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Learning can be fun, but not all fun is learning

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September 4, 2017

Last Saturday I decided to try my had at game-based learning. I have heard about it but never had time to look into the concept.
After spending a fun afternoon playing games, the thing one thing that stood out is how important it is that you play the games yourself. When I say play, I do not mean spending 5 minutes to see what it is about, I mean to spend an afternoon and immerse yourself in the game.

The first one I tried is Marbleslides by Desmos. I am not 100% sure you would classify it as a game it is a classroom activity with strong game-like features. At first, I was taken aback by how difficult it was. I almost gave up, and I am very familiar with the content. Without sufficient pre-knowledge, learners will not be able to get past the first level. But the activities really reinforces the mathematical principals. Once you get the hang of it, it gives you great satisfaction. After working through the levels, even I had a much better understanding of the work.

The second one, was an iPad game, Chemcrafter. At first glance, it seems like an excellent chance to do all the chemistry experiments that I never got to do when I was in school. But after playing with it for more than an hour, I was not impressed anymore.
It is a virtual chemistry lab, where you get to work through a set of experiments. Each successful experiment unlocks some new chemicals and enables new experiments. It looked impressive and was quite fun, but after a while, I realised that I am not using any of my non-existing chemistry knowledge, nor am I learning anything new. All I did was figure out what was needed to level-up, with no thought to the actual chemistry. As a learning tool, it wasn’t very successful.

My third foray into game-based learning was some simulations. If you want to try, here is some good examples.
After trying out a few of the simulations I came to the following conclusions:
Simulations are very useful in situations where it would be dangerous or too expensive to experience it in real life. It also creates the opportunity to do multiple practices. However, simulations should never replace the actual activity if it is at all possible.
Doing an experiment online is not the same as physically doing it.
Simulations expect learners to make decisions on their own and might be a cure for the learned dependence that students seems to have these days.
Simulations offer lots of opportunities for differentiation and each student proceeds at their own pace.
On the negative side, I found that I was more interested in figuring out how to win the game, than in what I should be learning.
For example in The Great Flu, I just wanted to skip over the historical background to get to the “game”.
If simulations do not combine with pre-knowledge, content and feedback, it is just expensive trial-and-error.

What was my conclusion after putting my toes into the unknown water of game-based learning?
There is a place for game-based learning. But it is a niche market, not all teachers will be comfortable with it. The key to successfully incorporate game-based learning is planning.  Creating your own games or simulations are an enormous task, and unless you have a massive audience, it is not worth the while. On the other hand, when using some of the available educational games,  you have to be very clear about what your expectations are and where this activity fit in with the rest of your work.

Lastly, always make sure that the game/simulation you want to use will work on the learner’s devices. I was disappointed with the number of games that would not work on mobile devices.

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