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Digital Games Transforming K-12 Assessment and Learning

December 02, 2013
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA

Many teachers are searching for new ways to engage their digital-native students. They are looking for, write researchers at Florida State, “alternative ways of teaching – ways that increase student engagement and yield a rich, authentic picture of the learner(s).”

These researchers say more educators should take a look at the latest in digital games. Games that are designed not only to teach, but to help educators assess learning as it’s happening.

GlassLab, a new nonprofit educational game design initiative, has just released its first game— SimCityEdu—based on the popular Simcity brand and called SimCityEDU: Pollution Challenge! It's a “game-based learning and assessment tool for middle school students” that covers the Common Core as well as the Next Generation Science Standards in the context of environmental science-related challenges. It’s designed to help students develop problem-solving skills needed for 21st century learning.  For example, seventh grade students in Oakland, CA worked on a “mission” that involved green energy, and were tasked with reducing pollution in their virtual town. In the game students play the role of the mayor addressing environmental impact, but also looking out for the employment and other needs of the city’s residents. 

The Games, Learning, and Assessment Lab, or GlassLab is a unique partnership between the nonprofit Institute of Play (known for their Quest to Learn schools), the game-design firm Electronic Arts, and others. And it’s worth following.

Last year, the Institute of Play received $10.3 million in grants from the MacArthur Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to start the lab, which is dedicated to exploring the potential of digital games in the classroom.

What’s new and different about these kinds of educational games is that they are designed to measure student’s progress as they learn, not just after a curricular unit is over.

“One of the things that we all get frustrated with is that kids get assessed in the spring and they get that data and feedback back in the fall. How is this helpful?” asks the MacArthur Foundation’s Connie Yowell in the video below about GlassLab and the Institute of Play. “What GlassLab offers is a first real glimpse of how we can integrate learning and assessment into the exact same experience, and not only provide an assessment and an extraordinary array of tools for teachers, but also provide immediate feedback for students,” she said.  

GlassLab from Institute of Play on Vimeo.

The idea for SimCityEdu emerged from research by Valerie Shute and colleagues, which shows games can help educators more regularly measure student understanding as they learn, instead of waiting till after a unit is over.

So far teachers are giving SimCityEdu rave reviews. Amy Stefanski, who was involved in the beta testing of the new game with her 7th grade students at Dunlap Middle School in Dunlap, Illinois, said the level of engagement in her class has skyrocketed. “Instead of maybe only having only a 75 percent attention rate,” she said, “I now have 110. Every kid is engaged. Every kid wants to use the mouse. Every kid wants to help solve the mission.”

And educational researchers and game developers have even more games like this in the works. Time reports that researchers at Florida State have developed Newton’s Playground, a game that aims to “teach basic physics concepts such as gravity and kinetic energy by having students draw ramps, levers and pendulums to move a ball toward an end point.”

With funding from the National Science Foundation, researchers at the Games + Learning + Society Initiative at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have developed a series of science games designed to teach kids about biology and capture data about how much students understand. Researchers there have also developed Crystals of Kaydor, a role-playing video game about aliens, which according to EdWeek is designed to “measure children’s learning in real time while rewiring their brains to help them be more empathetic.”

“[We’re] working toward this dream that we won’t be taking a test, but we’ll just know from your learning and game play how you’re doing,” Kurt Squire, director, told Time.  Now that’s something both teachers and students can look forward to. 

In addition to these efforts, New York UniversityUniversity of Michigan, and BrainPOP are coming together to study teacher approaches to formative assessment, and how computer games support those practices. This project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, focuses on “the convergence of two important trends in education: (1) the rapidly rising popularity of educational video games as a means to increase student engagement and learning, and (2) a growing focus on the use of formative assessment information to shape instruction that meets all learners’ needs”.  The details of the research project can be found on NYU’s CREATE website. If you are interested in participating in this study, you can help by taking a brief online survey before December 16th.  Your responses will will help the team learn more about K-12 teachers’ assessment practices, the assessment challenges faced in the classroom, and the ways that educational computer games could make classroom assessment easier and more effective. Now you can take part in this growing movement.

Photo by nixerkg.