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Games: A Textbook for Digital Best Practices

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Written with Alan Gershenfeld, Founder and President of E-Line Media

The White House recently announced two major initiatives in learning and technology -- these "digital seed capital" efforts are "down-payments" to jumpstart innovation and break a two decade long cycle of snail-like reform. The first is a digital textbook initiative; the second is a new games and learning effort.

There is an important link between these two developments: in the migration from paper-based 20th century textbooks to 21st century digital "textbooks" there is a great deal the education sector can learn from the game industry. While at first glance this might seem like an odd connection, we believe that there is a unique alignment between the core elements that make video games deeply engaging and the potential for new, research-based, digital textbooks that are adaptive, relevant, engaging and capital efficient.

Education leaders can look to lessons of other key industries -- a list as diverse as music, health care and politics -- for guideposts on navigating the transition to digital, network-based solutions. Simply attempting to use old approaches to defend new, emerging markets have consistently left market leaders vulnerable to being usurped by more agile, innovative organizations that leveraged the power of the internet, digital technology and culture.

The game industry certainly understands how to engage youth with digital media. Well-designed game-based-learning platforms might help address many of the challenges facing education in the 21st century, including:

The Engagement Challenge -- According to Child Trends, as many as one in five minority youths are dropping out of school; this number reaches nearly 50 percent in certain urban and rural communities. Meanwhile, video games are played, according to recent industry research, by more than 90 percent of school-age children. Quality game design can make education more relevant by enabling players to step into different roles, confront a problem, make meaningful choices and explore the consequences of these choices. Teachers are also increasingly confronted with large classrooms widely divergent capabilities. Games let players take on different challenges, fail in a safe environment and, ultimately, succeed and 'level up' at their own pace.

The Literacy Challenge -- Foundational literacy skills such as reading are completely stagnant among low-income and minority students. Tragically, only one in six African-American 4th graders is proficient in reading, according to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress; time has run out on the 20th-century approach to this wholly preventable national disgrace. STEM learning can grow from games before formal learning begins.

New evidence from the U.S. Department of Education's Ready to Learn program and from the Success for All Foundation show significant gains in literacy skills that can be facilitated by embedded and interactive media, like games. Trans-media properties such as Sesame Street can now be delivered in multiple digital formats anytime, anywhere to promote literacy and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) learning "right from the start."

The Job/Skills Challenge -- According to recent international comparison data, U.S. students are falling further behind other industrialized countries in everything from math (25th place) and science scores (17th) to the proportion of young people with college degrees (12th). The challenges our young people now face in a digitally driven global landscape require a new set of skills. Games help players to master 21st century skills such as problem solving, systems thinking, planning and execution, and creativity and collaboration. Given that many of the jobs that will emerge in the 21st century have not yet been invented, the portable skills fostered by games are particularly important.

Although there is great potential in game-based learning, there is also a significant gap between the promise of game-based-learning and the current reality. This gap is especially evident in transforming games from effective research trials into financially sustainable products that can reach and impact students at scale.

To help close this gap, E-Line Media and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center have launched two major initiatives; the National STEM Video Game Challenge and the Games and Learning Publishing Council.

The National STEM Video Game Challenge was launched in 2010 at the White House in partnership with the Entertainment Software Association and AMD Foundation to motivate America's youth by tapping into students' natural passion for playing and making video games. Together with our partners who include industry leaders in technology and gaming, as well as major philanthropies and foundations we have the potential to reach millions young people, many of whom have had inadequate exposure to engaging STEM initiatives and 21st-century skills, and nearly all of whom are active gamers. We were particularly pleased to see that two of the winners of last year's National STEM Video Game Challenge were invited to participate in the recent annual White House Science Fair.

The Games and Learning Publishing Council, launched with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the John L. and James S. Knight Foundation, is a new resource for business-market analysis, case studies of effective models, and a national survey of teachers to understand market dynamics, practitioner perspectives, and areas of innovation that are ready for scaling up. The council will release its analyses this summer, along with research-based resources for researchers, entrepreneurs, practitioners, and funders.

The learning potential of video games has yet to be fully realized. Much work remains to use their distinctive qualities to personalize learning while aligning with educational standards. As digital textbooks emerge, policymakers and industry leaders may well look to the power of video games to help inform the design of rigorous, relevant, and capital efficient learning systems. Only then will every school level up, and every student have a fair shot to realize their promise.

Michael H. Levine is the Executive Director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Alan Gershenfeld is the Co-Founder and President of E-Line Media and former SVP of Activision Studios.