WASHINGTON – While video games are often portrayed as one of the villains behind America’s education woes, a dozen or so thought leaders hailed video games as potential heroes Tuesday at a forum on technology in education.
“The technological innovations and educational benefits of video games make them a fundamental asset in the 21st century global economy,” said Michael D. Gallagher, president and CEO of the Entertainment Software Association, or ESA, the trade association for U.S. computer and video game publishers.
Gallagher, former U.S. Assistant Secretary for Communications & Information at the U.S. Department of Commerce under President George W. Bush, made those remarks Tuesday at the “Technologies in Education Forum,” part of an “intelligence series” hosted by The Atlantic magazine.
Held in the Great Hall at Gallup World Headquarters, the forum featured a dozen or so technology experts that ranged from university professors and a schoolteacher to corporate executives and leaders of the philanthropic world.
A major theme that emerged was that, while video games can be used to engage students in new and exciting ways, it must be done in a thoughtful way that takes an array of factors into account, from different levels of students’ academic preparedness to learning preferences and styles that may differ by gender.
Speakers and attendees lamented that disconnectedness pervades too many schools, while others warned that, even when technology becomes more prominent, teachers are still needed to help students “connect the dots.”
Higher education featured prominently in the discussion, particularly as it relates to teacher preparation programs.
Gallagher said educators nationwide are incorporating games and game design programs into their lesson plans, which in turn gives students basic knowledge in subjects such as computer science, graphic design and virtual modeling.
Video games are “redefining the way we effectively engage and educate students on STEM topics” and can be used to impart complex knowledge, Gallagher said. He cited a variety of ways in which gaming technology is being used to train workers, from helping doctors to become better surgeons to helping first responders train for emergencies and automakers make safer cars.
“Taken together, the benefits of video games will enhance and expand the skills of the American workforce and, in turn, serve as a vital tool in strengthening the economy and allowing our country to remain prosperous in an increasingly competitive world,” Gallagher said.
Higher education needs to think more deeply about preparing teachers for students who were raised on technology, said Jessie Woolley-Wilson, president and CEO at DreamBox Learning, a company that offers “adaptive learning technology.”
“If you ask institutions of higher education how they are preparing for the classrooms they will inherit, many institutions of higher education don’t have an answer,” Woolley-Wilson said. “Not that they don’t want one, but don’t have one.”
“Many teachers coming out are not prepared for children who pick up magazines and expect a response from it, or touch a TV and think it’s broken when it doesn’t do anything,” Woolley-Wilson said.
Sandra Calvert, director of the Children’s Digital Media Center and a professor of psychology at Georgetown University, shared similar thoughts.
“One of the biggest challenges is the knowledge used to be more vertical from teacher to student,” Calvert said.
But now, with “digital natives” populating America’s classrooms, “sometimes they know more than the teacher knows.”
“That becomes a challenge in the classroom,” Calvert said, “because now students are trying to teach the teacher how to use the technology.”
Robert Torres, senior program officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said it is critical to make sure gaming technology is used for “authentic problem solving.” It should also be used to teach skills such as critical thinking and collaboration, and assessment components should be included in whatever is done.
“Unless we really innovate at the level of assessments, we’re not going to have the impact,” Torres said.
While several speakers spoke of how playing video games can enhance learning, others noted the profound effect of getting students involved in game design.
Allyson Peerman, president of the AMD Foundation, shared how her organization has launched initiatives to bring game design to economically disadvantaged students.
Students who have had “vey little technology interaction” before are boosting skills such as problem-solving and critical thinking, Peerman said.
“That’s what keeps us going and keeps us excited,” Peerman said.