Using Gaming Systems as Modern Learning Tools

by Martin LaGrow

The advancement of gaming technology from one generation to the next is mind-boggling. It’s hard to believe that in what has become known as the ‘Video Game Crash of 1983,’ the industry virtually fell out of existence, with revenues dropping from $3.2 billion to $100 million in 1985.  The cause of the market crash was also fertile grounds for the solution—a glut of subpar and poorly developed games and systems drove consumers away.  The solution, therefore, was a focus on innovation and quality to woo consumers.  Ultimately, the Nintendo 64 and Sony’s Playstation reinvigorated the market in the mid 1990’s.  Microsoft entered the game and elevated competition with its Xbox in 2001, in side by side competition with the new Nintendo GameCube.  It’s hard to find solid numbers because the definition of video gaming can vary, but most estimates indicate that industry revenue is now over $20 billion a year.  Current developments of the Wii and Xbox 360 prove that companies are still willing to innovate and invest to take their fair share of a very large pie.  Market penetration is significant—sales estimates in the United States would indicate that over half of US households have at least one advanced gaming system. The likelihood of the market compressing again as it did in 1983 is slim to none.  Consoles are advancing in technological capability much faster and in different directions than the home PC, tablet, and mobile device.  Is there an implication in the advancement of these platforms for education?  If LMS designers are open-minded, there certainly could be.

The concept of using a gaming console for learning is certainly not new. Pictured, an Xbox is employed at the AT&T Oaks Course outside San Antonio to help golfers lower their handicaps before actually embarking on the course.  By using the Xbox Kinect, one can imagine that the same Xbox will soon analyze and advise the same golfers about their swing.

Another classic example is the evolution from Rock Band to Rocksmith. Whereas users once plugged a toy push-button guitar into their game consolses, all of their time invested was wasted when it comes to real-world application. With the advent of Rocksmith, the guitar used is now the real deal—meaning gameplay is translated to real-world skills. Though many critics pan the game and its effectiveness, it is only a first incarnation. If the market demands it, new versions will evolve that increase effectiveness.

More academic pursuits are already available.  For example, “Let’s Learn Japanese” (http://marketplace.xbox.com/en-US/Product/Lets-Learn-Japanese-Beginner/66acd000-77fe-1000-9115-d802585504ac) is an early venture into language learning.  Microsoft also now partnering with Sesame Workshop and National Geographic to pitch the Kinect as a potential tool for ‘embodied learning’ that puts children right into the action (http://content.usatoday.com/communities/gamehunters/post/2011/10/microsoft–kinect–xbox-360-learning/1).

So how can the innovation and advanced interactive features of the current generation of game consoles be harnessed for higher education?  The answer may lie in supplementing online learning environments rather than replacing them. Consider the strengths of the game console as a potential supplemental tool to bolster the weaknesses of the traditional LMS:

Ease of navigation and familiarity to users. Students who grew up interacting in a three-dimensional online world can easily translate those skills to academic challenges.  If navigation through academic software mimics traditional RPG’s with user friendly tools like Kinect and the Wii remote, there is one less hurdle to separate student from success.  The fear of navigating a new online system is summarily removed.

Interconnectivity. Many games rely on the integration of game consoles with internet activity. For example, the Wii version of Club Penguin allows children to transfer their achievements and rewards to their online Club Penguin account, accessed through a web browser.  All that is required is a network connection.  Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure takes it one step further, and records data via RFID to figurines, which can then be synchronized online as well.  The point is, if students can complete exercises, master objectives, and progress sequentially in course material on their game console, that information is very easily submitted and stored to an online LMS.

Standalone functionality.  Every LMS is based on the assumption that students have consistent, high-speed internet connectivity.  Furthermore, a high volume of server capacity is necessary for large institutions to support all students.  Server downtime or network congestion can frustrate students attempting to frantically meet deadlines.  If students can complete drill-and-practice work, view videos, and participate in simulations locally on their game console, and rely on internet connectivity only for the purpose of uploading and recording progress, the demands on network speeds and server capacity are reduced.

Availability and inexpensiveness.  The processing power of an Xbox 360, for the cost of under $300, rivals most laptops (the custom CPU is a triple core processor running at 3.2 GHz) and the graphics power is naturally better (500 MHz GPU with 512 mb GDDR3 RAM).  The amount of downtime due to viruses, hard drive failures, etc. becomes almost a non-issue compared to what students experience with their laptops.  And as mentioned previously, a great many households already have access to game consoles.

I’m not suggesting that playing video games replace scholarly writing or course interaction in online LMS’s.  I am, however, suggesting that we can harness the power of the tools that already exist to provide an exciting and different way to engage students, taking full advantage of technology the PC world has not yet embraced. The PC is being left behind in the way people use technology today, and replaced with tablets, PDA’s, and even game consoles.  It’s time for the world of education to innovate in these different spaces to engage today’s learner.

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Filed under computer games, education, education technology, games, Learning Management Systems, Martin LaGrow, simulation, tablets, technology

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