Video games the teacher won’t confiscate

Ask any kid: get caught playing a video game in class and the teacher will take it away. But York Professor Jennifer Jenson wants to change that – she believes video games have a place in the classroom as powerful learning tools.

jennifer jenson“As educators we have to ask ourselves, ‘what are children already learning from video games?’ and ‘how can we use the video game format to provide them with an engaging way of learning?’,” she says.

Left: Jennifer Jenson

To find the answer, Jenson is developing a prototype game called Contagion. Professor of pedagogy and technology in the Faculty of Education, she says the game is aimed at teaching nine- to 13-year-olds to manage themselves and avoid contracting infectious diseases such as the new strains of flu, SARS, West Nile virus and, eventually, HIV/AIDS. The game will show its young players how diseases can morph into more dangerous threats when the individual is not in control.

Contagion will be ready for testing in April 2005 and makes use of existing Web-based technologies, making it playable in any classroom with an Internet connection. Jenson believes teachers will welcome the games in their classrooms.

Computer-based educational resources are great tools, Jenson says, but a major shortcoming is they are not usually designed by educators for use in teaching. She believes the development of computer-based educational resources by technology specialists alone has been a significant barrier to making those resources student-friendly.

Jenson has built a studio dedicated to research, design and development of play-based multimedia learning environments and tools. The studio, operating in partnership with the Institute for Research on Learning Technologies at York, is housed in York’s new $88-million Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) building, the most technologically advanced teaching facility in Ontario.

Both Contagion and Ludus Vitae, co-developed with Suzanne de Castell, an active proponent of incorporating “play” into learning experiences at Simon Fraser University, build on entertainment-oriented computer games to provide educators with strong models for the design of educationally rich play-based learning activities. Their 2002 paper, Serious Play: Challenges of Educational Game Design”, is availble on Jenson’s Web site.

Using broadband networks already in place in most schools across Canada, and working directly with teachers and students, the project seeks to create an online educational gaming environment for junior secondary students that supports content learning across the curriculum. Developed in cooperation with Seneca College and led by Professor David Kaufman at Simon Fraser, the “Simulations and advanced gaming environments for learning” project is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.