Engineering professor Brianno Coller didn’t like math problems as an instructor any more than he had as a student. What he needed was animation and interactivity, and that’s when he decided to use video games as a teaching tool.
Now his third-year students at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb build virtual race cars, complete with roaring engines and screeching tires, that must maneuver an increasingly challenging course. Along the way, they’re exposed to computational math, a basic building block of engineering.
“I use games to, in some sense, throw away the textbook,” says Coller, 42, who played Lunar Lander and other video games as a kid. “My philosophy is that learning can be a burdensome chore or it can be an interesting journey.”
Around the country, pockets of faculty have been adding games to their courses as a way to stimulate learning. At Boston College, nursing students conduct forensics at a virtual crime scene. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a game called Melody Mixer teaches students how to read and compose music. Students at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., play World of Warcraft, a multiplayer online game, in a course on intelligence studies.
“The key driver is the need for ways to make learning more engaging,” says Larry Johnson, CEO of the non-profit New Media Consortium and co-author of a report this year that predicts an explosion of game-based learning in higher education within three years. “Games can open that door for many students.”
Game-based learning has become a new field and has even been touted as part of the U.S. Education Department’s new national technology plan, but games don’t have to be based on the computer. To help students grasp the psychological and economic impact of the Black Death, University of New Haven lecturer Matt Wranovix created a card game in which students left holding a Joker fall victim to the plague. And there is no software to download to play Reacting to the Past, a role-playing game developed a decade ago by Barnard College history professor Mark Carnes. The game, which has spread to more than 300 campuses in the past few years, relies mostly on classic texts and, sometimes, homemade costumes.
While some people are skeptical about using games as an educational tool, others are embracing it to make learning fun. The more fun you have, the more likely you’ll learn something.
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