Virtual education

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“Learning” often conjures images of a monotone teacher’s monologue while students struggle to keep awake. Adults forget that learning doesn’t have to be a painful process. Kids enjoy learning, but they want the learning to be fun. Educational video games in classrooms will morph the Hollywood-induced Ferris Bueller’s Day Off stereotype about schools into something engaging and interesting for students of all ages. Throughout the centuries, games have taught valuable life lessons in a hands-on, stimulating fashion. Sports, for example, teach teamwork, strategy and exercise. Board games such as Monopoly teach banking and investments. Video games are beginning to defy their bad reputation as brain-numbing entertainment since they have begun to infiltrate elementary and middle schools where they are being used as vital teaching aids. Tested in ethnically and socio-economically diverse school districts, educational video games have ignited the minds of a wide range of students. Created by Harvard professors and funded by the National Science Foundation, the River City Project is a Multi-User Virtual Environment (MUVE), which is a realistic online video game that teaches teamwork, reasoning, critical thinking skills and much more. Spread over weeks of class, this 17-hour-long project engages students in research groups in a 19th century town called River City where an epidemic has broken out. By interviewing inhabitants, making hypotheses, testing the environment and analyzing results, students individually come to a conclusion. They then write a letter to the mayor of River City, explaining the cause and prevention for the illness, which is ultimately graded by the classroom teacher. Meeting national standards in ecology, health, biology, chemistry, earth science and history, River City does not yet meet Oregon’s education standards, but it meets 12 state standards, including Washington. Developers are currently working to enhance the game to meet all 50 state standards. Results of test scores before and after the program showed that each student had improved monumentally. Other teachers are incorporating commercial games such as Dance Dance Revolution to spice up physical education, while Sim City 2000, Rollercoaster Tycoon and Age of Empires are used to boost strategic thinking. However, before commercial video games are used in schools, the authenticity of factual detail should be thoroughly examined. Overall, teachers that have begun using video games noticed that student absenteeism plummeted and that students’ benchmark test scores improved. In a traditional classroom’s lecture setting, top students become bored with redundant lessons while other students are left behind and never catch up. With River City and other video games, students are allowed to comfortably work at their own learning pace. Teachers, rather than acting like dictators, act as guides when students need hints or ideas. Computers and software are sound investments for schools. Textbooks are expensive and often not used by classrooms because there are too few to share or they are extremely outdated. Software can be easily updated and small supplemental textbooks printed cheaply. Plus each student gets a virtual library placed at their fingertips, arming them to research a myriad of topics. Instead of destroying forests to produce reels of pastel worksheets, assignments can be e-mailed. The brutal seventh-grade task of dissecting an embalmed frog can now be done virtually, without unnecessarily taking animal lives. One moment a student can be electronically ordering food at a French cafe and the next marching through battle with Alexander the Great. In the virtual worlds that video games offer, the possibilities and opportunities are endless as students learn, virtually traveling the world and moving through time.

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