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Education Programming The Media News Games Technology

Learning By Playing 49

Posted by Soulskill
from the good-for-computers-bad-for-surgery dept.
theodp writes "This week's NY Times Magazine — a special issue on education and technology — is tailor-made for the Slashdot crowd. For the cover story, Sarah Corbett explores the games-and-education movement, which she notes is alive and well at Quest to Learn, a NYC middle-school that aims to make school nothing less than 'a big, delicious video game.' Elsewhere in the issue, Paul Boutin writes about Microsoft's efforts to inspire The 8-Year-Old Programmer with its Kodu Project, and Nicholas Carlson reports on Columbia University's efforts to mix journalism and hard-core computer science with its unique dual-degree master's in journalism and CS. There's also an accompanying timeline that nicely illustrates how learning machines have progressed from the Horn-Book to the iPad."
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Learning By Playing

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  • by Greyfox (87712) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @10:54AM (#33619908) Homepage Journal
    Educational games tend to be pretty pathetic, but if you do any crafting in MMOs you'll find that some basic math skills are a big help. I'm sure that if you put higher forms of math, navigation, economics and social politics into an MMO, its players would quickly pick up on these concepts. As they are now, I don't think it's a very efficient way to learn. If you also added some tools and some tutorials for those things into the game, you might be able to make the learning process more efficient. Hell, they put protein folding into a game and made it fun, so I'm sure it could be done.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Educational games tend to be pretty pathetic

      I happen to work for an educational video game company, www.bigbrainz.com and we feel that most companies rush out products to cover a ton of subjects. This approach isn't necessarily bad, but we've tried to focus on one thing, the times tables, and we do it well. The graphics in Timez Attack are amazing compared to other educational games and children really seem to love it. We also notice that when a child does well in one subject, in our case math, they tend to do better in other subjects. We hope to

      • by Alaren (682568) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @11:26AM (#33620086)

        If you don't mind commenting on this, what do the people at your company think of StarFall [starfall.com]?

        We started our daughter on StarFall when she was 4 years old. She would sit and play it with her 2-year-old brother, who surprised us one day by reading all of the flashcards we'd prepared for her--by sounding out the words. In terms of graphics, StarFall is about as simple as they come.

        Every child is different--my other son, now 3, does not yet read, though he does enjoy StarFall. But while your product looks interesting enough, watching the YouTube video made me immediately think--"This is basically a simplified 3D platformer-type game with math quizzes instead of block puzzles." And while I think children should have a variety of learning tools available to them, I'm not sure what I see there is a product any different than the cute but largely ineffective educational games of my youth: a game that is good but not great, by the standards of its day, with an educational component bolted on.

        Over the years, StarFall has gotten a lot more mainstream--I first heard about it from my sister, who homeschools her five children, but lately everyone seems aware of it. The comment from my son's teacher this year was, "Hard to believe this site is free."

        My thought was yes, very hard to believe, because I've yet to find an educational game I'd pay money for. While the one I'd pay money for without a second thought has extremely low production values but demonstrates an almost intuitively perfect grasp of childhood pedagogy. I don't want to harsh on your work or anything, it looks like a well-constructed project. But what I see in the video does not look like a game that integrates learning; it looks like a series of bribes between homework sessions.

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward

          But what I see in the video does not look like a game that integrates learning; it looks like a series of bribes between homework sessions.

          That's interesting that you say that. That is the exact thing we are trying to avoid. :) I remember when I first heard about this company and I looked at the website and the videos and I thought some of the same things you have said. Then I started to play the game and more importantly I watched children play the game and then I saw the value in the game. Many of the youtube videos on the site are there to give a quick overview of the game and show the different levels. If you go to the teacher page an

          • by Alaren (682568)

            Fair enough--I wonder, if you felt the same as I did about the video, perhaps it is time to change the video?

            Anyway, I will look into the free version as you suggest. My daughter is in third grade now and will be working on multiplication soon, so the timing is good.

            Do look into StarFall--obviously it's a little different than what you are doing as it's reading instead of math, but I think anyone in education-entertainment software should be familiar with the site.

            Thanks for taking the time to respon

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by severoon (536737)

            The problem with injecting math, social politics, etc, into games like MMOs is that the problems to be solved are "constructed"—that is, the lesson to be learned has to be presented as a specific obstacle to be overcome. The criteria to get the reward behind that obstacle has to be defined; essentially, there's right and wrong answers and the reward is not generally connected to the problem in an organic way.

            I'll use a simple example for illustrative purposes...remember Math Blaster? If you've ever pl

        • by MikeFM (12491)

          I've been disappointed with the availability and quality of toddler friendly games available for PC/Mac and the game consoles I have. I did find a downloadable Wii game called PooYoos (or something like that) recently that at least my daughter enjoyed but it wasn't highly educational. I haven't tried a lot of web based stuff but to me it makes sense it might be better because I've noticed iOS apps from small developers are better than any of these PC or console games for toddlers.

          I have been pleased with iO

      • Timez Attack looks amazing!

        I just downloaded the free version but I can't seem to play it because I'm not a student/didn't have a password. =(

        Am I doing something wrong? If I could try it out I'd probably recommend it for my cousins.
      • "We also notice that when a child does well in one subject, in our case math, they tend to do better in other subjects."

        No, shit, really? Students that do well in school tend to do well in school. Did you ever stop to think that they do well in math because they do well in school, and not that they do well in everything else because your software magically made them learn everything else really well?

        The problem I have with "educational" video games is that ideally they're just a wrapper for the core subje
    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      I'm sure that if you put higher forms of math, navigation, economics and social politics into an MMO, its players would quickly pick up on these concepts.

      I used to play Vega Strike (and probably will again) and my most hoped-for feature in the far future is a functional economy. The number of cargo ships needs to be related to the amount of goods needed, and the price of goods needs to be based on the supply and demand... Because otherwise it's just a pretty backdrop and the complexity is all illusory. Why even bother to have a trading system in a persistent game if there's no consequences to any actions? Just because it's important to the storyline?

      I don't

      • by Greyfox (87712)
        My gripe with the educational games is that they were always first and foremost geared to be educational. They weren't really games, they were just doing math or typing exercises on the computer.

        A variety of sim games (Railroad Tycoon being my favorite) strike a very good balance of mostly game but there also being plenty to accidentally learn along the way. Railroad Tycoon will teach you a LOT of geography, for example, along with some basic economic concepts.

        Eve is pretty much just an economics spread

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by huckamania (533052)

          My 5 year old has played just about every educational game you can think of. The best ones have a significant game portion that requires passing the educational parts. However, we aren't expecting the games to teach her anything, that's our job. If the games motivate her to learn, that's great. Her 2 favorite games have very little learning content, but even mastering those games requires focus, thought and patience.

          She started school last month and if she does not behave well (green or blue mark),

    • by gmuslera (3436)
      An MMO where you have to learn (or discover by themselves) the rules of politics, economics, math and probably several other things aren't very efficient, specially in time, aren't something for the classroom... but maybe are something for outside it, and maybe discuss/improve around those topics on the game in class. The good part is that is an activity driven by the students, that are them that want to do the effort if they get it. In the other hand, could end being addictive and affect negatively other a
    • by DeadboltX (751907)
      The biggest difference here is that you can "craft" by following directions, just like you can cook a meal in real life by following directions. It takes a will to explore and an interest in the subject for someone to go above and beyond to try to figure out the premise of the recipe and expand on it with math.
    • You seem to assume that most people will actually do that math. In practice most will get some build off a site and run with that. Or get some tool which calculates it for them, rather than just help.

      Or for crafting, people actually do stuff like pick some crafting guide from a site and mindlessly follow instructions like "gather 100 bars of X, 60 bars of Y and a stack of Z. Craft product A 20 times, then 25 times product B, go to the trainer and learn recipe C, craft that 15 times." At the end of the day m

      • by khallow (566160)

        You seem to assume that most people will actually do that math. In practice most will get some build off a site and run with that. Or get some tool which calculates it for them, rather than just help.

        Of course, they do. But the ones who do look into it and learn the ropes have an advantage in game. That's how education sneaks into these games.

      • by Greyfox (87712)
        The hard core crafters in various games might. Most games have recipes that require you to assemble the various ingredients. The higher end recipes require some set of things that you can assemble from other ingredients. So if you want to make 20 high end swords, you need the list of all the lower end ingredients you need to make and how many of each you'll need.

        I suspect that the crafters in Eve online, at least the hard core ones, have spreadsheets and calculate to the isk how much they can spend and st

        • They do it anyway, actually. The point of those lists for example in WoW isn't to make the right number of components for a given number of final products, as most products don't really have any intermediate steps. The point is simply to grind your skill from 1 to whatever value, in the minimum time and with minimum expense.

  • QTL (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Securityemo (1407943) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @11:05AM (#33619968) Journal
    Why would you complicate things like that? And wouldn't the children without much ability to put themselves in another's shoes and ability to abstract be quite disadvantaged by a method of teaching like that? It's just the kind of "muddy" mixed-up way of teaching which I loathed in school - like mathbooks wich used such heavy layers of methaphor and allegory (to teach the kids to "use their skills in real life?") that getting a fix on the underlying system was 5x the normal work. This was fortunately absent from the physics books. When I got my college algebra textbook it was a godsend.
  • by crgrace (220738) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @11:07AM (#33619976)

    I'm not so sure about Kudu and the ilk. The problem I have with it is that it isn't programming. The description of Kudu from the article (making a motorcycle racing game) sounds an awful lot like Racing Destruction Set or that Hypercard adventure game authoring tool I had for Macintosh that lead to some truly dreadful games. Also, I find the idea that you need some gimmicky, technicolor GUI for an 8-year-old to explore programming is a tad insulting to the 8-year-olds. I started learning Commodore-64 Basic when I was 6, and actually wrote a mildly sophisticated database program for my Little League Baseball team when I was 8 or 9. From the comments I've seen on Slashdot, my experience is certainly not unique. I think if I had started with Kudu I would have gotten bored and moved on. I'm an engineer now, largely I think from my childhood goofing about with computers.

    I can't remember the name, but I saw a great book written by a Dad and his son about Python. I think that is a much better exploration into computers than Kudu.

    • by Djatha (848102)
      I do agree with you that children are capable of a lot more than we give them credit for. I do think that programming is seen as difficult my most adults in the education business (teachers, parents and publishers alike) because they themselves did not have had any experience with it as a child and are not interested in it as an adult. (I see similar responses to math, science, and technology) Can children learn to program in a verbose procedural programming language? Yes, definitely; however we have to gu
    • It reminds me more of something like The Incredible Machine with more interactive parts, presented as a programming educational tool.

      There was another game that was much more similar to "real" programming called COLOBOTS, which I spent a bored weekend tinkering with once. My big complaint was the limited amount of code storage the little bastards had -- after some early futzing around I'd actually laid out a plan for a (hopefully) decent generic AI for the bots, that would allow them to self identify, coor

    • by ShakaUVM (157947)

      >>Hypercard adventure game authoring tool I had for Macintosh that lead to some truly dreadful games.

      As a kid, I never found it very hard just to program in hypercard. Why did they need to add an additional layer of abstraction on top of it? It was never hard to use.

      I've been playing around with Google App Inventor. It seems like a suitable tool to teach kids the fundamentals of modern programming (get/set methods, callbacks, etc.) with a pretty easy UI on top of it. I just don't think it's powerful e

    • Was the book called Hello World [amazon.com]?
  • by Alaren (682568) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @11:07AM (#33619978)

    As an advocate for the medium, I'm pleased to see video games getting mainstream press in ways beyond sensationalist violence tie-ins. I have two children who learned to read at young ages using a combination of LeapFrog videos and StarFall [starfall.com]. I have a 5-year-old son whose spatial awareness and reasoning skills have been honed through Flash-based puzzle games, which in turn inspired him to try posting on related message boards, to tell the authors of certain levels how much he enjoyed their contribution, which is a learning experience in itself. (That's right, folks, sometimes the guy posting on the boards really is a kindergartener!)

    And yet... the words "the medium is the message" sound an awful lot like "caveat emptor" in this context. Neil Postman's observations about television in the 1980s have proven increasingly true in the age of 24-hour news. And while the internet has some potential as a print medium, and places like /. seem to encourage at least some depth in conversation, I would argue that most of the news is online is even *more* trivialized that the stuff on TV.

    When it comes to pedagogy, the value of video games is (at least!) that they are interactive and therefore more effective teaching tools. And the quote from... I think it was Arthur C Clarke? "Any teacher that can be replaced by a machine, should be," is apt. But I was recently pointed to Isaac Asimov's short story Profession [abelard.org] and I wonder if that's not the direction we're heading--toward such effective education in the narrowly-defined, test-oriented sense that the ability to teach oneself, through work, through discovery, is lost.

    • shouldn't be teaching. Let's check the actual quote:

      http://www.quotesdaddy.com/quote/290532/david-thornburg/any-teacher-that-can-be-replaced-by-a-computer-deserves [quotesdaddy.com]

      "Any teacher that can be replaced by a computer, deserves to be." - David Thornburg

      Teachers who are as soulless as a computer shouldn't be teaching. Anyone who thinks a computer can do a teacher's job has never been a teacher.

      • by Alaren (682568)

        Teachers who are as soulless as a computer shouldn't be teaching. Anyone who thinks a computer can do a teacher's job has never been a teacher.

        Or perhaps anyone who thinks a computer can do a teacher's job has had too many poor teachers? Or too many teachers who believed just that?

        I think part of the problem we face with public education in the United States is that many of our good teachers are used to shield our many bad ones. We'd all like to believe that our policemen are noble, our firefighters bra

  • Taking Things Apart (Score:5, Interesting)

    by KalvinB (205500) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @11:10AM (#33620000) Homepage

    I have a three year old daughter and she was playing with an old educational toy when I realized that you could take it apart, see how it works and put it back together again. It wasn't designed for that but there were plenty of parts in it. You can't do that with most modern toys. They're just discrete pieces of silicon. Very little of interest or use is contained in them.

    The problem with this type of "research" is that it's finding excuses to give kids sugar rather than discipline them so they eat real food.

    Success is no longer defined by the amount of learning that is happening but by the lack of discipline problems that occur while the learning is occurring. Sugar shuts the kids up so that's success.

    Schools need to stop encouraging the attitude that education begins and ends with a bell. If schools focused on reading, writing and math then students could find and learn about their own personalized interests outside of class.

  • by airfoobar (1853132) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @12:00PM (#33620318)

    Why must one side frame games as "The work of the devil, corrupting our youth!!!1" and the other as "The university of life, teaching useful skills!!!1"? Can't we all just be reasonable people and say "Games are games, they are only supposed to be fun. If some people are able to learn from them, that's good for them (I know I have done, but not everyone can, so don't abolish schools just yet). If some people are homicidal maniacs, it's because they are homicidal maniacs, it's not because of the games they play."? We don't need to pass games off as good or evil.

    • by Keill (920526)

      Actually - games being 'fun' is a completely subjective application of something that has no place in their definition...

      Games are no more about fun than puzzles, art or competitions. The only reason people think that is the case, is because they confuse play as a verb, (which describes what we do in a game), with play as a noun.

      Games, art, puzzles and competitions have no relationship with the words work or play when used as a noun. Such words need to be subjectively applied, and therefore can be applied

  • Sheesh guys!! Don't we already know that young of animals learn by playing? Look at kittens, cheetah's cubs or children of most animals when they play.

    No, I have not read TFS or TFA.

  • Can anyone tell me a reason why real educational content is not already seamlessly folded into games? Kids can't pass a test but they know the names of all 150 Pokemon, or the good items in WoW and how to use them effectively together, or the location of every last secret location in GTA4. Why not name the Pokemon #1=Hydrogen, #2=Helium, #26 Iron, and so on? We'd have an entire generation who memorized every element and their atomic numbers, without even trying. Just think of how much we all learned abo

    • by healyp (1260440)
      Agree! In fact thinking back on my own experience I knew who Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were waaaay before they ever briefly, briefly covered World War II in my formal education...All thanks to Wolfenstein baby.
    • The kids know all the names and attributes of game characters because they spend the equivalent of WEEKS in school learning them.

      Schools just cannot devote the next 2 months for JUST memorizing the periodic table of the elements.

      And the kids learn the stories on TV and the movies because the stories are all simplified and standardized. History isn't that clean. Humans do not follow the same pattern as our society's myths do.

      Which is the great part about learning REAL history. You see the people as more than

    • by selven (1556643)

      I say throw some advanced math into games. For example, imagine that you're playing a game and you enter a room. Suddenly, you realize that the room is filled with toxic gas, and you suddenly take 50 damage. One second later, 52 damage. One second after that, 54 damage. You have 10000 health. You need to figure out how long you have to get out of the room. So you think "ok, the DPS (hey look, that's a derivative!) is 50 + 2t. I want the total damage to be less than 10000. So you take the antiderivative (50t

  • For languages (Score:2, Interesting)

    I might not be the only one, but I grew up playing games in English and I believe most of my learning experience in this language was based on the challenges those games brought on me. I mean, I was 10 or so when I finished Crystalis and Zelda on the NES and I remember finding myself thinking/playing in English when my school friends were learning "my name is...". I think there are fields (like idioms) which can greatly benefit from games, like history, geography. But in the case of mathematics, which requi

    • by Belial6 (794905)
      Mentioning mathematics, I was having a conversation about that with a parent who was considering homeschooling her child a while back. She was trying to figure out how the 'Unschooled' kids learned math without a formal class. So, I started pondering how my kid learned math. At 6 he is doing areas and volumes, adds and subtracts fractions, and is just moving into multiplication of fractions, as well as some simple algebra.

      Going through the math subjects he learned, I noticed that the process pretty mu
    • I think there are fields (like idioms) which can greatly benefit from games, like history, geography

      I have probably learned at least as much history from video games as I did in primary and secondary school, and I've definitely learned more geography.

      Geography? Shadow President taught me the location of just about every country. It also included the CIA fact files for all of them, giving huge amounts of info about their economies, demographics, etc.

      History? Medieval: Total War taught me at least as much

  • toward the medium of games as an educational tool. I'm in the field, and many people who are taken seriously talk about games used properly as a tool by educators and caregivers. This is a relatively new medium that needs to be researched and experimented with so we can establish how it is most effective for different subjects and in different situations.

    Here are some of the challenges in this field as I see it:

    - Most educational games are made in silos. Games made by publishers are mostly reused engines or

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Some healthy skepticism is in order. Too often games or game design is just used as a form of entertainment to spice up seemingly dull topics such as math and science. It does not have to be this way. We find that when providing students with the right support they can do amazing things. For instance, we have all these middle school students build sophisticated games including AI base on diffusion equations. That is certainly not sugar. Moreover, we can now begin to measure transfer of game design skills to
  • What does a 7 year old playing BZFlag learn then? (Apart from loosing badly and crying about it).
  • The whole point of play is to learn. Take a cat, make a fluff ball run away from it like run, hide and stuff then it has a blast. Get that same dustball and make it come at the cat (like a dog might like) and the cat isn't down to play. Why? it's in training.
  • I learned most of my early programming skills and honed my math skills in playing a text based persistent browser-based game, Earth: 2025 (which has since closed and been cloned at Earth: Empires [earthempires.com]); most of the most fancy excel stuff I learned a decade ago was for calculating attacks and whatnot. I think text based games are a good way to learn as they have to have some good, engaging, content, and can't rely on faced-paced graphics or such things; it tends the genre towards using your brain more.
  • by edremy (36408) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @08:38PM (#33623356) Journal
    I made a major change in my class this fall, introducing both a long and short game from the Reacting to the Past [barnard.edu] project. These are elaborate role playing games, where the students take on the roles of various historic characters to play out scenarios ranging from the creation of the US Constitution to the trial of Galileo.

    No technology involved at all, but students are forced to learn the material in unusual ways- rather than lecture and ask them to regurgitate on a test, I've got students who will have to defend intellectual positions against attacks from other students. (And they will attack- they get bonus points for meeting their objectives, and the games are designed with winners and losers)

    The short game (around the decision to de-planetize Pluto) worked pretty well and they're set to start Tuesday on the long form game about the decision to award Darwin a medal from the Royal Society. Crossing my fingers on this one- there's some stuff that's tough to understand, and I've got 16 first-years teaching it all to each other (with a little coaching outside the class :^)

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