Virtual dog with real impact
The Nintendogs project in Aberdeenshire primary schools produced "gleeful learning", a term all-too-seldom employed to describe what goes on in our classrooms.
While fun and enjoyment are among the aims of Curriculum for Excellence - and games-based learning appears to tick this box - all too often such initiatives lack empirical research evidence of their pedagogical benefit.
This project, however, has been evaluated by a team at Dundee University, led by David Miller.
He found the project, delivered in four P1-2 classes in Aberdeenshire, had an impact on the pupils' language skills, both written (particularly in the case of boys) and oral, as well as maths, with some children using much larger numbers than would normally be expected at this stage.
Dr Miller also reported a significant impact on children's social skills and very positive parental feedback about their children's motivation and engagement in learning. The parental question, "What did you do in school today?" would elicit detailed answers about their virtual dog's exploits instead of the ubiquitous "not much" response.
Anna Rossvoll, Glow development officer at Aberdeenshire Council, was the driving force behind the programme. She had been aware of the effect of the Dr Kawashima brain training programme on primary pupils' mental maths in a project led and evaluated by Derek Robertson, Learning and Teaching Scotland's national adviser on emerging technologies. So when she observed her young daughter Ali and her cousins playing Nintendogs on their Nintendo DS Lites, she decided to pilot its use.
In 2008, she bought 10 DSs, one for every three children in a P2 class; she wanted it to be a group activity to develop their negotiation skills.
She recruited two teachers whom she knew to be imaginative in their work and allowed them some autonomy in how they organised the project. One teacher put a good reader into each group of three, the other ensured that each group contained a child who was already experienced at using the game at home and made them the "top dog", or, in pedagogical terms, the "peer mentor", of the group.
The game allows players to create a virtual dog which they have to name, play with, care for, feed and train. Players have to spend sums of money to enter competitions. If they don't care for their dog properly, it develops fleas or runs away while out for a walk.
As a classroom teacher, Mrs Rossvoll had done pet topics with pupils in the past, but always encountered problems with children who didn't own one. The concept of virtual pets overcame this difficulty.
Pupils had to keep a diary and record what their dogs were doing. Even the boys who were traditionally unenthusiastic about writing wrote them up willingly.
The teachers also found that poorer readers were more motivated than usual when they had to read some of the instructions on the DS as part of the game. If necessary, they would go to another pupil for help.
"In one school, P2 children - some, not all - were able to work out that they had pound;406 and needed another pound;28 to buy a puppy. They would not normally be working at that level at that stage," said Mrs Rossvoll.
The initial pilot project was extended to four schools by 2010 and their work was evaluated by Dr Miller's team in the summer term of 2010.
There were unexpected benefits - some children were helped to overcome their fear of dogs and those with allergies to animals obviously suffered no side-effects. One teacher invited a dog warden into school to talk about how to behave around dogs; another started a dog-walking project with support from parents, who agreed to pick up the dogs' mess.
Other teachers used Nintendogs as a topic stimulus - for everything from World Book Day to role-play to making a "dough dog".
It was crucial, said Dr Miller, that teachers' good work in areas such as games-based learning was allowed to stand up to critical academic scrutiny.
"That ensures that people can't just dismiss it as enthusiastic teachers getting carried away with themselves," he said.
His study, funded by LTS, was motivated by the drive for greater use of games-based learning and the recognition that there is insufficient evidence of its benefits.
The four teachers involved in the study varied considerably in their use of the DSs - some allowed only limited use of it in the class, others allowed access at any time. One teacher liked the competitive element of the game; another did very little direct teaching with the DS, using it more as a "discover learning" tool.
Using techniques to study social relationships, Dr Miller's team measured whether the project encouraged more friendships, and whether it encouraged pupils to work more collaboratively. By the end of the project, children were identifying twice as many people they wanted to work with as at the start.
"What we witnessed with our own eyes - and teachers were also telling us - was that peer learning and social interaction was the single most noteworthy feature, particularly among the least confident children," he said.
It also created new learning hierarchies, allowing some of the least academic children to shine because of their facility with the game.
He was impressed by how engaged the pupils were, with six-year-olds "on task" for up to one hour 15 minutes - that was, he said, remarkable for that age-group.
By analysing children's written work and the quality of their illustrations before and after the project, he concluded that it had had a significant impact on their language.
There was a mixed picture, however, when it came to numeracy skills, with some quite young children dealing confidently with big numbers and others becoming confused. But the latter group were still motivated to go to the teacher, or other children, for help. That was almost as important because it is authentic learning and the child has a purpose for wanting to understand this process, said Dr Miller.
The 25 per cent of parents who responded to the researchers' questionnaires did not identify gains in language or maths in their children but did see benefits in their knowledge of animals, ICT and social skills, motivation and friendships.
Dr Miller hopes to do further research into how games-based learning can help children with additional support needs; the impact of grouping children in "triads" with one of the three acting as leader; and the effect of gender.
Other games used with nursery and primary classes are `Kinectimals' for nursery level (Xbox 360); `LittleBigPlanet 2' and `EyePet' (PS3); `Professor Layton and the Lost Future', `My French Coach' (Nintendo DS); and `Guitar Hero' for P6 and 7
HIGHER LEVEL: GAMES-BASED LEARNING IN UNIVERSITY
Games-based learning (GBL) and assessment may be gaining ground in the school sector, but they have yet to make the same inroads in higher education.
The news that the Edinburgh-based support centre of the Joint Information Systems Committee is to close this summer, leaving only the Glasgow-based team to service Scottish FE and HE institutions, is a blow to the development of e-learning in the sectors.
Some institutions, such as the University of the West of Scotland, are doing innovative studies, for example, exploiting the anti-plagiarism tool Turnitin to allow students to mark each other's work.
Nevertheless, Nicola Whitton, an expert in games-based learning from Manchester Metropolitan University, believes that until there is sufficient evidence of the effectiveness of GBL, it would be unethical to incorporate it in university courses which, in England at least, are becoming increasingly costly.
She believes that GBL offers active learning, collaborative opportunities and a space for students to learn in less stressful environments.
But against the backdrop of the Browne Report on funding in England, higher education is a serious business, she says.
"Is it valid to ask students to pay for playfulness in their studies?" she asked at the recent Game to Learn conference in Dundee.
"Students expect lectures where they get talked at for an hour and they expect tutorials. Changing that will be difficult."