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CE credits: 1
Learning objectives: After reading this article, CE candidates will be able to:
- Describe how video games can both improve and measure student learning.
- Discuss how intelligent tutoring systems can improve learning outcomes.
- Discuss barriers and/or challenges to implementing educational technologies more widely.
Video games aren’t usually the first place parents and teachers turn to help kids learn, yet a growing body of research suggests that they can impart educational benefits—even the commercial games designed for pure entertainment. “Well-designed games are inherently engaging. They suck you in,” says Valerie Shute, PhD, a professor of educational psychology and learning systems at Florida State University.
Games can provide practice in such key domains as problem-solving, systems thinking, computational thinking and creativity, Shute says. She measured persistence, spatial abilities and problem-solving among undergraduate students who spent eight hours playing the popular commercial video game “Portal 2,” a first-person perspective puzzle game. She found that players showed improvements in all three of the domains (Computers & Education, Vol. 80, No. 1, 2015).
Middle school teachers might not be ready to assign “Portal 2,” for homework, but other new educational technologies are changing the way students learn both in schools and out. From virtual reality to personalized intelligent tutoring systems, the possibilities for educational technology are almost limitless, says Danielle McNamara, PhD, director of the Science of Learning and Educational Technology Lab at Arizona State University, which creates game-based methods to understand and improve the learning processes involved in reading comprehension and writing.
“If you can dream it, we can probably build it,” she says.
Building the tools is only the first step, however. There’s a lot to learn about how tech devices can benefit learners and educators, and how those benefits differ from discipline to discipline. “What does the teacher actually need, what does the student need and how can we support the use of technology?” McNamara asks.
To illuminate those details, psychologists are collaborating with researchers in fields such as education, computer science and learning sciences. As they do, they are discovering new ways in which technology can make learning more engaging, more effective and more fun.
Gaming for food
Many technologies, including video games, can serve a dual purpose. While games can help players develop certain cognitive skills, they can also help scientists measure and study those skills, Shute says. She embeds what she calls “stealth assessments” into games to collect data about the players’ abilities as they play—no surveys or multiple-choice tests required. Stealth assessments can be an effective way to track hard-to-measure cognitive skills, such as problem-solving, persistence and creativity, she says. “You’re playing the game and meanwhile the stealth assessment is pulling out evidence and making calculations under the hood.”
In one demonstration of the technology, she turned to a popular commercial game called “Plants vs. Zombies 2.” In the game, players try to block advancing zombies using plants with different properties, such as the ability to freeze zombies, shoot fire at them or blow them up. Shute and her colleagues embedded an assessment that measured middle school students’ problem-solving skills as they played the game. She found the stealth assessment outcomes correlated with traditional non-game measures of problem-solving, such as Raven’s Progressive Matrices—a test that asks subjects to predict the next pattern in a series by making inferences from provided information—and MicroDYN—a system that measures subjects’ ability to acquire knowledge from the environment and apply it to a complex problem (Computers in Human Behavior, Vol. 63, No. 1, 2016).
Shute says her dream is for commercial video games to come with research-based consumer-information labels, akin to nutrition labels on food boxes, that would report which cognitive skills are likely to improve after a certain amount of game play. “Kids would love to play, and the parents would know that the games have cognitive ‘nutritional’ value. People would just clamor for such a game,” she says.
Learning scientists are also designing educational games for more traditional school-based lessons. For example, game-based systems are often used in intelligent tutoring systems—computer-based programs that provide immediate, personalized feedback and context-specific hints to students as they work through a reading assignment or a set of problems. By customizing lessons for individual learners, the systems can vastly extend the reach of a single educator.
In their lab at Arizona State, McNamara and her colleagues design game-based intelligent tutoring programs to help students improve writing skills and reading comprehension. With their “Writing Pal” program, students receive customized advice and comments as they play a game that prompts them to practice basic writing strategies (Computers and Composition, Vol. 34, No. 1, 2014).
“Writing Pal” and other intelligent tutoring systems can help fill an important gap, says McNamara. “For students to improve their writing, they need dedicated, deliberate practice with feedback. But they just don’t get enough of it,” she says. Teachers with five or six classrooms of 30 kids each simply don’t have time to assign essays and provide feedback on a regular basis, she says. Tutoring systems can change that.
Contemporary forms of intelligent tutoring systems have been around since the 1980s and have been applied to subjects ranging from algebra and geometry to medicine and law. In a meta-analysis, Wenting Ma, PhD, then a graduate student at Simon Fraser University, and colleagues reviewed intelligent tutoring systems across subjects and student age levels. They found the systems led to better learning outcomes compared with teacher-led, large group instruction and textbook learning, though they did not outperform small-group or one-on-one human tutoring (Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 106, No. 4, 2014).
As the technology and research advance, intelligent tutors are poised to make an even bigger impact, learning scientists predict. McNamara says researchers are designing the next generation of intelligent tutors to integrate feedback and learning strategies across disciplines. If a student is struggling to comprehend a physics lesson, for instance, the system might present a game designed to improve reading comprehension, allowing the student to practice reading skills and physics skills in parallel to maximize success.
“We’re starting to work toward the idea of linking together these adaptive systems,” McNamara says.
Seeing the invisible
Newer technologies can take education in even more futuristic directions. Virtual reality is one area that both students and scientists are excited about because it is bringing the world to students. “With virtual field trips, students can visit other places without having to leave the classroom,” says Matthew Koehler, PhD, a professor of educational psychology and educational technology at Michigan State University.
And augmented reality—which blends virtual reality with real sights and sounds—can help students visualize phenomena, such as chemical reactions, that would otherwise be invisible. “If you’re only given the real world, you don’t get to see the hidden mechanisms and unobservable elements,” says Robb Lindgren, PhD, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has a background in psychology and learning sciences.
Lindgren is exploring new ways to teach complex topics by drawing from research on the science of embodiment and learning. He’s studying augmented reality systems that enable students to engage with abstract science and math concepts through gestures and bodily movements. When learning about gas pressure, for instance, students study the movement of gas molecules by letting their hands “be” virtual molecules that collide with the wall of a container.
In one such project, Lindgren and his colleagues created an interactive simulation to teach middle school students about how objects move in space. In this project, kids use their bodies to predict how an asteroid will move as it travels through space and encounters forces such as the gravitational fields of nearby planets. Compared with students who watched a desktop animation of the same concepts, those who used their bodies to predict the asteroid’s path learned more, were more engaged and reported more positive attitudes toward science (Computers & Education, Vol. 95, No. 1, 2016).
“They’re embedding themselves into the system to understand how it works,” Lindgren says. “It’s not just hands-on learning, but hands-in learning.”
Immersive technologies could be a particularly good fit for informal learning environments such as museums and science centers, which often have the flexibility and freedom to try new things, Lindgren says. In a project known as Move 2 Learn, Lindgren and H. Chad Lane, PhD, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, are collaborating with other researchers and museum practitioners on embodied learning and interactive educational technology projects. In one collaboration with the Frost Museum of Science in Miami, Lane worked on an exhibit that teaches young visitors about the Everglades. The children “splash” through a virtual river, part the grass to find an alligator nest or move a submerged log to reveal a school of minnows.
“When kids gesture and move while interacting with the creatures in the exhibit, they are actually grounding their thinking in those movements,” Lane says. “When they have a chance to move their bodies in ways that link to content, they learn better.”
Despite the promise of video games, virtual reality systems and other technologies as educational tools, a significant barrier keeps them from widespread implementation: Schools don’t yet agree on how technology should fit into education. “Some schools say we should disallow mobile phones, and others get everybody a mobile device. They’re all over the place,” Koehler says. “Schools are short on time and they’re short on money. They do what they think is going to work, but it’s not often data driven.”
And, he says, teachers aren’t often trained in how best to make use of tech tools. “We know teachers use technology in their personal lives, but they often don’t use it in classrooms. There’s a barrier there because it’s not exactly clear what they should be doing with technology in their classrooms.”
Some researchers are also worried that schools are embracing tech tools before they have been thoroughly vetted by scientists. “My concern is that we haven’t asked the basic questions: What are people learning through the use of these technologies, and to what extent do these technologies facilitate transfer to real-world use?” says Fran Blumberg, PhD, a professor of counseling psychology at Fordham University who studies children’s attention and problem-solving in the context of digital learning settings.
Plus, Blumberg adds, technology changes so quickly that new technologies often hit the market even before their predecessors have been adequately evaluated by researchers. “I can appreciate that there are wonderful new directions one can go with educational technology, but we still need to look at what are we getting out of these experiences before we race to the next technological innovation,” she says.
The fast-paced nature of the tech market means researchers might always be playing catch-up. Still, she says, psychologists’ research skills and understanding of human cognition and behavior make them well suited to helping answer basic questions about educational technologies. Since so many educational games and programs are designed for children and adolescents, she adds, the area is ripe for more psychologists to get involved.
Lindgren is optimistic that educational technologies can help students learn. But for those tools to live up to their promise, he says, psychologists and other research scientists should get involved at earlier stages of development. Too often, he says, educators work backward, figuring out what they can do with whatever tech tools are readily available instead of designing or selecting a device because it solves a particular problem.
“We need to shift the model to get psychologists and researchers and educators involved in the design of these tools,” he says. “Learning scientists and psychologists have often felt left out of this issue of the design of educational technology, and it’s incredibly important that they be a part of figuring this out.”
For an in-depth look at learning and technology research being conducted at Carnegie Mellon University’s LearnLab, read “Turning Classrooms into Learning Laboratories” in the Monitor’s monthly “Lab Work” series at www.apa.org/monitor/2018/01/classrooms-laboratories.aspx.
APA is hosting Technology, Mind & Society, an interdisciplinary conference exploring interactions between humans and technology on April 5–7 in Washington, D.C. For more information or to register, visit https://pages.apa.org/tms.
Cognitive Development in Digital Contexts
Blumberg, F.C., & Brooks, P.J. (Eds.) 2017
Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Realities in Education
Liu, D., Dede, C., Huang, R., & Richards, J. (Eds.) 2016
Exploding the Castle: Rethinking How Video Games & Game Mechanics Can Shape the Future of Education
Young, M.F., & Slota, S.T. (Eds.) 2017
What Is Technological Pedagogical Content (TPACK)?
Koehler, M.J., Mishra, P., & Cain, W. Journal of Education, 2013
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