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October 30, 2006

Simulations and Games for Learning - the Federation of American Scientists gets involved

In his Learning Technology blog, Harvard Business School Publishing's Denis Saulnier recently published an informative overview of educational simulations and games.  Having worked with Denis at Harvard Business School's Educational Technologies and Multimedia Development (ETMM) group on over a dozen simulations (a few are profiled here), I know the amazing pedagogical power of a well-designed simulation to evoke tangible, experiential learning among students.  I also know the more-art-than-science nature of effective simulation design - it's hard to define what facets make will the game an effective learning experience, but you know 'em when you see 'em.  

Anyway, shortly after reading Denis' thorough summary of learning simulations (and a great outline of Clark Aldrich’s Learning By Doing: A Comprehensive Guide to Simulations, Computer Games, and Pedagogy in e-Learning and Other Educational Experiences), I came across the Federation of American Scientists report from their recent Summit on Educational Games (2006).  

The FAS is concerned with American competitiveness in science and engineering.  FAS points out that:

The success of complex video games demonstrates games can teach higher-order thinking skills such as strategic thinking, interpretative analysis, problem solving, plan formulation and execution, and adaptation to rapid change. These are the skills U.S. employers increasingly seek in workers and new workforce entrants. These are the skills more Americans must have to compete with lower cost knowledge workers in other nations.  
 
The report notes that game designers have instinctively implemented many of the features of "optimal learning environments": clear learning goals, broad (and reinforcing) experiences), continuous adjustment of the challenge based on performance, encouragement of inquiry, time on task, motivation, personalization and others. 

The summit's major findings include:
  • Educational games require players to master skills that employers want; with the potential to impact practical skills training, training individuals for high-performance situations that require complex decision-making, reinforcing skills seldom used, teaching how experts approach problems, and team-building. 
  • Designing games for learning is different from designing games for entertainment. 
  • Research is needed to develop a sound understanding of which features of games are important for learning and why, and how to best design educational games to deliver positive learning outcomes.
  • High development costs in an uncertain market make developing complex high-production learning games too risky for video game and educational materials industries.
  • Educational institutions aren't set to to take advantage of educational technology in general, and games in particular. 
  • Large-scale evaluations of the effectiveness of educational games are needed to encourage development and adoption of gaming technology. 
The report goes on to detail the roles of government, the gaming industry and the educational institutions in filling in the knowledge gaps and figuring out how to make the clear benefit of learning simulations more available to all learning environments.  Issues of how scale up and reduce the cost of design, production, deployment, and assessment of games are addressed.   The full report is about 50 pages long, but is well-written, to-the-point, and a highly recommended read for anyone interested in educational games and simulations. 

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