As game-based learning gains momentum in education circles, teachers increasingly want substantive proof that games are helpful for learning. The game-makers at the non-profit GlassLab are hoping to do this with the popular video game SimCity.
GlassLab is working with commercial game companies, assessment experts, and those versed in digital classrooms to build SimCityEDU, a downloadable game designed for sixth graders. Scheduled to be be released in the fall of 2013, it builds on SimCity’s city management theme, but provides specific challenges to players in the subject of STEM.
“The big pain point we’ve heard from teachers is that they cannot entertain their kids to the level that they are being entertained outside of the classroom,” said Jessica Lindl, general manager of GlassLab. “They want to be able to create meaningful learning experiences and they just can’t compete with the digital tools their kids are accessing all the time.”
Teachers have been using the commercial version of SimCity as a classroom tool for a long time, but with the newest version recently released and the EDU version soon to follow, GlassLab is trying to convene an online community of educators already working in the space, asking them to think creatively about what the game could do, offering lesson plans, and helping teachers to collaborate and share ideas.
SimCityEDU grew out of research conducted by the MacArthur foundation on how gaming can mirror formative assessments [PDF] – measuring understanding regularly along the learning path, rather than occasionally or at the end of a unit, as is most common. Their research found that games gather data about the player as he or she makes choices within the game, affecting the outcome. In games, players “level-up,” moving on to higher levels when they’ve mastered the necessary skills; similarly teachers scaffold lessons to deepen understanding as a student grasps the easier concepts.
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SimCityEDU, funded by the Gates and Macarthur foundations, will provide assessments that are aligned with Common Core State Standards. The EDU version uses the same code as the commercial game, but with the addition of using students’ choices during challenges as a method of assessment. GlassLab is still working to develop all the challenges based on focus-group feedback on student interests, but the one challenge they know they’ll include focuses on the environment, based on positive feedback from the focus groups.
“These kids are fascinated by the environment,” Lindl said.
Students will be asked to conduct interviews and look at research to determine what kind of power plant to build in the town. As they play, taking photo documentation, interpreting the information they’ve gathered, drawing conclusions, graphing the data and finally making a decision, the game assesses each choice. Teachers will have a tool to see how each child’s play matches up against Common Core standards.
And game developers hope that the incremental data will help teachers know when to step in and offer more help. For example, if an interview contradicts scientific evidence, the student will have to discern bias, figure out how to weight the various pieces of evidence differently, and back up conclusions with data and text.
SimCityEDU will not go to market until third-party assessor, SRI International, has validated by testing students who’ve played the game using a completely different assessment tool to ensure the game works.
FOCUSED LEARNING VS. EXPLORATION
GlassLab plans to offer the downloadable game at little to no cost for schools and teachers, Lindl said. However, the clear narrative and objectives within SimCityEDU depart from other commercial games that have been appropriated by teachers — like Minecraft. That game offers a free-form experience that teachers can easily manipulate to serve their lessons, a quality many teachers like.
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“We want teachers to be able to choose between a free exploration or something more focused,” Lindl said. But there’s a catch. If educators want to use the broader SimCity world for free-form exploration they’ll have to buy the commercial license – a cost of about $60. Getting both the focused and free-form experience could cost more than many educators are willing to pay.
Not all education experts agree that assessment should be built into games. “The game should be a place of play and experimentation,” said Henry Jenkins, a USC professor on the forefront of game-based learning. “Meta-gaming is where the learning could be without disrupting the ecology of the game.” The “meta-game” is the world outside the game often composed of fans who discuss what they are making in the game with one another, write fan fiction and in other ways continue to create material even when not playing.