Playing to Learn: The Benefits of Educational Games

Technology is a huge part of the world we live in today, and we interact with it everyday, whether on our phones, computers, tablets, etc. This type of technology has become a clear segue into education, allowing for children to learn in a fun and interactive way. Tinsley Galyean of MIT, Elliot Hedman Founder of mPath and Cecilia Weckstrom Global Head of LEGO.com took the stage at SXSW 2015 to discuss the potential for games and learning. As well as how their studies have shown a high level of engagement from the students, and the personalized experience an educational game can bring. Whether you're interested in developing games for the education industry or not, there is a lot to be learned on how children experience games. Tinsley Galyean of MIT began the discussion by talking about the global literacy project which started as a research project between MIT, Tufts University, and Georgia State University where tablets were put in the field in very remote Ethiopian villages with a collection of literacy apps to learn what the impact of this material could be. This was a village that was nowhere close to any school, and nobody knew English. "What we found at the end of about a year is that they had self-organized, and they spent a lot of time with the tablets, and they had learned some basic literacy skills. Specifically around literacy, letter knowledge and sound symbol correspondence, and vocabulary. It was a condenser of what they would have learned if they had been in kindergarten for a year." The information they gathered blew away the researchers so over the course of the next year they expanded the program and they are now in five different countries. The platform that the team created is very research driven, they are doing observations in the field in Uganda, and the tablets are constantly gathering usage data and they are doing pre and post assessments with the tablets. Tinsley went to explain the three primary questions that you need to ask when it comes to creating educational apps.
  1. Is it usable?
  2. Is it engaging?
  3. Does learning actually happen?
With usability, it is done very early on in the concept design process. You're often working with small groups, and you're doing it very iteratively. This can have the best impact to the development process. Engagement is kind of unusual because you can as you go into development actually test engagement with study groups and do observational research. The same is true with learning, you really have to look at what advances have happened. Cecilia Weckstrom Global Head of LEGO.com talked about how they develop for kids and some of the important things to keep in mind. doctor image "Trying to capture children's imaginations, and how that can come to life is actually quite hard." Cecilia went on to show a few slides that displayed how adults see things and how children see things. On one side was a doctor, and the other side was an executioner, which is how kids see a doctor. "I'm bringing these things up because what makes our work so hard is that we're grown ups and our job is to come up with these experiences, but to do it from a child's point of view we are often the least equipped to do that." It's important to make an effort to step out of our assumptions, and what we are use to. Being aware of this and making an effort to try to see the world in the eyes of a child. Doing this will help you understand what you need to create and what makes thing resonate with a child. Because you're not designing for yourself, you're designing for a child. Cecilia then went onto discuss her five rules for how to solve any project.
  1. Establish Problem
  2. Establish criteria for solution
  3. Come up with many options
  4. Test against criteria and consumers
  5. Pick the best, develop further
"You first have to work out what the problem is, it helps doing research and experimentation, so that you're not defining the problem as an adult, but you're seeing it from the point of view of a child" "When you know what the problem is you can start working out what the criteria is for a really great solution. When you know that, you can come up with tons of different ideas of what the solution will be. You can then test these against the criteria you agreed on. Of course, at the end you pick the best solution that fits the bill." To end the talk Tinsley went over some of the data they gathered from their research with educational games. In just four months using the tablets there was a substantial increase in letter knowledge and vocabulary. "These numbers are really astounding in this amount of time, and we had no idea we would get these kinds of results," Tinsley stated. "It's exciting to think that what we're doing is activating this intrinsic desire to learn in these kids."