Beyond Good and Bad: Applying Games Research to Action

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The recent disappointing literacy and math test results in New York and Kentucky on Common Core-aligned exams have many educators and policymakers in a panic. Opponents of the Common Core State Standards, such as Diane Ravitch, are having a field day. President Obama and Secretary Duncan are now focusing on the potential promise of edtech innovation to respond to deep worries that school districts won’t be able to meet new standards (see their ConnectEd plan.)

Recently, there’s been a surge in experimentation with game-based learning in education as a medium for engaging students in math, literacy, and STEM skills. Recent examples include both new products like the “boxes” (DreamBox, DragonBox) and nationwide initiatives like the National STEM Video Game Challenge.

But what do we know about the impact of games in the classroom and what will it take to scale effective practices? Is game-based learning (GBL) a potentially transformative way to deepen instruction, promote core knowledge and build new habits for inquiry in young minds? Or will it go the way of many past technology-infused reforms, resulting in most practitioners taking “old wine” and placing it in “new bottles”?

These questions drive much of the research and sector-building activities at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. Here’s our current take:

First, the scientific research base is growing. The National Research Council’s important report on games and simulations for science learning (Honey & Hilton, 2011) found that simulations were a very effective tool in promoting academic knowledge and inquiry skills. The authors concluded that simulations and games have great potential to improve science learning in the classroom because they can “individualize learning to match the pace, interests, and capabilities of each particular student and contextualize learning in engaging virtual environments.”

The findings echoed those from other researchers such as Mimi Ito that demonstrate the cultural appeal and engagement behind games, and found that games can help support new inquiry-based approaches to learning by providing virtual laboratories or field learning experiences that overcome practical constraints.

Much more rigorous research remains to be done. A recent meta-analysis conducted by SRI International of over 60,000 games-related studies done between 2000 and 2012 found only 77 that undertook some experimental effort to formally test the effects on student academic outcomes. The report stresses the need for future studies to go beyond “simple questions about whether games are good or bad for learning” and argues that the efficacy of digital games for learning depends on design and implementation.

Second, teachers seem ambivalent about GBL. That uncertainty may have several roots including a still-emerging evidence base, tight budgets, and daunting accountability pressures. In last year’s Cooney Center survey on teaching with games, we found that a large majority of educators report that games help students learn at a different rate and improve team skills. But the emphasis on assessments and standardized testing may still be a barrier, as 38% of teachers reported that to be a barrier. In addition, half of the respondents cited cost as a key barrier to using digital games in the classroom, and many reported limited access to technology resources (46%).

Other studies also suggest that many educators find that games have a negative impact on student behavior and attention. In a recent survey by Common Sense Media, among those who say their students' academic skills have been hurt by entertainment media, more than two-thirds point the finger at video games (68%), and 61% say video games have mainly a negative effect on children’s physical well-being.

In sum, teachers appear to recognize the potential of GBL for its ability to engage students in a variety of situations, but they remain concerned about its lack of clear alignment to standardized measures of outcomes and achievement.

Third, the marketplace is trying to digest the GBL opportunity. Despite the notable successes of some GBL products and services (such as Filament Games, MangaHigh, E-Line Media, and BrainPop’s gaming portal) and substantial investments from the likes of Amplify, the K-12 institutional marketplace is a notoriously tough nut to crack. The Center’s recent report on the edutainment fiasco of the 1990’s, “What in the World Happened to Carmen Sandiego?”, found that the failure of the this industry was not due to a lack of market demand or the difficulty of creating great products. (Products like Oregon Trail were immensely successful, and 40 years later it has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide). Rather, the report points to market forces, such as the consolidation of publishers and marketing and distribution strategies, that miscalculated consumer demand.

And as John Richards and colleagues concluded in a recent Cooney report “Games for a Digital Age,” we may not have learned some essential lessons yet. Barriers to selling GBL products and services into the marketplace still include:

  • The dominance of a few big players and the prospect of future consolidation;
  • A long buying cycle, byzantine decision-making process, and narrow sales window;
  • Locally controlled decision making that creates a fragmented marketplace of individual districts, schools, and teachers;
  • Frequently changing federal and state government policies and cyclical district resource constraints that impact the availability of funding;
  • The demand for curriculum and standards alignment and research-based proof of effectiveness; and
  • The requirement for locally delivered professional development.

To help overcome these barriers and to position evidence-based models and products in the marketplace, the Cooney Center, with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has convened the Games and Learning Publishing Council (GLPC). The GLPC is a multi-sector group that has three main goals: to promote innovations that are ready for scaling within the GBL field, to develop and disseminate analytical tools, briefs and reports to help “raise the sector,” and to engage policymakers, developers and investors to wisely deploy digital games to advance common core knowledge, and 21st century skills. This fall, the Council will launch several new initiatives, including a series of briefs on GBL and the Common Core, new national surveys of GBL inside and outside schools, a new series for educators focused on breakthrough professional development models, and a new website, gamesandlearning.org, that will assemble authoritative, but highly accessible information for investors and developers. All of these resources will be shared openly and free of charge.

Will GBL fulfill its promise, or join the litany of other creative solutions that peter out as a “reform du jour?” From our perch--where we can see the growing research, practice and market interest, and increasingly sophisticated assessment capabilities--GBL may be a surprisingly potent, low cost and scalable strategy. Investors and educators would be wise to take a closer look.

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