Best practices for using games and simulations in the classroom
We know that educational games and simulations can be valuable tools to reach and teach 21st-century students. However, many traditional classrooms and media centers aren’t designed to support educators who want to use them. Teachers and librarians are often required to justify the purchase and use of games in the classroom. And they sometimes even ask themselves if they have successfully met their intended educational objectives when they do use games as part of the curriculum.
Educational game developers are also asked these questions—typically by potential customers. So recently a group of educational publishers, all members of the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), took on the task of finding out how games can be successfully integrated into classroom practice.
The Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) is the principal trade association for the software and digital content industry. SIIA’s Education Division represents companies that provide software, digital content, and other technologies that address educational needs. The Division members work collaboratively with educators and other stakeholders to undertake initiatives to enhance the use of educational technology.
Our working group on educational games and simulations started from the assumption that games have a positive impact on students. Since no one has developed a term that is broadly accepted, we selected the term EduGame for its brevity and clarity and because it encompasses all games and simulations (video games, console games, and virtual worlds) used in classrooms. Our objective was to develop a blueprint for successful implementation of EduGames in the average classroom, with a focus on grades 5 to 12.
Our first task was to find educators who actively used games and simulations in the classroom for at least one year. We then conducted an online focus group of classroom practitioners, and also interviewed executives from companies and organizations that develop educational games and simulations. We found that for implementation of EduGames to be successful, there are three sequential steps or phases that need effective deployment.
Phase 1: Selling the Idea
Convincing all the stakeholders to support implementation of EduGames takes more effort and focus than do traditional supplemental materials. Teachers need reassurance that the additional effort will result in improved outcomes. Administrators and parents need to understand the pedagogical benefits of playing EduGames and that they are not just for amusement. Information Technology (IT) departments need to protect the network. Students need support and structure to understand how games can be used to learn.
The effective deployment of any instructional resource requires the support of teachers. Educators cannot feel threatened, be uncomfortable, or lose control when they use something new. With EduGames, the potential for all three of these issues is higher, so a well-crafted strategy to address them is essential.
Administrators must understand their unique role and have resources that they can use to explain the project to stakeholders. If administrators are driving the deployment, they must to be prepared to support a wide range of teacher familiarity and comfort with EduGames. Administrators will need to share research with parents.
Teachers must understand their role as content area experts. Give them a metaphor that connects EduGames to something familiar (and safe), such as labs. EduGames must be aligned to standards.
Information Technology groups will prioritize stability, efficacy, network safety, and cost control when they evaluate new products. Advocates for EduGames must earn the trust of IT early in the process for the project to be effective. Learn the existing IT policies about port access, games on the network, etc., and work within them whenever possible.
Students should not feel threatened, and they need to understand how it will work. They also have sophisticated filters for good games and won’t easily tolerate poor design. Non-gamers need scaffolding and peer support.
As with any new instructional resource, gaining parental support is an important part of the process. Widespread misconceptions about games can stall efforts unless you are prepared to address them. Regularly inform parents of the purpose, scope, and results of the project. Demonstrate the connection to 21st-century skills to earn the support of the community. Where possible, invite parents into the process.
Phase 2: Preparation
Since EduGames are still unfamiliar to most educators, implementation services cannot be optional. In order to reach sustained—rather than experimental —usage, schools and districts need to dedicate time and money to preparing the environment thoroughly.
Districts vary widely in technology infrastructure, the openness of IT to new solutions, and their general policies about games and learning. Advocates must acknowledge that games need IT’s support and cooperation.
Implementing any new instructional approach requires professional development. Even teachers who are gamers do not intuitively know how to use them in the classroom. Tightly link professional development and initial student use—any delay can lead to problems. Plan on a minimum of a half-day on-site professional development effort with hands-on time for participants who work in teams. Teachers need a safe place to ask “dumb” questions and a peer network.
Teachers must understand how the activities connect to the standards, what the goals are for the exercise, and which students it can benefit the most. Content area expertise is more important than familiarity with games. Teachers should also be comfortable with the pace at which they introduce the games. They are the lynchpin to success. Get the right teachers on board, and they will inspire students and other teachers in your building. Ideally you want people who are leaders—politically, technically, and pedagogically.
Phase 3: Implementation
The majority of the comments we received on teaching strategies related to blended learning. Mix game play with discussion, lecture, reading, and writing to gain the most benefits. Panelists encouraged others to tap those aspects of games that make them fun—competition, failure, and transgressive play. Lessons and game activities should be organized so they can fit into a 45 to 50 minute class period. Start small in order to accommodate the natural learning curve necessary to become proficient with a new resource.
There are pedagogical and practical reasons for having students play in teams of 2-4 rather than alone. Pedagogically, games force collaborative decision making. Grouping helps reduce barriers to learning by pairing proficient gamers with non-gamers. Practically, working in teams lowers the technology footprint needed, and it allows students to cover for each other during absences.
Classroom management for EduGames is very similar to any hands-on activity. An actively involved teacher providing content expertise and focus moves things along.
Given the novelty of game-based learning, many educators remain skeptical of the games’ ability to facilitate learning or to embed assessments appropriately. It is important to provide external validation of the learning that is taking place. Also, understand how the activities connect to the standards, what the goals are for the exercise, and which students it can benefit the most. EduGames are similar to other supplemental resources. Use them in a classroom rather than in a computer lab or as homework. Game play should accommodate the school’s block schedule. Think broadly about who can benefit and don’t restrict access to one group of students. Treat gaming like you would a lab, as an opportunity for students to apply and test what they have learned. Set clear behavioral expectations, and make assessment results visible to all stakeholders to sustain support. And remember to reach out to companies—they want to hear from teachers and librarians.
For more information
To support successful implementation of learning games in the classroom, all the information we gathered is available in a free publication—“Best Practices for Implementing Games and Simulations in the Classroom.” It is downloadable at http://tinyurl.com/lerpeo.
Karen Billings (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Vice President of the Education Division of the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) in Washington, DC.