Researchers: Even violent video games can be learning tools

Panelists discussed how people learn and how games can be engineered to be even more educational.

Panelists discussed how people learn and how games can be engineered to be even more educational.

You’re at the front lines shooting Nazis before they shoot you. Or, you’re a futuristic gladiator in a death match with robots. Either way, you’re playing a video game—and you might be improving your vision and other brain functions, according to research presented May 27 at a New York University conference on games as a learning tool.

“People that play these fast-paced games have better vision, better attention, and better cognition,” said Daphne Bavelier, an assistant professor in the department of brain and cognitive science at the University of Rochester.

Bavelier was a presenter at a daylong symposium on the educational uses of video and computer games from NYU’s Games for Learning Institute. The event was another indication that electronic games are gaining legitimacy in the classroom. (The University of Wisconsin-Madison also hosts an annual conference on educational gaming.)

President Barack Obama recently identified the creation of good educational software as one of the “grand challenges for American innovation,” and the federal Department of Education’s assistant deputy secretary for the Office of Innovation and Improvement, Jim Shelton, attended the conference as well.

Panelists discussed how people learn and how games can be engineered to be even more educational.

“People do learn from games,” said J. Dexter Fletcher of the Institute for Defense Analyses.

Sigmund Tobias of the State University of New York at Albany said an Israeli air force study found that students who played the game “Space Fortress” had better rankings in their pilot training than students who did not.

He added that students who played “pro-social” games that promote cooperation were more likely than others to help out in real-life situations, such as intervening when someone is being harassed.

Bavelier’s research has focused on so-called first-person shooter games like “Unreal Tournament” and “Medal of Honor,” in which the player is an Allied solder during World War II.

“You have to jump into vehicles, you have to crouch and hide,” said Tammy Schachter, a spokeswoman for game developer Electronic Arts Inc.

Bavelier said playing the kill-or-be-killed games can improve peripheral vision and the ability to see objects at dusk, and the games can even be used to treat amblyopia, or lazy eye, a disorder characterized by indistinct vision in one eye.

She said she believes the games can improve math performance and other brain tasks as well.

“We are testing this hypothesis that when you play an action video game, what you do is you learn to better allocate your resources,” she said. “In a sense you learn to learn. … You become very good at adapting to whatever is asked of you.”

Bavelier believes the games eventually will become part of school curricula, but “it’s going to take a generation.”

Schachter said the purpose of “Medal of Honor” and other games is to have fun, and any educational benefits are a bonus.

“Through entertainment, these games test your memory skills, your eye-hand coordination, your ability to detect small activities on the screen and interact with them,” she said.

Not everyone is a fan. Gavin McKiernan, the national grassroots director for the Parents Television Council, an advocacy group concerned about sex and violence in the media, said that when it comes to violent video games, any positive effects are outweighed by the negative.

“You are not just passively watching Scarface blow away people,” McKiernan said. “You are actually participating. Doing these things over and over again is going to have an effect.”

Bavelier said games could be developed that would harness the positive effects of the first-person shooter games without the violence.

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Supreme Court gets RIAA copyright case

A case testing the meaning of the so-called “innocent infringer’s” defense to the Copyright Act’s minimum fine of $750 per music track that is downloaded or shared illegally has landed at the U.S. Supreme Court, Wired reports. The case the justices were asked to review May 26 concerns a federal appeals court’s February decision ordering a university student to pay the Recording Industry Association of America $27,750 ($750 per track) for file-sharing 37 songs when she was a high school cheerleader. That decision reversed a Texas federal judge who had ordered defendant Whitney Harper to pay $7,400 (or $200 per song). The lower court, without a trial, had granted her the innocent infringer’s exemption to the Copyright Act’s minimum fine, because the teen claimed she didn’t know she was violating copyrights. The appeals court, however, said she was not eligible for such a defense, even though she was between 14 and 16 years old when the infringing activity occurred on LimeWire. The appeals court concluded that the Copyright Act precludes such a defense if the legitimate CDs of the music in question carry copyright notices—but Harper’s attorneys argued she should get the benefit of the $200 innocent-infringer fine, because the digital files in question contained no copyright notice. The High Court justices have the option of taking the case and issuing a ruling, or declining to hear it altogether…

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Time Warner, Universal push back at iPad

Time Warner and NBC Universal have told Apple they won’t spend the time and money to rework their Flash-friendly video libraries to make them compatible with the iPad, CNET reports. CNET’s story refers to a report in the New York Post, which cites unnamed sources. Apple’s iPad has roared off shelves in the United States since its U.S. introduction in April, helping the company move past long-time nemesis Microsoft in market value. But some say the power has gone to the company’s head, and they point to Apple’s tussle with Adobe Systems over Adobe’s Flash software as one indication. The iPad doesn’t support Flash, an all-but-omnipresent application for creating and viewing web-based animation and video. Apple says the software is proprietary, outdated, insecure, and unstable—but the pushback from Time Warner and Universal could indicate a growing frustration with Apple’s need for control. Still, many other major media entities, including Disney, CBS, CNN, and Fox News, offer at least some iPad-compatible content…

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Privacy groups say Facebook changes don’t go far enough

Facebook’s new privacy changes haven’t been enough to satisfy its most vocal critics, CNET reports. A group of privacy activist groups said in a joint conference call on May 27 that they’re hardly ready to declare a truce, even after Facebook simplified its privacy settings for users—including slicing the number of settings from 50 to around 15 and consolidating seven pages of choices into three pages. Most, if not all, of the groups on the call have been lobbying for new government rules targeting social-networking sites. The Federal Trade Commission is considering just that, with an announcement expected late this year, and related legislation is being drafted in the House of Representatives. “We want legislation to address this massive and stealth data collection that has emerged,” said Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, adding that he wants “opt-in” instead of “opt-out” data sharing. In an interview with CNET, Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt rejected that argument: “I’d say that our efforts to educate our users have been pretty unprecedented. We required more than 350 million users to go through a process that required them to check their privacy settings.”

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3D gaming firm, Duke Medical School team up for virtual training

Virtual Heroes, a Raleigh, N.C.-based firm that focuses on so-called serious games technology for use in education and training, has teamed up with Duke University School of Medicine to use virtual reality and 3D technology for medical training, LocalTechWire reports. The two organizations have collaborated to develop a first-person video game (3DiTeams) for use in medical education. On May 27, the two said they would partner on efforts to further develop training tools. “This partnership brings together two world-class organizations with complementary resources and a shared commitment to advancing and improving medical education and training,” said Jeffrey Taekman, assistant dean for educational technology at Duke…

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Image-conscious youth rein in social networking

Three in 10 young adults surveyed say they "never" trust social media sites.

It might go against conventional wisdom, but a new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project is adding fuel to the argument that young people are fast becoming the gurus of online reputation management, especially when it comes to social networking sites.

Among other things, the study found that young adults ages 18-29 are the most likely to limit the amount of personal information they share online—and the least likely to trust free online services ranging from Facebook to LinkedIn and MySpace.

Marlene McManus, 21, is among those young adults. On the job hunt since graduating from Clark University in Massachusetts, she’s been “scouring” her Facebook page, removing photos that contain beer cups and any other signs of college exploits. She’s also dropped Twitter altogether.

“I have to present a public face that doesn’t have the potential to hurt my image,” McManus says.

She has seen otherwise upstanding adults, well past their 20s, sharing compromising photos and questionable rants with too many people online. “I get embarrassed for these people and sometimes just want to shake them,” she says.

In this instance, adults over the age of 30 might do well to listen. The Pew study is the latest in a mounting body of new research that suggests the very generation accused of sharing too much information online is actually leading the pack in online privacy.

The Pew study found, for instance, that social networkers ages 18 to 29 were the most likely to change the privacy settings on their profiles to limit what they share with others online. The percentage who did so was 71 percent, compared with just 55 percent of the 50- to 64-year-old bracket. Meanwhile, about two-thirds of all social networkers who were surveyed said they’ve tightened their security settings.

The survey also determined that:

• About half of young people in that 18-29 bracket have deleted comments that others have made on their profile, compared with just 29 percent of those ages 30 to 49 and 26 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds. The numbers were similar when it came to social networkers who removed their names from photos that were tagged to identify them.

• When asked how much they can trust social networking sites, 28 percent of the youngest adults surveyed said “never.” A fifth of those surveyed in the 30-49 age bracket said that, and just 14 percent of those ages 50 to 64 agreed.

The Pew report, which was released May 27, was compiled from telephone interviews conducted by Princeton Survey Research International between Aug. 18 and Sept. 14, 2009, among a sample of 2,253 adults. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.

Mary Madden, the Pew researcher who was the study’s lead author, says the findings partly reflect the fact that young people have been using social networking longer than their elders, thus making them more experienced in dealing with its intricacies.

But she says young adults also are at a point in their lives where, like McManus, they’re looking for work and just starting to develop a name for themselves.

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Facebook adjusts privacy controls after complaints

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted that "a lot of people are upset with us."

In Facebook’s vision of the web, users no longer would be alone and anonymous. Sites would reflect users’ tastes and interests—as expressed on the online social network—and users wouldn’t have to fish around for news and songs that interest them.

Standing in the way, however, is growing concern about privacy from Facebook users, a large percentage of whom are high school and college-age students. Most recently, users have complained that the site forced them to share personal details with the rest of the online world or have them removed from Facebook profiles altogether.

Responding to users’ concerns, Facebook on May 26 announced that it’s simplifying its privacy controls and applying them retroactively, so users can protect the status updates and photos they have posted in the past.

“A lot of people are upset with us,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged at a news conference at Facebook’s Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters.

The changes came after Facebook rolled out a slew of new features in April that spread its reach to the broader web. Among them was a program called “instant personalization” that draws information from a person’s profile to customize sites such as the music service Pandora. Some users found it creepy, not cool.

Privacy groups have complained to federal regulators, and some people threatened to quit the site. Even struggling MySpace jumped in to capitalize on its rival’s bad press by announcing a “new, simpler privacy setting.”

To address complaints that its settings were getting too complex, Facebook now will give users the option of applying the same preferences to all their content, so that with one click you can decide whether to share things with just “friends” or with everyone.

For those who found it complicated to prevent outside web sites and applications from gaining access to Facebook data, there’s now a way to do so in a couple of clicks.

It’s not clear whether the changes will quell the unease among Facebook users, which has threatened to slow the site’s breakneck evolution from a scrappy college network to an internet powerhouse with nearly a half-billion people.

“They’ve lost the users’ trust. That’s the problem,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group. “In the earlier days, there was time to regain it. It’s not so clear now. I think it’s getting more serious than making changes and moving on.”

Some of Facebook’s loudest critics offered cautious praise but indicated the young company will need to do more to prove it cares about privacy.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called it a “significant first step that Facebook deserves credit for,” but added he’d still prefer that Facebook require users to actively turn on sharing with outside sites, rather than having sharing be the default setting.

For some users, the problem has been that the company has changed its privacy settings so often that keeping up with them became too much. Before Facebook’s May 26 announcement, Craig Mather, a 28-year-old graduate student in Portland, Ore., was already complaining of having to adjust his privacy settings every time Facebook comes up with a new plan.

“It puts us on our guard, where we feel like we are trying to plug a leak,” he said.

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ASU’s education technology program top-ranked for productivity

With only a few graduate faculty members, the educational technology program at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College might be small, but according to a recent publication it’s one of the most productive in the world, ASU News reports. In the recently released 2010 edition of the Educational Media and Technology Yearbook, ASU’s ed-tech graduate program is ranked second worldwide as measured by number of publications in the field’s top two journals. Established in the late 1960s, ASU’s program focuses on the design, development, and evaluation of instructional systems and on educational technology applications to support learning. The program offers a master’s of education degree and a doctorate of philosophy in educational technology, as well as two certificate programs. ASU’s ed-tech program has long been considered one of the top programs in the country, but this year’s Educational Media and Technology Yearbook for the first time ranked programs using objective data. The yearbook editors counted the number of publications in the field’s top two journals, Educational Technology Research and Development and the Journal of the Learning Sciences, in 2007 and 2008. ASU ranked second behind only Nanyang Technological University in China for most publications…

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Apple offering price breaks for educators, college students

School isn’t quite out yet for many students, but Apple already is looking ahead to next year: The company is giving college students and educators at all grade levels a break on some of its products as the planning begins for 2011, CNET reports. The new promotion, which launched May 25 and runs until Sept. 7, will give college students, teachers of any grade, and parents shopping for their college-bound kids the opportunity to purchase a new Mac and get a free iPod Touch. In addition to the free iPod, students also can get educational pricing on the Mac, so there is a little savings there, too. Qualifying computers include the iMac, MacBook, MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, and Mac Pro. Build-to-order configurations of these models also qualify, but refurbished Macs are not eligible, according to the rules and conditions posted on Apple’s web site. While the offer specifically lists the iPod Touch, you can choose any iPod you want up to $199…

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Tech-savvy university grows mobile learning with $1.8M award

ACU gave iPods and iPhones to about 1,000 incoming students in 2008.

ACU gave iPods and iPhones to about 1,000 incoming students in 2008.

Abilene Christian University, among the leading users of mobile technology in higher education, will use a $1.8 million award from AT&T to build a studio for mobile learning experimentation and a K-12 professional development program that will train teachers to use education technology devices such as eReaders and internet-ready phones.

This isn’t the first time AT&T has partnered with ACU, a campus of almost 5,000 students in Abilene, Texas. The phone giant and Alcatel-Lucent helped develop the university’s Wi-Fi internet network earlier this decade. AT&T also gave $1 million to ACU in 2007 for the computer infrastructure in the school’s Bob and Shirley Hunter Welcome Center.

The wireless network powers the thousands of mobile devices—mostly Apple iPods and iPhones—that ACU has doled out to incoming students in recent years. The school pays for the mobile hardware, while students pay for the monthly AT&T service plan, according to ACU officials.

College students with internet-ready phones like the iPhone can check their tuition account balances, watch and listen to faculty lectures, take quizzes, answer surveys, and receive homework assignment alerts through their mobile device.

The university’s plans to launch a K-12 Professional Development Institute with part of the $1.8 million AT&T award has drawn interest from school systems representing more than 20 million students since its May 12 announcement, according to ACU.

The institute will bring mobile learning lessons to teachers in the U.S., Croatia, Australia, El Salvador, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Phil Schubert, ACU’s executive vice president, said the mobile learning training will be aimed at students whose “limited access to information has kept [them] from maximizing instructional opportunities.”

He added: “Today’s widespread access to information provided by global data networks and converged mobile media devices means our students are engaged in the learning process.”

Award money also will be allocated for a learning studio on the top floor of ACU’s Brown Library, where students and faculty members will be able to use editing bays for creating video and audio clips, recording booths for capturing podcasts, and screening areas complete with high-definition recording equipment, according to the school’s announcement.

In addition, AT&T’s reward will be used to launch a mobile learning research program that examines the “effectiveness of mobile-learning initiatives and strategies” and to increase “the number of faculty members who conduct research in the expanding field,” creating best practices for K-12 schools and colleges, according to the school.

ACU began its Mobile Learning Initiative in 2008 when the school gave about 1,000 incoming freshmen the choice between an iPhone and an iPod Touch to be used for streaming educational videos and recorded lectures, among other uses. About 700 freshmen picked the iPhone, the university reported.

“It definitely has helped them feel more comfortable,” Bill Rankin, Abilene’s director of educational innovation, said in an interview with eCampus News last year. “It’s been a help for them.”

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