Troy Fischer, director for the New York City Department of Education's Office of Instructional Technology, knew that more than one million students could sit in a room and deal with integers and algebraic equations, but he questioned whether that learning environment was the best for a generation of students of whom roughly 93 percent are video- gaming technology natives. New York City schools needed an engaging curriculum solution that would offer the "stickiness" needed for students to master math problems beyond what daily worksheets could provide.
Fischer's team and other members of the district's division of teaching and learning are responsible for looking at innovative educational solutions to share with instructional coordinators. "Everyone else, especially in other industries, is using simulations, so why aren't we doing this?" Fischer asks. Could gaming be the answer? Students were already familiar with these simulations outside of school; could math gaming engage students in a subject at school? As a result, New York City schools started piloting an online video gaming, pre-algebra and algebra solution called DimensionM from educational gaming company Tabula Digita. Starting in September 2006, Celine Azoulay, regional technology coordinator for Brooklyn's schools, piloted the program in three of her Bay Ridge schools. Successes there resulted in NYC schools extending the pilot to 48 schools in all five boroughs and for use with their special education students. "We can educate without technology, but to do it efficiently we must use technology," says Fischer.
The pilot sites had students with varied socio-economic and achievement levels, as well as varied necessary hardware. The division of teaching and learning bought the multiplayer software that transforms students into classroom-math-gamers, who compete against one another, form teams and collaborate in classroom vs. classroom, school vs. school, and district vs. district competitions-nationwide and globally. Students can strive for personal bests and for school or team pride. Leader boards posted on the DimensionM Web site allow students to return to the games to improve their skills, raise their rankings and do more math. This new approach to math curriculum also gives teachers an educator portal, allowing Web-based access to results and student monitoring.
"Throughout the games students acquire tools to add to their utility pack, and those tools are associated with solving math problems," Fischer says. "So their digital inventory adds to their math repertoire and knowledge base." The idea is to allow students to make decisions that have virtual consequences. This could have significant and positive effects, especially as a reference point when solving real-world problems, he adds.
A comprehensive evaluation of the pilot program is currently being conducted, and it could result in expanding the project. Early anecdotal reports have been positive. What's impressive is that students will help other students master the material, in order to get to the next level, which is common in video gaming.
Fischer says that Chancellor Joel L. Klein's Fair Funding Initiative allows schools to identify funds for these sorts of projects. He says that sharing options like the Tabula Digita solution gives individual school administrators a chance to decide what's best for them.
Fischer finds no reason why simulations can't be done in other subjects. "Having kids produce and write in this arena-that's where we want to be."
Ken Royal is associate editor.