Walter Radtke

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Can computer games be designed to deliver education in an effective manner?

With high school drop outs becoming a national epidemic and kids terminally bored with education in its present delivery format, could a series of educational games be devised to get kids from pre-school to high school graduation? I'm talking of games so compelling and interesting, yet gradient in skill levels, that ALL schooling will become home schooling and the costs of running brick and mortar school districts would disappear into the dust bin of history. The money saved by municipalities could be used to supply every child of age 3 with his own gamer system. My feeling is that incredible skill sets could be taught in short order, including cognitive skills that could rival autistic savant levels. It is becoming more clearly evident that we either get smarter faster or we welcome back the 12th century.

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    Jan 19 2012: I read you loud and clear, and I'm aware of the dangers of a computer simulation game environment. But, as you observe, it's an option for education that has potential. Measuring that potential would be the first step.

    In trying to stir the masses from my Hyde Park soapbox, I'll be tempted to communicate enthusiasm in broad strokes. You noting that instant gratification can be faulty is good, but we really don't know what kinds of gratification are necessary during childhood in order to create a mentally sound human, because judging from the human condition today, there are not many of them out there.

    I worry that there is too little gratification for children, historically, inherently rather than as a symptom of a modern ill. Concerning gratification, there is this old canard that if something isn't earned by sweat and blood, it isn't valued. That may have applied in an age where brawn ruled brains, but today we have more finely distilled sensibilities and it is becoming apparent that smarts always wins, gives us more control over our individual destinies. Ask anyone, would you rather be smarter or stupider? The answer is obvious.

    I just want progressive society able to provide its children with the gratification of more intelligence, of seeing themselves growing better able to comprehend the complexities of the world and take control of their lives in a hurricane of artificial appetites.

    My take is that the modern electronic world is so overwhelming with info overload, immersion and broadsides, that we simply must engineer more intelligence into handling the modern world more humanely, with liberty and justice for all. It's either that or the machines take over, the authoritarian machine men. We need to get smarter faster, or those who have and do, the power hungry narcissists will have their way with us.
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    Jan 18 2012: There are many great games which can be employed for virtually any aspect of education. As an example, I will briefly discuss language skills. Since education is such a broad topic, I hope this will suffice, but will be happy to answer any other questions you have, provided the question as posed relates to a specific aspect or educational topic. As it is, I barely know where to begin, other than to reply with an emphatic YES.

    Primary Language Skills: In the game environment, basic language skills are learned via text and in-game communication. The impetus here is to ensure that the text is relevant to the gaming experience; to ensure that the game text employs proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar; and to ensure that a reward/punishment system exists for in-game communication. Players who chat using proper language skills get bonus currency, for example. Players who use improper shorthand (u no, txt n stf lk dat) get penalized.

    Secondary Language Skills. The same as primary language skills (with a less severe punishment for improper grammar/spelling), but in addition provides a venue for international communication. When I took Russian in high school, it was great, but I ultimately didn't have anybody outside of class with whom to speak on a regular basis. If I had had access to something like [] (for example), I would have had a place to employ what I was learning.

    Computer Language Skills. In addition to teaching spoken language, games may be used to teach many different aspects of computer programming, from html to scripting to logic. Given that the GDP of the video game industry is in excess of (US) $5.0 billion (and growing), this may be an important skill for many students to learn.
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    Jan 18 2012: As a teacher I identified young children who were being abused by parents and others. Some children come to school to feel safe and cared for and accepted and to be fed. If there were no schools these children would not be helped and their abusers would not be brought to account. I also noticed young children who were very ill whose parents were in denial or negligent who would have died if I had not organised medical intervention.

    I was interacting with these young children and knew them well and they trusted me. Without interaction I would not have observed the clues and they would not have learned that they can seek help outside of their families. Home schooling is not always provided by loving enlightened parents. It can be the realm of mentally ill parents or those in cults. At least teachers have training and support through the education system and they can be fired.

    Children make friends at school. They learn social skills and are introduced to ideas and skills through interacting with each other. Some of the best teachers are the other children and schools bring together large pools of children so there are plenty of chances a child will find a friend,

    Not every day at school is happy and there are boring times but that is true of life outside of school. I think children can cope with the down side of school and learn patience and perseverance. I worry that as children are being over stimulated and becoming addicted to instant gratification they are overlooking skills that make social interaction bearable such as courtesy, dignity, generosity and how to accept what cannot be changed without laying blame.

    However I do think there is heaps of potential to teach subject matter through computer games just want it to happen in schools and not be the only teaching approach.
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    Jan 18 2012: Your educational dilemma is very common and something has to be done about it. The solutions will wobble this way and that and will certainly evolve into a hybrid of some sort. Training teachers, of course, is key as is evaluating teachers. Trouble is so much of the curriculum is dictated that it drives out creativity. I also think that being with students for an hour is not enough. We may want to convert to a classroom system where high school kids havethe same teacher all day as in grade school. With all the teaching aids available, the teacher doesn't need to be a specialist and teach only biology or math, but can be more of a facilitator and create a sense of team involvement and devote more time to the social needs of the student rather than parroting a text book.

    Miss Julie sounds like one of those rare angel teachers. I had only a couple of those, but they were foundational. It's too bad that teachers can't be of uniform quality. Imagine the disappointment your kid feels, the sense of betrayal and stunting of his love for learning. It can only be termed a trauma. I'm not sure a bad connection is any better than no connection or a digital Skype type connection.
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    Jan 18 2012: I know, the digitization of learning is a bit scary and has issues. But the power of simulation training is evident and could become an educational paradigm soon. If the Japanese or other techno savvy people get a leap on us, we'll be playing catch up for years. Maybe brick and mortar schools can be cut back into "lab sites" where kids can come together in field trips to get hands on experience. But keep in mind that simulations can be extremely realistic. They are used to train surgeons and jet pilots.
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    Jan 18 2012: I totally get what you say. But the skewing you mention in pre-schoolers is pretty much to be expected, since their only social contact is family and their social circle and, as you say, a breadth of interaction is definitely desirable. But if you look at the classroom setting, beyond kindergarten, much of the time is spent at a desk absorbing knowledge from the teacher. It would be interesting to know how much classroom time from grade 1 through 12 is passive and how much is interactive.

    My problem with the classroom setting is that you have 15 - 30 kids trying to derive a satisfying relationship from a parental surrogate who has to divide their attention up to 30 ways. Shy kids are going to get left out and aggressive kids will hog the stage even if the teacher is aware of that factor and is proactive on it.

    Freud claimed, and there is evidence for his case, that children have pretty much laid down the foundations of their personalities by age 5 and the rest is icing on the cake with social interaction either meeting or not meeting the expectations of the child; expectations, conscious and subconscious, that are fairly well solidified by then. The salient idea is how a child handles unmet expectations. I think that a classroom setting inherently contains the basis for a lot of unmet expectations that make it difficult to train into a coping mechanism. A million little sleights, bumps and discourtesies remain unintegrated consciously and get shoved into an area composed mostly of anger. I'd rather model those jarring events on a computer screen via a social simulation and give kids the coping tools, the inner attitude defenses that could allow them to handle an affront or rivalry.

    I also would like to entertain an educational methodology that creates a sense of non-threatening autonomy, thinking for oneself and independent action in a child rather than an ideological groupthink, and I don't see how a home school gaming scenario hinders that.
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      Jan 18 2012: Passive/Interactive depends on the teacher. This has been my personal problem with the education system. I haven't been able to complete my college degree because I couldn't focus in a classroom where the teacher simply talks at you for an hour plus and expects you to listen well enough to regurgitate that information at will. I don't learn that way. So I went to the other extreme. Complete at-home, online university study through SUNY, not the same, but similar to what you are proposing. It's interactive, non-threatening, and you get out of it as much as you put in to it. This was better than a professor talking at me, but still not right. The most beneficial education I ever received was in a class with a rogue professor who WANTED everyone to share their ideas in class. I was lucky enough to have several of these professors, but I can't get past the ones who talk at you enough to finish a degree.

      A better solution (I think) is to train the educators of the future on how to interact with the people they are teaching. Show them and educate them on how to coax ideas out of children. How to share with a class. Educate them in child psychology enough to be able to creat that non-threatening environment in their classrooms.

      Last year my son had an amazing Head Start preschool teacher her name was Miss Julie. Miss Julie met the kids on their level, she crawled around on the floor, taught them how to write and draw and play, but in such a way that the kids were more and more excited through out the year to do exactly what was required. I really miss Miss Julie. My son's teacher now is not this way. She is an old school teacher who asks questions, but mostly stands above her students and talks at them and expects the same results Miss Julie got.

      The best education is the one we receive when we are able to listen, think, respond, interpret and share. Is it possible to do this online? Sure, but it loses that special human element. It loses the ability to connect.
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    Jan 18 2012: Yes. As a kid, I played Treehouse, Mathblaster, Reading Rabbit and so many more educational games. In high school, there was a little-known game based on Star Wars called "The Gungan Frontier" that taught about ecology and ecosystems (on an alien moonscape, of course) without being preachy or obvious about it. I suggested that last one to my biology teacher at the time. I was bored in class because I had already learned the material we were learning in class though the game that previous summer. She thought I was nuts. I remained bored.

    However, I suggest caution. Getting rid of brick-and-mortar schools is a BAD IDEA. You can teach about cell structure on a computer, but it is a much more engaging and fundamentally satisfying experience to actually look at a real cell under a real microscope using real optics. Similarly, you can build digital balsa wood bridges, tennis ball cannons, laser refractors, and all other manner of physics equipment, but actually performing the experiments and building the things with real stuff is irreplaceable.

    And yes, I have had terrible teachers. But, I have also had wonderful teachers, and I can’t imagine replacing teachers with computers.
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    Jan 18 2012: Good points. There are going to be challenges in getting the game into a meaningful didactic (teaching) mode without losing the interest of the gamer, but I think that the incredible innovative talents of game programmers could tackle this fairly well. Keep in mind that this approach would begin at preschool, so kids would be exposed from the start to the notion that having fun can also be educational. Human curiosity is an unstoppable force and if curiosity can be engaged and mainitained though 12 years of gaming education, I think the idea has legs. Keep in mind that the object is not only to teach facts, but to teach method as well; methods of info uptake.

    Years ago I took a tour of NASA Ames research station in Sunnyvale, CA and ended up volunteering for some testing of pilot instrumentation arrays. One test was to get a baseliine from the general public on normal reactions to a force feedback joystick and even getting a small circle to hover over a crosshair target under varying joystick loads was fun as hell. Hand eye coordination can be trained, quick thinking and reaction time as well, all sorts of mental parameters that aren't necessarily fact memorization could be amplified.
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    Jan 18 2012: Part of the lessons learned in school are the socializing, following direction, and introductions to other cultures. While the idea of a gaming system education is fun and creative, not all of the parents of the children would be able to give that sort of education to their children. As a mother with a son who just started kindergarten I can tell you that so many of the children in his class have a skewed view of society. The only things they have ever known were in their home. If the were exposed to prejudice, ignorance, or any form of intolerance they are more difficult to socialize with children their own age. Imagine if that was the education they received their entire life? We can give them educational information, but we would give them no culture, no socialization, no ability to actually speak to human beings outside their own sets. That would not be conducive to producing creative, innovative, smarter, faster, compassionate humans, that would devolve us to the old times when all prejudices learned in the homes remained with the children throughout their lives. Generational problems would become epidemic again. They still exist now, but now we are able to see and hear and interact with others and learn that we don't have to do as our parents did and no one expects us to.
  • Jan 18 2012: Educational computer games have a long history of failing, because its awfully hard to make a game thats both educational and interesting.

    Typically the basis of History and Geography often play significant roles in pc strategy games and since the mid 90's we've had games typing games (shoot bullets at zombies by typing the word on screen) that weren't the worst, but how 'educational' these games could really be is questionable.
    So unless you're counting sudoku, brain training and crosswords, I can't think of an educational game that could work.
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    Jan 18 2012: Hi Walter, It does seem like a fantastic idea and some games such as the "Assassin's Creed" games do introduce a considerable amount of factual historical information in their games, which is quite interesting however still not essential to the game. Many younger people could potentially be turned off gaming if they found that this knowledge was being crammed down their throat. The "Portal" games are also an incredible series teaches people of all ages about the basic laws of physics, what would happen if these laws were to change but most importantly some very sophisticated problem solving that forces you to think outside the box. Even some intelligent adults would struggle with some of the challenges that these games create. I would highly recommend these games for anybody who is looking for an alternative to the generic shooter or hack/slash games on the market.
    I guess the point I am trying to make is that this idea does exist to a certain extent however it would be very difficult to make a game educational enough to support a child through school whilst still being entertaining.