Gaming: is there a place for it in education?

November 2017


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Do Minecraft and Roblox really help kids to learn? JODY HOPKINSON looks at whether computer games have a place in Kiwi classrooms. 

Digital New Zealand 2018 studied 807 New Zealand households and 2,288 individuals, revealing that games play a fundamental role in how we learn. More than half – 59 per cent – of parents reported that their children have used video games for curriculum learning activities, compared with 38 per cent in 2016. Seven out of 10 parents believe games can be effective for teaching students. 

“We have also seen a significant uptake of games in schools and the workplace. Games play a fundamental role in how we connect, stay healthy, and learn,” said lead author of the report and Professor of Communication and Media at Bond University Dr Jeff Brand.

Just a few years ago, coding classes were the domain of just the techy kids. However, the latest research shows us that technology and gaming in particular is now an integral part of our day to day lives, says Brand.

“This research gives us the data to support the anecdotes that we hear every day. The medium has been accepted and normalised. Moreover, because they’re so engaging and enjoyable, we’re seeing games move to serve uses beyond entertainment in education, health and business training. That’s where the medium gets really exciting.”     

Digital New Zealand 2018 is the fifth study in a series of national research that began in 2009. The report, which is based on national random sample, looks at the demographics of Kiwis who play games, play habits, behaviours and attitudes. 

Brand points to a worrying statistic that girls are playing 60 minutes a day and boys 110 minutes.

“This is, we think, because we are socialised to be more tolerant of boys gaming. This can be to the detriment of girls who may fall behind in such a digitalised age.

Conversely, the study shows that boys are much more likely to play games that are popular but not as educational.

“We need to encourage boys away from playing games that are fashionable like car racing games and encourage them towards playing games with a purpose which is what girls do. The girls play games which require a lot more reading, have a lot more text. This is worrying when we know boys are behind girls in reading and comprehension.”

Digital teacher at Arataki Primary School in Mount Maunganui Terry Jones uses the likes of Minecraft and Roblox in his classroom a lot.

“It teaches real-life problem solving. It teaches you how to fail then get on and try again. It allows a back and forth in communication between the children. You can be teaching measurements in hard copy then go online and make the measurements fit in the digital setting. Using games in the class needs to be done properly though – teachers need to have a real understanding of what they want to achieve with the games, not just throw the games at them.”

Even the issue of safety online – often viewed as the downside of our increasingly digital world – can be turned into a learning experience, says Jones.

“I talk to them about ethics. To the girls about – a music miming site, I tell them to make their account private and only friend people you know. As a class we talk about a poop emoji and how it can mean nothing to one person, but something completely different to another.”

Gaming can be a real way for parents to engage with their children’s learning, says Brand.

“When I hear of parents who don’t game with their kids I think it’s a tragedy; it’s a missed opportunity. Children and parents only have this very small window of engagement with each other.

“If their children express an interest in that book I would like to think the parents would read it with them. The same goes for technology. A great way to connect with children is to show an interest in the child’s gaming life and say, tell me more about this – show me how to play it.”

Christchurch-based parent Peter Rutherford and his partner allow their two boys, aged nine and 11, just one hour a week on the iPad or computer.

“For us, time on technology is given as a treat not as an expectation.”

When the boys do play, Rutherford says they aim to make it an active engagement rather than a passive experience like watching TV.

“They read books written by old hands of Minecraft, which helps develop their online skills. This relates to the Vgotsky theory of learning, which is when a child is shown how to do something, then is guided while doing it and then has learnt how to do it.”

Gaming prepares kids for life, says Jones.

“We no longer need skills for the jobs from the industrial age. Gaming helps children to problem solve, to communicate with one another, to take real-life examples, apply them in the digital sphere, then reapply them to real life. For me, using gaming in the classroom also means having a good time in class. And that’s what learning is.”

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