to learn about online gaming, share strategies, and develop instructional items for using gaming in a classroom setting. You can also hear firsthand accounts from Pender County schools, as well as examples of game play and teaching tools, in this long but fascinating video about the project:

Clearly, we’re no longer asking whether video games belong in the classroom. It’s just a matter of finding the best ways to use them. It will be interesting to watch educators find answers.

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