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By Paul Bradley  /  
2014 March 3 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: TECHNOLOGY SPECIAL REPORT, Spring 2014_Getting in The Game

C  O  V  E  R    S  T  O  R  Y

Getting in The Game
Colorado Colleges Develop Game-Based, Immersive Courses
By Paul Bradley

It was about two-and-a-half years ago that leaders of the Colorado Community College System peered over the demographic horizon and grew concerned over what they saw.

The educational pipeline that soon would be flooding their campuses was swelled with digital natives, born after the introduction of digital technologies and thoroughly comfortable with electronic gadgets and virtual worlds.

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CCW 2014 Technology Supplement

This generation grew up gaming and texting, watching YouTube videos and communicating with pals through Facebook. They get news not from a paper edition of the local newspaper but from their iPhones or laptop or tablet.

They also had radically different learning styles than the earlier generation. The Colorado colleges were confronting a conundrum: curriculum had been designed by digital immigrants, many of whom came of age when electric typewriters qualified as high tech. Faculty members had adapted to the constantly evolving digital age, but they weren’t on the same page as students, and they needed to get there.

“These students are immersed in digital technologies,” said CCCS Chancellor Nancy McCallin. “We needed to meet them where they are.”

In his seminal 2001 paper “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” writer Marc Prensky argued that today’s educational shortcomings are rooted in the reality that young people experience life and education in very different ways than did generations past.

In classrooms, he contended, digital immigrant instructors and digital native students speak entirely different languages. He advocated the creation of computer games to teach digital natives the lessons they need to learn, no matter how serious the subject matter.

It was against this backdrop that CCCS set aside $3 million through its Faculty Challenge Grant Program to encourage the development of courses and curriculum focusing on immersion and game-based learning (IGBL).

Grants were awarded to 15 projects. The intent was that they would be “lighthouse projects,” illuminating the way for others to follow. Each solution would be scalable, shared with other institutions throughout the 13-college system.

The proposals rest on a bedrock belief that students would be better engaged and more likely to persist and graduate if they learned through the kind of technologies now so central to their lives. The typical lecture model would be replaced by digital hooks that grab students’ interest and attention and doesn’t let go. The use of technology would be central to the efforts.

“There is a lot of talk these days about attainment gaps,” McCallin said. “But you don’t see much of an attainment gap when it comes to learning about iPads or iPhones or computers.”

Immersion and team-based activities were also encouraged. Research has shown that problem-based and project-based activities better engage students in learning and enhances both retention and college completion.

The proposals from the colleges ran the gamut.

The Community College of Aurora received a grant for creation of “CSI Aurora,” which capitalizes on the popularity of forensic television shows and teaches the reality of forensic work through an immersive learning exercise involving a mock crime scene and mock criminal trial, with student participation from the archaeology, forensic anthropology, criminal justice, paralegal and science departments.

The Auto Collision Repair program at Morgan Community College purchased a SimSpray immersive virtual reality painting simulation unit. This unit is designed to assist in the teaching of spray painting and coating fundamentals. Using SimSpray decreases the expense of paint used to teach spray painting and prevents exposure to potentially dangerous fumes. The 3D SimSpray experience, aimed at students who play video games, allows students to practice painting before ever stepping into the paint bay.

At Front Range Community College, curriculum designer Kae Novak, who specializes in game-based immersive environments and virtual worlds, designed “Project Outbreak.” It’s a series of augmented reality scenarios in which microbiology students track and follow a potential epidemic in their local area to its source across international borders. Students use their mobile devices, the TagWhat geolocation app, Google Hangout and Google maps. Scenarios are designed to meet core competencies, promote global connectedness and give students a global perspective in solving real-world problems.

“They also learn that their mobile devices can be used for more that texting their friends,” Novak quipped.

Among the most ambitious of the programs can be found at the Community College of Aurora’s renowned film school. There, educators are in the process of using a $100,000 grant to create a virtual economy designed to mirror the reality of the studio system, from writing scripts to luring investors to screening the film in front of a real-life audiences.

Expected to roll out in the fall, it will inject a healthy dose of reality into the theory and practice of movie-making.

“I have students about to graduate and I can see that fear in their eyes,” said Frederic Lahey, director of the college’s film/video program. “One of our goals in the virtual studio system is to build professional habits. That is the world that we live in. I want to eliminate the boundaries.”

Over the past seven years, the film school has developed proprietary software that allows students to experience — virtually — every aspect of the filmmaking experience. The cost of rental housing in Los Angeles, New York and Denver can be accessed with a few clicks of a mouse. The cost of obtaining equipment can easily be calculated. Students working within a set budget can see how much to devote to paying actors and directors, producers and key grips.

“No other film school in the world is doing this,” Lahey said. “No one is even thinking about what we are doing.”

Lahey’s long-range vision is a global film school network that can allow students to reach across borders through a searchable database of acting, production and cinematography talent.

“We will market this and sell it to other schools,” he said. “We can then have a universal film school. If someone in Colorado needs a shot of Big Ben in London, they’ll be able to do it. This allows them to make connections around the world.”

Meanwhile, Angie Generose, an adjunct instructor at the Community College of Denver, is making connections throughout the Colorado Community College System. She’s teaching a systemwide student success course through ACCESS, a web-based game modeled after the board game “Life.”

The game, created in 1860 by Milton Bradley, simulates a person’s travels through his or her life, from college to retirement, with jobs, marriage, and possible children along the way. ACCESS teaches the course in a flipped format, allowing students to receive information through videos, podcasts, downloadable lectures and social media, and then discuss the materials in class.

The course has its own Facebook page and Twitter handle, Generose said.

“They are on social media almost constantly,” she said. “Now they can get the content on social media. I think it’s been beneficial in building a strong community of learners.”

The student success course is designed to help students successfully complete remedial coursework, and so far the results are promising. In the sections where ACCESS has been used, scores on quizzes jumped 14 percent. Course completion is up, too; 71 percent of students enrolled in ACCESS completed the course, compared to 60 percent enrolled without the gaming component, Generose said.

An evaluation by education consultant found that IGBL courses are having a positive impact on students. In general, the evaluation found, students indicated that participating in the IGBL course: increased their interest in learning, got them excited about their future, improved their attitude toward college and improved their career goals.

Among the other findings:

Academic success: Students exhibited nearly identical pass/fail rates as non-IGBL courses.

Satisfaction: 69 percent of students across semesters indicated that they were either more or much more satisfied with their IGBL course, as compared to other courses; 85 percent of students indicated that they were either more or much more satisfied with their IGBL instructor, as compared to other instructors.

Persistence: Most students responded positively: 73 percent of students reported that they would take another IGBL course again.

Learning outcomes: Students indicated that their IGBL course did a better or much better job (as compared to non-IGBL courses) of helping them achieve a variety of learning outcomes, including: having fun while learning (83 percent/73 percent); applying learning to new situations (81 percent/72 percent); staying engaged in learning (79 percent/73 percent); feeling involved in the college (69 percent/60 percent); working well with other students (67 percent/61 percent).

McCallin credited the courses with fostering collaboration among faculty members and across colleges. But she is most pleased with the rising levels of student engagement.

“I think we are showing that learning doesn’t have to be boring,” she said.

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