Ask a Tech Teacher contributor, James Lovelock, has been thinking about the nexus of student engagement, online games, and learning. Here are his thoughts:
Student engagement has long been a point of conversation for educators, the concept that students must have an active interest in order to get the best benefit from instruction is hardly a new thought. Having said that, the ways in which that engagement is best achieved is a source of dispute, particularly depending on which philosophy on learning is held. Competition is definitely one of the more disputed forms.
Usually criticism of the idea of competition as a tool is that where some people win, other people must lose and that can serve to disengage them from learning. This sort of criticism is particular of classrooms where a couple of students may be seen to be dominant in certain areas and every other student conceivably looks at them and thinks inwardly “what is the point?” and proceeds to tap out, achieving the opposite of the intended engagement. To be fair, when competition is implemented without consideration to purpose or outcome for an entire class, this can happen.
Having said that, competition when used in a considered manner can be a highly effective tool for engagement in learning. A common example is that of a spelling test where rather than students competing individually they compete in groups, mixing together students who are stronger and weaker in the challenge so that those who would otherwise disengage are able to participate.
Even when teams are eliminated they are normally engaged enough to want to see who wins and when run regularly allow for the establishment of peer learning groups where students look to each other for support rather than feeling isolated within individual competition. It also helps students to recognise how they have advanced in learning because there is a concrete short-term goal of standing within a competition, rather than just the conceptual achievement of competence in the skill which is more long term.
When it comes to digital programs that teach particular skills, many interactions are often framed within the context of a competition. For example, when I first learned to touch-type the game that was associated with it was a car race where you had to type fast enough to stay ahead of the opposing race car. With online options now more readily available there are plenty of stories or concepts of a competition, be they the race or typing to defeat zombies, that are out there that frame the activity with purpose.
Competitions for individuals will always lend themselves to those who are already confident and engaged, but what about every other student who may be everywhere from uncertain to downright disengaged who are in most need of support? Some programs change the dynamic from individual effort to group because there is a more considered approach as to why competition is implemented.
Typing Tournament Online is a ready enough example in this regard. Classes compete so every student’s actions count and even if a class isn’t the fastest they may still excel through the most words typed within a month to reflect the effort of the students rather than just their speed. Everyone within a class owns achievement and success meaning that the engagement is much broader across a class rather than just being centered on a couple of individuals. When ranking is as a team then everyone counts.
If we are considering the implementation of competition as a tool for engagement and furthering student learning, then it is opportunities that cater to everyone rather than celebrating the few that best serve the purpose.
Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-18 technology for 30 years. She is the editor/author of over a hundred tech ed resources including a K-12 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum. She is an adjunct professor in tech ed, Master Teacher, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, contributor to NEA Today, and author of the tech thrillers, To Hunt a Sub and Twenty-four Days. You can find her resources at Structured Learning.