Let’s Get Digital: The Serious Side of Gaming

Do you have a son or a daughter who is a college student and lives at home? If so, you’ve probably caught a glimpse of them playing something that looks like a video game on their computer. Before jumping to the conclusion that they are wasting their time playing games on your tuition dime, know that those games could be part of a curriculum.

Welcome to the brave new world of digital game-based learning (DGBL), with its bells, whistles, and metrics! If you haven’t heard of or don’t know much about DGBL, it’s time you learned more about it, because the next frontier for learning—and skill building—is moving toward serious gaming.

Making Learning Come Alive

If you’ve not stepped inside a classroom in some time, the classroom experience has come a long way since educators solely relied on a chalkboard and textbook to deliver instruction. Take a class today, and there’s a good chance that some portion of that class will be taught online. This type of instructional method is commonly referred to as blended learning. In a blended learning program, educators can avail themselves of an ever-growing arsenal of digital technology tools, like digital game-based learning (DGBL). Let’s take a closer look at this blended learning strategy.

“Basically, DGBL is an instructional method that facilitates knowledge transfer through an immersive experience with the unique ability to engage learners, provide dynamic assessment and feedback, and measure outcomes in a digital learning environment. These personalized learning journeys allow students to practice and apply concepts in real world situations,” explains an expert in education and technology.

DGBL shouldn’t be confused with gamification. You may be familiar with gamification in business, such as Mint.com for financial planning; social media, such as Doritos Roulette Challenge; or sports, such as Nike+ FuelBand activity tracker. While both DGBL and gamification are data-driven approaches used to engage and motivate users, these techniques are distinct from each other.

Gamification refers to “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts,” as described in a paper titled “Gamification: Toward a Definition.” This means that elements of games, such as progress mechanics (for example, points, badges, and leaderboards), narrative, player control, instant feedback, and so on, are added to gamified applications, but those elements “do not rise to entire games,” nor do they emphasize play. In contrast to gamification, game-based learning is principally “all about the game and its cognitive residue (whether from the game’s content, or academic content),” according to the University of Miami Information Technology (UMIT) website.

Born to Be Digital

If you have a millennial son or daughter, you know only too well that they love anything associated with the word “digital.” Called “digital natives,” millennials grew up during the so-called new media age. They cut their teeth on interactive technologies, from video games to computers to smartphones. To put it in perspective, they don’t remember a time when push-button phones and Selectric typewriters were considered state-of-the-art technology.

Talk to any educator, and he or she will tell you that most millennials tend to prefer learning by doing. Game-based learning, often linked to experiential learning, offers a safe learning environment where students can practice concepts, theories, and ideas through trial and error. From an article titled “Game-Based Learning: What It Is, Why It Works, and Where It's Going”: “We make mistakes in a risk-free setting, and through experimentation, we actively learn and practice the right way to do things. This keeps us highly engaged in practicing behaviors and thought processes that we can easily transfer from the simulated environment to real life.”

Millennials aren’t alone in their desire for hands-on learning. Busy adult learners often seek opportunities to master skills at their own pace and thus tend to favor personalized learning. Because DGBL is rooted in personalization, it can be tailored to fit the personal development and learning needs of each learner. “There are more hands-on and practical application-based approaches to using games in education that could allow for more personalization of learning, self-directedness, and team or group learning,” as cited in a paper titled “New Territories in Adult Education: Game-Based Learning for Adult Learners.”

Digital Learning Makes the Grade

If you’ve ever played an edugame, you’ve probably acquired new knowledge and skills through interactions with the game—and had fun along the way. But how much of that fun translates into learning? Let’s turn to research data to find out.

Toolwire Inc., a digital courseware provider that has delivered more than 1 billion minutes of learning in the past five years, recently launched its Business Simulation Games in gateway post-secondary business courses and career and technical education (CTE) programs. The consensus among instructors and students about the effectiveness of these games was overwhelmingly positive. From a press release titled “Research Study on Simulations and Games for Education Breaks New Ground”: “Instructors (85%) and students (84%) believe that Toolwire simulations support deeper learning by providing students the opportunity to ‘learn by doing.’”

DGBL’s Future Looks Bright

Though DGBL has been around for some time, it’s just now gaining traction in higher education. “Despite all the positive work going on in DGBL, its adoption in higher education has not yet reached widespread status, although the future looks bright,” says George Lorenzo, a higher education writer, editor, and publisher, in his article titled “Digital Game-Based Learning in Higher Ed Moves Beyond the Hype.”

School districts and states are increasing their investments in digital teaching and learning programs. Take the state of North Carolina, which passed state legislation to back digital learning across all schools in the state. For instance, the North Carolina Digital Learning Plan establishes goals and recommendations “for State actions that will guide and support K-12 schools in their transitions to digital-age education.”

Nonprofit entities are also doing their part to speed up the development of digital learning tools. Consider the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. As quoted in a press release titled “Gates Foundation Announces Finalists for $20 Million Digital Courseware Investments”: “Since 2008, the foundation has invested more than $60 million to accelerate the development of great courseware and worked with faculty to advance our understanding about how to use it well in support of undergraduate education.”

Perhaps DGBL’s real value rests in its capacity to prepare learners to succeed in the 21st-century workplace. “Many DGBL experts now believe that the true power of digital games lies in their ability to promote these 21st-century skills through the learning strategies that digital games support and the unique way in which those strategies are synergized through gameplay,” says Richard Van Eck, associate dean for teaching and learning at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, in his article titled “Digital Game-Based Learning: Still Restless, After All These Years.”

So when you see your son or daughter holed up in a corner of the house, totally immersed in gameplay on their computer, they could be engaged in serious gaming with the goal of preparing for tomorrow’s workplace challenges. Now that’s something any parent can cheer about!

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