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Canadian Language & Literacy Research Network
clarity. The result of applying science to children's language and literacy development  

turning on to literacy through video games

family history: the oldest potential remedy?

First you need the inspiration and the opportunity to collaborate. Then you need the evidence-based science. Then partners are required to expand the possibilities. And finally the public is exposed to the potential for change.

That is the precise path being followed by three Network researchers from the University of Victoria, as they begin to investigate the connection between video games and literacy. This is where the story starts.

Inspiration: 25% of four-to-six year-olds spend one hour per day on average on a computer (Kaiser Foundation Report 2003). Chances are equally good that the percentage of children and their time spent on computers as they grow older only goes up from there.

This attention-grabbing statistic focused three University of Victoria psychologists (Michael Masson, Daniel Bub and Christopher Lalonde), each with teenage sons, on the need to learn more.

"Children are learning machines," says Masson. "But what exactly are they learning from playing computer games and can the cognitive skills used to master complex games improve literacy?"

These questions came to the surface as a result of a casual meeting and then a broader discussion that took place during the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network Conference in Ottawa in June 2002. The discussion inspired the need to collaborate on a new project.

"We have a young generation where a huge amount of knowledge acquisition time is spent in front of computers," says team leader Masson. "We want to determine how games of a specific nature impact literacy development during this computer time."

Research: There are two experimental groups engaged in the study based at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Each group serves as a control for the other. Group One is focused on manipulating objects in video games and Group Two is playing a video strategy game. Knowledge acquisition is tested after 100 hours of interaction over a three-month period. The first set of test results is being analyzed.

"Let's say we get results showing that increased performance in a specific game improved cognitive skills," continues Masson. "That gives parents some relief. It could start to indicate the kind of games that support a child's literacy development, even to the point where we could start to rate games for cognitive development."

Past generations spent most of their time acquiring knowledge through reading. Then came television and the world changed along with how we gathered information. For the next generation, computers will be the dominant focal point for knowledge acquisition.

"We need to create tests to evaluate the skills acquired and needed," says Masson. "Then we can turn this knowledge to the advantage of a society that wants educated, literate kids."

Partner: The Network assisted this project by helping them with public relations and actively seeking media exposure. It was through these efforts that the research project caught the attention of prominent industry leaders and a variety of interested observers including Microsoft and the video-game developers of the products that were being tested.

Most notable, though, was the keen interest expressed by New York-based Marc Prensky, who is an inventor in critical areas of education, a consultant to clients including IBM and Nortel, and founder of Games2Train, an e-learning company.

Prensky is an expert in training young professionals who grew up with computers. His innovative combination of gaming technology and educational tools has been accepted throughout schools, government and corporate America. Prensky has contributed both guidance and input to The Network project and there is potential for future interaction.

Public: When funding for the project was announced, the team was contacted almost immediately by members of the print and electronic media proving the potential for public interest in this video-to-literacy project.

Masson and his colleagues have given many television and radio interviews, been invited to lecture at student faculties in Computer Science and Education and will participate in the second of a two-part television story on the Knowledge Network in spring 2005.

Media relations proved to be an excellent and cost-effective way to reach the public with details of this project and to raise awareness for language and literacy issues. The scope and context of the project caught the eye of journalists and reporters who readily covered the story and brought it to the attention of diverse audiences and readers. The media continues to be interested in this work and is primed to provide more coverage as results are released.  

"The Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network made it possible to collaborate and bring together skills that wouldn't otherwise be available," says Masson. "Through The Network, we've been able to make the connections necessary to expand the scope of the project."

With the right inspiration and new science, plus new partners and the public, the potential for this research is unlimited. Stay tuned to the Knowledge Network, or tune into computer-based training updates from New York and watch for a potential major announcement from an international software company in the future. Who knows where a chance conversation at a Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network Conference might lead next?


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