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 Learning (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 not cool.
Digital 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.
Games and motivation
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.
Light on the downside
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 obtain cheats.
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 training.
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 Learning
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
Marc’s home page