Computer games become a class act

Teacher using blackboard, BBC Traditional methods are being swapped for more hi-tech teaching aids.

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A walk around a Sheffield school has become a heroic quest to find weapons and magical items to defeat a monster.

The augmented reality mission was created by a class of 10-year-olds at Mansel Primary.

Their project uses Sony's PSP handheld games console and smart barcodes known as semacodes.

Mansel is one of a growing number of schools that are using gaming technology to get children enthused about lessons.

The smart barcodes are placed at six locations on a route through the school buildings.

When viewed through the PSP's camera, the smart code pulls up a picture that transforms a mundane piece of furniture, such as a cupboard, into a dark cave.

Virtual objects, such as swords, are hidden in the augmented locations and have to be gathered to help quest followers defeat the monster at the end of their journey.

Growing use

"We have hundreds of schools taking part, looking at how they can use games as a stimulus for students" said Andy Goff, director of the iLX research centre that has been set up to help teachers use game technology in lessons.

Nintendo DS and Sony PSP handhelds plus Xbox 360, Wii and PlayStation 3 consoles are being turned to more directly educational ends, he explained.

Early reports suggest that the use of gaming gadgets which younger people are familiar with can improve their performance and boost interest in subjects that they might otherwise not engage with.

Game technology has been used as part of a larger project to rejuvenate Yewlands Technology College in Sheffield. The college has higher than average numbers of students with learning difficulties or who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Sue Whitehead, who co-ordinated the projects, said they had helped to engage disaffected pupils who previously had been hard to reach.

Semacode in school, iLX The smart codes act as a trigger to show locations and events on the PSP screen

"Traditional learning turns these students off," she said. "This is about making learning fun and engaging for them."

Wii consoles and PSPs have been used in Maths, English, Science, Spanish and Music lessons at Yewlands.

In English lessons, Year 7 pupils at Yewlands used PSPs to capture video and images for an "Autobiography" project in which they studied how to write scripts and transfer them to the stage.

In Spanish lessons, Wii games were used to lend context to pupils' vocabulary lessons. Also short revision games were created for the PSP, which was made available to pupils whenever they wanted.

The handhelds did not take over the lessons, said Ms Whitehead, but served as either an introduction to drier subjects or helped pupils study by themselves.

"Once they are hooked in, it's no longer needed," she said. "It typically stimulates them to want to know more."

Cost crunch

A report on Yewlands said it was hard to pick out the effect of games gadgets on improvements to performance from the influence of the wider rejuvenation project. However, feedback from teachers said pupils' familiarity with handhelds helped many lessons go better than expected.

John Rutherford, an ICT teacher at Marlborough School in St Albans and founder of educational games maker What2Learn, said there was no doubt that games could find a role in schools.

"We are in a position these days in schools where we have to move into the pupils' world a little bit more because they live in such a multimedia rich environment," he said.

Screenshot from Mario and Sonic, Nintendo Mario and Sonic at the Olympics helped with some PE lessons

In addition, the higher standards that pupils are expected to reach, along with a growing emphasis on exam performance rather than course work could make them very useful, he said.

"Anything that can raise academic standards, particularly amongst unengaged students, is worth considering," he said.

However, he said, the high ongoing costs of consoles and handhelds might mean some schools have difficult choices to make.

"You run the risk of spending a lot of money on technology that is soon out of date," he said. "That will not be looked on favourably by kids who are familiar with the latest gear."

He added that when finances were tight schools may shy away from splashing out on technology in favour of salaries for staff or more traditional teaching gear.

It was also clear from his experience with more able pupils, said Mr Rutherford, that they were more interested in course materials than gadgets and games.

"They want to get at the exam papers, not the gimmicks," he said. "It's an important tool to have but it is not going to suit all children or all schools."

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