Goblins help to defeat the gremlins
Bex Ferriday shows how video games can provide a stimulating way for learners to develop communication and number skills
Three years ago my husband was submerged in yet another marathon Xbox session when he put down his controller and said: 'Do you know what? These sorts of games would be a great way of teaching literacy skills!'
The game in question was a Role Playing Game (RPG) and I was immediately intrigued. How slashing goblins in half and ransacking barrels for gold coins could possibly teach literacy was beyond me, so I asked him to elaborate.
There may have been some sense to his rambling but, having toyed with the idea for a few minutes I let the subject drop, unable to make any explicit links between video gaming and literacy.
Fast-forward to last year and I was enjoying a bit of mindless websurfing when I stumbled across a website called Altered Learning, a site that claimed to provide: 'effective alternative learning and teaching tools with the characteristics of a game, yet with the content of the traditional curriculum'. My interest was aroused.
Altered Learning claimed to be able to achieve this by modifying a popular role-playing adventure entitled Neverwinter Nights. They realised how hard it was to engage some learners, especially when teaching key skills in Communication and Application of Number, as they much prefer sitting in front of a computer to sitting in front of a worksheet.
A form of almost subliminal learning takes place as students play the game, locating answers to questions, carefully selecting appropriate conversational responses and methods for solving puzzles and calculations, which are automatically logged using a piece of specially designed software. Altered Learning claims that 'this isn't a process that does away with the teacher'. In order to solve the problems learners have to know about such linguistic skills as spelling and punctuation, and the only way to find out about these is to ask to be taught them which, when the answer is a matter of on-screen life or death, they do!
Improved skills and better results
West Nottinghamshire College was the first establishment to use this technology, and it helped to send the key skills results soaring, from a national benchmark of 22 per cent to 94 per cent. In this academic year Cornwall College has also purchased both the game and the tracking software, installed it on the college network at one of its sites and invited students to play...and, as a result, key skills pass rates have increased considerably.
It isn't just the games that encourage literacy learning. Gamers often build up a vast collection of notebooks stuffed full of handwritten annotations informing them of the various quests and sub-quests their in-game characters (or 'avatars' to use the correct vernacular) must complete to proceed. Once one of these quests has been completed, they will happily rattle off an email or write a critique or comment in an online chat room about their experiences and about the game as a whole to help fellow-gamers. Research will be carried out over the internet to look for a solution to the age-old question: 'Just how DO I kill that end-of-level monster if I have no weaponry?' and, even before the power button is pressed, the game's instruction manual will be leafed through and skimmed for relevant information.
Isn't it about time we stopped blaming video games for all social ills and started to concentrate on the good they can do? Forget the outmoded notion that the only good thing to come from gaming is improved hand-to-eye coordination. What about social skills, visual literacy, the art of active listening, student-led learning and learners' empowerment?
Now where did I put that copy of Tomb Raider...?
Bex Ferriday is Lead Practitioner (Teaching and Learning) at Cornwall College
Altered Learning can be found at www.alteredlearning.com.
Key skills and Skills for Life tutors may also like to look at www.keyskills4u.com, which contains two games specifically designed to develop students' Communication, Application of Number and ICT skills.