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Learning Team, Independent Research Final Report

Technology as Learning Tools in Educational Environments: The Potential of Video Games & Distance Education

Divya Ashok, Kathryn Byrnes, Ryan Coyer, Henry Doan, Ali Hassani, Chris Magill, Aaron Schram, Javier Velez

Abstract and Introduction:

This report is necessarily compartmentalized as the research interests of our group members are quite diverse. The main overlying theme is thus: How does technology impact learning? We had team members that addressed the Theoretical Side of the issue, and we had team members that explored various applications of the theories and analyzed the effects wrought by the applications.

Kathryn Byrnes: Learning Theory

The learning theory we are employing is a constructivist and humanistic model of learning based upon the theoretical work of educators like Carl Rogers, Paulo Freire, John Dewey. The theories of these three theoretical giants provide a foundation for our exploration into the world of future possibilities offered by distance education and video games as tools for learning environments. Rogers emphasis of the interpersonal relationships will undergo a radical shift in a distance educational environment or a “dehumanized” environment of video games. What does this mean for students? For teachers? Or will the relationships remain the same, but the form of how they are developed and maintained will change? Freire posited a pedagogy of the oppressed. Will these new learning tools open doors for people that were not available through our traditional system of education? Dewey attempted to create a means for bridging the gap between the child and the curriculum. Will these tools enhance or limit his visionary stance?

We believe that students need to be active participants and co-constructors in their learning environment. This is supported in much of the research we have read in this class about the power of being a designer or co-designer in technological environments rather than a consumer. On our first day of class, we discussed a quote in the powerpoint presentation that read, “ A major illusion on which the school system rests is that most learning is the result of teaching” by Ivan Illich. Rogers (1961) also illustrates this same fallacy when he writes,
  • A. My experience has been that I cannot teach another person how to teach.
  • B. It seems to me that anything that can be taught to another is relatively inconsequential, and has little or no significant influence on behavior.
  • C. I realize increasingly that I am only interested in learnings which significantly influence behavior.
  • D. I have come to feel that the only learning which significantly influences behavior is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning.
  • E. Such self-discovered learning, truth that has been personally appropriated and assimilated in experience, cannot be directly communicated to another.
  • F. I realize that I have lost interest in being a teacher.
  • G. I have come to feel that the outcomes of teaching are either unimportant or hurtful.
  • I. I realize that I am only interested in being a learner, preferably learning things that matter, that have some significant influence on my own behavior.
  • J. I find it very rewarding to learn in groups, in relationships with one person.
  • K. I find that one of the best, but most difficult ways for me to learn is to drop my own defensiveness, at least temporarily, and to try to understand the way in which his experience seems and feels to the other person.
  • L. I find that another way of learning for me is to state my own uncertainties, to try to clarify my puzzlements, and thus get closer to the meaning that my experience actually seems to have.
  • M. It seems to mean letting my experience carry me on, in a direction which appears to be forward, toward goals that I can but dimly define, as I try to understand at least the current meaning of that experience. (275-277)
We want all students in our schools to possess this desire for learning. In too many of our schools and educational settings, students passively receive or consume information from a teacher instead of being engaged as a co-constructor of knowledge and understanding. We posit that technology can assist our educational community in becoming more design-oriented rather than consumer-oriented.

We want students to see learning as rewarding and meaningful and we propose that distance education and video games can be utilized as educational tools to promote meaningful, constructivist, humanistic, rewarding learning experiences for students, but like any tool that can also be used for the opposite means as well. Fischer (1996) addresses the limitations of technology currently in education as a “gift wrapping approach”. Technology is being utilized to enhance old ways of learning and teaching, when it possesses the potential to aid in the rethinking and reconceptualization of the processes of learning and teaching. It also possesses the potential to open new means for enhancing both individual and social creativity by exploiting the symmetry of ignorance. Fischer et al (2005) quote Csikszentmihalyi as noting, “an idea or product that deserves the label ‘creative’ arises from the synergy of many sources and not only from the mind of a single person.” They present how the Envisionment and Discovery Collaboratory utilizes technology to create environments for collaborative design, engagement by multiple parties in interesting, meaningful learning problems, and sharing of individual and social creativity. We believe that the technology of distance education and video games also possess these potentials as learning tools.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience & education. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Fischer, G. et al. (2005). Beyond binary choices: Integrating individual and social creativity. IJHCS paper. Accessed on March 30, 2005 through in-class lecture.

Fischer, G. (1996). Making learning a part of life: Beyond the ‘gift wrapping’ approach to technology. NSF Symposium June 26, 1996. Accessed on January 19, 2005 through in-class lecture.

Freire, P. (2005). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: continuum.

Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Divya Ashok, Henry Doan: Distance Education

Divya and Henry are researching distance learning for their course project, which directly relates to this independent research project since technology is essential for distance learning to be effective. While their research is more in-depth regarding the details of distance learning, on a higher level, much of what is learned from this research can apply to learning in general.

One example of this was found in a paper written for, titled “Working on What Works Best”. In this article, Fran McCall, 44, wanted to pursue a bachelor’s degree at the University of the District of Columbia. Annoyed by “empty-headed remarks/questions” from typical college students, she transferred to the University of Maryland-University College where she enrolled in a distance education program. Here, she could avoid the random, meaningless classroom chatter.

She was pleasantly surprised to find out that distance education exceeded her expectations. While “conversations” (in the form of chat sessions and message board chains) were even longer in a distance learning environment, the comments made were more thought-out and developed. McCall noted, “When people write their comments, they pay more attention to detail and get to the meat of the subject. It’s even honed my ability to agree to disagree.”

This is a situation where technology can be used in a way that improves on traditional learning/teaching practices. As McCall said, when students are forced to express their thoughts/opinions “formally”, they tend to be more precise and selective in their choice of wording. This can be a very effective way to conduct forums/discussions among students that applies to learning in general.

To summarize this argument, we see from this example that technology can be applied to learning practices to enhance the learning experience in ways a typical classroom environment might not be able to supply. Obviously, while McCall’s situation deals more specifically with distance learning, we know that this can be applied to learning in general.

Ryan Coyer, Aaron Schram: Video Games as Learning Tools

The common perception of video games as a medium is that they are and can only be used for the purposes of entertainment. In our research, we have uncovered many other (and arguably more useful) applications. Our main focus in this project was to further explore these alternative applications and evaluate their effectiveness as mechanisms that facilitate learning. We have focused our research on two areas, which will be defined and elaborated upon later.
Learning takes on many different forms and occurs in many different environments. In the context of video games, the majority of learning is done on an individual basis (i.e. I learn more and more as I complete each level of game X). In many of the papers that we’ve reviewed, the contention of each author is that a person can learn much about an environment by interacting with an abstraction or simulation of that environment. For example, “A person playing Lineage can become an international financier, trading raw materials, buying and selling goods in different parts of the virtual world, and speculating on currencies. A Deus Ex player can experience life as a government special agent, where the line between state-sponsored violence and terrorism are called into question.” (, p. 4).
Questions inevitably arise from such an example, and in this case we ask the following: “Can video games be constructed in such a way that they teach the user practical and useful information about reality?” Our contention, shared and supported by the research that we’ve read, is that this is plausible. The information that we gathered encouraged further exploration, and we pursued the following two lines of research:

1. Which traditional education subjectss would be best suited to learning via video games?

2. Are there settings outside of the classroom (but still in reality) that lend themselves to learning via video games?

The rest of our report will address the two questions listed above.

1. Teaching and Classroom situations:

We determined that the most effective applications of video games as learning tools are in situations where learning occurs as a byproduct of an enjoyable activity. Research found youngsters learned more effectively from information presented in audiovisual form such as a video game than from facts on a printed page. For example, consider the computer game (from the 1980s) called Word Cruncher©. From the player’s point of view (usually a small child), the object of the game was to accumulate points and advance through the levels. However, the parents buying the game knew that in order to accumulate points and advance, a player needed to correctly spell words that were audibly presented though the speakers of the computer. So, the player thought that they were playing an enjoyable game, but as a byproduct of the experience the player became a better speller.

Another excellent example of a successful educational game was MECC’s The Oregon Trail©. The basic idea of the game was very simple: successfully navigate the Oregon trail without losing your life or the lives of your travel companions. More importantly, the game also managed to teach you a thing or two about the frontier era by presenting you with rudimentary concepts about how people in that time lived and by also presenting bits and pieces of information about various landmarks that were found along the trail. Of course, if you asked someone who played the game, he or she wouldn't admit to having learned anything from it. Deep down, however, he or she learned about geography, geology, history and anthropology simply by playing an enjoyable game.
( all/greatestgames/p-34.html)

2. There are many settings that lend themselves to learning via video games. The most fascinating area that we researched involved the use of video game based simulation tools used in military settings.

We first investigated the use of combat simulation tools and how they will be used in the future to train Marines. More specifically, a game entitled ‘Close Combat – First to Fight’. The game allows the player to assume the role of a modern American Marine leading a fire team engaged in close-quarters urban warfare in the Middle East. The game was developed with the assistance of more than 40 veterans returning from active-duty (many in combat situations) in Iraq and Afghanistan. The game uses psychological modeling and realistic Marine tactics. The game has been tested for accuracy and realism by many Marines. The fact that the USMC is willing to invest in what amounts to a very sophisticated video game as a training tool attests the variety of learning applications that can be adapted to video games.

Flight simulators have been around in a number of forms for many years. The most famous consumer simulator – the Microsoft Flight Simulator – has been around since 1979. Applications to the science of war are evidenced by their widespread use throughout the Air Force. In a testament to their utility, Lt. Col. Jeff Carr, a former fighter pilot who now works for an Air Force simulation lab said “This is not amusement. What we are after is better decisions, better skills for the warfighter… The vision is to create a synthetic battlespace. Computer blending of the real and synthetic is under serious consideration by Air Force leaders as a peacetime tool to train aircrews in mortal combat without risking casualties. In cyberspace, no flying restrictions exist, and the only limits are the capabilities of pilot, plane and tactics.” In other words, flight simulators allow pilots to not only develop and perfect the skills that they need to fly and fight their aircraft, but they allow the pilots to do so without risk to man or machine.

There are a nearly infinite number of situations where video games could aid the learning process. In the interest of time, we’ve only researched a few. The implications of what we have researched are as far-reaching as they are interesting. Our major project will examine the use of one particular video game in excruciating detail.

Chris Magill: An educational video game design informed by readings in hands-on learning

Our group's independent research for this class encompasses the overlap between hands-on learning and educational video games. I have tried to combine ideas from a number of class readings and other, disparate sources into the design for an educational video game. Each version of the game design has attempted to incorporate new ideas about learning. In its most recent iteration, the design is a fairly complete description of the video game with just about enough concrete detail to serve as a blueprint for implementing the game.

Many writers have made the case for hands-on activities in the classroom. Frances Pockman Hawkins, for example, describes a situation in which learning-by-doing is thrown into high relief by the unusual situation of a nearly language-free classroom (a class of profoundly deaf 4-5 year-olds). Her success in that particular class is a convincing argument for the appropriateness of hands-on activities, particularly in classrooms of young children. Other writers have generalized and provided a theoretical basis for her result, and there seems to be high degree of consensus among experts that hands-on activities accrue many benefits to learners that are lacking in pencil-and-paper activities designed to teach the same ideas. These benefits are summarized in the table below.

Hands-on Pencil-and-paper
Increased motivation and engrossment Students easily distracted
Faster learning overall Faster apparent progress through topics
Increased retention Content quickly forgotten
Concepts available to students in other contexts Rote learning, not generalized
Increased student enjoyment Boring
Messy, lots of potential connections Neat, linear sequence of topics
Demanding of teachers Easy for teachers

How do educational video games fit into this picture? Educational games have a combination of the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches. The game design described below is an attempt to retain as much as possible the quality of hands-on learning.

The conceptual content of the game was taken from one of the examples David Hawkins used in his essay, Critical Barriers to Science Learning. Most people (85% in Hawkins' informal experiments) cannot correctly answer a question which asks them to predict where a certain object will appear in a mirror. The intention of this game is that it lead students into developing a robust understanding of one elementary concept (angle of incidence equals angle of reflection) while introducing a number of other geometrical terms and concepts.

Two children play the game in front of one computer; they cooperate to solve certain problems, and compete to solve others. The game proceeds through a series of activities with earlier activities aimed at exposing students' misconceptions about mirror vision and supplying a simple, correct explanation, and later activities aimed at helping students generalize from the the correct explanation and connect it to other geometric concepts/terms they may know. Each activity proceeds through a repeating sequence of sub-activities, with each subactivity characterized by particular visual elements and a distinct POV.

The game will be implemented in flash, in the familiar mock-3d style, except for the abstract-math POV, which will be simple rendered 3-d movies. Each activity should go pretty fast and present an interesting puzzle.

The very first subactivity will show students their two avatars (player-icons) from the rear, standing on a line parallel to and facing a wall, and require the students to place a mirror on the wall so that the avatars would be able to see each other in it. The students successfully complete this subactivity when they place the mirror at the midpoint between the two avatars. When that happens the POV changes to a first-person view from each avatar in turn, looking into the mirror and at the other's face, this POV gives the student a visual verification that their solution is correct. The third POV is an abstract-math-view in which students see their avatars in a 3-d cartesian space which rotates to a direct overhead view and draws in the angles formed by the avatars and mirror, highlighting for the first time the basic fact the game is trying to teach: angle of incidence equals angle of reflection. Finally, the POV returns to 3rd-person rear and the students repeat a different version of the first problem. All the activities follow the same pattern of four subactivities–first a 3rd-person view for playing a game or solving a problem, then 2nd-person view for checking the solution, then an abstract view for illustrating the underlying concept, and finally back to the playing-a-game view.

Each activity after the first builds a little more complexity into the problems and explanations. For example, the second activity might give students a room with a fixed mirror and ask them to take turns moving their avatars left to right until they can see each other–in this case the mirror will still end up directly in the middle, but now the first student's choice influences her teammate's choice (and depending on where the first student places her avatar the point on the line where its reflection is visible might not even be on the screen, if that happens the "verification" point of view should make that clear). A third activity would allow the students to place their avatars anywhere on the plane of the floor to find each other in a fixed (or movable) mirror; freedom in the depth dimension will mean that the mirror will no longer generally be at the midpoint of the horizontal interval the avatars delimit; the abstract-math section for this activity should emphasize that it is the equality of the angles, rather than the horizontal distance, that remains constant. The abstract math POV is also an opportunity for the game to model the use of geometric ideas such as parallel and perpendicular lines, complementary angles, midpoint, and the Cartesian plane. Subsequent activities can continue to explore the concept of reflection and build the students grasp of the associated geometry by modifying one element at a time in each new activity: adding a third dimension of freedom (height), adding a second mirror, facing players in different directions, adding obstacles, round mirrors, etc.

This game aims to retain the benefits of hands on learning by remaining as analogous as possible to real situations and presenting students only with activities which are repeatable in the real world. The game takes a lesson from LOGO by presenting relative geometry first, then helping students build bridges to Cartesian geometry. The first-person (“verification”) point of view highlights the similarity between what students are seeing in the game and the things they see whenever they look in a mirror. Relative geometry is compatible with the student’s own experience moving in the embodied world and the game incorporates it in order to engage students’ tacit knowledge of geometry and build connections between relative geometry and the Cartesian geometry of the pencil-and-paper world.

How successful the game is compared to hands-on activities is a question for the future. Do students who learn the reflection concept in this way learn it as quickly? Retain it? Generalize it to other situations? What about students who use the game and hands-on activities in combination?


Fritjof Capra, The Hidden Connections. Anchor Books 2002

David Hawkins, The Roots of Literacy. University Press of Colorado 2002

Frances Pockman Hawkins, Logic in Action. University Press of Colorado 1969

Seymour Papert, Computer as Material: Messing About with Time.

and, Educational Computing: How Are We Doing?

Niel Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Penguin Books 1986

Javier Velez and Ali Hassani: The need of a topic for future learning

Does technology improve learning? This is the issue at the heart of
institutional and personal decisions related to adoption of technology-infused
teaching and learning. Technology in the last decades has presented a lot of
improvements on the education field and learning. The Software & Information
Industry Association released the 2000 Report on the Effectiveness of
Technology in Schools. This report suggested that education technology has
increased student achievement, enhanced students’ self-concept and attitudes
about learning, and improved interaction between educators and students in the
learning environment. It also outlines the challenges involved with technology
integration and training in the educational environment. The report highlights
the usefulness of technology to students in collaborative learning situations
and students with special needs. In addition, due to the importance of
acquiring “21st century learning skills” such as: inventive thinking, digital
literacy, effective communication, teamwork, and the ability to create high
quality products. All this skills are facilitated by technology.
Technology has great potential to enhance student achievement and teacher
learning, but only if it is used appropriately.
Specifically, technology can be used to:

• bring exciting curricula based on real-world problems into the classroom;

• provide scaffolds and tools to enhance learning;

• give students and teachers more opportunities for feedback, reflection, and

• build local and global communities that include teachers, administrators,
students, parents, practicing scientists, and other interested people; and

• expand opportunities for teacher learning.

However, technology used in an inappropriate way could affect the learner and
prevent him/her from acquiring the right knowledge. Technology can be used to
engage learners in rich and meaningful activities, but the associated
disadvantages also need consideration:

• Simulations will never replace the need for actual experience. The common trap
here is to confuse the domain of knowledge being addressed by the technology.
Simulations should not be used to teach nurses how to take a patient’s
temperature; they can however be used to develop clinical decision making
skills that enable nurses to identify the likely cause of fever and implement
the most appropriate management plan.

• Not all students will have access to the computer systems required to operate
the programs.

• Technology may be threatening to novices. Students may not have the skills
needed to install software or connect to the Internet.

• Academics may not have the skills, time or support required to best use
educational technology.

• Computer programs are not good substitutes for books. If the students are
required to read and analyze substantial texts, give them a book. Prolonged
periods of reading text on screen are not a preferred experience for many.

• There is a tendency among novice developers to use multiple media elements
simultaneously in the belief that more variety leads to better learning. Some
elements may simply act as a distracter. If you were presented with concurrent
text, audio and video elements, which would attract your attention?



We believe that technology is an effective way to enhance learning in many different settings. It allows students to take an active, designer role in their educational experiences. Students' learning experiences become more meaningful when they are invested and engaged in the learning process. We hope that in the future technology will allow educators to rethink and redesign learning environments to create more effective, more long lasting, more meaningful teaching and learning experiences for students.

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