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Using virtual worlds and video games to teach the lessons of reality

Researchers are beginning to wonder whether video games, long seen as a top time waster for kids and a roadblock to their educational development, might actually be a solution to what ails today's schools rather than a problem.

Several educators suggest in the newest issue of Science that schools use video games to simulate the real-world situations in the classroom to help students develop critical-thinking skills and enhance their understanding of science and math and, perhaps, even encourage them to pursue careers in those and related fields such as technology and engineering.

Clearly, video games will only grow more popular with time, as graphics and user interfaces (such as wireless controllers) become more sophisticated. The video game industry is expected to rake in more than $68 billion in sales in 2012 (up from $42 billion in 2007), according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers study released in June.

One successful example of a "multi-user virtual environment" in use in the classroom is River City, a game funded by the National Science Foundation and  developed by programmers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Targeted at students in grades six through nine, River City looks a bit like Second Life and portrays how three diseases simultaneously affect health in a fictitious city. As students explore the ailments, they learn how disease is spread and the impact of human interactions far and wide.

"Many academically low-performing students do as well as their high-performing peers in River City," Chris Dede, a professor of learning technologies at Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes in Science. The key to this, he says, is the ability of students to become immersed in a digital world where they can build confidence "by stepping out of their real-world identity of poor performer academically, which shifts their frame of self reference to successful scientist in the virtual context."

In Alien Contact! [pdf], a video game Dede and his colleagues developed to teach math and reading skills, middle and high school students are confronted with aliens who have landed on Earth and seem to be preparing to either peacefully hook up with earthlings, invade, plunder – or return to their home planet. Students are assigned one of four roles in a team investigating the alien visitation: chemist, cryptologist, computer hacker or FBI agent. The students use a Dell Axim X51 handheld computer with global positioning technology (GPS) to correlate their actual location (in the classroom, for example) with a location in the game's virtual world, where they encounter math and reading challenges that they must solve to continue playing.

The educational video games Food Force, a U.N.-produced game on the mechanics of food aid distribution, and Whyville, another game that takes place in a virtual world, each has about 4 million players, a number that far exceeds the number of students graduating each year with a bachelor's degree in science, technology, engineering or math, writes Merrilea Mayo, director of future of learning initiatives at Kauffman Foundation, an institution established in the mid 1960s to promote entrepreneurship. "Although traditional education institutions pride themselves on educating citizens," she writes, "they do so at a relatively small scale compared with the media now available."

Mayo acknowledges that, on the surface, the idea of using video games as an educational tool may seem "laughable," but she points to studies that show video games can yield a 7 to 40 percent improvement in learning over a lecture program. River City, for example, significantly improved the scores of poorly performing students (they earned Bs instead of Ds).

"Unlike lectures, games can be adapted to the pace of the user," Mayo writes. "Games also simultaneously present information in multiple visual and auditory modes, which capitalizes on different learning styles."

While no one is saying that an experience akin to Call of Duty or World of Warcraft will ever replace more traditional lessons, research into the effectiveness of video games as learning tools indicates that classrooms of the future will certainly include a virtual component.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto.com

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