This weekend I visited my mother, who held a party in her home in North Carolina for my sister and her new husband. My sister, Laura, is trying to re-learn Spanish. As a former Spanish teacher, she is enlisting my help, but she is joining the e-learning revolution as well.
“It had the best reviews,” she justified. Clicking, buzzing, fart-noises, and music reminiscent of Mario Brothers was coming from her phone as she tapped the screen and said words out loud in Spanish.
It was MindSnacks, an app that has games to help learn Spanish. In the years I have known my sister, she has never once expressed even remote interest in video games. In recent years, she refuses to play games of any kind. No Scategories, no Cranium, no Taboo, no card games. So even though I have seen the e-learning trend growing and growing, I was still surprised to hear her yell out, “I’m almost on the fourth level!”
I went over to look over her shoulder as she played the next round. “You have to go fast,” she explained. She was clicking viernes or turquesa as what appeared to be a water level behind the options was dropping to the bottom of the screen faster and faster the more points she earned. When it would hit the bottom, the phone emitted a fart noise and her game was over. “I earned 800 points that time. The rhino dies if you lose the next one.”
This popular app employs rewards, punishments, humor, speed, and feedback. If you can put your stigmas aside (if you have any left), you can see why digital games for education can be (and are) powerful. Check out this article with an overview of what makes a video game good, educational or otherwise.
For anyone interested in the learning theory behind digital games, one of the authorities on the subject is a guy named James Paul Gee. He writes mainly about the power of games in terms of cognitive learning theory, but also in terms of motivation. A preview to one of his articles is linked here. In it he picks out 16 concepts from cognitive psychology that video games exemplify. For example, (p.36). This seems to be less academic than what I was looking for, but a colleague of mine, Vittorio Marone, is in the process of writing a paper framed in more traditional educational psychology terminology, and once it’s published, I’ll be sure to share it. In it, he examines the ways in which video games reflect principles of behaviorism (trial and error, law of readiness, schedule of reinforcements), social cognitive theory (enactive and vicarious learning, goal progress feedback), constructivism (ZPD, collaborative learning), and many other theory families.
As I look around, I see more and more people engaging in e-learning, much of it voluntarily. My friends’ babies are learning colors, numbers, and names of fish. I’m learning the constellations. My brother in-law is using Khan Academy to learn chemistry. As Gee says, “…Lots of young people pay lots of money to engage in an activity that is hard, long, and complex. As an educator, I realized that this was just the problem our schools face — how do you get someone to learn something long, hard, and complex, and yet still enjoy it?” He implies that we should see how we could better design classroom instruction to utilize the powerful characteristics of games.
There’s at least one thing schools don’t have that games do: choice. Students are compelled to attend, required to take classes, take state tests, etc. Even if they were all “gamified” they would be missing one of the keys to motivation: choosing what you want to do.