Blog: The Educated Reporter

Using Online Gaming to Make Students ‘Curiouser’ About Reading

Getting kids to read books ranks high on the list of challenges parents and teachers face. On the other hand, students embrace new technology—social networks, smartphones, gaming systems—at a pace adults can hardly keep up with. So why not try to use digital devices to incite a love of literacy in kids?

The idea has been tried before, but a new partnership between an online gaming company and Oxford University Press aims to boost student interest in reading through an online gaming community dedicated to classic works of literature.

The collaborative effort, called “50 Great Reads Before 15,” is part of a growing trend of injecting a gaming component into regular academics, turning a standard learning experience into a new interactive world that’s supposed to make learning fun.

“The whole notion of gamification,” begins Laura Pearson, general manager of Oxford’s American English Language Teaching Group, “is a way to get students engaged with the content.”

SecretBuilders, the partnering website, already has seven million online gamers that could benefit from the literacy games, according to Pearson. Through a system of collecting points, badges, and awards, players are motivated to learn a book’s content and demonstrate their knowledge via periodic quizzes. Kids build their avatars, enter online dimensions like “The Bookworms Club” and find games to play. After selecting Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, for example, the student can view the novel one page at a time onscreen. Newer readers who may find the text too difficult can still participate by listening to a narrator (with a British accent) tell Alice’s tale. Though limited game play is available free, full access to the digital realm requires some payment.

In recent years, gaming communities such as SecretBuilders have taken off. According to Scott Traylor, CEO and founder of 360KID, a kid-focused content and technology company, there are nearly 400 gaming worlds available online. Just over 100 of those are directed at children.

There is some research that suggests the right kind of game can capture student interest and help develop confidence. A 2011 paper from the Teachers College at Columbia University observes that, “games guide players through the mastery process and keep them engaged with potentially difficult tasks.” The paper also states that an important feature of an educational game should be to “deliver concrete challenges that are perfectly tailored to the player’s skill level, increasing the difficulty as the player’s skill expands.”

There’s also the benefit of learning through failure. A 2008 study published by the MIT Press suggests there are emotional benefits to learning games. Because mastery requires repeated experimentation and failure, players develop a positive association with making mistakes. The obverse is true in formal school settings, researchers note, because students have fewer chances to prove themselves and thus develop anxiety around failure.

At a recent event at the New America Foundation, a respected policy think tank in Washington, D.C., computer teacher for elementary school students Joel Levin said he relies on games to encourage students to apply their interest in the technology to develop core learning skills. His game of choice is Minecraft, a blank slate interactive realm that allows users to build whole structures with great detail. When students are stumped over a particular detail in the game’s functions, he tells them to find a way to troubleshoot the problem by reading about the game on various Wiki sites

But the education gaming field has its problems. Educators worry too much time with interactive games distracts students from mastering core skills. Those same teachers also wonder whether policymakers will put too much stock in games as a way of cutting labor costs, i.e. teacher positions. And researchers fear the intrinsic will within students to learn might be corrupted by external incentives like points, virtual coins, and badges that these learning games revolve around.

Karen Horton, director of marketing at OUP, says her company’s partnership with Secretbuilders is “an initial foray.” The next goal is to partner with schools, expand the learning content, and see how far online gaming can go.

“It’s fun [for students]”, says Pearson, “There are challenges built in so they have a sense of mastery…. and they’re learning at the same time.”