Lerntec © Karlsruher Messe- und Kongress-GmbH

Karlsruhe, Germany (Weltexpress). “Asking is teaching,” said Socrates. But are we asking the right questions in the right way? Games@LEARNTEC seeks to supply some answers.

The 20th annual LEARNTEC trade-fair took place once again in early February in Karlsruhe, southern Germany. Traditionally this annual exhibition and congress for educators and technology providers of every stripe has provided a showcase for the advances made in the interconnected world of education, training and IT. This year, in a clear demonstration of how this industry is steadily broadening its horizons, organizers mounted Games@LEARNTEC, a special area of the fair centered round Serious Games and their application in the learning process. Visitors were able to play the games themselves, and find out how they were designed, as well as the outcomes they were intended to achieve. Games@LEARNTEC was also the backdrop to the brand-new platform, LevelUp!, whose sessions on the final day of the fair placed LEARNTEC firmly on the radar of developers and users of issue-driven games.

LEARNTEC’s dual support by both the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology proves that government is well aware of the fact that efforts must continue to be made to foster the partnership between IT and education. Because, while technology streaks ahead, its practical application in the classroom lags behind. Scarcely has the use of smartboards in classrooms taken hold than educators realize the emphasis has already shifted to mobile learning and smartphones. Continuity is hard to fund and maintain, but new technology is even harder to ignore or even discount.

Encouragingly, however, there are educators who are enthusiastically involved in closing the gap. In his fast-paced, challenging keynote presentation, Dr Brendan Tangney of Trinity College Dublin presented his MobiMaths research project, which clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of children interacting with mathematical problems using smartphones as tools. Claiming that the motto “Content is King ” was misleading, he asserted that in fact, we should “…devise fascinating, engaging ways of delivering content!” In a quote from Vygotzky, he continued “[learning]… is where meaning emerges from the subject’s involvement in the activity.” And his slides showing youngsters enthusiastically using their smartphones to work out locations and mathematical probabilities in the field underlines just how an effective tool can help provide that meaning.

Children today are the world’s “digital natives”: they spend almost all their free time interacting with technology, using it in practically every aspect of their lives. For education not to harness the best aspects of social networks, games and the natural multitasking abilities of young people and use them to transfer information effectively would seem foolhardy at the very least. But right now it is still mainly “digital immigrants” – in other words, the older generation – who have control over the regulatory bodies that apportion budgets and set curricula. Added to this, there is still a great deal of confusion as to whether it is useful or indeed advisable to try and combine learning with entertainment, or “having fun”. Surely the two must be mutually exclusive? There is definitely still some way to go yet before we can prove that the long-term benefits of game-playing also contribute to the long-lasting retention of information transferred during that entertaining interaction.

In one of the livelier sessions in the Didactics conference series at LEARNTEC, Professor Linda Breitlauch of the MediaDesign Hochschule academy in Dusseldorf pointed out that improving skills and conveying information is not exclusively the territory of serious games, however useful they may be. “Even normal, fun games can vastly improve strategic and tactical thinking,” she stated, and went on to cite examples of how educators need to move from situational to transformative learning to enhance this effect. There are many aspects of game playing that can be utilized to create a positive learning experience. Games can provide a kind of “bouncy castle”, or unthreatening environment, in which a student can experiment, gaining confidence and self-awareness along the way. “The learning process is identical to the development of enjoyment when playing a game,” said Prof. Breitlauch. An unequivocal shot in the arm for the combination of games and education from an educator, no less.

It will be interesting to see how this field develops in the near future, and how southern Germany, famed amongst other things for its precision automotive and electrical engineering, may well also assume a leading position in this most fascinating aspect of the games industry. If attendance by visitors from the area is anything to go by, they certainly have plenty of home-grown talent to draw on.