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Effective Digital Learning Games Blend the Virtual and the Real, Study Finds

By guest blogger Audrey Armitage

CORRECTED

Younger students get the most out of digital learning games when the game combines elements of both the real and virtual world, according to new research from Carnegie Mellon University.

Researchers tested three different approaches to teaching simple physics principles through educational gaming to a group of 92 students ages six through eight. One format was entirely flat-screen based, while another version allowed for simple physical controls, in which students shook a tablet to simulate an earthquake, and a "mixed-reality" version incorporated physical observation and interactive feedback into the game.

"Students learned five times more using the mixed-reality game, and also enjoyed the game significantly more," said researcher Nesra Yannier. Tests were administered before and after gameplay to measure the effectiveness of each type of educational game.

Currently, most digital learning games do not have a mixed-reality element. Although mixed-reality games cost more to develop and may be more expensive for schools to purchase, Yannier noted that there are many affordable tools available to incorporate mixed reality into instruction. For instance, the researchers used a Kinect camera to provide immediate interactive feedback during the game.

Little research has been done on the effectiveness of mixed-reality digital learning, but the new findings were surprising to the researchers, as a previous Carnegie Mellon study that tested virtual learning vs. physical learning among older students found no difference, said Ken Koedinger, a researcher and professor of human-computer interaction and psychology at Carnegie Mellon.

Koedinger hypothesized that the mixed-reality game may have been effective for the younger group of students in part due to them being at a relatively early stage of development. While older students may be better able to process information simply presented on a flat screen, merging the physical and virtual world can be particularly beneficial for younger learners, he said.

Gamification has significant potential to make scientific concepts more accessible for students and produce better learning outcomes by boosting understanding and making learning more deeply rewarding, explained Koedinger.

In addition to enabling deeper learning, Yannier predicted that mixed-reality games can also make complex concepts more fun for students. The researchers were "surprised by how engaged students were" in the mixed-reality game, she said.

The study has been peer-reviewed, and was published and presented at the recent CHI conference on human-computer interaction in Seoul, Korea.

According to Yannier, using mixed-reality games in the classroom can also provide opportunities for students to collaborate. The games encourage students to work together, discuss concepts, and ask questions, while limiting the isolation that can come with technology use, described Yannier.

Despite the study's strongly positive findings, Koedinger warned against over-generalizing about the results, noting that factors such as the academic content being covered, student age, and types of tools used can significantly impact learning outcomes.

The researchers plan to conduct further studies, and explore the potential for using mixed-reality games to teach a range of science concepts and expand to other subjects.

Last fall, Koedinger and other Carnegie Mellon researchers received a $4.8 million federal grant for LearnSphere, a project aiming to redesign and scale up a massive repository for analyzing learning and behavioral data that students generate when using digital instructional tools. See Education Week reporter Benjamin Herold's recent story about LearnSphere, and his related coverage from the AERA 2015 conference, for more information about innovations in digital learning research.

[CORRECTION: The original version of this post said that a previous Carnegie Mellon study tested mixed-reality learning on a group of older students, when in fact, the study only tested virtual learning vs. physical learning.]


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