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Games-based learning: creative steps to a digital future

From the Co-director of Technology Studies

Digital game playing is increasingly popular among teenagers and adults today. Engaging graphics immerse players in virtual worlds where the challenge to ‘level up’ (Doctorow, 2010) can be simultaneously pleasurable and frustrating. The creativity and technological skills required for the design and development of games are admirable, complex and now serious international business for those who have them. Yet, as our School’s 2010 Education Futurist, Professor Erica McWilliam, asserts: “creativity is everybody’s business and creativity turns into employability” (McWilliam, 2008). Student game-players stimulate their creativity and learn not only technology skills but acquire valuable, higher order thinking through games programming activities.

An approach adopted by the Technology Studies Faculty is to embrace games programming in both the junior and senior curriculum. The problem solving challenges and creative solutions inherent in our games programming units stimulate student creativity, inquiry-based learning and design processes in a real world context. Games programming entails more than just creating  interactivity and controlling animation – it requires multilayered, non-linear, problem-based decision making using a combination of sophisticated software applications.

Game-based learning continues to gain pace as a methodology for engaging young learners in today’s connected age. Integrating games programming into teaching and learning is consistent with current educational theorists and research emphasising the potential of digital games as a teaching and learning tool in today’s educational systems (Gee, 2003; Halverson, 2005; Horizon Report, 2011; Shaffer, 2006). Developmental psychologists have known for over a century that children learn through playing games. Today, in a digitally connected age, scientists are beginning to assess the influence technology use has on our brains (Small, 2008). Mounting evidence indicates that exposure to digital technology changes cognitive processing within the modern mind (Small, 2008).

Over the last decade our faculty has realised the potential of games programming in teaching and learning to drive innovative and creative inquiry and experimentation. Games programming, as an elective context, is providing our faculty with appropriate and systematic ways to challenge a diverse range of learning styles and specific learning needs. Games programming encourages the students to use meta-level thinking to pre-empt problems in games coding and games play. When we immerse the students in this context, their creativity thrives, driven by the variety of technology tools. The junior and senior technology curriculum electives are empowering the students to confidently migrate through a broad range of advanced technologies, arguably an essential skill for today’s young learners.

We are not teaching games programming to produce the next generation of game developers, although some do choose this path. Rather; we are integrating games programming to develop an assortment of transferrable and blended technology skills for moving through multiple careers. Our students’ future career paths are somewhat different to those of years gone by. Try asking a small business owner where they see growth opportunities for their business or how they connect with their customers or in fact where and how their customers now shop. Businesses today incorporate web analytics as part of their strategic decision making. In line with this trend, Year 11 technology students can now analyse real client needs and get them on the front page of Google, in most cases for free. Being able to confidently mix and match a broad range of technology systems in creative ways is fast becoming an important requirement for each student’s 21st century vocabulary.

Since 2005, teams of our senior ICT elective students have designed and piloted their own digital games at a local early learning centre. These senior students trial and observe children aged three to five years on site, playing their digital games (also known as ‘learning objects’). Having senior students design and develop literacy and numeracy-based learning objects for younger learners creates a multilayered learning context. The mode of “learner as author and instructive developer” for expressing their knowledge is consistent with Churches (2008) and Maclean (2005), who suggest that when students develop and author their own multimedia they are demonstrating higher order thinking skills, enhancing their learning and presenting their understanding of the content.

The senior games programming unit is structured to simulate an authentic design and development process for a client. The teacher is positioned as the project manager, the early learning centre director is representative of the client and the children as test pilots of the learning objects. The students are the managing directors and producers of the learning objects for their local client. The senior students observe the children playing their educational games and document the young learners’ engagement and ability to interact with the technology and the learning object. This method of trialling and testing reflects common industry processes of research and design and most importantly, connects the student to real-world application and experience. The students’ practical application and testing of their games programming provides authentic feedback and an enriched learning process.

The Year 9 games programming unit provides an excellent introduction to teaching object-oriented, event-driven programming. The pedagogical focus, as with the senior games unit, is on complex reasoning and problem-solving. Students use a common international gaming engine, Game Maker, to structure and build action or strategy games based on their own unique 2D graphic designs, narrative scripts and audio editing. The gaming engine also provides extension opportunity for students to test more powerful ways to code and execute scripts in games, including variable containers, condition statements, artificial intelligence and integrating intelligent behaviour in gameplay.

Visiting industry professionals form an important component of the games programming units. Industry professionals provide students and teachers with an opportunity to gain first-hand expertise and important insights into the most recent trends and tips. Visiting guest speakers from varying professions discuss issues and topics relevant to the students’ client-focused learning. Working with local industry professionals provides a more efficient, relevant and creative workflow for our students and teachers, while also reinforcing real-world industry practice. Additionally, working with industry representatives invigorates classroom learning, setting the stage for learning as common practice and a culture of commonality. Authentic practice in assessment is crucial to meeting the needs of an industry that has diverse career pathways and frequently changes.

Games programming as an elective study has emerged as an excellent method for integrating technology into project-based learning. The very nature of games programming as a practical discipline has a unique emphasis on the logical application of trial and error, where learning evolves naturally through the cycle of testing and inquiry. Students master fundamental programming skills in the development phase of their game, and pre-test game levels, modes and beta-testing with their fellow gamers prior to final testing within the early learning centre.

Within the Technology Studies Faculty, less time is devoted to developing the mechanics of hardware, software and concerns relating to graphics cards and expensive processing needs. Rather, time is dedicated to envisioning curriculum effectiveness, determining potential avenues for technology exploration, developing creative processes and inquiry, facilitating self-directed learning through the Learning Management System, and employing higher order thinking strategies and effective learning collaboration between teachers and students in online networked environments.

Rapid advances in the usability, availability and processing power of computer technologies has enabled the faculty to take advantage of greater opportunities for teaching and learning. Mobile  devices, open source software, social networking, networked learning and faster broadband connections continue to enhance how teaching and learning in games programming is approached and has strengthened the technology curriculum in general.

While we are confident our curriculum complies with criteria -based assessment and standards, our main focus is developing well-researched, quality learning to develop a change-ready creative mindset in our young students as they move into a digital future.

Mr B Thomas

References

Churches, A. (2008). Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy. Retrieved 2 May 2011 from http://edorigami.wikispaces.com/Bloom’s+Digital+Taxonomy

Doctorow, C. (2010). Quest to Learn: Video-game-based school, boingboing, Retrieved 20 June 2011 from http://www.boingboing.net/2010/09/15/quest-to-learn-video.html

Gee, J. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave McMillan.

Halverson, R. (2005). What can K-12 school leaders learn from video games and gaming? Innovate 1 (6). Retrieved 2 May 2011 from http://www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=81

Johnson, L., Smith, R., Willis, H., Levine, A., and Haywood, K. (2011). The 2011 Horizon Report. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium. Retrieved 2 May 2011 from http://wp.nmc.org/horizon
2011/

Maclean, R. (2005). ‘Literacies and multiliteracies’. In D. Pendergast & N. Bahr, Teaching middle years: Rethinking curriculum, pedagogy and assessment (pp. 103-118). Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

McWilliam, E. (2008) The Creative Workforce: How to launch young people into high flying futures. Sydney: University of NSW Press.

Shaffer, D. (2006). How computer games help children learn. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Small, G. (2008). Research shows that Internet is rewiring our brains. UCLA Today. Retrieved 4 May 2011 from http://www.today.ucla.edu/portal/ut/081015_gary-small-ibrain.aspx

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