Given the popularity of computer games at home, it's little wonder there's increasing interest in their use in schools. Now a corporate gaming organisation has been working on the potential use of games in bringing hard-to-reach teenagers back into learning.
The Year 11 students who arrive at the CyberChaos centre just outside Durham are asked to take down their hoods, put out cigarettes and use suitable language when they enter. The students, who have a combination of emotional and behavioural difficulties and special needs, oblige and sit down to play multi-player PC games for the next two hours.
"This is the highlight of their week," says Alex Ellwood, senior learning mentor at Greencroft School, Stanley, County Durham. "We use the session as a reward for attendance."
Andy Morris and Kevin Jager started CyberChaos with their own money to run multi-player gaming sessions for corporate team-building. But when they saw how popular the teamwork activities were with schools trying to motivate disaffected students, they decided to concentrate on education.
In the past two years, CyberChaos has used video games such as Call of Duty and Unreal Tournament in sessions for more than 6,000 young people who are truanting, excluded, or at risk of exclusion. Mobile or centre-based multi-player gaming can help them work with others while building up their key skills.
Schools have used CyberChaos activities as credits towards the Asdan (Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network) Certificate of Personal Effectiveness (CoPE) and key skills qualifications, focusing on working with others and extending ICT skills. "Schools give us information about what they're trying to achieve and we plan sessions accordingly," explains Andy.
Students attending - usually boys - tend to play games on consoles at home, but not all have PCs. All participants spend an initial half-hour familiarising themselves with the keyboard and mouse. To gain Asdan accreditation, students also complete Excel spreadsheets as part of a plan, do and review exercise.
When I visited CyberChaos, the students were doing an activity that is part of an alternative curriculum for Greencroft students at risk of exclusion, put together in collaboration with the head and deputy head. Other activities include a full day's work placement, a day at the YMCA and two days of maths, science, English and ICT.
They are part-way through a 10-session course, and get down to playing as soon as they arrive. For the full two hours, the students are hooked on the game, with Jack (not his real name), who has attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, teaming up with another player for one of the tasks. He is as focused as the other students.
Alex Ellwood has found that Jack is also focused back in school. "He used to get frustrated by the computer and storm off home. He sits at the computer for longer now. He rarely succeeds at school but he succeeds here."
All the students are showing improved concentration and competency with the keyboard, and Alex believes this is partly due to CyberChaos. "They're typing up English coursework now. They're having to work as a team and communicate, and they didn't do that before."
Though initially sceptical about the use of computer games, Alex first saw CyberChaos in an extended day session for schools, where able students from Greencroft played alongside disabled students from a special school.
Because play took place virtually, students with complex needs were able to participate as equals.
The activities have also been used for the Connexions Positive Activities for Young People programme. Andy Pritchard, motivational activities programme manager for Connexions County Durham, has used CyberChaos alongside outdoor activities such as raft-building to help students'
personal development and employability.
"Once they're hooked and engaged you can start to offer them advice and keep them steered in the right direction," he explains. "It can also help from a diversionary point of view. The kids who are engaged here aren't out on the streets involved in anti-social behaviour." In one evening session, the police turned up, wondering why the streets were empty. (In fact, police in Edinburgh who organised computer game tournaments with bored local teens found a similar effect when the police youth action line received a 50 per cent reduction in calls.) CyberChaos is not for everyone. "It's a good medium for engaging a certain sort of student," says Mike Sowerby, head of student support at Windlestone Hall, a school for students with emotional and behavioural difficulties.
"But students with concentration issues who enjoy computer games have been engaged for the whole session."
CyberChaos is looking into options for the future, including a chance for students who have previously taken part to return and help manage new sessions, and a course for building PCs leading to Open College Network accreditation.
Multi-player gaming for disaffected students
More about Asdan accreditation
How Timy Rylands has introduced games into the classroom
Information about Nesta Futurelab's year-long pilot
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