Maria Cipollone, The Problem with Video Games and Learning

Cipollone began with an anecdote about teaching in an underprivileged school district, which was subsequently closed, but had a classroom full of beautiful expensive and UNUSED Apple Computers. They had been bought for a class the music teacher member was not able to offer…or something like that. Her criticism allocation was broader, however, than the general one of uneven resource allocation: hardware v teaching. The problem is that games motivate students well, but not to learn the content educators expect students to learn and be formally tested on standardized tests. This mismatch is actually harder to fix than just training faculty to use computers well. A new pedagogy surrounding the application of games for learning needs to be developed as well.

Cipollone detailed her experiment with teaching Minecraft to at-risk kids in Philadelphia, not only to motivate them, but also to teach them how to measure real buildings and think architecturally by reproducing these buildings in-game. Students learned how to cooperate in the achievement of this goal, but they didn’t learn much math. One of her research questions was :Can the spatial thinking mastered in this kind of game be leveraged for further learning–or does it already produce a measurable cognitive benefit in students? Students gained knowledge by experimentation, and another consequence of this constructivist model for learning is that it can decenter the teacher. This might be good, if the goal is to create more student-centered learning or (possibly) bad for teachers, who are uncomfortable when their students know more than they do about a game.

Cipollone invited her audience to interrupt her with questions during her talk, and there were many. The root question that emerged from the discussions was: what is school for and can the benefits learned in games support formal curricula? In failing schools a major benefit is simply keeping the kids off the street, but ongoing funding might have to demonstrate more measurable achievements. Perhaps the benefit of helping students to cooperate could be measured and folded into the goals of education. Because Cipollone worked as a researcher at Zynga–famous for Farmville’s in-game purchases business model–one man in the audience wanted to know if this “Skinner Box” motivation might also be leveraged for educational games.

Hmmm…if you can learn the quadratic equation, you earn two more barns?