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Digital Learning Games Used by Majority of Teachers, Survey Finds

Digital learning games have officially gone mainstream, with nearly three-quarters of K-8 teachers saying they use the games for classroom instruction, according to a new national survey.

But the rise of digital gaming within schools still pales in comparison to the advances seen in the commercial gaming sector, according to a comprehensive, 67-page report issued by the Games and Learning Publishing Council, a project of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, a New York-based nonprofit that studies digital media use and children.

Students are still mostly using desktop and laptop computers to access digital learning games in the classroom, and most teachers are still using short-form games to deliver content and allow students to practice basic skills, rather than leveraging the significant learning potential to be found in long-form, multi-player, and immersive games, the report found.

"When scholars and practitioners first began inspiring us with their visions for digital game-based learning, they certainly weren't writing about drill-and-practice games. Yet this is what so many K-8 teachers are still using with students today," says the report.

Barriers include lack of support and training for teachers, limited time within the school day, and difficulty finding games that are clearly aligned to curricular standards, according to the study.

Recommendations from the report include creation of an "industry-wide framework" and taxonomy for categorizing and reviewing games so they are easier for teachers to identify and better and more widespread pre-service technology training and professional development on how to integrate digital games into the classroom.

The results are based on a survey of 694 K-8 teachers from across the United States, conducted in the fall of 2013. Unlike previous research efforts, the study included teachers who don't use digital games in the classroom.

As part of their analysis, researchers from the Games and Learning Publishing Council/Joan Ganz Cooney Center used statistical methods to create an entertaining and illuminating typology of teachers. At one end of the spectrum, they say, are "dabblers" who use games to teach a few times per month, but are not particularly comfortable doing so, in part because they face significant barriers and a lack of training and other resources.

At the other end of the spectrum are the "naturals" who frequently play digital games themselves, teach with them often, and receive lots of support.

Really, though, the strength of the new study, titled "Level Up Learning: A National Survey on Teaching With Digital Games," is in how thoroughly it surveys the field.

Some findings that caught my eye: 

  • 74 percent of the K-8 teachers surveyed report using digital games for instruction, most at least monthly and more than half at least weekly.
  • More than 40 percent of those surveyed say they use digital learning games to deliver mandated academic content, while roughly one-third said they use games to assess student learning.
  • Popular titles that teachers report using in the classroom included Starfall, Cool Math, PBS Kids, ABC Mouse, and Brain Pop.
  • Immersive and commercial games are not widely used.
  • 71 percent of teachers surveyed said digital learning games were helpful for teaching math, while just 42 percent said they were helpful for teaching science.
  • Of those teachers who do use games in the classroom, 56 percent said they base instructional decisions on what they learn from game-related assessments, and 54 percent said that games have been helpful in gauging student mastery of concepts or content.
  • The majority of teachers—more than two-thirds—report turning to other teachers within their school or district for support using games in the classroom.
  • Students are overwhelmingly accessing digital games via desktop PC or laptop (72 percent said they were doing so), followed by interactive whiteboard (40 percent) or tablet (39 percent). According to the report, "these data suggest that students' gaming experiences at school are flipped images of ther gaming experiences at home," where gaming systems are most popular.
  • Younger teachers, teachers who regularly play digital games themselves, and teachers working in schools serving high proportions of low-income students reported using digital games in the classroom more frequently than other teachers.
  • More than 60 percent reported playing digital games themselves at least once per week.

The word cloud below, from the report, provides a visual snapshot of the games that teachers report using most frequently.


Charts from "Level Up Learning: A National Survey on Teaching With Digital Games." Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop (2014). 

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