Learning the game

Originally published in MOREnetworking Vol. 2 No. 7, Sept. 2006

Educators use computer game technology to engage students

Hiro is approaching the Street. It is the Broadway, the Champs Elysees of the Metaverse. It is the brilliantly lit boulevard that can be seen, miniaturized and backward, reflected in the lenses of his goggles. It does not really exist. But right now, millions of people are walking up and down it.
Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (1992)

When some of the Central Missouri State University students in Dr. Bryan Carter’s English 1030: Composition II course attended his class during the spring 2006 semester, they did so in the way that students have been attending class for centuries—going to a room in a building and interacting with the instructor face to face. For others, however, attending class required going to the nearest computer keyboard and logging in to what many people would think of as a computer game.

Carter’s Cyberculture class used a massive multi-user three-dimensional virtual environment called Second Life in order to explore the class’s targeted themes, which included religion, economics, entertainment, education, virtual communities, social networks and others, all of which exist in the Second Life environment. Class members then wrote about their experiences in online weblogs available to Carter, other members of the class, even general Web users.

“They absolutely loved it,” Carter said of his students’ reaction to using Second Life for his class. “After a day of getting acclimated to the environment, they really got into exploring. The environment is absolutely huge, with so much to see and do.”

Like any place in Reality, the Street is subject to development. The only difference is that since the Street does not really exist—it’s just a computer graphics protocol written down on a piece of paper somewhere—none of these things is being physically built. They are, rather, pieces of software, made available to the public over the world-wide fiber-optics network.
Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (1992)

While educational gaming software has been available since the advent of the personal computer in the 1980s, a trend that has been growing recently is the use of regular gaming software for educational rather than entertainment purposes.

At the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, professors Kathleen Hansen and Nora Paul have used the computer fantasy role-playing game Neverwinter Nights to create an educational tool to teach journalism students the process of developing, researching and writing a newspaper story.

“We wanted to develop an educational game that would allow us to do some experimental work on the efficacy of computer simulations as education tools,” Hansen said. “We had several questions: do students learn more or less through this method of information delivery than through other, more traditional methods of information delivery? And we wanted to know how—or if—a computer simulation would enhance, detract from or otherwise affect learning.”

Neverwinter Nights was selected for this project in part because the game, distributed by Atari and developed by Canadian game-design company Bioware, was a popular title with the complex, graphics-intensive environment that modern students have encountered since childhood. It was also selected because the game was distributed with a module creation tool that allowed users to create their own content and play through it in the game.

While students almost universally find the use of gaming software as an educational tool appealing, an important question that advocates of the technique are faced with answering is whether it works helping students learn the topics they are studying.

“I firmly believe that experiencing that which you will write about will produce a much richer text,” Carter said. “So, the students will be experiencing various things in Second Life and writing about them. This directly translates into what may produce better, more aware writers in the workplace.”

Carter also considers the use of Second Life a valuable method of exposing students to a variety of learning experiences. “They will also be learning things like 3D modeling, some scripting, and navigational and directional skills all within a virtual environment, and those skills are retained without them realizing that they are learning something new.”

For fall 2006, Carter is planning a study to test the effectiveness of using a virtual environment in education. “A colleague and I are designing a study where one of my comp classes will be using Second Life and another not,” Carter said. “However, they will be reading the same works and have the same paper assignments and topics. We will look at any differences in writing, quality and creativity between the two groups. The students who will use Second Life will be able to keep their accounts, and in the spring we hope to survey them to see what their experiences have been.”

Carter believes that using a virtual environment is already opening new frontiers of education for his students. “The students didn’t realize that something like a religious service could effectively take place within a virtual environment or didn’t realize how easy it was to build a model of something that can be shared with others in a virtual world,” Carter said.

He also believes that such techniques will continue to provide both educators and students with powerful tools for learning. “I believe these massive multi-user environments may serve as a very serious supplement or, in some cases, replacement to the traditional classroom or distance learning environment. It takes a shift in mindset for the professor and the student, but once that shift is made, the transition to these environments is not that difficult.”

hendersonl | Friday, September 1, 2006 | |


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