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Virtually a New Way of Learning: Video and Simulations as Teaching Tools [Available Full-Text, Free]

By Len Annetta - Posted Nov 1, 2007
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When they get home from school, children eagerly devour new information and concepts through the virtual environments of video games. In what I call a stealth-learning environment, children develop skills that connect and manipulate information in the virtual worlds of video games without really knowing that they’re learning. Rather than fight what children obviously enjoy and what is natural for them, the enticement of video games can be used to enhance K–12 education.

As an educator in the 21st century, it’s not hard to see that children today operate differently than they did 10 years ago. When referring to their students, teachers have told me, "They are not doing the things we used to do when we were young" and "All they do is play video games when they go home." But in recent years, educators have gravitated toward the notion of integrating these technologies—once thought of as idle play—into their teaching repertoire.

With end-of-grade, back-to-basics, multiple-choice testing for the masses and mechanical instruction methods, there’s growing concern that children are not learning to problem solve as much as they are mastering memorization of isolated facts in order to answer test questions. Yet, when they get home from school, children eagerly devour new information and concepts through the virtual environments of video games. In what I call a stealth-learning environment, children develop skills that connect and manipulate information in the virtual worlds of video games without really knowing that they’re learning.
Rather than fight what children obviously enjoy and what is natural for them, the enticement of video games can be used to enhance K–12 education. While some promote video games as a replacement for traditional teaching, we at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University (NCSU) encourage video games as a supplement to normal instruction. We are introducing virtual-learning environments to schools through IGNITE (Innovative Gaming Networks In Teacher Education), a synchronous, online graduate course1 and through HI FIVES (Highly Interactive Fun Internet Virtual Environments in Science2).

IGNITE uses the Active Worlds Educational Universe as a platform on which graduate students anywhere in the world can enroll in a class to learn about video-game design and ultimately construct an educational mission that can be used with their students. IGNITE sets the standard for not only the ability to create simple, role-playing, problem-based scenarios, but also allows for a virtual meeting place where meetings and classes can occur in real time over the Internet. Through the IGNITE course, the graduate students learn to create activities in which teams are formed and the roles of characters are assumed. Those teams then learn to explore a virtual world while collaborating to solve challenges. This approach takes problem-based learning and brings it to life.

For example, one game (Who Murdered the Pharaoh?) challenges students to combine analytical skills with biological concepts to solve the murder of an Egyptian pharaoh. The players must find the pharaoh’s tomb and analyze the shroud of the mummified corpse. Upon discovering ancient blood samples, students can analyze the DNA and test the results against possible suspects to find the pharaoh’s murderer. As today’s games align closely with customary entertainment (i.e., movies and television), we find that the genre of entertainment marketed to teens needs to be the plot of K–12 game design. In Who Murdered the Pharaoh? the popularity of the CSI television shows, science fiction, and psychological thrillers are storylines that tend to engage this population.

HI FIVES is currently in the second year of a 4-year project to not only explore the use of virtual game environments to enhance K–12 learning but also to enable teachers and students to design and evaluate educational video games. Using an interface wrapped around the source code for the popular game Half-Life 2, we’ve created a platform where teachers and students can choose from about 15 different maps (i.e., the settings for the game, such as the desert, tundra, and moon) and then use drag-and-drop tools to develop their own games without actually having to write computer code. Although commercial video games cost millions and take years to develop, we have simplified the process so that users don’t need to have programming or 3-D art experience. Instead, they can simply "look under the hood" to see how it all works. After all, who better to design a game that precisely fits the lesson plan than the teacher? These games align with the state science and mathematics curriculum objectives set forth by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

To date, more than 60 North Carolina teachers have completed training at NCSU and have created games for their students. This past summer the original 13 teachers brought in students to give their input to make the games more engaging and fun. In addition, 50 new teachers have joined HI FIVES to learn the game-design process through a cascading leadership model in which the original 13 teachers mentor the next 50 teachers. Many of those teachers and students come from North Carolina’s Lee County, a rural, impoverished, underperforming area, according to the No Child Left Behind Act criteria.

Going one step further, the teachers can use the same technology to have their students develop games. Our goal is to put the development platform into the hands of the students. This way, instead of assigning a research paper, for example, a teacher will have students create games to teach other students. Sometimes the best way to learn content is to teach it. By creating games, students are immersed in an environment they are accustomed to, and this establishes a potentially new form of performance assessment.

Teacher-Designed Game Examples

The HI FIVES teachers are challenged to create games on topics that have been historically difficult to teach and/or difficult for their students to learn. One teacher designed a game titled Modeling in Chemistry: The Development of Atomic Theory. This interactive quiz format allows a student to navigate the gaming ­environment and prevent the evil "Dr. Atomic" from forever scrambling time and destroying the underlying atomic structure of everything in the world. Successful navigation of the game requires knowledge of key figures in the historical development of atomic theory, such as Democritus, Dalton, Thomson, Rutherford, Bohr, and Schrodinger.

The "time-travel" aspect of Modeling in Chemistry emphasizes the contributions of the individuals as well as the proper ordering of the sequence of atomic theory development. Successful navigation of the game also requires the application of fundamental concepts that are the underlying foundation of current atomic theory (i.e., atomic number, mass number, atomic mass, chemical symbols, and isotopes). Facility with the language of atomic theory—essential in the study of the physical sciences—is the key to defeating the evil Dr. Atomic.

My work in this area has led me to better understand how today’s children cognitively operate. In a virtual space, children like to explore many rooms or buildings, they like to be rewarded early and often for completed tasks, and they like to destroy their environment. We believe that in creating these video games, you give your students the opportunity to visit places or environments they’ve never been and would otherwise never explore. Also, these environments allow students to do things they either cannot or should not do in the real world.

In another game for Algebra I students, Levels of Destruction, students must answer questions to show that they understand basic algebraic concepts before moving on through the game. The stealth learning happens when the student answers those questions while climbing, jumping, running, and navigating in mid-air to reach different levels of power. Once power has been obtained, the destruction begins. Walls, floors, and entire buildings come crumbling down with each level of power attained. Everything must be brought down so that it can be rebuilt again!

Gaming Transforms Education

Outside of school, children today are masters of multitasking through technologies such as instant messaging, mobile phones, digital music devices, and video games. These technologies are similar to those used in professional careers, but the content is different; children interact with entertainment-based content. Imagine the enthusiasm students would have if they could use those same technologies in situations that included educational content. Learning today is different from the learning that took place when today’s teachers and parents were in school, and a lot of that has to do with technological advancements. For various reasons, though, our K–12 schools have been unplugging the children from technology when they are in the classroom. Fortunately, that is gradually changing.

Today’s video games have rich storylines that involve seeking out and using information. The HI FIVES game platform allows teachers and students to create games that keep children interested and that teaches them valuable career and life skills. Moreover, the game-design process is cross-curricular. Regardless of the backstory content, elements of language arts, fine art, engineering, and, in some cases, foreign language need to be embedded along with inquiry, research, and problem-solving skills.

Having a computer in the classroom is often not enough. A decade ago, the teacher was the sole source of information that a student needed to succeed in class. However, today’s students seek information instantaneously through their favorite search engine. The ubiquity of technology has encroached on information acquisition from anywhere at any time, making it essential that we engage students by any means necessary in this new, virtual way of teaching—and, ultimately, this new way of learning.



2. ‑This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0525115. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Len Annetta , Ph.D., is the lead principal investigator of the IGNITE and HI FIVES programs, in partnership with the Friday Institute (, and is assistant professor of ­science ­education at North Carolina State University. The ­Friday Institute, a research and outreach arm of the ­College of Education at NCSU, is dedicated to transforming education through innovation in teaching, learning, and leadership to meet the demands of the 21st century. Contact Len at

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