Video Games in Education and UDL

Last week I was lucky enough to attend and present at the Educational Technology Council of the Alberta Teachers Association’s annual conference. One of the sessions I attended was about creating games in the classroom, lead by Kandise Salerno and Susana Gerndt from Sister Annata Brockman Elementary/Junior High School. I really liked their innovative approach by getting students to create a video game in class. One question that was asked at the end of the session was about how (or if) students were learning content through this process. This got me thinking about the purpose of gaming in the classroom and the impact it can have on different elements of teaching. There are different ways to apply gaming theory and practice to the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Means of Representation

This is what the questioner was trying to get at in the ETCATA session. Is it possible to use a video game to teach a concept? I first stumbled on the idea that content could be delivered through a video game in the 90’s when I started noticing Grade 8 students who had a pretty substantial knowledge of WWII because they had been playing Call of Duty (PC version, not console). I have since heard a few examples of content being taught with Civilization (Ancient Rome with Civ IV) and World of War Craft (Professors hold Class in WOW). Not all trials were successful, and the ones that I heard about that I thought were effective were post-secondary classes. I have always wanted to put a Social 10 course about Globalization based on Civ IV (now Civ V), but was too afraid of the costs, risks and time commitment. However, I do believe that there is educational value in video games as a means of representation and, if it is implemented thoughtfully, would appeal to many students.

Means of Expression

This is the principle reflected in the way Gerndt and Annada used gaming. After students had learned about a historical time period, they had to add an element, or level, to the game that showed they had learned and understood the material (Granatstein would have been impressed). Through the creation of the game, students were learning valuable skills for the modern world, such as collaboration, critical thinking, and digital fluency, to name a few, all while expressing their new knowledge to the topic. In UDL terms, there are students that may find it easier to show what they know through creating a game that explains a concept rather than write an essay about it.

Means of Engagement

Gaming and game theory can also be used to engage students, sustain interest and self-regulate. Paul Anderson delivers an interesting TED Talk in which he completely redesigns his class around some of the principles of gaming. His thoughtful and innovative approach is definitely worth considering. I don’t know if it would work for all grade levels, and I also wonder if it would be as effective if every class operated on the same premise. Nevertheless, we can learn a lot about how video games motivate people that have classroom applications.

Three approaches to the ways video games can influence the classroom through the principles of UDL. These are not perfect fits, and there are many roadblocks and hurtles that make it difficult for us to use games in the classroom. Hats off to those committed teachers, like Gerndt and Annada at Sister Annata Brockman, who are bravely pioneering this innovative and exciting approach to teaching.

9 thoughts on “Video Games in Education and UDL

  1. Great post, for me it made two connections.
    1: That Universal Design For Learning principles can be applied in an infinite number of ways.
    2: We are just starting down the road of using technology in an educational setting.

    My one question is how important were the teachers in these settings? Is it their passion that drives it’s success or the structure and medium that does?

    • One can never underestimate the power of a passionate teacher. Effective teaching is enhanced by the tools we choose to teach with. Our tools do not turn us into effective teachers.

  2. Thanks for the post. It has got me thinking about the possibilities for organizing a course around a game-like structure rather than using specific games as learning tools. (Thanks for linking this to the thought provoking Anderson video)

    • Awesome. I would love to hear how it goes. Feel free to post a link in this reply if you have a class webpage or reflection blog we can follow.

  3. I’ve been thinking about this the last few days since you posted it. True story: in high school at Harry Ainlay I used to have morning spares for whatever reason. My spare was something like 9:30 till 11:00 on Tuesdays I think? Anyways I used to head on over to Southgate mall where I’d wait for the video arcade to open up. I loved games (still do) and I’d spend a couple bucks in quarters there. They had a game which I can’t remember the title to that was purely driving. I was interested in it because it had 3 monitors, and was set up like a real car – you got to choose between a Miata, a Ferrari and something else. I was intrigued to play it because it offered a standard transmission with a clutch. There was an element of difficulty involved in this game that the other games never had. Over time I mastered this game and had self-taught myself to drive a standard. I bought my first standard VW Golf when I got my first teaching job in 97. This little beast was obviously more challenging to drive, but honestly the only training I had when I bought it from Norden was that video game. I drove it off the lot and to my place with maybe one stall! So there is value to video games. The catch is that the game needs to have a purpose that is desired by the student. And that is something that no teacher gave me, only my own inner drive to learn the skill. When the curriculum “decides” our path, students check out no matter what strategy used to teach. Video games in the hands of a master teacher who allows choice to their students…that is something worth investigating.

    • Great story. One of the main goals of teaching is to inspire and foster our students inner drive to learn. Well crafted video games can assist us in achieving that for some students. It the aligning to curriculum that takes the most work.

  4. We are equally as enthusiastic with the possibilities constructive gaming offers to our digital learners. We are aware that gaming does lend itself well to differentiation and appreciate your reflection on our work with students. We have been pondering the framework of UDL and gaming over the past week. We are so happy with your feedback as we feel that the framework of UDL validates the potential of game-based learning.

    We would agree that gaming is indeed a means of personal expression that allows students to articulate a narrative that encompasses concepts and skills learned. Students also have the possibility to develop alternate events in history that refocus their understanding of how they live within the world and how choices affect many different realms.

    As a springboard from our presentation we have recently discovered the further potential constructive video gaming offers to our students. According to McClay et al. (2007), they discuss the interconnected relationship that exists between video game construction and written narratives. Here students compose a narrative story to accompany their video game creation, which allows for a more rigorous and in-depth analysis of student learning. This is something we want to further explore in our next video game endeavor. It is through these paired narratives that our student population will be able to more accurately explain their conceptual understanding of the curriculum. We feel that if we were just to analyze one of these components we wouldn’t see the true nature of our students’ understanding.

    Multimodal expression allows our digital learners to fully communicate their understanding of the world. As educators, it is our responsibility to wade through the muddy and unknown waters of digital learning to discover what our students are truly capable of.

    Kandise Salerno & Susana Gerndt:)

    • I love the idea of a narrative to accompany the video game.

      I have been thinking a lot about the skills that are being taught as students create their games. In terms of building digital and technical fluency, creating video games becomes a means of representation. My post may have oversimplified the application of UDL.

      I really enjoyed your presentation. Thanks for sharing your story.

  5. As I read all of the comments here I am excited to see that the value of gaming and games in general is becoming a topic for real discussion!

    As to it’s ties to UDL it is important to remember that UDL does not tie the hands of teachers to do things in a particular way, but rather frees them to find new innovative ways for students to learn, that honour the true variability of the learners in the class. For some teachers a class or course modelled around gaming or asking students to build games will be what meets the needs of that class at that time.

    UDL is seeming simple in concept but it is in discussions like this we see how different classes might look even when they all consider UDL in their planning, activities and assessment.

    Just my two cents.

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