Video games in the classroom? Could it work, and could it ever be accepted by a conventional school? With society already immersed in digital lifestyles, PhD student Kelsey Catherine Schmitz is researching this very question.
Schmitz was a high school teacher before coming to the University of Ottawa to do a PhD in education.
“I was working with high-risk youth who had literacy issues, and also teaching a world history class,” she says.
She decided to incorporate video games into the classroom space … not education-based games but, rather, entertainment-based games, trying to find a way to use them as a teaching tool.
She brought in Napoleon: Total War to teach students about Napoleonic economics and politics.
“We elected a Napoleon every morning and I brought in my laptop, rented a projector from the library, and it was a really great success,” Schmitz says.
However, there was a lot of backlash against the project from departments and teachers who were more traditional in their teaching style. This is what inspired Schmitz to look at the pedagogy of video games. First, how to introduce them into the classroom and, then, how to teach students to be critically aware of the games they’re engaging with.
Who we are online
The focus of Schmitz’ research is digital identity: how people create avatars or online identities and how they interact with each other and build online communities. Her focus group, made up of 15 people, male and female, with varying backgrounds and gaming skills, meets online in games such as World of Warcraft. The research notions can extend beyond video games to all forms of social networking.
“The relation to education centres on not only what we learn in the classroom but what we learn outside of it,” said Schmitz.
Video games are considered “null curriculum,” material that is not taught, that is viewed as unnecessary or unimportant to education in society. The basis of Schmitz’ research is the premise that social identity in digital settings is important, as it is such a major aspect of our society. She hopes that online spaces can be made safer, particularly in regards to gender and race. For that reason, her research looks at how intolerance and abusive language are perpetuated in online communities, and what people are doing to disrupt the process.
“My (research) implications will be to bring results of what it looks like to have gender, race, sexuality and identities in these digital spaces,” said Schmitz. “To bring it into the classroom and teach young people or adults even, to have a better idea of who they are online.”
With games becoming more and more elaborate, Schmitz wants to look at how much control of their online identities people have and how they are representing themselves. Who is teaching gamers how to play and interact, the designers or the players?
“The more we have digital representations, the more we engage with those representations,” says Schmitz. “Because they’re not that different from who we are in real life.”
Co-operative play exists in online spaces in ways unseen between peers in classrooms, according to Schmitz. She would like to emulate what gamers already practice in massive multi-player platforms, translating their online camaraderie to real-life situations with people of varying backgrounds.
“A lot of the work I do with colleagues around the world is online,” said Schmitz. “I think it’s important to show students how to do that as well but in a way that acknowledges different kinds of identities and gives them that safe space.”