The instructional technology coordinator for Pender City Schools, Lucas Gillispie, might not look like anyone’s idea of a ninja, but that is how he describes himself. But rather than doing battle in a black mask and nunchucks, his tools are video games — and his goal is to use them to make students learn while they don’t even know they’re learning.
Four years ago, Gillispie took for a model successful games like Word of Warcraft and Minecraft and used them to create lesson plans that had a heavy video game component. Since then, student achievement has improved, but even more importantly, so has his students’ enthusiasm for learning and for coming to school.
It might seem funny to use technology that has long had the reputation for wasting children’s time rather than helping them improve, but Pender isn’t the only district in North Carolina to flip the script. Video game components now make up curriculum in subjects like mathematics, science, literature and geography, while at the same time harnessing enthusiasm that kids used to save for afterschool when they could race home and plop themselves down in front of a TV and a gaming console.
Gillispie, who has always been a self-described gaming geek, started thinking about video game curriculum when he was in an instructional technology masters program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He could envision the benefits of teaching students how to navigate something “very complex, very complicated, with a lot of problem solving” – like a video game, he said.
In their classes, the students are using the same games they used to play outside school hours, but now they’re analyzing the games’ storylines, writing reviews of gaming products and bringing North Carolina architecture to life with one of the world’s most popular virtual modeling tools: the game called Minecraft. Gillispie said that even he was surprised by how well kids took to the experiment. Many are so excited, they are happy to cut short their recces for an extra bit of time in the media lab, where the game hardware and software is set up.
Other districts in North Carolina have taken notice of Pender’s success. Similar programs are now being tried at Myrtle Grove Middle School, where Wii and Xbox games have been seeing some limited usage in math classes.
Jennifer LaGarde, the librarian at Myrtle Grove, who supervises the program, said that even after one year, the benefits of “gamification” are obvious.
They’ve already had the same success, LaGarde said, something she attributes to the nontraditional learning method that video games cultivate. Students can get immediate feedback from a video game, and whether that feedback indicates success or failure, it means something.
“If you get 59 percent on a test, you have failed. You start back from square one,” LaGarde said. “In a game, if you get 59 percent, that means I got 59 percent of that level right, and I start back at 60.”