SimCityEDU is the Great Gatsby of the video gaming world.

That’s right. I want that to be my opening line.

In the same way that Gatsby is a self-made man pursuing an idealised (albeit fundamentally flawed) dream that draws into it the rich variety of the city and its inhabitants, so too is SimCityEDU an eduscape of bounteous potential waiting to be crafted into learning opportunities of mythical proportions.

The SimCityEDU project is the collaborative effort of Electronic Arts and GlassLab (Games, Learning and Assessment Lab) and encourages educators to explore the learning potential of the well-established SimCity franchise. Teachers are invited to create and share lesson plans that utilise the content-rich city environment to engage learners’ critical thinking skills. As well as ticking the all important 21st Century Skills check box, the teacher-generated content claims to be aligned to the U.S. Common Core State Standards for a wide range of subjects including Science, Maths, Civics and Economics.

Browsing the growing archive of learning materials being created reveals the various avenues that educators are exploring with the platform. Learning opportunities range from Cultivating Civic Engagement, Learning the Basic of Human Needs, to Simulation as Scientific Tools. Lucy Bradshaw, VP and GM of EA’s Maxis Label, describes the collaboration as an opportunity to “re-imagine learning in a way that will inspire today’s youth to … become the problem solvers of tomorrow.” Why struggle with a maths lesson based on a tired, worn out text book when you can be put in control of a budget for a new building project that actually has an impact on the (virtual) environment in which you are operating? That age-old question born of algebraic frustration, “When will I ever  need this?”, will be redundant; you need to create something in this city that is successul and meets certain requirements. You need it now.

This paradigm shift towards new learning experiences is at the heart of GlassLab’s operation. It’s mission is to explore and unpack the potential for existing, successful  games to perform as meaningful learning environments. Furthermore, by integrating learning and assessment into a single data-rich experience via the principles of Evidence-Centred Design (ECD), they hope to deliver powerful, leading-edge tools to enhance the learning process.

The Lab, through it’s engagement with Silicon Valley game designers and assessment experts from the fields of education, industry and the non-profit sector, is aiming to test the following three hypotheses:

(1) digital games with a strong simulation component may be effective learning environments

(2) game-based formative assessments may be well suited to detecting learning gains and offer ethical assessment environments, insofar as they capture learning in the environment where it occurs

(3) game-based assessments may yield valid, reliable assessment measures.

In fact, an SRI study released earlier this month indicates that there is a quantitative impact on the achievements of learners who are interacting with digital games as a mode of instruction. Ed Dieterle, SRI’s Senior Program Officer for Research, Measurement and Evaluation went so far as to say that “[f]or a student sitting in the median who doesn’t have a game, his or her learning achievement would have increased by 12 percent if he or she had that game.” Simulations, however, are observed as having an even greater impact. The study showed that the improvement index increased to 25 percent, meaning learners who used simulations could have increased their learning outcomes by that amount.

Naturally, this then forces us to consider what we mean by ‘learning outcomes’ if these are to be the criteria by which we measure the effectiveness of these types of games (or any other learning material, for that matter). Stacey Childress, Deputy Director of Education at the Gates Foundation (who cofounded GlassLab)  highlighted the importance of clarifying what the particular desired outcomes are when it comes to this new learning frontier:  “With learning games, it’s important to understand which kinds of outcomes they are designed to improve and whether or not students are actually making progress on those dimensions.” She went further by emphasising the need for educators to hold up these digital delights for closer scrutiny, saying “[we] should be skeptical about any innovation that doesn’t aim to produce evidence of its effectiveness.”

And that’s the foundation upon which this and other edtech materials need to be built; why are we using this and how do we demonstrate how effective this app/platform/game/site is?

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