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Researchers Developing Video Game to Transform Middle School Students’ Online Learning

$3.1 Million Project Supported by the U.S. Department of Education

May 13th, 2015

Story Contact: Christian Basi, 573-882-4430,

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COLUMBIA, Mo. – With more middle school students learning online every year, experts have identified a growing need for high-quality educational approaches that take advantage of current technology. The Department of Education recently awarded a group of researchers at the University of Missouri $2.7 million to support the development of an educational video game for middle school distance learners. Through playing the game, students will learn lessons about water systems and practice scientific argumentation. Teachers can monitor students’ progress and intervene during the game to support the individual needs of each student.

“We want to take the power of gaming and harness it for important education objectives,” said James Laffey, professor in the School of Information Science and Learning Technologies within the College of Education at MU. “In the game, students have a mission that engages them through an educational practice called ‘transformative play.’ Traditional classroom students are motivated by a teacher saying ‘There’s a test on Friday.’ Transformative gameplay is different. Students are motivated by having a mission through which they develop the ability to perform the targeted skills. Eventually, this game will be a tool that could be used in every classroom. For now, we’re targeting distance students, particularly those in rural and small communities that may not have sufficient access to quality science education.”

The game is still in the prototype stage. In the current version, students who play the game take on the role of a scientist. The scientist is transported to a newly discovered planet and must run experiments to determine whether water can be harvested from the alien terrain for transport back to a drought-stricken Earth. Students will be able to see and manipulate aspects of water systems that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to, allowing them to develop a deeper understanding of water systems than they would through traditional learning methods.

“We want students to be able to reason through situations and make informed use of data in a scientific context,” said Troy Sadler, professor of science education. “Unfortunately, that turns out to be really difficult to do with current resources, and we need better tools. I don’t think anyone is using learning technologies in the ways that we are with games and online environments for online and distance learners.”

Another important aspect of the video game is that it would collect data on students’ performances. Teachers will be able to identify students’ areas of strength and weakness and adjust the course of the game to address individual needs.

“A teacher might have 100 students going through the game at a given point,” Laffey said “We’re envisioning a dashboard that can inform teachers about which students are doing well and which students need interventions. Teachers could intervene with students who are learning remotely, for example, by sending a new character into the game that can share more information about a problematic topic.”

Along with fellow researcher Sean Goggins, assistant professor in the School of Information Science and Learning Technologies within the College of Education at MU, Laffey and Sadler plan to have the first three to four levels of the game ready for testing in the fall of 2015. After that is completed, testing would move into a classroom and, finally, into a distance-learning setting.

The researchers will partner with the Missouri Partnership for Educational Renewal and the Blended Schools Network to complete the testing. The team has raised $235,000 from private donors and is still seeking approximately $175,000 to meet a matching requirement of their Department of Education grant.