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New course will show teachers how to create, use educational games

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Wen-Hao (David) Huang, a professor in the department of education policy, organization and leadership at Illinois, is developing a course for undergraduate students that will teach them how to create their own educational games.

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10/24/2011 | Sharita Forrest, Education and Social Work Editor | 217-244-1072; slforres@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — With an increasing number of children “wired” from an early age, adept at playing computer games and surfing the Web by elementary school, future teachers need to know how to integrate educational games into their teaching practice, according to Wen-Hao (David) Huang, a professor in the department of education policy, organization and leadership in the College of Education at the University of Illinois. Huang wants to “game-ify” the classroom by teaching future educators how to develop engaging interactive games that they can use as effective instructional tools.

Huang will teach a course during the spring semester of 2012 for undergraduate students at Illinois that will show future teachers how they can integrate game-based learning into their instructional practices, creating online games that are fun and stimulating for players while achieving defined learning objectives. The course, like a similar course for advanced graduate students that Huang taught last spring, will be supported with funding from the Illinois Informatics Institute on campus.

Online educational games can provide serious learning opportunities, and are used in an array of contexts, from teaching children history to training surgeons, pilots and combat troops.

One of the earliest and most popular learning games was The Oregon Trail, originally released in 1971. The game was developed by three student teachers in Minnesota for history instruction and was widely used in classrooms in Canada and the U.S. during the 1980s and early 1990s.

“The Oregon Trail is a great example of integrating GBL (game-based learning), but I want teachers to be able to do that for themselves,” said Huang, who has no affiliation with the Oregon Trail game.

Among the educational games created by groups of students in the graduate course was a program for teaching third-graders mathematics and another that schooled college students on the principles of financial management.

 “I’m looking forward to seeing the topics that undergraduate students will come up with in the spring,” Huang said. “The game design process – for me and the students – is very creative and a very rewarding experience. I tell students, ‘The sky’s the limit.’ ”

The only restriction is that the games the students create cannot involve illegal activities, Huang said.

Students in the graduate course “liked the course because they actually got to play,” Huang said. “In order to design an effective game-based learning environment, you definitely need to play. You need to figure out which features work for you and which aren’t as effective. You need to have the first-hand experience of situating yourself in the GBL environment in order to learn something.”

While game developers tend to focus on creating splashy effects and intricate challenges, in Huang’s view creating a narrative that captivates players is more important. Therefore the first segment of the undergraduate course will focus on creating storylines and related tasks or activities that promote players’ development of specific skills and desired learning outcomes.

As the final step in the design process, students will conduct formative evaluations to gauge their games’ effectiveness as instructional tools.

“In a sense, we’re trying to use game-based learning to create a very immersive learning environment – once you get into the online domain you completely engage with what’s happening there,” Huang said.

However, the challenge for game designers is creating interesting environments and stimulating tasks that effectively deliver the content to be learned – without overwhelming players, Huang said.

“If we provide too many stimuli to our learners, they have so many things that they’d like to do, but realistically, cognitively they just can’t because humans’ processing capacity and working memory is limited,” Huang said. “Their engagement, their attention is highly focused on that particular environment and sometimes users just can’t handle the influx of information.”

As part of his research agenda, Huang is developing a system to help game developers manage the motivational support and cognitive engagement provided to users. Huang and other researchers are also examining how some features of an educational game – for example, fantasy, role-playing, competition, and challenge – affect learning outcomes. Articles about Huang’s work appeared last year in the journals Computers and Education, and Computers in Human Behavior.

To take the undergraduate course students only need to be comfortable using word-processing software and spreadsheets, Huang said. While basic programming skills will be taught during the course, technical skills such as programming “are secondary because nowadays there is web-based programming software that’s free and easy to use. Some applications even have the drag-and-drop design interfaces,” Huang said. “So we want to get the idea out, especially to students who have not had previous programming experience, that it’s easy to do. It’s easier than you’d think.”

The dichotomy of GBL is that while the majority of game developers are male, and they design games to appeal largely to male players, the majority of in-service teachers are female, Huang said.

Educators have long been aware of a gender gap in the use of educational technology, which Huang also is exploring in his research. With children adept at using technology at increasingly younger ages, teachers who “don’t feel like incorporating GBL in their future instructional practice (may be doing) a disservice to their students,” Huang said.

Huang is an adviser to the Serious Games Showcase and Challenge, an annual competition for professional and student game designers that promotes cooperation among the U.S. armed forces, industry, academia and government agencies in improving training and educational programs. As one of the representatives from academia, Huang provides feedback on the pedagogical impact of computer and mobile games entered in the competition, which culminates annually in the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference, to be held Nov. 28-Dec. 1 in Orlando, Fla.

Editor's note: To contact David Huang, call 217-333-0807; e-mail wdhuang@illinois.edu.

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