The digital revolution is no longer a revolution; it is now the new normal. People of all ages are using technology in their everyday lives, from computers to cell phones to tablets to video games and more. These devices are so common that they are reshaping many of the ways that we play, work, and learn. The impact of digital technology on education has been significant, as more and more schools incorporate computers and other technology into classroom settings. One area that remains fraught with controversy, however, is in how that technology is used. There is a burgeoning movement that claims there is a role for the use of video games in schools; supporters of this movement suggest that the use of video games can help students learn in new ways and master the skills they will need for survival and success in the modern world. Detractors insist that video games are little more than a distraction, and that traditional methods of education are still superior. While both sides of this issue make compelling arguments, there is a mounting body of evidence indicating that the use of video games in educational settings can help students learn and succeed.
Technology is reshaping education in a number of ways. The push for more computers in classrooms has been going on since before the Internet age, though access to online information has changed the way people use computers. As computers have become more widespread, less expensive, and capable of doing more and more things, they have found new and broader uses in classrooms. Computers and other digital devices can help students in a variety of ways, and can also make it easier for educators and administrators to ensure that a complete curriculum is offered to all students. Typical uses for computers in the classroom might include using the Internet to access information, and using educational software programs sot assist students with developing their reading, writing, science, and mathematics skills.
Computers and other digital devices also have some narrower, specific ways in which they can be useful. Students with disabilities, for example, may be able to use digital technology to help overcome the limitations presented by those disabilities (Clemmitt, 2011). Deaf students, for example, can use digital devices to provide real-time visual information that complements instructor lectures. Students with learning disabilities may be able to use digital technology in the classroom that is specifically designed to assist them with their educational processes at a pace that is viable for them, while other students in the same classroom may be using the same or similar technology for different purposes at the same time (Glazer, 2011). With the right approach, the use of computers and other technology in the classroom can help teachers mold their curricula to fit the needs of individual students in the same classroom, instead of taking a one-size fits-all approach to education.
It is this one-size-fits-all approach that concerns many educators, as lesson plans have become more and more basic in recent years. Driven by concerns over accountability and student progress, a move towards the use of standardized testing has emerged in recent years (Mitchell, 2011). These tests are ostensibly intended to ensure that students are learning the basics of education, such as reading, writing, and arithmetic. In many instances, however, the results of standardized testing have become tied to critical sources of funding. Schools with students who do not perform well on such standardized tests may face a lack of funding that is often desperately needed. Some educators believe that this emphasis on standardized testing is necessary to ensure overall student success, while others decry it as placing too much emphasis on memorization (Fang, 2011). Proponents of digital technology in the classroom believe that such technology can help students in a number of ways; it can assist them in preparing for such testing while also providing new and different ways of learning.
It is not only in physical classrooms that digital technology is changing the face of education. A movement towards the development of online schools is rising rapidly across the nation. Many states have begun to allow private, for-profit schools that function entirely online to begin operating (Fang, 2011). These schools offer new alternatives to parents who wish to bridge the gap between private, independent home-schooling and the typical realm of private and public schools where students attend classes in physical, rather than virtual, locations. Proponents of these online schools claim that they offer parents more choices in the curricula that are available for their children, and allow individual educational programs to be tailored to their children’s needs and interests.
The virtual world on the Internet provides myriad opportunities for learning. Educators have been developing programs for students to use online in a variety of contexts –such as in physical schools and in online schools- that allow students to learn in new and interactive ways. In some instances these virtual environments are geared towards developing the skills and information needed to succeed in standardized testing while still learning through interaction and critical thinking, rather than through rote memorization (Nuruzzaman, 2013). One recent study of online learning developed two sets of curricula; one to be taught and learned in a physical classroom and one to be taught and learned by students being guided through the use of a virtual, online environment. The results of this study showed that those students working and learning in the interactive environment scored significantly higher on subsequent testing related to the course material (Hess and Gunter, 2013). Such studies need to be done on a broader and more frequent basis to determine if such results demonstrate a pattern, of course, but the results of this study were a boon to those who believe digital technology and online learning are important and useful educational tools.
Perhaps the most interesting question about the use of digital and online technology in the educational setting is exactly how such technology can be used. Traditional methods of learning might typically include the use of textbooks and other materials, supplemented by instructor lectures, classroom discussions, and other activities. Proponents of digital technology assert that such technology can provide many of the same benefits as these traditional methods, while also offering a range of other possibilities that simply are not available in the traditional setting. The nature of much of today’s digital technology is inherently interactive; people are used to the idea of interfacing with their various digital devices, through the use of apps, programs, and other uses specific to digital technology. The area that is perhaps most ripe for development for use in education is that of video games.
On the most basic level, video games are inherently interactive. Playing video games requires the development and use of a range of different skills, from hand-eye coordination to the use of memorization and strategy (Gibson, 2012). Proponents of using video games for the purpose of education claim that developing these different skills, done in the setting of educationally-purposed games, can enhance the educational experience in a number of ways (Gee, 2003). Primary among the ways that video games may be useful for the purposes of education is simply that they are fun to play, and encourage ongoing involvement (Nuruzzaman, 2013). Many video games are built around the idea that increased and improved participation rewards players, a notion that some educators insist can be helpful and useful for students.
James Gee, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin, is a staunch proponent of video games being used in the context of education. Among Gee’s favorite games is Grand Theft Auto, and often-violent game that involves (as the title suggests) theft, the use of weapons, interaction with criminals and police, and other such activities (Carlson, 2003). While Gee acknowledges that Grand Theft Auto may not be suitable for younger players, he sees a role for games of this type in his college-level classes. According to Gee, games such as Grand Theft Auto teach players not just the typical skills needed to master video games –such as strategy and memorization- but also teach something about the broader cultural context in which students live (Gee, 2003). Games such as these give students an opportunity to make choices and decisions that they may not always get to make in the real world, but that offer players a chance to consider and understand the ramifications of such decisions and actions without having to actually undertake them in real life.
Gee and others are also developing video games that are intended to combine what he sees as the educational benefits of games such as Grand Theft Auto with settings that are specifically intended to be both fun and educational. Such interactive games can be based on science, history, sociology, psychology, and a range of other subjects. The virtual environments of such games give players the opportunity to operate in a context wherein they can conduct experiments, carry out specific activities, and interact with other players both in their classrooms and anywhere else an Internet connection exists (Paul, 2013). The makers of the virtual-world-building game Sim City, for example, have developed a version of the game specifically for educational use (Toppo, 2013). This game allows players to interact and function in an environment where they can study history, observe the ethical and moral consequences of decisions, and, makers assert, develop a better understanding of many concepts that might be more difficult to grasp simply by reading about them in books (Aviv, 2011).
Not everyone welcomes the trend towards using digital technology in education, of course. Some educators lament that the video game ear has brought an end to the age when students memorized –or even read- great works of literature (Carlson, 2003). Others point to issues with the new world of online education, and complain that lax oversight of such programs might mean that students in online schools are not receiving the best possible education (Mitchell, 2011). Similar complaints are heard about the use of video games in an educational setting; those who disagree with their use claim that video games, while they may be fun, detract from the fundamentals of the educational process.
Proponents of the use of digital technology and video games in the classroom counter such complaints by noting that such technology is here to stay, and that educators have little choice but to come to terms with that fact and determine ways that such technology can best be used in the educational setting. Celia Pearce, of the University of California Irvine, asserts that those who oppose the use of technology in education are simply living in the past. Pearce refers to such opponents as being stuck in the “pre-information society,” and claims that those educators and schools that learn to adapt to and embrace technology are doing their students a great service (Carlson, 2003). Pearce and others like her are not claiming that digital technology and video games should completely replace traditional educational models, but they do assert that such technology complements education in ways that simply cannot be ignored.
What is clear is that digital technology is here to stay. Schools that used to admonish students to leave their cell phones at home or in their lockers are no hanging signs that say “BYOT” (Bring Your Own Technology) to school (Richtel, 2013). Such schools are finding new ways for students to use their digital devices as platforms for educational programs and finding that such BYOT approaches help to save money while increasing student participation and interaction. As more is learned about the subject of using computers, video games, and other technology in the classroom, it will become more refined and more successful. Such technology is only going to grow, and those schools and educators that embrace it are the ones who will be doing the most to help their students succeed today and in the future.
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