Video games: researchers clash over educational benefits

Two pieces of research published today on the effects of computer games on education have come to starkly contrasting views.

The National Children’s Bureau (NCB) in Northern Ireland has released a study showing that students who play video games frequently perform significantly worse in their GCSEs than their peers who rarely use games consoles.

In the research, funded by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, just 41 per cent of teenagers studied who used portable games players or consoles a “couple of times a day” achieved five good GCSE grades, as opposed to 77 per cent who seldom played games.

Minecraft: building knowledge of logic

But in a separate study, a leading academic claims that certain types of computer game can actually be beneficial to students.

Patrick Fitzpatrick, emeritus professor of mathematics at University College Cork (UCC), has launched a global initiative aimed at training teachers to use technological tools, such as the computer game Minecraft, in a bid to boost students’ understanding of logic.

Minecraft, in which players build new worlds in a 3D landscape, is played by millions of children worldwide, and is already making its way into the classroom as a teaching tool.

Professor Fitzpatrick is launching the initiative called UCC Brings Boole2School, which aims to exploit the popularity of the game and to build on the work of George Boole, a Victorian UCC mathematician whose theory on logic and probability laid the foundations for modern computational thought.

Every laptop, tablet, MP3 player and smartphone today owes its existence, in part, to Boole’s mathematical legacy, Professor Fitzpatrick said.

The subject of logic is rarely taught in the modern curriculum, and it is often regarded as rather lifeless and uninteresting, he said, adding: “However, the overwhelming majority of school students play computer games, and these provide an avenue for the study of elementary logic in an environment that is both familiar and enjoyable.”

Computers – a homework help?

The NCB researchers questioned nearly 1,000 teenagers in 13 different schools across Northern Ireland, with 40 per cent stating that they spent four hours or more online each day in the year before their GCSEs.

Interestingly, pupils who spent about three hours every day using a computer to do homework achieved the best exam results, with 79 per cent achieving five A* to C grades in their GCSEs.

The study comes at a time when the use of computers and mobile devices has come under increased scrutiny.

A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development says that frequent use of computers in schools is impairing learning, and calls for a more considered approach when implementing technology in the classroom.

A similar piece of research by the University of Edinburgh says schools are not spending sufficient time working out how best to incorporate computers into lessons.

Celine McStravick, director of the NCB in Northern Ireland, said the research showed schools should be “regularly setting homework that requires the use of a computer and the internet”, since this was shown to improve results.

But she added: “We need parents and carers to step in and limit excessive amounts of time spent gaming. If we support parents and schools to get this right young people will reap the benefits of using digital technology while sidestepping the pitfalls.”

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