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GLS conference 2013

Around 700 gamers of all ages gathered at the Memorial Union this week for the Midwest’s largest gaming conference.

PHOTO COURTESY OF GAMES+LEARNING+SOCIETY

With the technology boom over the past decade, more teachers across the nation are taking a digital approach to their lesson plans. At this week's 11th annual gaming conference hosted by the UW's Games+Learning+Society department, participants were able to take a look at how games are used as a teaching tool.

The three-day conference, which wraps up on Friday, was held at the Memorial Union. One session, “An Inside Look at Getting and Using Games in Classrooms” featured panel speakers Matthew Farber, a New Jersey middle school teacher; Steve Isaacs, a video game design and development teacher; and Jessica Millstone, director of engagement at BrainPOP, an animated educational website for kids.

The panel discussed the importance of not only using games in classes, but teachers getting involved in the games themselves to help motivate students. Over 90 percent of kids in America play video games, so proponents say it only makes sense to turn that screen time into something educational and beneficial.

“Students who use games in the classroom are extremely favorable to it and are constantly pushing limits to go forward,” Isaacs said. “They’re not holding back and (are) producing incredible work.”

Farber, a social studies teacher at Valleyview Middle School in Denville, New Jersey, frequently uses games in his classroom. A popular tool he uses is inklewriter, an app designed to write simple interactive stories. He did a pilot program of the game with a small group of his sixth grade students before introducing it to his whole classroom.

He also likes Minecraft, a sandbox software game where players build structures out of blocks, which is gaining popularity in classrooms across the country.

“Teachers should be receptive in using games in the classroom, do the research and play the games beforehand, rather than just handing it off to the kids,” Farber said. “Teachers have to sell the games to the classroom and kids have to trust they are fun and playful.”

Farber is the author of Gamify Your Classroom: A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning. In his book, he describes how teachers can implement game-based learning and offers “gamification” techniques for their students.

BrainPOP's Millstone said teachers should attend presentations and events to get a better send of how to introduce games in the classroom.

“Teachers can build a gaming culture outside the classroom; they can have game jams, have top students do demos and join online communities like Twitter to share ideas with other teachers and get ideas from them,” Millstone said.

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The panelists' view that games can be powerful tools for learning is echoed by the U.S. Department of Education and even President Obama himself. 

"I'm calling for investments in educational technology that will help create educational software that's as compelling as the best video game. I want you guys to be stuck on a video game that's teaching you something other than just blowing something up," Obama said in 2011, urging developers to create games centered on learning.

In April, the education department hosted its first-ever Games for Learning Summit in New York City. The summit brought together students, teachers, game developers and publishers who all believe games will play a part in the future of education.

And last September, the White House teamed with the department to host an Education Game Jam where students, learning researchers, game developers and teachers gathered together at Difference Engine, an education technology startup in Washington D.C., to develop new, fun ways to learn.

In a 2013 blog post published on educationworld.com, author Rebekah Stathakis listed multiple reasons to use games in classrooms. She noted that with games, students make a variety of connections with the content and can form positive memories of learning; and that games grab students’ attention and actively engage them, among other reasons.

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