Education students learning the language of today's kids

Building video games can be an important teaching tool to engage students in exploring a given subject area.

Dawn Ford - 01 February 2011

Building video games can be an important teaching tool to engage students in exploring a given subject area.

Patricia Boechler, an associate professor in educational psychology and coordinator of the Faculty of Education's MEd Technology in Education specialization, believes educators can harness the growing trend of video gaming as a starting point for exploring new ways of reaching students. EDIT 486 is a course that teaches education students to use game construction as a teaching tool with their own students.

"Our kids (elementary and secondary level students) are engaged at the onset. They walk into the classroom with video games being a huge part of their lives outside the classroom," says Boechler who collaborated in
designing the video games course with Mike Carbonaro, professor in Educational Psychology. Erik deJong, a graduate student in Educational Psychology, Specialization in Technology in Education, delivers game-building tutorials to students within the lab sessions.

"In this course, we look at video games through the lens of educational theory and the idea of constructionism, we understand that students construct their own knowledge through their experiences with the environment, particularly as they build things to share with others," says Boechler whose research over the past decade has centered on the study of cognition and learning in educational technology. "As educators, our job is to create learning opportunities that really engage students and at the same time guide knowledge construction".

"This isn't about taking commercial video games into the classroom so kids can play them more - - this is about having them build their own games around a certain relevant topic, for instance in social studies, the economic competition related to the control of the North American fur trade. When they create a video game, they must delve deeply into all aspects of that topic as they construct their game environment" she explains.

Shivon Brennan, a secondary education student in Boechler's EDIT 486 course, constructed a video game using Scratch, a popular programming language used to create interactive stories and animations. In Brennan's game, little red riding hood has to navigate through a maze while picking apples on her way to grandma's house.

"Creating the Scratch project was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my university career. It was extremely daunting to come into a project like this with no previous understanding of programming. The trial-and-error process opened my mind to exploring different ways that things work, an important characteristic to bring into the classroom when I am a teacher," says Brennan.

Chris Thompson says the project challenged him to hone in on his planning and time management skills and gave him an appreciation for the benefits of using the popular technologies his own students engage in. "I realize now that there are many forms of educational media which I can use to inspire students to put in an effort above and beyond anything they previously thought possible," he says.

Boechler says she is definitely not suggesting that everyone go out and buy video games to put into their classrooms. "Learning how to approach new technologies is important for pre-service teachers, but rather than the technology itself begin the subject, this is about how we can use technology to explore new ways of enhancing learning through the same technologies kids are engaging with every day. Motivation is already walking into the door. It's wise for us as educators to tap into this and use it in an educationally responsive way," says Boechler.

This course is a collaboration with the Dept. of Computing Science which provides technical expertise and lab space. Eleni Stroulia (Professor), Mike Macgregor (Dept. Chair) and Lucio Guiterrez (graduate student) have been instrumental in offering the course.