Game on: using computer games to captivate your class

Head of department Ollie Bray is using computer games to get his students excited about learning. Here, he talks about technophobia, teaching and trusting kids with tech
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We talk to Ollie Bray, the National Adviser for Emerging Technologies in Learning at Education Scotland, about how gaming can be used in education. With a successful and varied career as a teacher, head of department and school leader, Ollie believes that one of the many benefits gaming brings to education is giving teachers a chance to innovate and do things differently. Here, he tells us what he hopes the future holds for games based learning, how to convince a reluctant head teacher of its potential and recommends some resources for learning more. You can follow Ollie on twitter @olliebray.

How did you get into games based learning?

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Years ago, I was teaching urban development and, frankly, finding it pretty dry when I realized we had this really interesting game, Sims City. The notion here is that everyone starts at the same point with the same end goal, which is to build a city. Everyone takes a different route of getting there, and that was the part of the process that captures and engages the imagination. This game has high-quality graphics, authentic stimulation and encourages competitive learning.

We’d send home learning tasks and each week during a review session the kids would tell me what they’d learned. This ranged from improved understandings on pollution and drainage to better insights into local government re-elections. The proof of their learning wasn’t just in rich discussion, the class would also share screenshots of what they’d built, and we’d have a top city of the week.

How can gaming shape the experience of learning more widely?

I’ve coined the phrase ‘contextual hubs’ for learning. You take a game, perhaps a commercially available game, and it’s up to the teacher to create educational potential around it. The learning doesn’t come from the game itself but becomes the context for learning. If you think about Guitar Hero, it has no educational value at all, but in the hands of the right teachers, it suddenly becomes a project about music, designing CD cases, marketing the band, there are all kinds of links to it.

We did a wonderful project in 2010 when the Mario & Sonic at the Winter Olympics game was released, and we had a video project with a school in Canada. The Canadian teacher we spoke with kept her kids in school all night for a kind of sleepover, and when they connected to us at 6 am their time, it was 3.30pm, and we had kept our kids back after the close. The fascinating thing about this was that our kids thought it was a project about the Olympics, but it was about connecting rural communities across the world, with all kind of lessons about citizenship. The teachers then applied the experience to lessons on time zones, which is something children struggle with. All of this came from the contextual hub of the computer game. The learning had little to do with the Winter Olympics game, but it provided a stimulus to get children excited about learning.

If you’re a teacher who can see the potential in gaming, but you aren’t confident with technology, what simple pointers could you offer to help introduce it into their classroom?

If a teacher can accept they need the children to set up the console for them, the rest will take care of itself. Games are great because they produce data; one example might be Mario and Sonic at the 2012 Olympics for the Wii. After the break, you can get the children to turn the console on and play the hurdles, which takes two minutes. You’ve got children writing down scores and times, and they give this information to the teacher. What they’ve done is create rich, authentic data in the context of a numeracy lesson. The teacher at no point has come in contact with the technology and just does what they’re good at, which is teach the learner.

You can feel comfortable in the domain of being a teacher, and the children can feel comfortable in the domain of computer games; when these overlap that’s when it becomes a really interesting space for learning. You don’t have to take a leap out of your comfort zone; it’s about taking a little bit of a risk and trusting children with the technology.

What do you consider the most positive result or success story to come from games-based learning?

If you’re coming up with a head who doesn’t think games based learning is appropriate, how could you try and make them see otherwise?

It’s given hundreds of people across the UK permission to try and do things a bit differently. If you’re looking to introduce a new topic in class, you seek support from other staff in school but this is vertical support, and often it doesn’t produce new ideas. With the use of games consoles in the last three years, quite often there will only be one teacher in a school trying to push the boundaries. They have to look horizontally for their support and professional development and reach out to peers across the country and around the world. They haven’t been providing each other with the answers because that’s almost impossible, but they’ve been sharing ideas, and taking some of these, using them, adapting them or ditching them. It’s all about the impact in the classroom, and I think that’s been the most wonderful stuff that’s come out of all of this, is that people have permission, to innovate and do things differently.