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Video Games and the Changing Face of Online Learning

Moses Wolfenstein, Research Director, ADL Co-Laboratory, UW Extension

If you take an online course with one of the University of Wisconsin campuses, you may be asked to access course readings and possibly videos or podcasts online, post to a class web forum, or take a quiz or a test online. All of these uses of digital technology have made the distance learning experience more interactive and more powerful than it was a decade ago. However, these types of experiences are just the beginning in terms of what we can expect from online learning in the coming years. The rise of digital innovations like social networking sites and mobile computing devices (like the iPhone and Android phones), and the explosion of the video games market, all point to future developments that will transform not only online learning but learning on campus as well.

If I lost you in that last sentence with the part about video games, it's understandable. After all, if you use social network sites like Facebook, you're already familiar with the ways in which these sorts of tools make it easier than ever to interact with friends in real time, share content you find on the web, and more. It's not much of a jump to see how a similar set of tools could make online learning more immersive. Similarly, if you own a smartphone or tablet, you've probably already seen how these devices can give you access to different kinds of content anytime and anyplace (so long as your network provider has good service in that location).

Video games, on the other hand, are traditionally an entertainment technology. Whether you're getting your daily clicks in on a game like Zynga's Farmville, shuffling gems around in a casual game like Bejeweled, or playing a competitive shooter online like Halo, the last thing you're probably thinking is, "Oh hey, this kind of technology would be great for education!"; However, that's exactly the thought that occurred to former UW-Madison professor James Paul Gee when he first played a video game with his son Sam roughly ten years ago.

Through that experience, Gee saw how games work as powerful learning tools that support the player in learning how to play the game. Following this first experiences with video games, Gee founded the research group at UW-Madison that has become the Games, Learning, & Society group. Subsequently, UW faculty in Madison and across System have worked with scholars across the nation and around the world to advance  research investigating how learning takes place in games, and how games and game-like technologies can be used to advance learning in schools. The result is that we are now beginning to see the introduction of games and game-like experiences into the structures of learning, from kindergarten all the way through higher education.

Of course, games like Oregon Trail have been in elementary schools as a peripheral activity since the mid-1980s. However, with the new wave of educational game development, we've begun to see games taking center stage in some educational experiences. For example, a management simulation game like Virtual U provides students with an opportunity to learn about managing a college or university by actually practicing in the game instead of just reading about it. The use of games and simulations like CliniSpace and SimCode ACLS has also been growing fast in programs that train healthcare professionals. While games aren't about to replace other more traditional learning resources, they can serve as powerful learning tools for teaching the kinds of things that books and lectures aren't particularly good at. Many of the games in the current wave of educational software give learners the opportunity to understand complex ideas that are difficult to describe in text. Instead, these games let learners play around inside sophisticated software simulations, allowing them to experience the consequences of decisions like those they will eventually have to make as professionals. While games aren't necessarily a good fit for all types of learning, you can definitely expect to see more games and game-like tools in both online and traditional classroom settings as we get better and better at making different games to fit different learning needs.