An Evolution of Game-Based Learning from K-12 to Higher Ed

I recently had the honor of moderating a panel titled “Game-based Learning in Higher Ed: Interactive technology drives new ways of learning,” held by Adtalem Global Education at the DeVry University Freemont Campus in Freemont, California.

It was a lively and animated discussion amongst the panelists, all three of which are industry leaders. The panel included Karl Kapp, Gamification Analyst and Professor at Bloomsburg University; André Thomas, CEO of Triseum and the creator of the LIVE Lab at Texas A&M University; and Jim Kiggens, Director of Engage Learning Technology at Adtalem Global Education.

When it was over, I reached out to Jim to continue our conversation on making gamification more prevalent and effective in the higher education market. Jim Kiggens has terrific insight on the subject - sighting development risks, market creation and the pivotal role of the textbook publisher. It’s an inspiring interview that leaves you thinking of the great potential of game-based learning in higher ed.


Rod Berger: Jim, it's nice to catch up with you. We spent some time together. You were a panelist at an event that Adtalem Global Education put on examining game-based learning. I was a participant but from a distance, obviously. I learned so much from you, André Thomas and Karl Kapp in the ways in which we should be looking at game-based learning.

Let's start with that. When you walk away from an event like that where you're able to reflect on other thought leaders who are in the same or very similar space to you and Adtalem Global Education, what do you walk away with? What is inspiring to you? What has you thinking in a different way than maybe you did even prior to the event?

Jim Kiggens: Thanks for having me back. That was a great panel. I really enjoyed that conversation. It was very lively and we really explored some interesting areas of the challenges that we face in using games in the classroom.

Like you, I came away from that panel feeling like I really learned a lot. I always do. How could you be in that group and not feel like you're coming away with things that you learn from them that maybe you didn't hear before or maybe you've thought about them a little bit differently?

We have challenges that each of us face in our own institutions and you get a little bit myopic about that; and that becomes kind of the center of the world. And then, you come together in a panel and you realize that there's a lot of commonality.

One of the commonalities is that we have this tool that we know works. That question has been answered. Games work in the classroom.

Then, the next question is, how do we get to the place where games should be ubiquitous? Why aren’t game available for everybody who wants to use them?

I think we still have to answer that question in a way that's meaningful at scale ─ meaningful across all universities, meaningful across all colleges. It's something that K-12 has been able to do.

There's been a business vertical that's grown. They've been able to bring games into the classroom. There is a lot of research that supports how well it’s gone. And it seems like higher ed has been far behind the power curve in that respect.

RB: I'm glad you used the word “scale.” I think that that is a word that needs a little bit more breathing room when we're looking at game-based learning and what is practical, what we can put out as a goal. But there are lots of costs involved in the R&D.

When we're talking about UI and UX that is meeting students where they are, you're competing against games that are engagement games or social games, in that regard. I think we need to look at scale.

How do you look at scale from a business perspective when you're thinking about penetrating the market in something that is meaningful beyond maybe a small collection of companies or groups that are targeting this as a project?

JK: I think that scale issue is really the crux of the question. From the infancy 20 years ago through currently in the industry, a lot of game-based learning has been research-oriented. The few companies that have attempted to penetrate it and take it into a business orientation have found that it's really a tremendous investment upfront. It’s not only the tech and the overhead of actually producing the game but there's a lot of engagement with the subject-matter experts that you have to have in order to make it happen.

And then, it's somewhat iffy. There's not an existing market. It's not like you can just fire up a web browser and find 40 schools that are already a marketplace where you can take this game.

So you have two parts of the equation: You have the development side which is very risky and the non-existent market.

Publishers aren’t buying games. That's a whole other pathway that could be explored. A lot of schools are looking at “Do we do mobile? Do we do PC? Do we start looking at VR?” There are platform differences. There are an awful lot of unanswered questions to try to grapple with at one time.

RB: It is convoluted, and that's putting it lightly. Let's talk a little bit about something that I mentioned to one of the other panelists in a previous discussion which is the role that publishers play, or maybe should or shouldn't play, in expanding the market opportunities.

I was saying to Karl that from my perspective and many others’ in the field, the publishers are really the ones who are driving the business of education in the way we experience things. And you could argue also LMSs and the LMS market.

But is there time and is now the time to sit down and talk with publishers around game-based learning and ways in which to fully incorporate it into what's going on, especially in U.S. education?

JK: That is such an important question in this whole topic because there is an existing market, and that would be the traditional textbook publishers. They already have the business organization. They already have the sales force. They already have the individual contacts with all the schools. They have a mechanism for selling. Everything is in place, except that they lack the understanding and literacy of game-based learning.

In my experience ─ and I would be surprised if you'd hear otherwise ─ when you're working with publishers, although they're very excited about games, the conversation quickly becomes “How many chapters, how many units, how many words, how many images?”

They're not thinking about an enmeshed, embedded media. Instead, they're thinking about, how can we look at games as a product the way that we used to look at textbooks?

So it's difficult for the publishers to take this on because they lack the literacy to do that, although they definitely have the business position to be able to take that to market.

RB: Jim, let's talk about that literacy. How do we build that? If the onus then is on ─ let's just say ─ the gaming industry, very broadly, to help inform the publishers or that industry, what are the paths to do that?

Not to be too simplistic, do we need to go down to the infographic level? Do we need to be drawing parallels that say, “Here's what you potentially think it is; here's what it is not; and here's how it can play within that world in an enmeshed, ingrained thoughtful manner?” How do we do that?

JK: I think that one solution for re-purposing the existing business side would be very similar to what happened with mobile. This would be demand-driven. The publishers would learn to respond and would become literate because the customers were demanding it.

So customers demanded that students be able to use their text in a mobile device. Even though that wasn’t something that was part of the lexicon for the publishers, they eventually came around to the point where you could do that in mobile.

So if we were able to drive the demand from the student in the school side that said, “Look, if you're going to be able to have us use your textbook, we're going to have to have some game-based learning as part of this product.”

RB: It feels like we're sort of at a nexus where we have to figure who is going to actually serve as the facilitator or the educator so that we can dispel the myths of gaming. And also come to an agreement that says, “You know what, if something is fun, that's okay.” Many adults in our age brackets do things because they like them. They don't stay in jobs because they don't like them.

JK: Absolutely true. And there's no reason why great learning can't also be enjoyable ─ not just games but in all of its forms.

Games are uniquely well-suited to do that. I really don't think that we have to overcome that prejudice as much anymore towards games as being frivolous. I think there's a fair understanding across education that game-based learning is something that could be used. Now, it's just a question of getting that critical mass started in one of these areas that makes that happen.

What's interesting is that we've been having the same conversation for ten years.

RB: Sadly, right?

JK: Right ─ which led to us having this panel. It's like “What do we do now to change these conversations?” We go from having this Groundhog Day kind of repetitive conference conversation that we have every year to “Okay, let's do something about this.” And in the case of Karl, André, and myself, in each of our respective institutions, we're doing exactly that.

RB: Let's close with this, Jim. Do you think that we need a lighthouse moment or an individual to take up the flame as a representative of game-based learning so that we can organize the thoughts and the strategies? If we're all coming at it from different angles and we don't really potentially have a leader or one as an identifiable leader which is an issue and a challenge in global education ─ and then that's for another conversation.

Do we need that? Do we need a centralized person or group to say, “We will be the ones leading the thought leadership and the discussion around this and the ones facilitating the introductions and the meetings that need to take place so that we're not separate but equal at the negative outcome of children and what they're not getting access to because the adults in the room can't figure out how to play?

JK: That's really a great summary. And then, here's our banner. We saw this happen in K-12. During the Obama administration, the Department of Education picked this up and they said, “Look, we're committed to supporting games in the classroom.”

So they had game challenges. They had STEM for games. They had lots of government-driven initiatives that were top-down that provided money and provided steering and provided expertise. But it was for K-12.

What if we could do the same thing for higher ed?

RB: That's a great question. That should be our next panel ─ and incorporating in. I've had recent discussions with CIOs at some very prominent universities around the U.S. Just finding ways to incorporate incredible technologies, understanding that challenges may be a part of the process but, in doing so, we develop fantastic case studies and stories and research that help to change and alter the narrative to one of just not ─ “acceptance” isn’t even the term, but I think just part of the general vernacular of the education, what it means and what it can be moving forward.

JK: And it would help if we were lucky enough to have one great app. If we had one great game like an Oregon Trail but for higher ed that just completely became ─ instantly overnight ─ something that every school had to have. Something like that would help as well.

RB: That means that we need to stop this interview so that you can get to that.


Jim, it's been such a great pleasure. It was fun to spend time with you in person and get to know you and to share that conversation with a larger audience at the DeVry campus. They were fantastic hosts and it's nice to see that they are leading the charge from so many different angles.

About Jim Kiggens

Jim Kiggens has over two decades of experience in producing and developing game-based learning for higher education, middle and secondary school, and corporate training. In addition to shipping 24 Serious Game titles at Course Games, Jim also has over 20 years of experience in instructional design, program development, and teaching digital animation and game development at several colleges and universities.

Jim has published and presented widely regarding the development of game-based learning and is currently leading VR research at Adtalem Global Education : Play.

Follow Jim Kiggens and the Adtalem Global Education on Twitter

Further Reading:

Philadelphia Inquirer: Commentary: Colleges need to catch up on game-based learning

Additional Reading:

The role of gaming in higher education

Woman making inroads in game-based learning

Professional development for game-based learning

About Rod Berger, PsyD.

Dr. Rod Berger is President and CEO of MindRocket Media Group. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter

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