Computers in the classroom! (Now what?)
Back when I was teaching, I felt as if I lived in two different worlds when it came to technology. There was my life at home, with my wireless internet and speedy home computers, where I could fire off emails, search the web for anything about anything, and yes, play some really fun games. And then there was my life at school, where cutting edge technology was an overhead projector and a Xerox copier. There really wasn't much in the way of educational software, and despite hours of searching at home, the best I could come up with was that Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? could be a nice side tool for a slow Friday when we're done a little early with work. It's not that there weren't titles out there; it's that most of them presented content almost the same way as a book or a handout. Why spend time reading about a subject on a computer when you can get a set of textbooks for less than the cost of one decent PC?
A few years later, though, we started to see a push toward getting computers into use in our school. We got an army of iBooks that we could wheel around from room to room on a fancy cart, and on top was the wireless hub so that the class could access the internet. It looked beautiful, but the question remained: "What do we do with it?" Teachers who weren't as tech-savvy tended to avoid it completely, and they were probably smart because those who tried to use it with classroom lessons (like I did) became victim of an overloaded wireless hub, and all those pretty laptops would freeze up and become useless. Troubleshooting 20 laptops is not exactly great use of classroom time, and what seemed good on paper didn't work out so well in reality.
There's been a disconnect when it comes to technology in the classroom, particularly when it comes to educational software and educational games. A big part of that is that teaching and game design are two completely different disciplines, and few are reasonably rehearsed in both. Educators (and when I say "educators," I mean the ones at the top who hold the purse strings) might have the best intentions when it comes to investing in educational technology, but they don't have a clue beyond that. And while there's a growing field of game designers who are looking at how games help you learn, it's still rare to find good educational games that actually can be used in a classroom setting.
Fun and learning
So it's welcome news to see a teacher take his love of gaming and his love of teaching and try his hand at designing an educational MMO. He seems to sincerely want to use gaming as a sort of on-ramp toward a greater love of learning, and if a game can get a kid excited about writing a paper, reading a book, or practicing math, that's always a good thing. And I do think there's something to that idea, particularly when it comes to history, which is what I used to teach. I found that when there's a personal connection to a particular event or time period, students tend to become much more interested in digging deeper and pursuing it more. When a teacher walks into the room dressed as George Washington, staying in-character for the duration of the class, that has much more of an impact than just reading an overview of Washington's life in a textbook. I used to divide my classes up into groups to work through a simulation of World War I, and they grappled with the complexities of the alliances. The main objective was for them to understand the factors that triggered World War I, but along the way, they learned things like the key players in the war and the geographical layout of the fronts, and they learned it a lot faster as well. Classroom activities that get students to forget all about asking, "Why are we learning this?" are the ones teachers prize the most.
When I taught, I always tried to carefully plan out each class so that we got the most out of our time together each day. Something as simple as distributing necessary materials for a lesson can end up eating more time from the clock than you'd like, and if that means a lack of time for classroom instruction or discussion, it takes away from the opportunity to learn. I think there's definitely room for educational games in the classroom, but what teachers should always look closely at is how much bang for the buck they're getting. How much of the time is spent actually teaching, and how much is spent on extraneous stuff? If a student is lingering over the look of his avatar, he's not learning. Similarly, if a minigame has students shooting fireballs at math problems, how much of the time spent is on problem-solving vs. flying around watching things blow up? Even the nuts and bolts come into play. One thing gamers tend to ask first about a game is, "Will it run on my system?" That's an even bigger issue with schools, where the quality of computers isn't always that great, and the quality can vary even within the classroom itself. When you're standing over a student watching his loading screen plod along, every second that ticks away gets louder and louder.
Technology in schools has come a long way, but schools have only begun to take a serious look at what exactly the landscape should look like down the road. And when it comes to teaching and games, there are even more questions that have yet to be answered in our classrooms, the biggest of which is whether gamification is a help or a hindrance to learning. We'll take a look at that in the next MMO Family column.
The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to firstname.lastname@example.org.