Sunday, May 1, 2011

World of the Digital Natives: Hands-on Learning Through Gaming?

In the beginning, there was only television’s warm glow. The Muppets put on a wacky variety show every night, Voltron cut the bad guys down to size and the Thundercats saved the day five times a week. Back then I didn’t think there was any way that my TV Titians could ever be upstaged. What could be better than watching the adventures of the world’s greatest heroes?

In December of 1985, I was barely three years old. My father had recently purchased an Apple II-C computer a few months before and was looking for software he could use to introduce me and my brother to the fledgling digital world. He chose KidWriter – a program where children write and illustrate their own story book page by page, albeit in pea soup green thanks to the Apple’s monochrome monitor. It was a little bit like television, but here I was the one who controlled the action. I hungered for more, and soon, my father obliged.

The Kidwriter title screen... on a color monitor!

Over the next several years I played games like Pac-Man, Moon Patrol, Test Drive and my favorite, Dig Dug. But it wasn’t until 1988 or 1989 when a chance encounter with Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt and the Nintendo Entertainment System at my aunt’s house ensured that my free time for the rest of eternity would be spent in front of a television or computer monitor with a controller in my hands. And though I never stopped hangin’ with my boob-tube buddies, it was clear that gaming was my new – and permanent – sweetheart.

Approximately 25 years after Dad bought KidWriter, I’ve amassed more than 1,000 video games spanning almost three decades, from E.T. for the Atari 2600 and a quazi-legal copy of NES Earth Bound to Wii, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games. KidWriter, of course, remains in my collection.

Seeing as how I’ve grown up with technology, I’ve always been rather comfortable with it. It’s worth noting that technology was introduced to me as something fun and it wasn’t until I was about 12 years old that I began using it for school, so perhaps that explains the extent to which computers and gaming are integrated into my life. Also, very few of my computer skills were taught to me by another person. My father taught me the basics – what an .exe file is, how to run programs, etc. – and I’ve been learning on my own ever since.

Productivity ended the day I discovered you, Nintendo.

The essence of technology for me, and I think many of my “digital native” peers would agree, is exploration. Since the days of Pac-man and printer paper with tear-off edges, it has been more gratifying for me to figure out computer programs and other technology on my own, reading the manual at a later time if at all. When it comes to computers, it’s easier for me to remember what I discover on my own than through reading or time in the classroom.

Technology lends itself to that kind of thing. Whereas the facts in a book need to be memorized, much of what a person can do with technology needs to “come from within.” Reading and lectures can tell you how to jump to the next platform in Castlevania or do a simple combo attack in Street Fighter II, but until the player experiences it for him or herself, it’s just words. We all know how to hit a baseball: You swing the bat. But you don’t get the hang of it until you’ve swung and missed a few pitches.

Otherwise you’re just watching someone else do it, like in a classroom… or on a television show. And as I discovered early in my life, just watching a character like Lion-o from Thundercats have an adventure can be good, but it’s always more rewarding to take up the quest yourself – if only through the comforting embrace of a Nintendo Entertainment System.

I’ve been told that learning can’t take place without emotional involvement. So what better tool than gaming for getting people like me emotionally involved in the classroom? Perhaps it’s the silly dream of a second-rate educator who finds himself more suited to the theoretical than the practical. But then again, a lot of the “digital natives” that I was asked to lecture to would have been much more interested in writing KidWriter stories than anything I had to say.

I don’t think I’m the one who will wind up revolutionizing the current educational paradigm in American schools, but I think I know how that future superstar teacher will do it.

The future of education ...was yesterday? Maybe.

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