Photo Courtesy of Becker College

Dr. Paul D. Cotnoir, who leads the computer video game department as chair of design at Becker College, answered a few questions for Getting Smart on his views around gaming for learning following the Serious Play Conference in Redmond, Wash. this August.

Dr. Cotnoir has more than 28 years of experience in higher education, industry and the public sector, in the areas of automation, robotics, fiber optics, economic development, and manufacturing design. His current research interests include utilization of real world data to produce instructive computer simulations within a video game environment.

Becker College, which is ranked nationally in the top 10 by the Pinceton Review, is home to the newly created Massachusetts Digital Games Institute (MassDiGI). MassDiGI is a state-designated center focused on fostering academic cooperation, economic development and job creation in the Commonwealth’s games ecosystem.

In his responses below, Dr. Cotnoir expresses the ways in which games can provide students of all ages and learning styles personalized learning models suited to the individual.

Q. What interested you most about the Serious Play Conference?

A. Video games are everywhere. The technology, the language, the culture is ubiquitous. It is everywhere you look in our daily lives from how we communicate (cell phones), to how we learn (educational programs), to how we make dinner (smart appliances). That pervasiveness of video game technology in our modern society generated a curiosity within in me to see how far beyond entertainment video games have come.

At Becker College we have been amazed by the number on non-entertainment companies interested in our interactive entertainment grads as well as the high number of schools, museums and corporations interested in working with our current students to develop game-based learning tools.

The Serious Play conference helped me to see what other game companies, the U.S. military, and K-20 schools across the world were doing in this area. Some shining examples were showcased. The conference introduced me to potential partners, many game/education specialists, and an understanding of what my opportunities and limitations might be.

Q. What experience do you have working with games for learning? How has gaming been used or taught at Becker College?

A. On the programmatic side, a number of Becker College graduates have been recruited to work at a leading software vendor in the health care informatics sector. Other students are employed as educational software specialists within colleges. During their tenure at the College, students have produced learning games and cinematics for the K-12 sector in areas such as political involvement, native American art (Danforth museum), American history (Old Sturbridge Villiage), as well as  bus safety and driver education (UMass Medical School and Worcester, MA Public Schools).

In 2010, Becker College was named the home of the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute by Governor Deval Patrick. It is a statewide institute representing a strong partnership between the digital games industry, academia and the public sector to strategically foster job growth and economic development through this cutting edge industry. Some of the maiden voyage work being done at the institute is directly targeted at improving K-20 education through the development and use of game-based curriculum. This includes a novel, commonwealth-wide game-based learning framework. For more info on this and other MassDigi initiatives, please contact the center’s director: Tim Loew at [email protected].

Q. In what ways have you seen gaming used in a K-12 educational environment?

A. Education, especially on the K-12 level, and due in large part to No Child Left Behind legislation has become a shining example of mass customization. Students are packed into classrooms full of highly differentiated learners and are expected to reach out to each of those learners at a one-to-one level. Many children today have an individual educational plan (IEP) and their own teacher’s aid. I feel that lessons taught through gaming can allow teachers to reach a broader spectrum of children with highly diverse learning styles. In other words the teachers will be able to do more with less and reach students that in the past may have fallen through the cracks. I have seen this work with a variety of video game products targeted at special learners.

Even children who fall into the category of just your average K-12 learner have been shown to have more interest and higher knowledge retention when subject matter is presented to them in an engaging, interesting format. We have to look no further than the work, which was done at the Learning Workshop (Sesame Street, etc.) to see evidence of this. The interactivity of video games is just the logical next step.

Science, Math and Technology are natural subject areas for interactive learning. But much can be done in the humanities: English, languages, history, social science and the arts are all excellent candidates. Through the MassDigi, Becker College is exploring each of these areas.

Q. In your personal experience, have you seen results that led to higher performance, skills, knowledge or understanding of new learning through games?

A. At Becker, I often teach a senior level writing course for the video game genre called The Literary Development of Virtual Worlds. This course looks at traditional storytelling and literary development. Students apply classical techniques to the development of virtual worlds, both through non-linear narrative and 3D deployment of literary creations. I am always amazed that the students, who have been complaining to me for three years previous about how much they hate to write in their general education courses, cannot wait to put pen to paper when the topic is video games. As everyone knows, the best way to improve your writing skills is to write. The failure of many students to succeed in writing courses can be traced to their reluctance to write, revise, revise, revise and write some more. I have never seen this problem in the virtual worlds course. I chalk it up to the interest the students have in the subject matter along with the interactive nature of video games, which creates a very special bond between the writer of the video game and the player. The player and the writer each have a dynamic role in the process of how the game is going to play out. This is a missing dimension in literature, film and drama. This may be the key advantage of video game learning – its interactivity.

Q. What key elements do you believe make gaming effective for learning?

A. Interactivity – Games make the player take an active role. That greatly enhances the learning process by ensuring the learner’s focus and attention.

Customization – Everyone’s game play experience is different and can be easily customized.

Efficiency – If a picture tells a thousand words, think of not just how many words, but how many concepts a video game can bring across to a learner is short amount of time!

Q. Why should resources in K-20 schools be spent on technology or digital learning tools like games?

A. For all the reasons I have stated above. Most importantly, though, because I feel games will allow educators to reach more kids, more profoundly, in less time with fewer resources. And we’ll all have fun doing it!

Q. Do you believe that gaming can replace entire curriculums in the classroom or only supplement current learning models that exist?

A. I am not an educational theorist, so it is tough for me to speculate. All I know is that it will be some time before games make it into our current classrooms even as supplements to existing curricula. As someone once said, “It took 20 years for the overhead projector to make it from the bowling alley to the classroom!” I expect that the video game invasion will take less time, since its technology is much more autocatalytic (learning games themselves will help us to create better and better learning games – kind of scary, really).

Q. How do you see gaming influencing the way we learn in K-20 education and business in the future?

A. This is an easier question because there is no wrong answer! I believe that learning will become more and more specialized as we as educators learn more and more about how people learn. Just like there will be designer drugs to match our individual genetic make-up, I am sure there will be a individualized learning prescription for each of us. And I can’t see that happening without some form of compelling interactive medium – like video games!

Click here for more information about Dr. Cotnoir and Becker College. Click here to learn more information about MassDiGI.

This Q&A was reviewed and edited by Sarah Cargill.

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