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Game-Based Learning

Category: Methodology

This time I've decided to write about something I know almost nothing about: Game-Based Learning (GBL). Of course I play games in class, TEFL classics like 20 Questions and Hangman, but what is this GBL I've been hearing about? Do students learn by playing computer games in class? I decided to find out, so I started by reading the main GBL guru: Marc Prensky.


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You can find some of his writings on his website, and scrolling down to 'Read Marc's Writing'. I must say it didn't leave me indifferent. He basically says the younger generation grew up with computers, or I should say playing computer games, so they enjoy a fluency with computers that their elders can never hope to match. Not only that, but their minds are 'wired' differently. They find traditional education a crushing bore and need constant stimulation, the kind video games provide.

These people can be called the 'N' (net) or 'D' (digital) generation, or as Prensky prefers, Digital Natives. In the U.S. they would be people from reasonably prosperous families born after 1965. Those born before then, or the poor, would be digital immigrants, that is they learned computers as a 'second language' and thus lack the 'fluency' of a 'native speaker'.

I should mention that Prensky's not into TEFL, but education in general. In fact, one of his big successes was when someone came up with a better CAD (Computer Aided Design) program, but it seemed that engineers were reluctant to go through the trouble of learning how to use it. So he came up with a computer game in which to progress through levels, you had to learn how to use the new program. The engineers took to it like ducks to water and soon mastered the program.

Prensky believes GBL is going to revolutionize teaching, and that through video games we can learn practically anything. He may be right, but I can't help being skeptical. There are different types of learners, and the engineers mentioned above are computer geeks par exellence. I'm not sure everyone would like to spend hours and hours sitting in front of a computer screen to learn English (assuming that can be done).

However, I do think Prensky is on to something. I'd say the key word here is 'blended learning' where we combine the traditional classroom with 'homework'. After school students play an educational video game and have to progress to a certain level; that is, learn vocabulary or something.

There really is no doubt that educational video games are an effective learning tool; they have some real advantages, for example, they're engaging. Students have the challenge of successfully completing the level or task or whatever. Students can achieve 'flow', they become immersed in the game. They can progress at their own pace: they can take as long as they want to complete a task without peer pressure. They get immediate feedback on their progress. They progress by a process of trial and error, which means they learn inductively; they figure things out for themselves, which means they'll probably remember it.

Here's an example of an educational video game for children.

Video on Pearson: Inspire Everyone

It looks like GBL might well be a game changer in the TEFL field, though I'm not sure it's going to be a revolution. I supose only time will tell. By the way, I'd like to thank an old friend of mine, Brian Engquist, for giving me ideas for this. He works for Pearson ELT and regularly gives seminars on GBL.

In fact, he has generously offered to answer a few questions. So let's see what he has to say.

David: Brian, what kind of future do you see for GBL? Is it being successfully implemented in the TEFL classroom?

Brian: As you've already pointed out, Pearson is already using a GBL approach in our new YL course, Islands. And this is just the beginning. It's not just because everything is going increasingly digital, but because younger generations - and I'm not just talking about kids here, but teachers as well - have grown up using these technologies. So they're not just comfortable with them – they EXPECT to use them. And, as in the case of video games, this new crowd actually understands what they are - learning scenarios.

The real question is WHERE to use them. For example, our video game for Islands is an on-line component, so that's being used outside of the classroom as a kind of blended learning solution - super fun homework on steroids if you will! But as we see tablets make their way into a digitally connected classroom, we might see possibilities to implement them more effectively within the actual physical space of the classroom.

David: Wow, video games as a learning scenario, video games in the classroom (at least at places that can afford it). Well, I decided to look into this, and my eyes have been opened. I find all this amazing. I know I'll be watching these developments closely.

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