Gaming in Education

Not Just Fun and Games

Wisconsin's Saint Norbert College uses video games in the classroom to correlate gaming behaviors with learning behaviors.

When Paul Waelchli hears media hype over a new video game release, his first thought is not about how much fun it will be to play. Instead, this information literacy and instruction librarian at De Pere, WI-based Saint Norbert College, said his brain starts clicking over how the new technology will help the institution's 2,100 students adopt effective study habits and academic behaviors.

Most recently it was the Mass Effect series that caught Waelchli's eye. Using both the console and the PC versions of the action role-playing game, he's been able to engage students in a way that was unheard of just 10 years ago. "With Mass Effect, there are a lot of choices to be made as you work your way through the game," said Waelchli. "Based on those decisions, certain paths open up; new pieces of the story are constructed; and rewards are distributed."

Waelchli, who is co-book review editor for the International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, helps students make the connection between that game play and their academic lives. He said playing the games allows students to dig down into the layers of information being put in front of them while playing, and in "real life," where students regularly partake in exercises like determining the reliability of scholarly journals and Web sites.

In his current position at Saint Norbert for about 18 months, Waelchli said he brought the strategy over with him from his former job at the University of Dubuque in Iowa. There, he said, information literacy was taught via 300-plus sessions annually for students, who started to show signs of "information burnout" as a result of repetitive content being taught.

"We were looking for ways to reduce the repetition and make the content more meaningful for the students," said Waelchli, who upon reading What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, by James Paul Gee, figured the answer might lie in a combination of pedagogy and game-play.

"We started designing lessons to incorporate the electronic games as well as the strategies included in those games," said Waelchli. By focusing on group activities and interaction, he said, the university was able not only to utilize the games as learning tools, but also "play off of students' experiences with those games" and parlay that knowledge into more effective instruction.

When selecting games that will "fit" best with his strategies, Waelchli said he's tested a wide range of options--from the extremely rudimentary to the violent. Grand Theft Auto, for example, has been useful for critical thinking and problem solving, while sports-based games typically include complex issues like franchise management and data construction.

Using a dedicated classroom space, Waelchli has set up an instructional lab that includes screen-sharing software installed on desktop computers. "This allows for collaborative learning and discussion among students," said Waelchli, whose goal is not to get video games into every classroom at Saint Norbert College. "Video games and strategies are just tools in teaching information literacy, [which also requires] one-on-one help, classroom settings, tutorials, and workshops."

To illustrate the usefulness of video games in the classroom, Waelchli pointed to author James Paul Gee's "insider principle" concept, in which the student is an "insider" or "teacher," and not just a consumer. Waelchli put that idea into practice recently by helping a professor develop a lesson on American Psychological Association (APA) citations.

Students taking the lesson developed groups and worked is a competitive format to find incorrect APA citations. "They were motivated to create content, and in doing so not only understood APA basics, but also the more obscure details in order to be able to explain their citation errors," said Waelchli. "The exercise worked really well."

When it comes to convincing faculty of the video game's place in the classroom, Waelchli said, "some are very interested, some are skeptical." His cause has been helped along with the proliferation of technology in the classroom over the last couple of years. Also working in Waelchli's favor is his instructional approach to the concept. "We're not just applying technology or pop culture for the sake of applying it," he said.

Waelchli also spreads the good word via the school's Web site, which last month featured a Chronicle of Higher Education article on gaming and technology on campus, including five "teaching tips" targeted at professors. When pitching the idea to teachers, Waelchli said, he's careful to point out that not every class will match up perfectly to every video game.

"You can't really shoehorn games--or any other type of technology--into classrooms where there's no connection," said Waelchli. "If it's not going to produce results, then there's no sense in using it."

Looking ahead, Waelchli said he expects video games and higher education to become more closely intertwined, based on the results he's seen so far. "Games work well as [academic tools] because players are engaged in them, and invested in their own outcomes," said Waelchli. "They can see the rewards, and they know that their time is well spent."

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