Virtually a New Way of Learning: Video Games and Simulations as Teaching Tools

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When they get home from school, children eagerly devour new information and concepts through the virtual environments of video games. In what I call a stealth-learning environment, children develop skills that connect and manipulate information in the virtual worlds of video games without really knowing that they're learning. Rather than fight what children obviously enjoy and what is natural for them, the enticement of video games can be used to enhance K-12 education.

As an educator in the 21st century, it's not hard to see that children today operate differently than they did 10 years ago. When referring to their students, teachers have told me, "They are not doing the things we used to do when we were young" and "All they do is play video games when they go home." But in recent years, educators have gravitated toward the notion of integrating these technologies--once thought of as idle play--into their teaching repertoire.

With end-of-grade, back-to-basics, multiple-choice testing for the masses and mechanical instruction methods, there's growing concern that children are not learning to problem solve as much as they are mastering memorization of isolated facts in order to answer test questions. Yet, when they get home from school, children eagerly devour new information and concepts through the virtual environments of video games. In what I call a stealth-learning environment, children develop skills that connect and manipulate information in the virtual worlds of video games without really knowing that they're learning.

Rather than fight what children obviously enjoy and what is natural for them, the enticement of video games can be used to enhance K-12 education. While some promote video games as a replacement for traditional teaching, we at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University (NCSU) encourage video games as a supplement to normal instruction. We are introducing virtual-learning environments to schools through IGNITE (Innovative Gaming Networks In Teacher Education), a synchronous, online graduate course (1) and through HI FIVES (Highly Interactive Fun Internet Virtual Environments in Science (2)).

IGNITE uses the Active Worlds Educational Universe as a platform on which graduate students anywhere in the world can enroll in a class to learn about video-game design and ultimately construct an educational mission that can be used with their students. IGNITE sets the standard for not only the ability to create simple, role-playing, problem-based scenarios, but also allows for a virtual meeting place where meetings and classes can occur in real time over the Internet. Through the IGNITE course, the graduate students learn to create activities in which teams are formed and the roles of characters are assumed. Those teams then learn to explore a virtual world while collaborating to solve challenges. This approach takes problem-based learning and brings it to life.

For example, one game (Who Murdered the Pharaoh?) challenges students to combine analytical skills with biological concepts to solve the murder of an Egyptian pharaoh. The players must find the pharaoh's tomb and analyze the shroud of the mummified corpse. Upon discovering ancient blood samples, students can analyze the DNA and test the results against possible suspects to find the pharaoh's murderer. As today's games align closely with customary entertainment (i.e., movies and television), we find that the genre of entertainment marketed to teens needs to be the plot of K-12 game design. In Who Murdered the Pharaoh? the popularity of the CSI television shows, science fiction, and psychological thrillers are storylines that tend to engage this population.

HI FIVES is currently in the second year of a 4-year project to not only explore the use of virtual game environments to enhance K-12 learning but also to enable teachers and students to design and evaluate educational video games. …