Five Amazing Games That Add a Third Dimension to Learning

| March 30, 2011 | 16 Comments
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We received lots of comments on 21 Things That Will Be Obsolete in 2020. To those who expressed doubt that any of those predictions will come to fruition, the writer Shelly Blake-Plock wrote an elegant response. But many more were intrigued by one commenter’s assertion that many of those items on the list are already happening.

So I asked the commenter, educator Gord Holden from Vancouver, B.C., to elaborate on those details.

By Gord Holden

Four years ago I went from being a school teacher, to a position in distributed learning. The environment was “cutting edge” but many courses were still in paper format, and the online ones were largely electronic text. The cost of materials and course development translated into huge classes, and marking loads.

“Each day is filled with new achievements and a growing following of engaged ‘co-workers.’”

Student feedback was both inadequate and not at all timely. Worst of all, my students were not engaged and had little meaningful contact with their teacher.

After a year of feeling like a total failure I told the principal that I was dissatisfied with my teaching practice and needed to find a better way to engage the students in their learning. With her blessing, I began my search.

1. BUILD A CIVILIZATION: CAESAR III

It began by resurrecting some game programs that had met with great success in my classroom practice. Although I am not a “gamer” I knew it was important to steer clear of the “eye candy,” and the “drill and kill” activities that call themselves games. I will recommend one here called Caesar III. In this simulation, students begin as a lowly citizen trying to eke out an existence in a virgin landscape. The student begins by learning about the basic needs for survival and graduates to increasingly demanding scenarios.

By the end, students will have gained a very sophisticated understanding of the influence played by the environment on the development of a civilization. They will also have experienced the dynamics of government including infrastructure, civil service, taxation, education, healthcare, religion, trade, security, etc. Still, while games like this may have improved both the level of student engagement and learning, there was little opportunity for collaboration between students, and relationship with the teacher.

2. MEET MEDIEVAL CITIZENS, EXPLORE HISTORIC CITIES: CASPIAN LEARNING

It seemed likely that the next step would involve virtual worlds, where students and teachers could interact. The best resource I could find was put out by Caspian Learning, called Thinking Worlds. In it, a student enters into a virtual world that resides on their personal computer. Their avatar can be somewhat modified, and engage in a wide variety of explorations. In the unit dealing with volcanoes and earthquakes, they not only learn about the details, they visit places such as Herculaneum, subterraneous faults, and the ruins of Kobe in Japan.

There, they gather information from the people and learn about what it’s like to be in an earthquake and how one should prepare for it. In other units they interact with blood cells, astronauts, computer chips, medieval citizens dealing with the Domesday Book, Dracula, Louis the XVI, Hitler, and the list goes on.

Students are able to redo these quests as many times as they need to in order to gain mastery. The feedback and marking is instantaneous, so they are able to know when they’ve met my minimum requirement of 90%. I hardly ever get a score of 90% though, students will invariably repeat their quests until they get 100%.

3. LIVE WITH INDIGENOUS CULTURES: QUEST ATLANTIS

And still, my quest for creating a community of learners was unmet. Until one day, when I’d all but given up, I saw a reference to a program called Quest Atlantis. In less than 15 minutes of researching this resource it was clear to me that I had found what I was looking for. In Quest Atlantis (QA), my students are engaged in a narrative as compelling as The Chronicles of Narnia, except not as passive spectators, but as active participants in the story.

Their age and school appropriate avatars are able to explore and learn in an environment that is secure, monitored, and dynamically expansive. Through QA my students have gone to live with the First Nations people of Mesa Verde, negotiated plans to save the Black Rhino with the various stakeholders in Tanzania, taken rockets to space stations to learn about the technology they will need to deploy and use in order to deflect Near Earth Objects.

In the meantime, they learn about Internet safety and protocols, how to build virtual buildings, and most importantly how to become a better global citizen. I cannot say enough about how QA has transformed both my teaching practice, and my students. While the founders, the Faculty of Education Learning Sciences division at the University of Indiana call it transformational play, the parents call it “Miraculous Play.” The scope and depth of opportunities offered by QA is far too great to even attempt to do justice to it as part of an article.

4. SURVIVE IN THE WILD: WOLFQUEST

The learning I was bringing to my students was still very guided and curriculum based. Now, I was looking for even more, programs that would allow the students to be creative. With their Internet safety training, I could now put them on Wolfquest. In Wolfquest each student becomes a solitary wolf, struggling to find their place in the wilds of Yellowstone National Park. They learn about the challenges of life in the wild, and the need for “others.” In time, they can mate, and form a pack of their own.

What fun to watch the alpha males try to take down a bull elk. They cannot. They need the pack. What fun to watch as the “quiet ones” assume leadership of the pack, and the subsequent high fives when they successfully organize and conclude a hunt. What fun to watch my teaching colleagues attempt to do the same. We cannot.

5. REDESIGN LEARNING: CYBERNETWORLDS

Where to now? Well, we’ve obtained virtual space on Cybernetworlds, a family-run virtual universe that I cannot say enough about. There, in Viamus, my students have been rebuilding the ancient civilizations that ring the Mediterranean. My students have also rebuilt our school virtually, as a place where they can come to pick up assignments, hang out, collaborate, even meet for classes. We have a number of other projects under development, but now, it is my students who are in charge. While they may have to run things by me, they are responsible to research what they are responsible to know, and find ways to use their newfound skills to build an environment where they can pass their knowledge on to others. Where is this going?

The total cost of everything I’ve mentioned is under $700. Is the journey complete? Not a chance. I’ve gone from feeling completely defeated as a teacher, with students who were angry and resistant to schooling, to having each day filled with new achievements and a growing following of engaged “co-workers.” I’m mourning the coming of summer, as each of my students has become invaluable as a colleague and an asset to our school. Has this miracle fallen from the sky? Well, I will admit to some serendipity, but will tell you that there has been no small amount of blood, sweat, and tears that has gone into bringing this about. I truly hope that there are some schools and/or school districts out there that would like to see similar results. It can be done if the passion, dedication, and careful planning is in place. I would love to be a part of that. How about you?

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  • Gholden

    Sorry, I should have mentioned that I teach all subject areas, grades 4-7 at North Island Distributed Education School, in Courtenay, B.C. All the resources I’ve listed are free, with the exception of our Cybernetworlds account, which runs on the Active Worlds platform. Let me know here if you wish me to contact you or if you’d like a more indepth description of any of the resources listed.

    • http://pearsontown.dpsnc.net/teacherpages/ptaig/?cat=6 Barbara Isasi

      I teach English as a Second language (ESL) grades K-5 and my husband teaches Science, grade 6. He will be getting ipads in his school for next year, and I have access to a computer lab with my students. Suggestions on getting started? I’ve been “playing” trying to integrate technology more with my students, but not doing much more than providing basics of word processing and internet research facilitation.
      Any help would be greatly appreciated.

      Thanks,
      Barbara I-Brown

      • Gholden

        Barbara, it sounds as if the most difficult parts have already been dealt with. You have the technology, and a colleague that will work with you. I hope I can help but will need many more details. If you want to discuss this further please Skype me (gord.holden Canada). Be sure to include some pertinent info in the request to add.

        • Laurine Croasdale

          Hi Barbara, I am not a teacher but a children’s writer who does virtual workshops into schools on creative writing. I am currently putting together a workshop on superheroes and comics and have been using Comic Life. It is inexpensive and very easy to use and might be of interest to you and your students. best wishes, Laurine Croasdale

  • http://dmlcentral.net/ Connie

    These games sound really awesome! Simple paper and pencil can at times contribute to the lack of interest or desire to learn for students, so incorporating technology to teach not only educational but also life values is wonderful to see. As a student research assistant myself in digital media, I can personally say that using some form of digital media has always been exciting to my educational learning while growing up. It definitely grabs your interest in the material, especially for young students, because they’re allowed to be more hands-on in what they do while adding the fun factor to the games.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=522575301 Nilda Violeta Vargas

    Are these games focused on social studies only? Are there any applications for language classes, for example English?

    • Gord Holden

      Each have a component of Language Arts. Wolfquest comes with a ready to use set of classroom activities. Quite traditional in approach…research and essay type responses.

      With Caesar III I use a very pre-Marco Polo approach, conducting oral exams to draw out what the student truly understands.

      Thinking World is largely content based, but asks questions in 8 different ways. Good practice for students methinks.

      Quest Atlantis requires written responses (though there is opportunity to send attachments, and some quests are recorded to be listened to, or even watched). This is where my students invariably improve dramatically in both their thinking and writing skills. The quest “previewer” simply doesn’t accept anything less than great. There is a reward system that involves Atlantian currency for use in-world, status points towards illuminating the quester’s shardflower, and a dynamism in the game that means that the quester gets greater access to more worlds, activities, and opportunities as their quests are accepted. (Kind of like real life don’t you think?) Anyway, because of this every quester finds the help they need to perfect their submissions. Quest responses that have flaws in formatting, spelling, grammar, or do not show evidence of the intended insights, are returned immediately for revision. While the approach can be adapted, it’s not unusual for beginning questers to get quests back up to 5 times before they “get it right.” They do not get discouraged. In fact, they appreciate that someone (the Previewer) cares enough to help them achieve the level of excellence required by the Council members and the Arch of Wisdom. Parents call the improvements made in writing skills miraculous. I just think the students are finally motivated to work at it.

      Interesting perhaps, the most challenging writing may be at the building level in Cybernetworlds. The codes required for building are unforgiving. So in addition to the research they must do, the students must practice “decoding” skills that go beyond their usual work in English.

      I hope this has been helpful.

      • Gholden

        Forgot to mention that I have used Caesar III with some classes AS their Language Arts curriculum. They become the character in their scenario, journaling/blogging about the steps they’re taking and why, the problems, the celebrations. They write letters to their superiors, the Senate, trading partners, rals…etc. It doesn’t take much imagination to think of where this can go. I always like to combining Socials with English. The students appreciate activities when they are enriched, and kill two birds with one stone.

  • Melanie West

    I’m an Educational Psychologist..and…a mother….LOVE these suggestions. I’m so impressed at how enriching these games can be and encourage both parents and schools to consider these a part of a quality education. Game playing, whether low tech (stick and a ball) or high tech is really the most natural way for the brain to learn. Thank you!

    • Gholden

      There are more suggestions, but instituting some of these resources can require a lot of careful planning. Without it, using these resources can actually backfire. Wolfquest for instance, despite putting some security measures in place, does grant access to the general public. Students without appropriate training, supervision, permissions, can potentially get into unwanted “situations.” That’s why I give workshops about the steps that need to be taken when taking this direction.

      Meanwhile Melanie, the mother of one of my students is the Educational Psychologist for our school district. She was saying last week that in her mind, the Caesar III base curriculum holds more cognitive value for her daughter than any “traditional” curriculum. So your enthusiasm has been seconded. : )

  • BalancEdTech

    Sound like excellent resources for my gaming elective next year. How about having the students deign their own games with Scratch or one of the other tools?
    http://scratched.media.mit.edu/
    http://web.media.mit.edu/~mres/papers/Learning-Leading-final.pdf
    http://learnscratch.org/

    • Gholden

      Thanks for the suggestion BalancEdTech. I will pass however, but only because my students already have a full slate of technical skills that they are developing. There comes a point where you and I want them to utilize those skills in concert with curriculum goals, rather than simply making technology and games the primary goal. If scratch is part of the skillset that you bring to your students, they are fortunate. I’ve no doubt that you are already leveraging that resource to greatly enrich your students level of engagement and learning.

      With the building skills developed in Quest Atlantis, my students build learning environments in our own virtual world of Viamus (in Cybernetworlds). One that we are currently working on is a great example. Students are given the quest to find the sarcophagus of a certain pharoah. They can work singly, or in teams. To find the sarcophagus they need to know where to find Egypt (sometimes too many assumptions are made), when the pharaoh lived, where pharaohs were laid to rest during that period, how to identify the identity of who inhabits the sarcophagus, and how to read the Egyptian hieroglyphics in that cartouche. Imagine the skills, research, and knowledge that goes into building something like this. Any yet, it’s just scratching the surface of what we have planned for our virtual worlds. That would have to be saved for a whole other article.

  • Leila Franklin

    Yoursphere.com is a safe kids-only social networking site that offers hundreds of games, ability to create ‘spheres’ to showcase one’s interests and a fantastic virtual world, ourWorld. My 11-year-old daughter loves it — it gives her a lot of ways to create her own little world and connect with other kids. I sometimes watch her while she’s in this “world” and she does things like plan parties with others, set up her apartment, design clothes, practice being an independent young person. The site has a clean, colorful look and while it’s easy to move around and “do” things, it’s always challenging with a lot of variety. After more than six months in this world, she hasn’t gotten bored with it or mastered everything. She says there are always new things added. We love Yoursphere.com’s safety-first approach and its educational side — my daughter has learned a great deal about how to protect her privacy, what information she should not give out, and the importance of treating others right. 

  • Robby777

    I GROK THIS TOTALLY !

  • Brenda

    My daughter joined Wolfquest when she was 10, four years ago.  It was a wonderful introduction to the online community for her.  It was well monitored, the moderators were engaging and encouraging, and they kept a very safe, friendly environment.  Although probably two years ago she became discouraged with the site when some new moderators came on board and she felt they weren’t very personable.  However, she made online friends that she is still in touch with and is going to meet one face-to-face later this month.  What a great site!

    • gholden

      Thanks for the wonderful feedback Brenda. I wonder if you can relate to this…. After my students got past the first scenario in Yellowstone National Park, their wolf mated. Floaty hearts and the discovery of a den was followed by the birth of pups. The game suddenly changed. The burden of caring for pups that were surrounded by dangers weighed heavy on the kids. Constant care and vigilance was required by the adult wolves in order for the pups to survive. Parents began coming to me with reports of an apparent renewal of admiration and respect from their children, as they began to voice their appreciation for how challenging parenthood must be both physically, economically, and emotionally. One parent summarized the experience as “The best sex-ed course my kid will ever have.” Can you relate?