Digital Game-Based Learning in Higher Ed Moves Beyond the Hype

Digital Game-Based Learning in Higher Ed Moves Beyond the Hype

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Students in Art Goldberg’s English composition classes at Miami-Dade College and Broward College have a different experience than their peers in most introductory college writing courses. They’re role-playing as junior staff writers in a fictional newsroom, creating content for an upcoming broadcast—all within a digital game that aims to make learning grammar more engaging than memorizing Strunk and White.

Are digital games viable tools for creating effective online teaching and learning environments in higher education, and, if so, is anyone using them? To answer these questions, EdSurge spoke with some gaming experts in academia and took a look at Toolwire and Muzzy Lane, two digital game-based learning (DGBL) vendors that are making significant strides in higher education through their “serious game” products. The state of DGBL in higher ed is not nearly as prevalent and accepted as it is in K-12, but growing quickly.

Serious games feature evidenced-centered design, whereby data is collected, analyzed and adapted to the knowledge level of the player, according to Richard Van Eck, DGBL expert and associate dean for teaching and learning at the University of North Dakota.

Van Eck explains that the key challenge for creating any serious game involves “thinking about the key learning outcomes you are trying to teach and aligning those with the game. You have to harness the motivational potential [inherent to the game] and align that with the learning outcomes you want to promote. There are really good and clever ways to do that that defy simple explanation. You really have to be effortful and thoughtful, and that is the promise and the pitfall of digital game-based learning.”

Andy Phelps, director of the Rochester Institute of Technology Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction and Creativity (MAGIC) and executive committee member of the Higher Education Video Game Alliance (HEVGA), adds that “game-based learning has the opportunity to really challenge our assumptions about linear modes of educational interaction.” For example, learning games often use complex simulations with many moving parts and overlapping rules. “The way you figure it out—you try something, and typically it does not work the first time, “ Phelps says. “So you create a new theory of how the thing works, and you try something that tests that theory, and then you get back information, and you either revise it, throw it out or start over again. That shifts the focus directly on the learner.”

Toolwire’s Writing Games

Toolwire, a Silicon Valley-based digital courseware developer, recently showed some of the promise of DGBL with a pilot in which 14 faculty members used the company’s Writing Games for Career Readiness and Student Success modules during the fall 2015 semester. More than 1,000 students used Toolwire, primarily in developmental and introductory composition courses at several community colleges.

In a recent study of the pilot, 86 percent of faculty and 70 percent of students largely agreed that the writing games brought educational value to the courses. Additionally, 79 percent of faculty and 68 percent of students reported the games led to increased writing ability, and 64 percent of the faculty agreed the games enabled them to use their instructional time more effectively.

Students complete 20-minute writing activities set in real-world workplace scenarios. Image Credit: Toolwire

At Miami-Dade College and Broward College, Goldberg has been using the Toolwire writing games for one year in four sections of English composition that include about 100 students total. “Students have been enthusiastic about the writing games. We are taking grammar and composition, essentially, which are things students typically try to avoid. With Toolwire, I have them enter into activities that are more engaging and fun.”

Toolwire has several other games and simulations that are being used in college communications, business foundations, medicine, environmental science, and critical-thinking course modules.

Muzzy Lane’s Practice Series

Muzzy Lane, an Amesbury, MA-based technology company, is another player making headway in game-based learning and assessment. Its higher-education-oriented Practice Series games, in partnership with McGraw Hill, feature titles in Marketing, Spanish, Medical Office and Operations.

Ed Gonsalves, affiliate professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, has used Practice Marketing in first-year Principles of Marketing courses at several institutions for more than five years, including Boston College, Providence College, Roger Williams University and the University of Rhode Island. He estimates that he has taught this course utilizing Practice Marketing to more than 1,000 students.

“If you implement Practice Marketing right, students love it, and the learning outcomes are much better,” Gonsalves says, adding that he puts his students into teams of three or four participants inside a competitive simulation of the backpack industry. The game gives students the wherewithal to test their marketing management skills in a game in which they launch a new backpack of their own design based on the framework of the Four Ps: product, price, placement and promotion. Completing the game is worth 15 percent of their final grade, regardless of where they land in the competition. Game winners get class recognition and bragging rights.

Players balance where and how much to spend on promotion, a key element in applying the "4 P's" of marketing. Image Credit: Muzzy Lane

“The game gets introduced at mid semester because I want the students to first learn the basics of the Four Ps, and I set up a very rigorous set of deliverables,” he says. In weekly rounds, students address their game inputs for such elements as design, price, distribution and promotional strategies. “You hit a button and see how everybody has done against each other,” Gonsalves explains.

Gonsalves does end-of-semester surveys asking students to highlight what they may have liked the most in these classes. “Students almost universally love doing this and plenty of them say that it was the highlight of the class. The model makes sense, and the game simulation is rooted in the real world.”

The Challenge of Creating Worthy GamesBoth Toolwire and Muzzy Lane DGBL products are not of the “Triple A” PlayStation 4 and Xbox One variety, meaning they do not have all the high-fidelity, digital-media bells and whistles that are inside the heavily advertised war games and sports games geared toward the more than $99 billion global video game consumer marketplace, according to gaming market intelligence company Newzoo.

Producing Triple A quality games for integration within college-level courses is overly expensive and extremely challenging from instructional design, programming, and digital media creation perspectives. Instead, the state of DGBL in higher education consists of very effective digital games of less-than-Triple A fidelity coming out of private companies like Toolwire and Muzzy Lane, as well as from a good number of college and university game design innovation centers similar to RIT’s MAGIC. These include the Games+Learning+Society (GLS) Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; the University of Southern California Interactive Media and Games Division, the Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment Technology Center and the New York University Game Center.

The possibility of creating any sensible DGBL environment entails a variety of strategies. “We have done a couple of pieces where we are trying to use games in an experiential way,” explains RIT’s Phelps. “This is where a game does not have explicitly overt educational content, but rather the core activity of the game infuses learning about a given process or interaction.” This kind of gaming environment can be seen in MAGIC’s soon-to-be released Hack, Slash & Backstab game, a multiplayer, arcade-style game.

“What this game really does is break the entire concept of teamwork,” Phelps says. The game requires participants to work with up to four people who must rely on each other to live or die as they move through a dungeon together, fighting off monsters. But the game is purposefully designed around a broken set of rules, rewarding only one player who makes it through a door first as the game winner. “People play through it and start to strategize about when they feel they can backstab the person next to them in order to get to the door first.

“It is a parody of the academic review process. We do a lot of things in higher education where we do lip service to multidisciplinary collaborations, where we give lip service to team projects, but then we come along and say ‘well, it is a team project, but we have to give you an individual grade.’ I think it will be an interesting tool to look at ethics and review practices in a very whimsical way, but in a way that become serious pretty quickly.”

The Future of DGBL

Despite all the positive work going on in DGBL, its adoption in higher education has not yet reached widespread status, although the future looks bright.

In an EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research Bulletin published in 2012, titled “Game-based Learning: Developing an Institutional Strategy,” the authors point to “several significant factors contributing to inhibit rapid, widespread adoption,” including cultural barriers for faculty, as well as similar concerns among parents; prohibitive development costs; no established publishing and distribution channel for educational games; and the prospect of “marrying engaging game design and storytelling with learning objectives is challenging.”

“We have made huge strides compared to where we were just a few short years ago,” Phelps adds. “This notion of using digital media as an interactive game form is new, collectively speaking. It is going to evolve at light speed, and it is going to do that well beyond the next few years. I think we are always going to see new platforms, new technologies. It is not going to slow down anytime soon.”

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