Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Rising Tide of Games in Education

This blog post was inspired by Karl Royle and Scott Colfer’s comprehensive and very accessible paper on Computer Games and Learning which I revisited in the wake of a depressingly pointless Panorama programme on games addiction.

Whilst reading the report, I was reminded many times of the aphorism "There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come" (which tells me was coined by Victor Hugo) – the overwhelming sense the paper leaves you with is that no matter the direction set by the UK’s current administration, games based learning is irresistibly inching up the beach-head of mainsteam education.

“The Secretary of State for Education may be exposed as a modern day Cnut (not a typo), wagging a finger at a relentlessly rising tide.”

If you are questioning why games should play a role in the UK’s schools, I recommend a quick read of pp13-14, which set out the case admirably, linking a range of vital C21st skills and behaviours (all desirable in the nation’s youth) to the affordances of GBL. Why wouldn’t we want to make use of engaging tools which will help develop a future society of lateral thinking, creative, resilient team players?

The main reason for optimism about the rise of gaming in education is the extent to which our culture is now saturated with games playing. The point that the lives of our children are informed constantly by computer games is well made; the report (p6) cites evidence that 99% of boys and 94% of girls are gamers. That’s more than attend school daily.

But more vitally, the spread of gaming beyond what some would snootily regard as an adolescent pass-time is also made clear; the average age of UK social game players is 43 (p7). Michael Gove was born in the summer of 1967, placing him front and centre of that demographic, but I am not anticipating the imminent integration of Farmville into the English Baccalaureate.

The way games are accessed is also changing dramatically. I remember well the disappointment I felt at not being remotely able to afford the BBC Micro required to play Elite in 1985, when gaming was pretty much the preserve of the technology-rich. The revolution in gaming platforms seen in the 90s (computers to consoles) is being repeated today, with 23% of gaming now done on phones. We’re probably only a year away from another dramatic jump in this figure, as smart phones become the standard and affordable handset of choice for all teenagers, as they already are for those who pay their own contracts.

Despite the undeniable ubiquity of gaming in modern life, this isn’t yet reflected in our schools, which in many other ways are a faithful macrocosm of society.

Royle and Colfer explain that “42% of teachers never play computer games for their own leisure” (p25), a significant barrier to adoption within schools. I’d suggest a couple of reasons for this disconnect; 1) they’re too busy 2) the demographic profile and social background of the average teacher (both obviously generalisations). This profile is changing gradually and the work of several high-profile GBL evangelists (e.g. Dawn Hallybone & Ollie Bray) within and outside the classroom is also helping to create momentum.

More importantly, a shift is needed in policy before GBL can achieve anything more than peripheral success: “to make these initiatives part of a wider engagement with the digital age, systemic change is required that aligns curriculum objectives and outcomes with the process and product skills engendered by engagement with digital culture” (p24). Basically, school should be about real life, not outdated notions from a mythical educational golden age (anyone for Latin?). I fear that this won’t alter in the lifetime of this Government. In fact, the current direction of change is backwards.

This must be understood by policy makers as a massive risk to the relevance of education offered by our schools. Royle and Colfer explain this adroitly; “When ten year olds can play a computer game that allows them to manage Barcelona Football club at an operating profit and make complex decisions on a regular basis it is unsurprising that learning in school leaves them disappointed and less engaged” (p27)

The Secretary of State for Education will no doubt continue to cite PISA data and demand a return to robust measures of success in core subjects, but this policy will inevitably expose him as a modern day Cnut (not a typo), wagging a finger at a relentlessly rising tide. Irresistible change is coming.

Dom Norrish
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