How Video Games Can Help Students Who Struggle with Online Learning

The pandemic has forced our lives online in many ways. People whose tasks can be carried out remotely work from home; those without jobs are busy searching for new ones on the internet. We shop at e-commerce stores for our needs and try to replace the loss of face-to-face interactions through social media.

But as the global situation with Covid-19 continues to unfold and evolve, it threatens to have the biggest impact on the generation of students currently being forced to learn online. Who can foresee the career effects of a gap year on those who would otherwise have graduated and found employment under normal circumstances?

Currently, we can’t effectively gauge the long-term impact on learning as we shift from a traditional setting to a virtual one. But we do know the challenges are many. Younger children can be more easily distracted by losing the classroom structure. Babies and toddlers might be missing out on early social exposure to their peers.

In the midst of this turbulent transition, an unlikely solution can be found in the medium of video games. How can they help offset some of these challenges?

Educational games and gamification

Over the years, video games have become widely embraced and played. As they gained mainstream popularity, the selection of titles and diversity of genres has also expanded greatly.

There are games we play for pure entertainment purposes, and there are more serious games in which an educational component is deliberately introduced. The latter can be used to teach anything from academic subjects to practical ones such as financial management.

It’s easy to see how an educational game can help students learn about money. They can make investment decisions or run a virtual business without risking any real cash. Later in life, such lessons can help them with best practices to maintain a good credit score or seek the best mortgage rates when buying a home.

Yet most gamers play for sheer fun, not educational value. That’s where the element of game design steps in. Over the years, educators have been keen to adopt some of the principles video games employ to engage players.

In a gamification process, they integrate mechanisms like rewards, real-time feedback, and social interaction into their lessons. And this has the potential to enhance the online learning experience for students.

girl writing on notebook

Sharing a sense of engagement

This hints at the nature of the obstacle involved when it comes to making online learning effective. Students are digital natives. Many educators are not. Even younger instructors have been more extensively trained in the use of traditional techniques.

It takes deliberate effort to rework a curriculum so that it becomes better suited to an online channel. You have to account for factors such as distractions and asynchronous activity.

Students can easily open other tabs or apps while running a lesson in the background. They might accomplish self-paced material with a minimum of effort or go above and beyond what’s required.

Certainly, even in a traditional classroom, there will be differences in learning speed and engagement. But a teacher can more easily perceive these and intervene as necessary. Online, does the instructor lean towards a 1-on-1 approach or persist in efforts to facilitate classroom discussions?

Video games have the potential to aid in this aspect by giving everyone a shared experience. A 2014 study found that while game elements don’t enhance content learning per se, they significantly improved the time spent and engagement among students.

Modern games in action

It hasn’t taken long for some instructors to recognize this and find ways to tap into the potential of existing game titles for their courses.

The Washington Post reported in April 2020 that high school students from Collège Saint-Hilaire in Canada had to cancel a field trip to Greece. As a substitute, however, their instructor had them play Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, which is set in ancient Greece, and use that experience for their forthcoming papers.

The game’s developer, Ubisoft, is proud of the effort they undertake in researching and recreating historical environments, bringing expert historians on board in the process. They had already added a ‘Discovery Tour’ feature to Odyssey, allowing pure exploration of the game’s setting without other gameplay elements. Ubisoft also provided three months’ free access to Odyssey to those students.

Educators have also taken advantage of other games, notably Minecraft, with its open-ended play and capabilities. Students can use the in-game tools to model geometry, for instance. Teachers can use its building and environment simulation aspects to teach about wildlife or climate change.

Video games won’t replace a formal curriculum, but they can be a valuable tool to help bridge the gap and supplement learning as we move deeper into an online future.

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