– Tumelo Malekane

Tumelo joins FNS as a lead educator in Mathematics. He has a BSc in Statistics and Actuarial Science from the University of Witwatersrand. He worked as an actuarial analyst for 2 years before leaving to throw himself into being part of the education solution.

In 2011 he received the TeachSA leadership award, and in 2012 voted one of Mail and Guardian’s 300 young South Africans to meet for his efforts in education. 

I’m a former committed video gamer. I got my first Sega 16-bit game station in primary school, and remember the first two games I had: “Aero Blasters” and “Fire Mustang”! Through “Aero Blasters I have travelled space, fought with alien warlords, and met many mysterious creatures. As a soldier in “Fire Mustang, I ’ve been a part of wars against land and air-borne machines, all with my one plane (and a few lives)! Over the years I have largely left this virtual reality, and only visit on rare occasions. But video gaming has become a billion dollar industry that captivates young and old children (aka adults) alike.

Video games are a pastime to some, but a religion for others! It is amazing with what ease a whole day can be spent on figuring the levels to a game. A few pages could be written on the enthrallment that lies within video games. However, for our purposes, this one sentence will suffice to make the point: Video games are highly engaging!

Homework, on the other hand, is afforded less interest. Even the most disciplined learners must admit which activity they’d rather do between a game and homework (unless the game is the homework). These “distracting” gadgets have to be physically removed in order to allow the average young learner to be disengaged from them, and continue with the lesser exciting task of completing school work. Written work cannot compete with a virtual reality experience! Writing may please those logically/linguistically inclined, but a fantasy world that stimulates multiple senses, which you control, gives more to a person in that moment (and is hence more engaging). And the more you’re engaged, the more of you to bring into your activity.

So why not combine the two elements? Why not have situations where learners are completely enthralled with educational material, via video games? Well, we (as a society) are doing so, seemingly. There is a booming industry of ‘educational games’ designed in order to achieve this purpose. Yes, there are some teething matters such as making a game for each topic. This one to one matching will be covered (in some approach) as the industry evolves. But largely speaking, these two worlds have been bridged, and this concludes the issue of combining an engaging art form with not-so-engaging assignments. And thus, here ends this article.

Or does it?

There is one more factor to consider, and this has to do with the permutation of the events. If we put video games and educational content into the same pot, do we end up with video games that teach educational content? Possibly. But another possibility is that we end up with educational content that teaches video games. And this is what I believe we have been seeing in the educational game industry.

The issue is that, in today’s games, you have to understand the math (as an example) in order to advance in the game. The game itself doesn’t teach you the math. Sure, a pop-up may appear instructing you on what to do, but the actual gameplay doesn’t develop the specific mathematical skills that would enable them to tackle math problems with any more ease.

If anything, the game only acts as bait for one to go learn math independently, so that they can return and advance in said game when ready. This hypothesis is my explanation for the only marginal improvement in reported results after playing one of the existing educational games: games we have on the market are really game-teaching content. I call them Solidifiers, because they solidify what one has already learnt (and there’s value in having solidifier games, as we can see from the Serious game industry where simulations of direct application are being used for military and surgical training).

What we lack are Primer games that actually teach content, instead of testing if you have the content to advance in the game What will this look like? Such games do not directly display content (i.e. such a math game would not have any numbers in it) because their intent is to prime with the assumption of no prior knowledge. And that is the type of educational game I would play if I wanted to just play and not have my ability/disability to crunch numbers interrupt my fun (engagement).

Instead of a game that is interrupted by having to solve an equation, imagine a soccer game setup so that certain plays used the same steps in solving an equation, without us noticing. The continuous nature of such play embeds certain algorithms naturally, and we are hence better primed for instruction. This is the same argument cited by advocates against violent video games: that kids pick up behaviors and confuse reality with virtual reality. Well that quality is an overlooked plus for education! Learners could have long lasting memories of solving situations, like I do of visiting alien worlds with my superpowers!

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