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The Real Story Behind Gaming and Education

Mat Frenz, Partnership Development at GlassLab, has an intimate knowledge of education gaming and the conversations bubbling up in development circles and school districts.  

Dr. Rod Berger: It seems that the narrative about games in education has started to become more rich and accurate to the exhaustive efforts you and others are putting into the development of sound educational offerings. Am I correct in this assumption?

Mat Frenz: I would say that’s part of it. Over the last 3-5 years the quality of learning games has been getting better and better, matching the engagement level of the games that kids play at home and using sound pedagogy to deliver really powerful results. So it’s due in part to game developers’ efforts, but it’s also due to countless foundations, universities, and other research-driven organizations that are invested in proving that games can be transformative. Without that hard data, the narrative wouldn’t be nearly what it is today.

Ultimately, though, it’s kids, parents, teachers, and administrators that have provided the consistent drumbeat that we’re all dancing to. Whether they’ve seen the data or not, they intuitively understand the promise of games and have been asking for them...and asking for them...and asking for them. The question now is can we effectively deliver them to teachers and students in classrooms, and can we provide the surrounding infrastructure that takes them from a piece of content to a full-service educational tool? Bigstock-Hand-And-Light-Bulb-4091701

RB: A global concern is the education industry's ability to attract talent at all levels. The same can be said for the edtech sector that aims to infuse talent into solutions for K-12 environments. How are we doing and why should this be important to school and district leaders and those involved in purchasing decisions? 

MF: We’ve been able to recruit some amazing talent on the promise that games can transform education, but in order to retain that talent the market needs to consistently recognize the value of games.

We know there’s a lot of interest, but that doesn’t mean administrators will think games are valuable enough to allocate resources toward them in place of textbooks, even if the research is overwhelming. We need this to happen, though, because if we can carve out even a small piece of the pie for games, the talent will be there, the quality will keep getting better, and the outcomes will keep getting stronger. But it won’t happen if learning game developers have to continue to survive off of grants and app store sales.

RB: At the outset of gaming in education we consistently heard about entertainment versus learning. As I previously said, I think that narrative is shifting to a more accurate portrayal. Now comes the discussion of data and assessment. If I am a district or school leader what questions should I be asking about this aspect when evaluating the fit of a given game and/or gaming solution for my community?

MF: The first question you should ask is: Does the game work? Will it improve an outcome? This can be answered by looking at who developed the games, what their track record is, and what research they have to back up their claims. GlassLab does a lot of that work for administrators. We go to great lengths to prove the efficacy of our own games, but we also work to ensure that the third party game developers that we work with are of the highest quality and effectiveness. All of that information is available on www.glasslabgames.org.

The next question is: Does the game make the learning visible in real-time – to both the learner and the educator? With games, learning is continuous and so when students are in the moment, playing, what better time to give them insights into their learning? Sometimes our feedback is celebratory, sometimes it’s the nudge a student needs to keep going, and sometimes it’s that critical piece of insight that unlocks a whole new world of understanding. All the while, we’re able to present the same critical information to the teacher, but in a way that is actionable and effective in the moment. As a school or district leader, you want to make sure that the games you’re investing in are as effective as possible, and that means they have true formative assessment capabilities.

RB: In your opinion what has been the most compelling story, about games in education, that has moved the needle and advanced partnerships and buy-in from both commercial and education sectors? 

MF: That’s tough! Games are so versatile; they offer different value to different stakeholders. From a district and state perspective, though, I think the most compelling story is around the promise that games show as 21st century formative assessment tools. It’s no secret that we need new and better ways to assess student outcomes. We all know one size does not fit all. Many times a multiple-choice question doesn’t provide the kind of evidence of learning that educators need to inform their instruction. The gameplay data we’re able to surface to students and teachers through our dashboards provide nuanced insights on student learning. That’s an exciting prospect for educators looking to take it personalized instruction to the next level.

RB: I've always been a big believer in the approach that understanding what children like to do and then incorporating those elements into my approach with them. Is it a stretch to say that quality games provide a platform for students and adults to engage in meaningful discussion, problem solving and rapport building? 

MF: It’s not a stretch at all, but it is pretty early - at least in terms of digital games. Teachers have been using non-digital games to engage in meaningful discussion and deep problem solving for literally centuries.

Digital games absolutely can be a bridge into much deeper learning, but it will take more than interest to do that on a grand scale. The first challenge was to get games to be generally accepted pedagogical resources. Check. The second challenge is to make games a generally adopted pedagogical resource. We're definitely on the path.

With greater adoption will come innovative ways of using games to deepen the classroom experience and enrich the learner-educator relationship. There are definitely teachers out there who embrace this idea, but it’s not mainstream yet. Once it is, though, teachers will begin talking to each other about how to utilize games to their fullest potential. That is the shift we are looking for - the move from “How do I implement...” to “How do I make the most of...”

RB: Where is game development taking place outside of the U.S. and are there regions, globally, that are tackling this more than others that we should be aware of?

MF: We're seeing widespread virtualization of teams across many parts of software development, and the highly specialized form of game design and product development needed to make effective learning games means that there isn't a geographic center for the work yet that we know of. Small, often distributed teams working together online are becoming the norm. Because of the innovative nature of the field, you see founders often located in major software areas like San Francisco and Seattle, but often their developers are far afield, even in other countries.

We're beginning to see a lot of collaboration between designers and founders in the US and software teams in South America, the UK, and eastern Europe. Balancing this is the tricky way that educational needs tend to be very regional -- which means there are efforts in China, Europe, and India bubbling up that we have little exposure to in the US.


Please connect via LinkedIn and Twitter to suggest interview guests and story ideas. If you are the idea you want to float...by all means connect and pitch me your perspective!


Snip20150227_69Mat Frenz - Partnership Development
After working as a Producer on two groundbreaking games at GlassLab, Mat now develops strategic partnerships and defines sustainability strategy for the organization. With the addition of Game Services to GlassLab's work as a nonprofit aiming to transform learning and assessment through digital games, Mat's focus lies in identifying the most innovative companies in the learning games space and collaborating with them to create a seamless pathway into classrooms for their products.
He also manages and cultivates the GlassLab District Network, as well GlassLab's reseller channel - both instrumental components in the effort to reach students, teachers and administrators the world over. Prior to GlassLab, Mat was the owner of Precision Response, a software as a service company, and did mobile application consulting work for non-profit organizations. He has a bachelor's degree from the University of Central Florida.

Snip20150215_22Dr. Rod Berger is a global education media personality featured on the Core of Education, AmericanEdTV, in Ed Tech Review India and on RFD TV's Rural Education Special. Dr. Berger also serves as Vice President of Education for RANDA Solutions an education software and data management firm named three times to the INC 5000.

As an industry personality Dr. Berger has interviewed Ministers of Education, leading voices like Sir Ken Robinson, U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan, AFT President Randi Weingarten and other global thought leaders. Dr. Berger is a guest lecturer at Vanderbilt University and resides with his wife and two children in Nashville, Tennessee.

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