Can Students Learn Math or Reading From a Video Game? An Overview of the Federal Star Schools Projects

Javier Elizondo, Tim Best, Scott Wilson, Scot Osterweil, Brian Lekander

This symposium will feature representatives from the projects supported by the federal Star Schools program, a competitive grant program that is currently spending over $47 million over five years to support five major projects that are using videogames to teach math and reading to junior high or elementary school students.

All of the Star Schools-supported games will run on mobile technologies — such as handheld computers, portable game devices, or the new ultra mobile PCs. Our goal is not only to test the effectiveness of games for learning, but also to make sure they can be used in a variety of settings, including the after-school tutoring programs that are required under No Child Left Behind. It’s important for us to focus on teaching reading and math (Star Schools legislation actually requires our grantees to focus on core academic subjects) because these are critical school improvement priorities. We’re trying to ensure that federal funding for innovations in educational technology can lead to important results now and not just some distant time in the future.

For many in the educational community, games are perceived as motivating and fun, but we’re expecting them to deliver much more than that. Serious thinkers like James Gee from the University of Wisconsin (who is advising two of our projects) have suggested that, at their best, games have the potential to realize the best of what we know about learning theory. For example, games engage players in complex problem-solving, often in environments that simulate real-world conditions; they give players progressively harder tasks, each time stretching students’ mental capacities; and they give players regular feedback with positive reinforcements for success. We want to take advantage of these qualities to achieve real learning gains in our schools.

In doing so, one of our most critical challenges will be to merge the very best and most exciting elements of successful games — including the tried and true approaches of the commercial gaming industry — with pedagogical approaches that will best serve the needs of a diverse group of students. In practice, this will not always be so easy.

It’s important to note that the Star Schools projects are not, however, solely focused on game development: They are also ambitious school outreach projects and evaluation research projects. All of our grantees are working with independent evaluators to implement scientifically-based experimental research designs to determine the games’ effectiveness. To make this research possible, the games have to be widely used by hundreds of students. This will require the grantees to work closely with large numbers of schools and school districts, often spanning several states; to train the teachers how to use the technology; and to align game content with school curricula and state learning standards. In the end, our games will be widely used, and we expect to be able to share some important findings from our research.

This symposium will feature a panel of project directors from four of the five Star Schools projects: Javier Elizondo of Pacific Resources in Education and Learning (PREL), Tim Best of the Ohio Board of Regents, Scott Wilson of the University of Oklahoma, and Scot Osterweil of MIT’s Education Arcade. These panelists will describe their game development efforts, school outreach plans, and evaluation research. The panel will be moderated by Brian Lekander, the Program Manager of Star Schools in the US Department of Education.

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