Podcast: Video Games in the Classroom with Ela Mulica
What if we told you that there’s a powerful, inexpensive, and underutilized tool that can help educators reduce time spent grading work while increasing student engagement and performance in the classroom? Well, there is. And, believe it or not, it's video games.
Ela Mulica is a technology coach for Burbank School District 111 in Illinois. Ela was a classroom teacher for five years teaching 5th grade, notably, during the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, Ela found herself running around the school with her laptop, not only teaching her students but also supporting other teachers as they worked to integrate new technology and software tools into their curriculums.
As educators’ reliance on technology increased during COVID, she decided to pursue her Master's degree in Education Technology Leadership to learn more about instructional technology and how it supports the various pedagogies in K-12 education.
Toward the end of the school year, a tech coach position opened up in her district. “Although I never thought I would leave the classroom, I ended up going for it because I felt like it was more valuable for the teachers to teach them how to use technology so that it’s spread throughout the district.”
Day in the Life of a Technology Coach
As a technology coach, Ela spends her time supporting and collaborating with teachers to effectively utilize the tech tools available in their classrooms. Educators without much of a technology background can be overwhelmed or nervous when integrating new technology into their curriculum. Ela supports these educators by showing them how to use these tools while also helping them explore new solutions to address any additional questions, concerns, or needs they may have.
Video Games in the Classroom
Educational video games are not a new concept. There are plenty of examples dating back to the 70s, 80s, and 90s of video games with an educational component. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego (1985) and Oregon Trail (1971) are two popular examples. If you have any amount of gray hairs, you probably remember seeing or playing them.
In 2023, there are a wide variety of software and services that combine learning with play.
“Play and education should always go hand-in-hand.”
Throughout our conversation, Ela touched on many of the most popular and effective educational games out there. Many are games that were developed from the ground up specifically for education. And some are major gaming titles (like Minecraft) that have been reworked for applications in the classroom.
This list only scratches the surface, so be sure to search and ask colleagues for other games that might be a better fit for your curriculum and your students.
Objections to Gaming in the Classroom
Ela covered a number of the most common objections she hears about using video games in the classroom, the two most common being the learning curve for teachers and the online privacy and safety of the students.
Teachers are also hesitant to use video games in the classroom due to the learning curve that comes with understanding any tools that are new or different. However, with a little effort up front to learn the platforms, teachers can save significant time and energy later on. Since most educational games provide instant feedback and grading, they can eliminate a significant amount of hours spent grading work at home.
Online safety and privacy is an extremely important topic, especially with any software that would be used by children. Ela noted that the state of Illinois has addressed student privacy and online safety by implementing SOPPA or the Student Online Personal Protection Act. If a district is using a program that collects any student's personal information, the school district must sign a SOPPA agreement with the company that offers the product. (If a program does not collect any student information, no agreement is required.) Additionally, many educational games don't allow any sort of communication or interaction between players, keeping those virtual environments safe and controlled.
The Benefits of Gaming in Education
According to Ela, there are a lot of reasons why more teachers should embrace gaming in the classroom. Some of the main benefits are:
Reduce time spent grading.
Reduce paper waste.
Increase student engagement/progress.
Low-to-no cost to get started.
The first and most practical benefit of integrating video games into the classroom is the instant feedback and automatic grading they provide. Instant feedback is a powerful tool that can help teachers quickly identify students that need more support.
Ela compared the instant feedback provided by games to more traditional tools like exit tickets. Exit tickets are short sheets of questions given to students after a lesson to gauge how well they understood a topic. The problem with traditional exit tickets is that they need to be graded. And they need to be graded quickly so that a teacher can go back to support any students that need additional help on a topic. According to Ela, this process is extremely time-consuming.
Games eliminate the need for teachers to spend more time grading work. With instant feedback, teachers can support their students in real-time while reducing the amount of work they would otherwise have to do at home.
Another practical benefit of games is that they can help reduce paper waste. Leveraging digital tools over traditional worksheets can save a significant amounts of paper and other printing resources.
Are Video Games Actually Effective?
So we know that video games can capture students' attention and can save teachers time, but are games actually effective at teaching? According to Ela, the answer is a resounding yes.
Ela has studied instructional technology and believes that video games support many educational theories like behaviorism. Games provide stimuli and reward systems like achievements, points, and in-game purchases and they are clear and consistent with instructions and rewards.
"... these games tell you exactly what you have to do in order to move on or in order to get (a) reward."
Ela said that after using Prodigy as a large part of her mathematics curriculum, her highest NWEA Map test scores and increases were always in math.
"Literally almost all my students make their their projected growth and all I did is put them on Prodigy!"
Ela joked a bit with that last quote, she still did a lot of work using traditional teaching methods, but the impact of using a high-quality game to help her students learn math was clear.
The Cost of Gaming for Education
This is usually the biggest consideration for most districts. No matter how effective a tool is, it needs to be affordable before they can consider integrating it into their curriculums. But here's the kicker about educational video games: the core educational content for many of the most popular games is completely free.
Many platforms offer paid services and memberships, but these fees usually only add on increased storage, in-game items and cosmetics, enhanced reporting, an increased number of seats, and access to special events and features. For example, take a look at the pricing breakdown for the different membership tiers of Blooket:
Most teachers can use the free version without any issues whatsoever. And, even if they were to decide that some of the extra features are worth it, the cost for the upgraded memberships is very reasonable.
Every classroom and every student is different. Games might not be the right choice for you and your students.
But games can save teachers a significant amount of time and energy, they engage modern students in a way that they're familiar with, they can lead to real, measurable results in performance, and many game platforms are available for free. If you haven't yet considered integrating video games into your classroom, now might be the time.