Gamification is a major buzzword in learning. Now, thanks to the support of AT&T, it has a marquee national initiative that will truly test the proposition of whether video games can motivate at-risk students to stay in school, raise test scores, and actually enjoy learning.
"We decided we were going to aim for exponential change in education," explains Beth Shiroshi, AT&T Foundation’s vice president for sustainability and philanthropy. With this reboot of its Aspire education initiative launched four years ago, AT&T has made a big bet on GameDesk, a nonprofit startup that grew out of the University of Southern California. They’re committing $3.8 million for GameDesk first to build a brick-and-mortar hub in Los Angeles, a "classroom of the future" where new, game-based curricula and processes can be demonstrated, observed, and evaluated. Then the company will broadcast that data through an online educational content portal for parents, students, and educators.
GameDesk has a unique focus on collaboration. They bring content experts, including Bill Nye the Science Guy, to the table for marathon brainstorming sessions with designers and engineers to create high-quality, serious games that incorporate advanced subjects like plate tectonics, classical physics, or aerodynamics. "We call it the Vulcan mind meld," founder Lucien Vattel told Co.Exist. "It’s essential for the entire team to be able to translate each concept effectively." The result is a program like MathMaker, where students actually build their own original games while absorbing 6th- through 10th-grade concepts like factoring, x-y coordinates, and aspect ratios. According to a recent evaluation, 80% of students using MathMaker showed increases in math scores, and the scores increased an average of 22% from the start to the end of the program—this at a school where less than two-thirds of students overall were graduating.
More importantly, says Cathy Garcia, who teaches using the MathMaker game in a South Central L.A. high school, the kids who learn this way are more driven and more confident. "By removing the abstraction of math and contextualizing it in a problem, it provides motivation that would otherwise be absent. And I’ve also noticed their own feelings toward their ability changes. They come in at the beginning saying, 'I hate math, I’m dumb at math,' And as we go through the course they start to say, 'This isn’t as hard as I thought it was.'"
GameDesk has already drawn significant support from the Gates Foundation, as well as AT&T competitors Motorola and Samsung, and has collaborated with groups like LucasArts and the National Academy of Sciences, but this donation is an order of magnitude greater and will allow it to triple in size and potentially achieve national influence. Besides building more of their own tools, the learning lab will evaluate resources developed by others and help align them to common core standards. "We have a team of researchers who do nothing but sit around and comb the globe for best practices—high-, low-, and no-tech," says Vattel. In Los Angeles, families, students, and teachers will be able to test the new games in a setting that’s a cross between science museum and perpetual hackathon. All the testing sessions will be videoed, uploaded, and tagged on the virtual portal. "We want to create a community where folks can find this stuff, take it back to their classrooms, and also to give back," says Vattel.
Ultimately, of course, it’s the students who vote on whether serious games can be as engaging as the PlayStation variety, or at least more engaging than regular classes. Edward Solis, a 17-year-old who’s interned at GameDesk and worked on a game to teach physics, says he found coding a lot harder than he expected, but the cool factor of gaming goes a long way for him and his peers. "It’s interactive—they learn by playing, and they don’t find it boring like in normal school."