Getting the most out of BETT is a task in itself; the venue is packed wall to wall for all 4 days. When you walk in the front door you are have the choice of 4 route planners, but these only cover the most popular areas (English, maths, science and special needs). I attended seeking information on behalf of primary, secondary and third level educators, community groups and lastly to get a better idea of the scale and direction of games technology in education.
Firstly, teachers have a different idea of what constitutes a game. Here if it’s on a computer and it uses pictures and sound it’s a game. Most of the exhibitors at BETT have spent some time as teachers themselves, so this loose definition of a game is something you have to get used to. However, certain subdivisions can be made, namely into multimedia educational aids, edutainment (games created specifically for educational purposes) and commercial videogames (games built for entertainment purposes but from which an educational use is being made). For special needs purposes many of these products are made compatible with peripherals that ease their use, and there are other products again that are based exclusively on the use of a proprietary device (such as a robot).
The multimedia educational aid area is the most developed by a large margin. For an idea of the software on offer take a look at Pearson education (BETT award winner) and Crick Software Ltd. (BETT award shortlist). Products in this area are based upon presenting the subject in a bright and interactive way. Stories such as those on an English course or historical events can be represented as an animated book, or interactive movie. Maths and science subjects can be as simple as moving brightly coloured blocks into stacks or navigating a spaceship on a mission to mars.
Many of the multimedia educational aids are developed using Macromedia Flash, and so across developers you will encounter a similar look and feel. Amazingly enough there were next to no products tied to other intellectual properties (IP), in fact I saw only one program that claimed it was, and I didn’t even recognise the characters involved. I would have expected to see collaborations with children’s shows or even to popular books, but no. The recurring style that emerges from using Macromedia Flash is causing difficulties outside intended audiences, particularly in the area of adult education where students are being turned off because of their overtly childish appearance.
Edutainment is pretty thin on the ground at the moment, especially next to the abundance of multimedia software available. The difficulty here is that to appeal to the market, usually children with little interest in standard learning, the software needs to look, feel and reward like a game, but also have a worthwhile and quantifiable educational value. The one product that stuck in my mind was Altered Learning’s “The Neverwinter Nights Project”. Atari is giving support to this company to develop their software, which uses the videogame Neverwinter nights as a platform for teaching key skills. To look at it you wouldn’t think it was anything other than the standard videogame release, the content however is heavily customised, and the student’s use is recorded discretely. The saved information can be presented in a form that meets curriculum requirements and the student can be graded.
Another key group in the edutainment area is Nesta Futurelab. Nesta is an organisation dedicated to transforming education through innovation and technology, and Futurelab is their initiative concerned with innovation in education through technology. Futurelab produces an impressive volume of work, a lot of which has to do with videogame technology. The edutainment products that they had on display leaned more towards simulation; but they are worth a look for the immense range of work that they do in all areas of educational technology. They don’t limit themselves to the classroom, as projects like ‘mudlarking’ demonstrate. Mudlarking used mobile technology to create a series of nodes around a town called Deptford, each of which the students associated with data about the area. Nesta conduct an annual submission process for innovative ideas in their area, although you must apply from within the UK. Successful ideas benefit from working with Futurelab’s core development team, limited funding and Nesta’s further help as a partnership broker with under industry groups.
Finally, there are those video games, commercially released, that teachers try to use for pedagogical purposes. Futurelab are in the thick of it once again, and are conducting research, funded by EA, using 3 different games: Knights of Honour (historically based RTS), Rollercoaster Tycoon (amusement park administration simulation) and The Sims 2 (simulation game based around social interaction). They aim to identify the educational elements of these games and discover how best to introduce them into the classroom. As part of this project Nesta have some very interesting data to share; 59% of teachers in the UK would consider using mainstream games in the classroom for educational purposes, 53% would do so because of their role as interactive motivational tool for students. 91% believe computer games improve motor cognitive skills, and over 60% thought students would improve higher order thinking skills and topic specific knowledge.
Exploring BETT for several days I came away, as someone interested in games development, with the realisation that the education sector hasn’t yet recognised the value and capability of games technology. But they have seen the potential and the resources are coming in now to really take advantage. Most of these companies have teachers at their core; they design by looking at the curriculum material and figuring out new ways to present old material. While this probably best suits immediate needs, it results in software that looks like a game but doesn’t really feel like one. A precious few are looking at the tools available to them and figuring out what a vast and diverse range of material they could be presenting. What you get in these cases are games that provide an educational value, and as games the students more readily receive them. It’s not a matter of interest either, on the part of developers; each time I mentioned my skill base as videogames I was asked a flurry of questions. On two occasions I was asked if I would be willing to look over material and pitch a product in a few months.
The interest is there, the money is certainly there, the question is why aren’t we there?
John Molloy is a final year Games Design & Development student at the Ballyfermot College of Further Education. In what free time he has, John works as a mentor at the SWICN (South West Inner City Network) computer clubhouse. John has been involved in IT for education since the early 90’s when he was part of Educational Computer Resources (ECR), an educational computer supply and support company. Contact him via the forums where his nickname is ‘nifty’.
If you wish to be directed to any information mentioned, but not covered, in this piece feel free to contact the author.
Several companies were exhibiting at BETT whose sole service is the evaluation of an institution’s educational ICT resources,
Key skills are skills, which are not usually taught directly during school but are considered vital to adult life anyway. They are: Communication, Application of Number, Information and Communication Technology, Problem Solving, Improving Own Learning and Performance, Working with Others.
http://www.nestafuturelab.org, the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts
Similar research has been conducted by a group in the US and you can find out more about this at http://www.educationarcade.org/
All images courtesy of Futurelab and may not be reused without permission.