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April 2007

A serious way to fight student boredom: Video games

Beverly Davenport Sypher
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By Beverly Davenport Sypher

Do you worry about your child spending too much time playing video games?        

You could have less of a reason for concern than you think because the skills they develop are preparing them for the work force of the 21st century, according to Marc Prensky, author, speaker and educational games inventor who will give a public lecture on Purdue's campus April 16 entitled, "Education and Learning in the 21st Century:  Engaging Today's Digital Learner". 

As Prensky points out, technology is embedded in every aspect of how today's youth live - from cell phones to iPods, instant messaging, and video games. He, along with The Federation of American Scientists, have recently challenged educators to harness the power of digital media to reach today's learners.

Technology enriched learning environments may help address the boredom among high school students documeneted in the Indiana University study recently highlighted in area newspapers and discussed in letters to the editor. We have every reason to be concerned that two-thirds of them are bored in the classroom and that 22 percent have considered dropping out.  When you consider that this same group is spending an average of 22 hours a week playing video games, it is not difficult to understand why some students have little interest in the typical classroom learning environment, but so much interest in digital technologies. 

Pens, paper and classroom lecterns may always be part of the classroom. But, to reach today's students, we must get creative.  One way could be through meeting them where they live: immersed in technology.  Purdue's Discovery Learning Center is committed to supporting research and development of new learning technologies that enhance students' interest and ability in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Included in the Discovery Learning Center's focus area is the concept of serious games. 

Serious games embed learning in interactive video games. They are an educational tool that you are likely to hear more about in the future if you have not already.  Serious games have the potential to harness the power of digital media to engage a generation of learners that are defined by technology. They are already being used by the military to simulate battle conditions and by industry to train workers.

Two Purdue professors, Gabriela Weaver in Chemistry, and Carlos Morales in computer graphics technology, have collaborated on a  chemistry video game that helps explain global warming.  In the game, the main character battles forces trying to destroy the Earth through the release of carbon dioxide.  The character must travel through a series of seven rooms and fight off aliens with tools that rely on chemical principles Each room has its own set of challenges, and the player must figure out a way to exit the room by destroying a nuclear reactor.

In another serious game initiative, The Discovery Learning Center has recently launched a Games to Teach competition to support the development of a serious games based course for Purdue credit. We have received proposals from aerospace engineering, computer science, botany, and computer graphics among others

Serious games provide a new kind of learning space that builds on our understanding of today's learners.Taking advantage of innovation and "option rich" learning environments can increase interest in difficult topics, and could incorporate a paradigm of learning focused more on understanding and discovery than traditional methods of memorization and recall

Researchers focused on the future of learning envision interactive, technology rich learning environments where traditional classrooms are augmented by virtual environments that could potentially enhance access to information, instrumentation and fellow students in remote locations. More and more, learning environments are less confined to space and time. Schools that do not or can not offer particular classes can collaborate to establish a virtual classroom, where students could learn about a subject that otherwise would not be available to them. Through these cyberinfrastructure enabled learning environments, students can experience high end visualizations, animations, simulations and virtual realities similar to what they see and experience in video games

Of course, the classroom of the future will not be devoid of books or teachers.  Literacy is a continuing concern for pre-school and elementary educators as well as employers and university professors.Inspiring and well trained teachers have never been more important. New technologies, however, could augment existing programs and curricula and reinforce classroom instruction    

The digital generation is what some have called "technology hungry."  We can, as Prensky warns, "engage them or enrage them" These students are digitally competent, socially networked, and plugged into an over stimulated, technological world. We need to look for new strategies to enhance learning and try to prevent bored high school students from "powering down" when they go to school, says Prensky.

Purdue's Discovery Learning Center is supporting research that addresses the wide variety of technologies available to educators to reinvent the learning experience. Serious games are one of those examples We cannot simply ignore that they exist and disregard the profound impact they have on (and the space they fill in) student's lives.

Serious games can be a powerful educational tool that may augment a teacher's collection of strategies for inspiring and enhancing learning in their classrooms. Through interaction and engagement with technology-enabled environments, we can harness the power of digital medial for learning.

Beverly Davenport Sypher is interim director of the Discovery Learning Center, associate provost and a professor of communication

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