How to apply game-based learning to course curriculum

Two leading researchers of game-based learning discuss best practices for enriching course curriculum through the integration of consumer games.

educational-game-designEducation-specific games are not the best way to incorporate games into curricula—a sentiment perhaps unexpected by an avid game-based learning professor.

This is just one of several tips given by experts in the higher-ed game-based learning field. eCampus News recently sat down with two leading researchers in the field of game-based learning to discuss best practices for enriching course curriculum by using consumer games to demonstrate and assess key concepts.

Sherry Jones is a Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Game Studies Instructor at the University of Colorado, Denver, and the Creator and Facilitator of the Game Studies track for the Metagame Book Club, supported by ISTE’s Games and Simulations Network. Karen Novak is an instructional designer for online learning at Front Range Community College in Westminster, CO, and chair of ISTE’s Special Interest Group for Virtual Environments.

Here are their top five tips for successful game-based learning:

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1. Be open to using “real-world” consumer games to teach educational concepts. Jones has found that there are three camps of educators applying game-based learning to their classrooms: passionate gamers who find connections to their course curriculum while playing consumer games recreationally; non-gamers who seek educational games that teach the concepts they’re trying to teach; and non-gamers who hire game designers to build an educational game from scratch based on how they think the concept should be taught. “Most of the games that are being used successfully in the classroom are consumer games, like using Angry Birds to teach physics concepts, or using World of Warcraft to teach ESL students,” remarked Jones. “Educational games designed specifically around a concept, especially custom-built ones, impose a certain way of teaching a concept on game designers, whose job it is to make games fun and interesting. Educational games can be inflexible and very boring to play, students don’t like them, and then the whole process falls apart.”

2. Do your homework. Spend time exploring games that are on the market to see how they work and how they can be applied to the curriculum. Nail down the skills that you’re trying to teach, and then go out and play a few of the major popular games–both computer/console games and app-based games. “Take notes as you’re playing the games—can you use these games to teach any of the principles you’ve laid out,” asked Jones. “Teachers don’t need to become passionate gamers, but they need to play games in order to use games in the classroom.”

3. Clearly communicate your objectives. Be open with students about why you chose a particular consumer game and outline the learning objectives they’ll master through the game play. Novak recently worked as an embedded instructional designer on an implementation of World of Warcraft in business and economics classes across three FRCC campuses, and explained that “anytime you use a commercial game, or really with any kind of change, you get resistance, and because we’re higher ed, our students run the gamut from 16 year-olds who are getting early college credits to retired adults. So, you need to be explicit with students about why you’re using these games in this course, and how learning this game will benefit their education.”

4. Reach out to your campus instructional designers. Novak and her team hold a number of professional development trainings and host an in-house technology conference every year. “During those trainings, we talk about what the capabilities are for various games–World of Warcraft is great because it has an economy and an auction house that is just as good as any educational simulations out there—and then we tell instructors who are interested to come in for a consult with us,” she explained. Novak recently met with an Eastern Religions instructor whose students were having a hard time mastering the concepts of the Tibetan Book of the Dead–an especially important aspect of the course for nursing majors who would be going on to work in the field with the area’s large Nepalese community. Novak worked with the instructor to build a simulation in the virtual environment Second Life to demonstrate how the concept of the soul is different in Tibetan Buddhism, allowing students to play out the experience of the soul described in the text in a virtual immersive environment.

5. Be willing to fail. Trial and error is key when it comes to determining which games will effectively enrich course content. “The only way to assess the assessment is through actually using the game in the classroom,” remarked Jones. “Perhaps you’d like to spice up an assignment that traditionally involved watching a specific television program. Present the class with the game and the parameters they need to go unpack the game. Survey the class to see how they liked it and if the game was more effective in assessing their understanding of the concepts. The best way to determine if it’s going to be effective is to do it.”

For free professional development resources on game-based learning, visit #MetagameBookClub, or join the ISTE Games and Simulations Network.

Jennifer Welch is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY.

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