Research on game-based learning points towards difficult incongruities

1/20/2016

The interest for using computer games in classroom education has grown rapidly in recent years. But, how well do computer games actually work as educational tools? This January, Björn Berg Marklund, a researcher on game-based learning at the University of Skövde, is presenting new findings that aims to answer that question.

Björn’s research focuses on mapping out the entire system that surrounds games’ implementation and use in education. Among his primary conclusions is that the relationship between students and games, which according to him has previously been heavily emphasized in the game-based learning debate, is of little importance in comparison to other factors when it comes to games’ usefulness and effectiveness in classroom settings:

- What I’ve seen in my research is that the social, pedagogical, and physical context of gameplay is crucial when it comes to games’ impact in educational settings. One cannot evaluate games’ qualities as educational tools on their merits as isolated artefacts and how well they correspond to pedagogical principles, or on how well they manage to engage a player. While these perspectives might produce some indications of games’ educational potential, it says very little about their actual usefulness and viability as teaching tools. Games’ impact in school environments are highly dependent on the contexts, experiences, and situations that are established around the gaming activities, and those are all highly dependent on teachers and characteristics of the school environment.

According to Björn’s research, digital games’ entry into the world of education has stagnated due to three main issues. Game developers that work with educational games for classroom use quickly encounter difficulties since schools, for a wide variety of reasons, constitute a market that is economically unsustainable. Schools and teachers are also in a difficult situation since games are still too inaccessible, unreliable, and resource intensive to use to be made into a widely recognized tool for classroom teaching. These two pragmatic issues have also been allowed to persist, and have in some ways been made worse, due to the fact that the reality of education and game development has not really been taken into account by research on the topic.

- In order for games, which are complex pieces of software, to work in classroom environments, schools need to make large investments in improving their technological infrastructure, organizational structures and to train teachers and support staff. Shortly put, schools generally don’t have the resources or the structures and working processes in place for games to function effectively and reliably, which is crucial for them to actually be usable and trustworthy for teachers.

Work with educational games is also a problematic proposition for developers, since the market they are creating products for is both small and highly fragmented.

- Each individual school has its own unique set of preconditions and circumstances that dictates the ways in which they can realistically employ game-based learning. The irregularities of schools’ facilities mean that developers have a wide variety of demands that they need to accommodate for, if they wish to reach a wide enough market to cover their own development costs. Beyond this fragmentation, schools also tend to have limited budgets to invest in new educational tools, which in pushes the prices that developers can put on their games downward. These factors mean that it is difficult for development studios to conduct economically sustainable development in the educational game sector.

In past debates on the topic, the limited use of games in education has often been related to teacher attitudes, and which are described as persistently resistant when it comes to the use of games in school contexts. This description is, according to Björn’s observations, rather inaccurate, and is not the reason for games’ falling short in terms of educational impact.

- Actors in education are often positively geared towards games’ educational potential and application, and I haven’t encountered any dismissive attitudes in terms of games either being childish or unproductive, or psychologically harmful. But there are certainly some concerns regarding the practical demands that games place on schools, teachers, and students. As previously mentioned, games are resource intensive technologies. Schools need to make significant investments to make sure that even rudimentary types of gaming activities are made possible and that they can be executed reliably. Making those investments in order to reach, in many cases primarily hypothetical, learning benefits is a dubious proposition. Those concerns, which I find quite valid, are often dismissed in the educational games debate. Attitudes or aversion to progress are not the problems that limits games’ impact in education, games’ intractability and resource intensiveness are.

What would it take for games to work in school environments?

Even with all the issues that surround educational games in mind, Björn is also of the persuasion that there are ways of making interesting and rewarding gaming activities possible. The issue is that past ways of thinking of games as educational tools have led both game developers and educators in the wrong direction.

- First and foremost, the real-world contexts of both development and use of educational games needs to be acknowledged, which requires us to stop evaluating games in terms of their effects on players, and instead employ a more inclusive systems perspective. The “game-student” relationship is only a minor part of a larger system of components and actors. Organisational structures, the makeup of the environments for gameplay, and working processes involved in implementing and using games are what ultimately dictate the games’ usability and overall impact.

And it is to this type of systems-oriented understanding of educational games that Björn hopes to contribute with his research:

- In my thesis work, I’ve focused on examining the conditions that need to be improved in order enable game developers, teachers, and students to work with educational games. Each actor, process, and environment involved in the system of educational games and game-based learning contribute their own set of attributes to it. Some of these may seem overwhelmingly constraining and difficult to solve or circumvent. But when looking at the entirety of the systems, competencies and possibilities can be created both by finding and leveraging synergies between actors, processes, and environments, but also by predicting and avoiding obvious problems of implementation and use before they arise. For example, if developers work with a high level of awareness and understanding of the context in which their game is ultimately going to be used, their work can be made significantly easier and the game made more useful – teachers’ capability to embroider and contribute to game-based learning activities can elevate their impact and effectiveness in ways in which the software itself could not possibly hope to do.

For more information regarding Björn’s reserach, contact:

Björn Berg Marklund, the school of informatics at the University of Skövde,

Office phone: +46 500 – 44 83 51

Email: bjorn.berg.marklund@his.se

Information regarding thesis defense:

Time: Friday the 29th of Januari, 13:15 - 16:00 
Plats: University of Skövde, the “Portalen” building, in the “Insikten” room 
Title: "Unpacking Digital Game-Based Learning: The complexities of developing and using educational games" 
Opponent: Kristine Jørgensen, Associate Professor at the Department of Information Science and Media Studies, the University of Bergen. 
Supervisors: Per Backlund, Associate Professor in computer science, University of Skövde; Henrik Engström, PhD, University of Skövde; Anna-Sofia Alklind Taylor, PhD, University of Skövde.
The thesis is available at: http://his.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A891745&dswid=3604

Björn Berg Marklund

Björn Berg Marklund

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Unpacking Digital Game-Based Learning. The complexities of developing and using educational games.

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