SXSWORLD November 2014


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1 4 S X S W o r l d | N O V E M B E R 2 0 1 4 | S X S W. C O M hen it comes to game-based learning (GBL), the future is soon. Already, a small percentage of U.S. teachers are employing gaming to help students grasp math, English, science and other subjects, and experts predict another five years before these dynamic plat- forms hit mainstream classrooms. But this is not just another trip to the computer lab. GBL games are specifically designed digital tools for students of all ages and learning speeds, consisting of timed lessons that require kids to complete tasks through a gaming format, with positive feedback and rewards. President Barack Obama believes in the power of GBL. In a 2011 speech at TechBoston Academy, he acknowledged the bur- geoning possibilities for digital game-play in education: "I want you guys to be stuck on a video game that's teaching you some- thing other than just blowing something up." Enter the world of GBL. Research shows that when a gamer has to respond to multiple situations and options under a time constraint, and he or she does it repeatedly, something hap- pens in their brains. Their attentional capacity, spatial reasoning, and application-of-new-knowledge skills can double over a relatively short time span. The current crop of GBL apps tap into this data, says Nolan Bushnell, the gaming guru who brought us Atari, Pong and Chuck E. Cheese Pizza, and more recently, founded GBL developer BrainRush. BrainRush offers products such as the Comma sequencing game, or Greek Gods & Goddesses, where digital flashcards present a description of a deity, and the player clicks on the card to learn its identity. All put the players in an active mode of learning during an eight to ten minute period, in which they must complete the task, or exhibit mas- tery of the subject, before moving on. Other popular GBL products include MathBlasters by JumpStart Games, and offerings from E-Line Media and UK-based Mangahigh. Not surprisingly, Bushnell sees GBL as the way to "fix" America's schools. He knows from experience that children learn and retain information differently -- and more quickly and comprehensively -- though electronic gaming. "I have eight kids, and I learned from them that projects and 'doing' were more educational than what they were consuming in the classroom," he explains. "I was able to get my kids really fascinated by computer programming through games … And I could remember the electricity that my oldest, who was nine or ten at the time, felt when he figured out he could actually be a game creator rather than a game player… "The whole idea of doing as opposed to consuming has been a thread through my kids' education," Bushnell says. "And I felt that a lot of parents probably felt like me and would like to have ways that they could encourage the kids, empower the kids to play games and learn, as well as author games." GBL games put the player in active-learning mode. With rep- etition of such exercises over time, and with continuously honed feedback, the player's level of absorption, adaptation and application of information dramatically increases. Proponents see it as a much more effective approach than, say, reading a text book, committing concepts to memory and then regurgitating the information. According to many recent studies, the way gaming in general affects the brain (and quickens one's learning curve) is by putting the player in the driver's seat, where he or she can determine outcomes based on his or her choices. Leading researcher and neurol- ogist Daphne Bavelier, of the University of Geneva and the University of Rochester, has observed that games "retune connectivity across and within different brain areas." Or, as science reporter Lydia Denworth wrote last year in Scientific American Mind, gamers learn to learn; they gain "the ability to apply learning to broader tasks." In GBL, the adaptive element -- or how the game adapts to the user's pace and skills -- is paramount to reaching a diverse range of students whose brains function differently. "Here's where a giant travesty has been put on students of America," Bushnell says. "In the industrialized school projects, i.e., where everybody is in the same classroom, and everybody is moving at the same speed -- or they're supposed to be -- there are some kids who are extremely bright but are a little bit slower – maybe 15-20 percent slower – and that person is characterized as being slow. My heart breaks, because I believe there are a lot of kids right now who have characterized themselves as being dumb but are every bit as bright as the 'smartest' kid in the class … What we want is to have our software adapted so everyone is working at their appropriate speed and is being challenged in the right way." President Obama put it another way when he posited back in 2011 that educational gaming can be the great leveler for children who have different learning needs, or who simply come from economi- cally or socially challenged backgrounds. GBL and schools which are embracing it are "proving that no matter who you are, or what you look like, or where you come from, every child can learn." Can Game-Based Learning Reshape Education? by Shermakaye baSS W To p: You n g g a m e r a t wo rk , B ot to m: N ola n B u s h n el l a t SX S We d u 20 14. J O S H M A R T I N E Z

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