Computer games can take lessons to next level

22nd April 2011 at 01:00
Teachers might view the Xbox and online roleplay games as distractions from study, but new research suggests that a focus on games design could be just what pupils need

In just two years, the UK's video games industry has dropped from third to sixth place in the global development rankings. And although the visual effects industry is still enjoying rapid growth, it is being forced to source talent from overseas because of skills shortages at home.

The fault lies in the shortcomings of an education system that does not understand the hi-tech industries' needs, say the authors of Next Gen, a Government-commissioned report published in February.

Ian Livingstone and Alex Hope, key players in the computer games and film industry, say their report is "about re-directing existing resources to have the right mix of subjects to prepare our children for a digital world and its creative and commercial opportunities".

Ian Livingstone co-founded Games Workshop, launched Dragons amp; Dungeons in Europe, and is a creative director of Eidos, which helped secure franchises in Europe for games Tomb Raider and Hitman. He is also chair of Skillset's Games Skills Council.

Alex Hope is a visual film effects (VFX) producer who worked on Enemy at the Gates, Johnny English and Cold Mountain, and co-founder of Double Negative, the UK's largest VFX company, which has been nominated this year for Oscars for Inception and Iron Man 2.

Both men argue that schools should offer more rigorous computer science and programming skills alongside Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) that have a cross-curricular link to art, and they see team-working as a deficit in curriculum models across the UK.

A growing number of teachers, they found, were using video games and animation technologies to support learning in the classroom; 93 per cent of maths teachers in their survey believed that "using computer games in the classroom can help young people learn useful Stem skills".

But there is "too little rigorous empirical research in the UK into how much the use of video games makes a positive difference to classroom outcomes", they warn.

The exception to this rule, they say, is the work of Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS), which is undertaking formal evaluations of educational games initiatives.

"Those limited studies that exist report positive impacts. Variation in results is often explained in differences in implementation: the benefits of using video games technology in the classroom are shaped by the interplay between teaching and learning strategies and teachers' and pupils' familiarity with technology," they write.

"Using technology for technology's sake without thinking through how it fits in a learning environment will not improve learning outcomes - indeed, it can even be distracting."

Derek Robertson, national adviser for emerging technologies and learning at LTS, runs its Consolarium programme based in Dundee. He has been leading just the kind of continuing professional development programme the Hope-Livingstone report argues is needed.

One of the Consolarium team, Charlie Love, has been encouraging pupils to create their own games. He sees games design as an important part of the curriculum - indeed, it is one of the technologies outcomes in Curriculum for Excellence.

Games design brings together various disciplines: computing science, creativity, expressive arts, collaboration, problem-solving and numeracy among others. Teachers, who in the past would have had to write their own design program, can now access free, high-quality software such as Kodu and Scratch.

If successful, this kind of work could counter the worrying decline in the number of pupils opting for computer science subjects in secondary.

If it does, it will not be a moment too soon. Only this year, US president Barack Obama launched a Stem challenge based on games creation for young Americans.

"What we are doing in schools is not working; games-based work allows us to address that," said Mr Love at a recent games-based learning conference in Dundee.

The Consolarium team has been collaborating with the Scottish Qualifications Authority in the design of the new National 4 and 5 courses, so teachers can expect to see games design embedded there once full details emerge.

Widespread budget cuts do not help to advance new developments, but Derek Robertson argues that if sufficient research evidence on the effectiveness of games-based learning can be established, then school managers will be persuaded of its necessity.

"With a lot of the kit that we suggest a school buys - such as a Nintendo Wii plus games - you can get change out of pound;200," he argues.

Games-based learning - or GBL - seems to work with all pupils, those who enjoy school and the more reluctant ones.

"It seems to wrong-foot learners - it is not quite school but something they will willingly participate in," says Mr Robertson.

John Fyffe, director of education at Perth and Kinross, is one of those investing money in games-based learning and computer technologies. He was an early adopter when he was head of Blairgowrie High, and points to how virtual learning environments could be used for "ex-pat" schools.

He has the development of "virtual Advanced Highers" in his sights, run and developed by teachers. In a rural environment with diminishing resources, such developments are almost inevitable if pupil choice in subjects is to be maintained, he believes.


The Scottish Qualifications Authority has been developing its own "game" to assess pupils in a virtual workplace environment where they will perform simulated tasks relating to their courses.

The popular Second Life game, which offers an interactive environment, did not have a student version and was "open to the world", so the exams body has used Caspian Learning's Thinking Worlds software and commissioned Learn TPM Ltd to customise it, with support from the European Social Fund.

For the past three years, the SQA has been perfecting computer games-based assessment for Skills for Work courses in retail, health, energy and uniformed and emergency services at Intermediate 1 and 2 levels.

Pupils doing the courses are pioneering the new form of assessment, which could become as common as today's multiple choice exams or written folios.

SQA project manager Veronica Harris demonstrated the GamesSpace development at last month's Game to Learn conference in Dundee.

The biggest challenge, she said, was converting a paper-based test into a game. Question-setters had to imagine how the unit specifications would look in the context of a game.

"In hindsight, we should have got a few secondary school kids together and said, `help us'."

On completion of the game, a printed report is displayed on-screen which shows the questions and answers the student has given. These are then marked in the same way a teacher would mark a conventional NAB.

Ms Harris predicts that technology will allow the SQA to assess individuals' contributions to group work - something that is currently difficult to do.

And while not designed specifically for pupils with additional support for learning, it appears to open up new opportunities for some: one boy with severe dyslexia, who would normally have required a scribe in a paper- based exam, was able to navigate the assessment game and score 100 per cent.

Original headline: Game to learn: computers can take lessons to the next level

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