Live Lab developing interactive educational video games

If an interdisciplinary team of Texas A&M faculty has its way, video game-based learning will become an integral part of education, enhancing critical thinking skills and learning outcomes for students at all levels.

The Learning Interactive Visualizations Experience Lab, a new group led by André Thomas, a new faculty member in the Department of Visualization, is comprised of faculty and student designers, coders, and educational specialists from visualization, educational psychology, computer science and engineering departments who, through research and a rigorous scientific process, are collaborating with the videogame industry to create and champion a new, exciting genre of innovative, interactive educational software.

The adoption of reimagined teaching and learning strategies is long overdue, especially in the classroom, said Thomas.

“The digital age has transformed many aspects of our lives, but one area that has been slow to adapt is how we teach students and how they learn material,” said Thomas. “Students use computers in almost every aspect of their academic lives, including writing papers and taking notes, but content is still overwhelmingly presented through classroom lectures and tested through exams,” he said.

What one often finds in the lecture/test mode of teaching, said Susan Pedersen, associate professor of educational psychology and a LIVE Lab collaborator, is that students often don’t understand why they’re being taught what they are taught or how to apply what they’re learning.

In video game-based learning, students take the initiative, said Pedersen, resulting in education that emphasizes application and problem solving over memorization.

“Students take information presented in the game and apply it to the task at hand. They understand its value and they’re much more likely to transfer that knowledge to other relevant situations,” said Pedersen, whose research focuses on the use of technology to create student-centered learning approaches to K-12 and undergraduate environments.

The LIVE Lab has already debuted a prototype game, “The ARTé Project,” a virtual recreation of the 15th century Medici palace in Florence, Italy in which users explore rooms full of paintings, sculptures, decorative art and furnishings by some of history’s most notable artists, including Michelangelo and Botticelli. In the process, they learn about the art, artists and how Western culture flowered during the Renaissance.

Two of the lab’s gaming and technology industry partners, Unity Technologies and Side Effects Software, are helping fund development of the game, which is being tested this fall in an undergraduate art history class.

In another LIVE project, the lab is designing a video game-based approach to help students succeed in a challenging calculus class at Texas A&M. Collaborators in the departments of educational psychology, mathematics, and computer science & engineering have secured funding from Texas A&M’s Tier One Program to develop interactive tools for MATH 151, Engineering Calculus I, which 20 percent of the university’s students are unable to complete.

"Advanced math courses are incredibly challenging and, when required, can sometimes present an almost insurmountable obstacle to earning a degree,” said Thomas. “We intend to create a compelling and engaging experience with the potential to cause a paradigm shift in how our students learn calculus.”

LIVE Lab collaborators anticipate designing, developing and implementing the game, along with post-testing fixes and improvements, and disseminating findings on its learning effectiveness.

This fall, the lab, located in the Langford Architecture Center, will host classes in game design, game development and a studio course focused on interaction design problems.

Designing educational games is a planning process that entails identifying learning objectives, creating a storyline and player activities and determining how gameplay will teach students. Game development, on the other hand, is a technical exercise involving programming and coding the game’s interactivity and environment, including artwork, music and sound effects.

Skills that students develop in the lab will continue to be in increasing demand, as the multibillion-dollar gaming industry continues to shatter sales records every year; world videogame sales reached $93 billion in 2013, up from $79 billion in 2012. The market is expected to reach $111 billion in 2015. 

In the long term, LIVE Lab organizers intend for the lab to be exclusively funded by external partners, said Thomas, designing and developing games commissioned by educational clients. In addition to game development, he said, the lab could also be used to investigate the effectiveness of a particular game or gaming approach as a learning tool.

“We anticipate commercialization of many projects, including the ARTé game, through licensing arrangements with educational textbook publishers, for example,” said Thomas. “This will generate funds to cover lab costs and provide funding to support additional projects,” he said. “We will also establish an industry advisory board that will generate funds through member contributions and secure research funding from industry and government based on the projects and research undertaken at the lab.”

The LIVE lab is integral to the long-term goals of the Department of Visualization, said Tim McLaughlin, department head.

“Interactive computer graphics are transforming the way many industries work with information, how they facilitate collaboration among teams, and how they train employees,” he said.  “Our students, through course work and opportunities to work on projects in the LIVE lab, are being prepared to lead this transformation. While many educators are experimenting with game-based learning, Thomas’ efforts are pushing the boundaries of design, visual fidelity, and interactivity in ways that are unmatched.”

posted October 9, 2014