Video Games in the Classroom: An Experiment Gone Right?

Do video games have the potential to aid learning? That is the question that the technology teacher in Oconomowoc  Area School District, in Wisconsin, is trying to answer by introducing his students to a game world called Quest Atlantis. It allows kids to participate in missions which make use of their knowledge of different academic subjects, and submit work to the almighty Council for approval. If approval is granted, the students get to progress to the next level of the game, or take on additional quests.

The district is considered a technological pioneer and has been experimenting with game-based learning models for several years. In addition, it is one of the only districts in the nation that offers up-to-date courses like game design in their high school curriculum.

At a time when rapid changes in technology, greater expectations for student achievement and tighter fiscal environments are challenging schools, the district is one example of how to rethink traditional models of education, the focus of a new series, “The Changing Classroom.”

Although a lot of teachers welcome the challenge, not all district’s efforts in that direction meet universal acclaim. Particularly controversial is its recent plan to reorganize its workforce for the coming year by reducing the number of teaching positions by 15 and offering bonuses of up to $14,000 to those who remain if they commit to taking on additional work.

Another initiative that more eagerly awaited is the launch of the new $800,000 fiber-network upgrade and the recently introduced “Bring Your Own Technology” pilot program being evaluated in several area middle and high schools.

A lot of the changes are the brainchild of the district’s instructional technology administrator Dani Herro. The poplar game design class, for example, was a product of Herro’s partnership with district’s technology teachers. Next year will see Herro take on a faculty position at the School of Education at Clemson University where she will be overseeing the rollout of the advanced level of the games course.

Herro was also the one who brought Quest Atlantis to the district after he heard the game mentioned at an education conference.

Now at Arizona State University, the game is poised to get more attention thanks to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has given $2.6 million to support the development of Quest Atlantis Remixed.

That more sophisticated version will incorporate national Common Core State Standards, academic benchmarks that have been adopted by most states, including Wisconsin.

Still, some remain weary of the touted benefits of video games. School principals in New Zealand recently issued a statement saying that excessive gaming actually lead to bad academic outcomes, while the supposed educational benefits are either insignificant or entirely ephemeral.

[Secondary Principals' Association President Patrick] Walsh is concerned that parents tend to overestimate the positive impact of gaming on their kids, and cast doubt on the assertion that they have any educational benefit at all. Instead of being seduced by the labels on the box promising improved academic outcomes, parents should be wary and limit gaming time until they can be sure that their kids grades aren’t being adversely effected.