After 4 weeks of Game-centered learning crossing four subjects, it is necessary to reflect on whether this has been time well spent. Which elements of this unit have worked as intended? Which haven’t? What have our students learned from this experience? Did they achieve learning goals? What, if anything, has been gained by this approach compared to more traditional learning methods? This unit was completed a couple of months ago; to what extent have our students been able to retain learning?
Overall we are quite happy with how this project panned out. Many of our students have stated in their post-project evaluation that they have gained a deeper understanding of topics covered, than they believe they would have through more traditional learning methods. This is the case even for several of the students who made clear that they had little experience nor interest in computer games at the onset of this project.
With regards to the written work the students completed during this project, students expressed that they found writing blog posts related to this project more motivating than their regular writing work. This has been my understanding as well. Even though this period has been more “writing-intensive” than normal, I have seen fewer late hand-ins and, I believe, a higher quality of writing than was the case both before and after this project.
In addition to the stated learning goals for this project, I strongly believe there has been a high level of diversity in students’ learning outcomes. When using an open-ended game like Civilization IV, we as teachers need to hand over much more of the control of progress and learning outcomes to the students. Though we have employed a good deal of directed play, where students are instructed to perform specific actions and reflect upon outcomes, I believe there is much value in letting students explore the game on their own, making their own inferences and drawing their own conclusions.
In contrast to a linear text, player choice may lead the students down multiple paths. Some students may focus their play on cultural development, others on achieving ideal diplomatic relations, economic development or military domination. Regardless of which paths students choose, our goal is to facilitate reflection as to how game concepts may be used to gain understanding of real-world processes. With directed play this is hardly more complicated than when the class reads a novel together. However when students are let loose to explore the many directions available to them, I will not always be aware of the experiences they have and the insights they gain.
As a teacher, releasing control like this was a challenge. Lesson time is a scarce resource, and it is of vital importance that this time is spent maximizing learning outcome. I had serious doubts about whether the value of potential learning through undirected play would outweigh the benefits of a more rigid plan where specific learning activities and goals were expressly stated. Yet, after having read students’ blogs relating the insights they gained in, and having discussed the relationship between the game and real-world processes that students identified independently of my participation, I am convinced that the value of their learning outcome outweighs my “need” to be able to oversee and document everything.
Even though we are quite pleased with how this project turned out, there is room for vast improvement next time we run a unit like this. Our biggest mistake is that we did not properly ensure that all students had sufficient understanding of how the game was played before using the game to work with specific learning goals. We experienced that by the end of the second period using Civilization IV, the vast majority of the class had gained a working understanding of the game mechanics and user interface. We had handed out the game before the autumn break, and many of the students had spent sufficient time on this in their spare time that they had little need of working with the basics during class time. It was our assumption that the remaining students would attain this same level organically through individual play and informal tutoring by their peers. This was true for many, but we discovered too late that there were 3 or 4 students that towards the end of this unit had not gained sufficient understanding of basic gameplay. Thereby these students were not able to use this game in their learning to the extent we had intended.
To ensure that all students are sufficiently capable of using this game for learning next time around, I believe the best way to go about it is to assign students comfortable with the game mechanics a formalized role of “master gamers”, tutoring those who are unfamiliar with games.
When asked whether they felt that the learning output from this unit was better, worse or as good as more conventional learning method, student opinions varied. About 30 percent of the class were of the opinion that their learning output was worse than more traditional methods, about 30 percent stated that learning output was about the same, while about 40 percent believed learning output was better than traditional methods. I do not regularly survey the class on the learning output they have from the various approaches I use in the classroom, so I couldn’t accurately say how this measures up to how other units would be assessed. Though if I should conduct surveys, I assume this would be a typical result for any method.
Using computer games in formal education to the extent that we did for this unit is controversial. I am thoroughly convinced that should I have wanted to run a project like this at many other schools, I would have gotten a flat out no. Yet, I believe that within not too many years, using computer games extensively in school will become mainstream. We certainly have a way to go in refining this kind of approach, but as more young teachers who have themselves experienced the vast educational value games may have enter the schools, I am convinced that this medium will gain a prominent position in education.