Mark Prensky is a lively New
Yorker and ex-teacher who set the pace on the use of games in learning with his
evangelistic book Digital Game-Based
(2001). Prensky claims that today's educators/trainers and learners are from separate worlds. Sure, learners have a short attention span nowadays -
for the old ways of learning! His point is that the old ways are inappropriate
for the new generation of learners. His argument is that games make learning cool. School and most learning experiences are
natives’ versus ‘Digital immigrants’
Yes, it was Prensky who was
responsible for this useful, and some claim, overused phrase. These terms have
become commonplace and Marc has done a great deal to make them common currency
in the learning field. Digital natives
are those who grew up with computers, texting, searching, games consoles and
thrashing about in software – the twitch generation. Digital immigrants
are those who have had to enter their world and
learn about them later in life. Then there’s the often forgotten, but not
uncommon Digital aliens
are those who
remain outside of the system.
There has been much criticism
of this distinction as being too black and white, encouraging the view that
all young people have full, online, literacy skills, which they clearly do not.
However, the distinction is a useful heuristic device in that it points to the
obvious generational shift in terms of the commonplace use of online
technology, especially computer games. There has been a demographic switch and
demonstrably higher use of technology by younger people. They literally learn
technology skills at a very young age, such as texting, posting, messaging
and increasingly the use of cameras and images. His arguments about context are clear.
Some prefer the generational
distinctions, so loved by marketeers, and argue that these are better researched,
such as generation and Milennials. However, many of the critics are academics, like
Michael Wesch, who see digital literacy in terms of research not search,
citations not everyday use. They claim, astoundinglt, that there is no real difference. This is not
born out by the usage stats on social media, txting, gaming and use of mobile
devices. Since the debate we have seen the Arab Spring, where social media is
now seen as a necessary condition for success, and the massive rise of global
social media and mobile penetration.
To be fair Marc has moved on
and his redefinition towards ‘Digital Wisdom’ has tackled some of the older
criticisms. His argument is that education has a problem with relevance,
context and audience. The curriculum, he believes, is antiquated, the world for
which students are taught has irreversibly changed to include both personal and
workplace technology and the students have new experiences and different expectations.
A more interesting debate
lies around the prescriptive need to use technology in learning, to meet these expectations. Bennett (2008) in the British Journal of Educational technology, argued
that there is no such need. However, it is Bennett, not Prensky,who makes the Manichean
claim of an ‘insurmountable gap’. Her ‘Australian’ claims about low access by
primary school children (less than 5%) is unsupported and at odds with the real
data. She claims that it is difficult to get data on access, it is not. We know
a great deal about who has access to what device, where and their use. Digital
technology gives you a surplus of useful, automatically gathered data. In her
search for an absolute set of activities practiced by all young people, she
sets the bar so high that she is bound to fail. This is a clear case of firig an arrow, then drawing a cahlak cirle round it to say you've hot the target. Sure, there’s variation in use
but we know a great deal about this. Take two examples, texting and Facebook.
There will be a distribution curve for use of these activities and it is undoubtedly skewed
towards younger demographics, similarly with game playing.
I’m with Prensky on this. We
have seen huge changes in pedagogy, especially since 2000, with search (Google),
crowdsourced knowledge bases, video (Wikipedia), audio (podcasts), hyperlinks
and social media. These are all radical pedagogic shifts that require new
skills. To suggest that we do not need to change the target and method of
teaching is quite simply wrong.
The real power in the book
comes from the arguments he gathers on motivation, and using game techniques to
improve learning. Games' designers know a lot about motivation. They have to -
or their games won't sell. There is, therefore, real mileage in taking the
magic dust of game design and sprinkling it on learning.
His analysis of what makes
games tick is exemplary and matched by a similarly strong analysis on learning
in relation to simulations. The difficulty, however, is in bringing these two
worlds together, and Prensky is not entirely convincing in making these two
worlds congruent. Games may not be as widely applicable in education and
training as he imagines.
As one would expect, and as
with any book that takes a single, strong line - traditional learning bad,
games good – he is light on arguments against games in learning. These include:
violence, gender gaps, distractive elements, extra cognitive effort,
disappointment and a whole raft of arguments against the use of games in
reflective, higher forms of learning.
For example, it is quite
difficult to argue that the violence in games has no effect whatsoever on
players, then argue that games make great sense for behavioural change, for
example in military simulations. Why has the military spent so much on games,
simulations and even a free downloadable game with over a million players if it
has no psychological effect?
This is a dimension to the
'games in learning' debate that is often underestimated by the games
evangelists. Games often have no educational value, and, even worse, can
distract, disappoint or even destroy learning.
Distraction - if the learning
objectives are not congruent with the game objectives you run a real danger of
distracting learners from the learning. Learners become obsessed with progress,
scores and other non-learning components in the game, to the detriment of the
content. Even in real computer games, players will go to enormous lengths to
Disappointment - this is a
danger where the learner is set up to experience a game which actually turns
out to be a rather weak affair. Children brought up on a diet of blockbuster
real-time games are often bored by poorly designed educational games.
Destruction - in some cases,
games can even destroy learning. This is the argument put forward by Postman.
If game-playing induces an expectation that learning must always be an amusing
experience, then setting such an expectation risks producing the opposite
effect in contexts where amusement is absent. In this way, a games-based
approach might undermine other more traditional forms of education and
However, it is a matter of
pay-offs. The advantages of motivation, learning through failure, level
structures, simulations, constant feedback and repeated practice may outweigh
the disadvantages. More recenctly we have seen an emphasis on gamification that
takes a more measured approach to the use of gaming in learning, taking scoring
and some strong pedagogic features of games to sue in learning experiences.
Some also argue that games
may turn out a generation with better IQs, better skills, more attuned to
technology with a more enlightened learner-centric attitude towards learning
than any previous generation. Many also argue that we should harness the
strength of games, while setting their weaknesses to the side. In any case
Prensky was a pioneer and tireless campaigner for games in learning.
Prensky M. (2001) Digital Game-Based
Prensky M. (2001) Digital Natives,
Digital Immigrants (From On the Horizon
(MCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001)
Prensky M. (2006) Don't Bother Me
Mom - I'm Learning Paragon Press
Prensky M. (2010) Teaching Digital
Natives—Partnering for Real Learning Corwin Press
Prensky M. (2012) From Digital
Natives to Digital Wisdom: Hopeful Essays for 21st Century Learning
Prensky M. 920120 Brain Gain:Technology
and the Quest for Digital Wisdom
Bennet S (2008) Journal
of Educational technology vol. 39, no. 5, pp. 775-786, 2008