viewpoints, community college of philadelphia journal of collegiate learning, teaching, and assessment,  10th anniversary issue

Engaging Students with Educational Gaming

by Betsy Shiland
Health Information Technologies

Computer gaming presents a challenge and opportunity to educators. Many teachers at Community College of Philadelphia are probably observers, maybe critics, of computer games, but many students are avid players. Jay Howard, Viewpoints editor, interviewed Betsy Shiland in order to investigate educational possibilities for computer gaming. Shiland is a co-facilitator of the Teaching Center and an assistant professor in Health Information Technologies. She has written a number of books in her field, and the most recent Mastering Healthcare Terminology: An Integrated Approach (Philadelphia: Elsevier Health Science, 2006) was published in March. As a teacher and textbook author, Shiland is constantly searching for ways to involve students in learning, and she has investigated the possibilities of educational gaming for her classroom as well as for textbooks. J.H.

J.H.Just what is educational gaming?

B.S.Educational gaming is any competitive activity that is played according to rules and is intended to enhance learning in a given discipline.

J.H.Why would educational gaming be helpful to students?

B.S.Because time-on-task is so important, and many students tend to spend as little time as necessary to practice the application of new concepts, educational gaming provides a more enjoyable means of practice. Students who are hesitant to take the risk of answering a question in class are far more likely to attempt an answer in a game where the feedback is private and immediate.

J.H.Do today’s students (the 18 year olds in the back of the classroom) learn differently from their parents (the 40 year olds sitting in the front row)?

B.S.I think that the younger students tend to be more technologically savvy and are comfortable with gaming formats. The visually stimulating/immediate feedback nature of a game environment engages these students and keeps them on task. Worksheets tend to be boring for many of these students.

J.H.What are some good educational games?

B.S.Believe it or not, I’m not wild about video games. However, I watched my son (age 15) play Sim City, Rollercoaster Tycoon, and World of Warcraft. These are all simulation games with a great deal of detail and consequences for “wrong” choices. I think they are the models that truly good educational games should emulate. The problem is that the development costs for these games are exorbitant and a realistic educational game budget is around $5,000.

J.H.Does educational gaming work in all classes, or just some?

B.S.I used some very simple video games with three developmental classes. My retention rate shot up three-fold. These students were on task for the entire 55 minutes. I could see that they were engaged, not only with the games, but with controlling their own learning. I caught only one student in three semesters checking her e-mail. And these games were not sophisticated! I think perhaps they would be especially useful with developmental classes for students who are unsure of their skills as students and need to “fail” in an environment (the game) that allows them to repeat the task multiple times with multiple examples with immediate feedback. And not just developmental classes, MIT is using gaming in many of their classes. I think that instructors would have to be aware of what games are available for their course objectives.

J.H. “Edutainment” is a term sometimes associated with educational gaming. Should education be entertaining? Should if be fun?

B.S.Is there something bad about fun? Yes, I do think that games can be entertaining as well as educational. When I think about the work that I truly love to be engaged in, I realize that I enjoy it because I’m having fun, too. It doesn’t mean that it’s easy, or that it’s quick, but it’s satisfying and enjoyable.

J.H.Where can faculty learn more about educational gaming?

B.S.Most back-of-book CDs that come with textbooks these days have games on them. And most faculty tend to not preview them. Some of the games are good and some aren’t. Looking over the shoulder of a child (or adult!) playing a Gameboy, Xbox, or computer game is another option – and ask questions about why they’re making the choices they do. As the single parent of an only child, I’ve been a player in Animal Crossing, Mario: Party of Four, and many more games that I would not normally have chosen over a familiar board game. Check out the James Gee book (in our library): What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. Academic Computing has a subscription to “Technology and Learning” or check out techLEARNING at their website

J.H.Is educational gaming linked to learning style?

B.S.I wouldn’t characterize educational gaming as a learning style, but as another option in the instructor’s toolbox. Educational gaming crosses at least three of the sensory categories of learning styles: visual, kinesthetic, and auditory. Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences are visited in well-constructed games through spatial, logical-mathematical, interpersonal, and existential intelligences.

J.H.Do educational games involve one student at a time, or can a group play?

B.S.Games can be written for one player or multiple players. Right now, the majority of the educational games that I’m familiar with are one player games. I love the idea of collaboration in games, and students working in a learning community, but I don’t know of any games that use that format yet.

J.H.What should faculty look for when considering an educational game for the classroom?

B.S.There are lots of clever games available. However, I am concerned that they are not necessarily keyed to the objectives of the courses that they are used in. Check the games to see if they are helping the student to progress toward the goals of the course. The games need to be written with a large amount of content, so that the questions in a given objective can be randomized and provide a different set of material each time the student plays the game. Too many games have too little content (because it takes an enormous amount of time to write the content and publishers do not pay for content, just for the programming of the “engine” that drives the questions).

“Progress reports” should be available to the student (and also instructor?) to show the students that they are gaining mastery in a given objective. These are valuable but rare in most games. I think this piece of programming will appear in the next wave of games development.

What’s Behind a Real Game ?

For her latest textbook Mastering Healthcare Terminology: An Integrated Approach (Philadelphia: Elsevier Health Science, 2006), Shiland developed three games. The first one, “Wheel of Terminology” is focused on word building and uses a stem of a word part with a number of choices for other word parts to complete the term. The students use their knowledge of the meanings of the word parts to build the correct definition. The second game is similar to Jeopardy, but the categories are progressively difficult chapter objectives. The third is called “Triage.” In this game, the player received patients arriving at an emergency department. Each patient is on a gurney with a medical chart affixed; on the chart is one term. The student has to sort the type of term, for example, pathology, diagnostic, procedural, into the appropriate door. After making the sort, or triage, the student has to define the terms.

Over a summer, Shiland worked with the programmers to develop the games. It took close to 200 hours to “stuff the engine,” or write and type the content into spreadsheets so that the games would be robust enough for randomization.


©Copyright 2006. Contact author for permission

Maintained by Jay Howard,Sept 2006