York University professor says literacy of Xbox should be part of schooling

York University Professor Heather Lotherington (right), has issued a report that argues gaming systems like the Xbox represent a new kind of literacy and should be added to educators’ arsenal of learning and testing tools.

“Today’s children really learn in 3D,” says Lotherington, a professor in York’s Faculty of Education. “This whole linear concept of learning – that you pick up a book that’s a narrative, and it’s static – it’s limiting to children who were brought up in the information era. It doesn’t reflect reality, and that’s problematic, because we should be educating our kids for the future, not the past.”

Lotherington’s paper is based on discussions with Toronto elementary school students about their use of pop culture tech toys, including the Xbox, instant messaging and cell phones. She says kids are developing the complex, digital “metaliteracies” predicted generations ago by Marshall McLuhan – yet classroom curriculum has yet to catch up. The children she spoke with said none of their digital gaming or online skills are actually used in school.

“These children already know how to locate and download information, update software, compare and contrast servers and assess hardware capabilities,” Lotherington says. “These skills represent a new kind of literacy, and they’re in high demand by employers. Yet when these kids are tested, they’ll be given a one-dimensional slice of paper. Why?”

She says digital games could be incorporated in formal education in a number of ways: they could be reviewed and presented in English class, just as books are reviewed, with the sorts of parameters around selections that preclude inappropriate texts, whatever the genre. Video games featuring racing or snowboarding could be used to help children understand mathematical and scientific concepts, such as angles, direction, velocity and acceleration. Games requiring children to create a socio-geographical context, such as a city, could help them learn to solve complex design problems with social consequences.

“Even more importantly, they could be used to teach critical literacies,” says Lotherington. “What problematic social and cultural stereotypes are embodied in video game characterizations?”

As a lover of Shakespeare and Chaucer, she is quick to point out that she’s in no way suggesting schools do away with traditional texts.

“It’s about balance, about being inclusive,” Lotherington says. “There is room in the curriculum for new methods, new kinds of learning. Some of the schools I’ve worked with have been very open to these kinds of techniques and the results have been amazing. The response from children is incredible, they’re so engaged.”

Lotherington is currently heading up a project in a Toronto elementary school to enable children’s literacy skills via software that allows them to build digital fairytales.

The report, titled “Emergent Metaliteracies: What the Xbox has to Offer the EQAO,” was published in the journal Linguistics and Education.