Gamifying the Virtual Classroom

The pandemic has educators turning to digital tools to increase engagement, but how can we ensure these technologies are accessible for all students?

By Nadra Kareem Nittle

To visualize gamifying the virtual classroom, this illustration shows an old video game remote control. The joystick is topped with an apple.

(Illustrations/Edmon de Haro)

Now that COVID-19 has kept Kenedy Quandt out of the classroom for a year, she’s noticed a change in her teachers: They’ve grown distinctly more creative. “They’re trying to find ways to keep engaging us,” explains Kenedy, an 11th grader at Sierra Canyon School in Chatsworth, a neighborhood in Los Angeles, California. “Before, whenever we wanted to study for a quiz or do practice tests, it was mostly just silent on-your- own work, but since online school started, teachers have been using Quizlet or Kahoot, so everyone’s all excited to play and study.”

Quizlet is a study app that uses flashcards, games and tests to foster student learning, while Kahoot is a game-based platform featuring quizzes accessible through web browsers or an app. These fun learning tools are just two of many that teachers have employed to enhance online learning during the pandemic.

Javy Martinez ME ’13, Kenedy’s computer science teacher, says that game-based apps can be engaged across the curriculum. But beyond games, the pandemic is leading teachers to accept a wide range of work, including creative assignments completed with the video editing software iMovie or the digital music creation studio GarageBand.

“I see a lot more teachers accepting digital assignments,” says Martinez, chair of Sierra Canyon’s computer science department and director of educational technology (EdTech) at the private pre-K–12 school. “Students know how to use a camera, they’ve learned about filters, they’ve investigated apps. There’s just so much more technology usage.”

To make remote instruction stimulating for Generation Z—those born in the late ’90s to the early 2010s and widely reported to have an average attention span of only 8 seconds—educators are tapping into this demographic’s deep interest in gaming and technology. They’re using not only game-based apps but also social media and EdTech that simulate the in-person learning experience. When schools can safely reopen, students and educators alike say technology should continue to play a role in coursework, but doing so successfully requires narrowing the digital divide between privileged and underprivileged families that the pandemic laid bare. Closing this gap, USC Rossier experts contend, goes deeper than just getting devices into students’ hands; it means enabling youth and their caregivers to meaningfully interact with technology.

The efforts Kenedy’s teachers have made to include technology in class are inspiring, she says. They’ve mailed to her home lab kits that allowed her to do science experiments with classmates via Zoom, exposed her to interactive science websites that show her what happens when two chemicals are combined, and given her the chance to closely follow their lessons by using virtual smartboards.

But game-based EdTech stands out among her favorite learning tools. “I definitely am way more likely to study for a quiz where I get to compete with my classmates and there’s a little bit of fun involved, rather than just printing out worksheets and sitting quiet,” she says. “Mr. Martinez has been doing a bunch of different Quizlet-style games that we can all play, and it motivates all of us in the class because we want to try to get to the top of the leaderboard.”

“Video games involve failure and players readily accept that fact. … Schools all too often send the message that failure is intolerable. So, the lessons games teach students and their sheer popularity make them an important resource for educators.” —David Cash EdD ’08, USC Rossier Professor of Clinical Education

The key to using technology in the classroom is balance, Martinez says. It should supplement rather than dominate instruction, and it should be age- and subject-matter appropriate. Although daily use of technology during the pandemic has been an adjustment for some teachers—often equal parts humbling and frustrating—distance learning has given educators an incentive to reconsider their teaching methods.

THE CASE FOR EDTECH DURING THE PANDEMIC AND BEYOND

The novel coronavirus may have given educators little choice but to consider how best to incorporate technology and gaming into the classroom, but the simple fact that it’s the 21st century should have been the primary impetus for this shift, says David Cash, EdD ’08, professor of clinical education at USC Rossier. Students spend hours playing video games, and three-quarters of all U.S. households include at least one gamer, according to a 2020 report by the Entertainment Software Association. “They’re everywhere,” Cash says of gamers. “So, it seems foolish not to take what’s happening in homes and try to make it happen in schools.”

The former superintendent of four school districts, most recently Santa Barbara Unified, says that video games are a valuable piece of technology because, to some extent, they involve failure—and players readily accept that fact. Conversely, schools all too often send the message that failure is intolerable, Cash asserts. So, the lessons games teach students and their sheer popularity make them an important resource for educators.

Teachers unfamiliar with video games hesitate to use them in class, but Cash says he witnessed one group of educators recognize their value after they created a system of badges and awards that students earned through successful completion of missions. Even the most skeptical educators were awed that students became engrossed in the undertaking. He adds that games can also be assets because they’re cross-disciplinary.

“You can have a game set up by a chemistry teacher that’s going to require a student to be able to read analytically, read for understanding, problem-solve, answer questions, think logically—all things that we would want a student to be engaged in when they’re doing close reading in English and social studies,” he says.

Educators, however, should avoid using games as gimmicks because students can see through them, both Cash and Martinez argue. Teachers should develop games with content that appeals to kids and be open to accepting work that shows mastery of the concepts even if it isn’t completed in a conventional fashion.

“Kids are overloaded with technology. … There’s a lack of motivation unless there is some dynamic instruction occurring on the other end.” —Maria Romero-Morales, Research Project Specialist, Pullias Center for Higher Education and USC Rossier EdD student

“We have games that apply to typing,” Martinez says. “We have games that apply to geography, history, English, but at a certain point, the students don’t see where it applies in the real curriculum. Now, that doesn’t mean that you can’t have trivia games, such as learning vocab words in English or learning dates with pictures in history.”

By high school, though, the most advanced students might find it insulting for teachers to disseminate knowledge through game-based drills, Martinez says. This doesn’t mean that educators must stop using games in the secondary grades. However, they should make sure that the games reflect students’ sophistication level.

Illustration of a short pencil inserted into a Tetris-style video game

Kids and teens are also increasingly turning to social media for information, be it for learning or for connecting with friends and pop culture. Kenedy says she uses the video-sharing social networking service TikTok in part to watch teachers from all over quickly break down complex historical issues and events.

“Mr. Martinez posts our class lectures on YouTube, and so I can rewatch them if I have any questions,” she says. “Things like that are really helpful because students can comment in the comment section saying they didn’t understand something, and if someone else sees it, they’ll comment back.”

Sierra Canyon instructors also rely on the software program Flipgrid, which allows them to create prompts that students can respond to via video. The program lets students interact with each other through video posts as well. Meanwhile, Microsoft Teams gives teachers and students opportunities to chat, videoconference and store files, among other features.

Although the perception persists that EdTech is more appropriate for science and math than the humanities, Martinez says he’s very impressed by how the performing arts teachers at his school have adopted technology during the pandemic. Entirely remotely, they’ve organized plays, movie nights, slam poetry events and choral performances, muting students at certain times to create a melodic effect. “They have taken Zoom and made it their own,” he says. “It has been great.”

But technology’s use in the classroom isn’t always showy. Often, it’s relatively mundane. Maria Romero-Morales, a research project specialist at the USC Pullias Center for Higher Education who is completing her EdD in higher education at USC Rossier, notes that educators routinely employ technology for logistical reasons. This includes having students start discussion threads in the chat sections of videoconferencing programs or asking students and their families to get the Remind app, so they can stay on top of homework and project deadlines.

Gary Wu, a Sierra Canyon 11th grader, says he has depended on apps like OneNote, Evernote and Google Calendar to take notes digitally and stay organized. He appreciates that these apps have an environmental benefit as well: They help him “shrink down the amount of paper” he uses for class, he says.

Like Gary, a number of students have thrived using EdTech during the pandemic, but many have logged on infrequently or not at all, revealing how much of a digital divide exists between middle- and high-income families and their low-income counterparts.

CLOSING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE

Just a month before the pandemic forced schools to close in March 2020, Kenedy Quandt bought her first laptop, a purchase her parents paid half for while she covered the rest with her earnings as a STEM tutor. She is the founder of the organization Project STEMinist (STEM plus feminist), which provides free tutoring to low-income girls and fee-based tutoring to girls from higher-income brackets. Sierra Canyon doesn’t require students to use computers for schoolwork, but when the pandemic struck, the school scrambled to get laptops to the students who didn’t have devices.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest district, ensuring that students received the technology needed for distance learning was a herculean effort given that one-third of the district’s roughly 600,000 students had neither a laptop nor broadband internet at home. “We’ve known through different studies that we’ve done, whether it’s K–12 or higher ed, that some students were and still are doing assignments and homework over their phone,” says Romero-Morales, who researches digital equity in education. “Not every student had a device.”

“The internet is basically the new electricity. If we are to call ourselves a society that wants to ensure that every resident has what they need to be successful, then the internet has to be on the table.”—Stephen J. Aguilar, USC Rossier Assistant Professor of Education

A report from USC Rossier and the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, published in October, found that low-income families have made sacrifices to ensure that their children take part in distance learning. With a sample size of 1,971 LAUSD families, the study, “When School Comes Home: How Low-Income Families Are Adapting to Distance Learning,” found that about 1 in 3 families report paying for devices such as laptops or for internet service to accommodate their children’s learning needs (p. 5).

In May, LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner announced that essentially every LAUSD student who needed computers and internet access had received them, but two months later, the district reported that more than 50,000 Black and Latino middle and high school students hadn’t regularly been logging on to remote classes. Moreover, low-income students were 10 to 20 percent less likely to participate in online instruction, and English learners, special education students, and foster and unhoused youth were all less likely to log on as well.

While LAUSD’s work to give students access to devices and the internet has made it easier for them to participate in distance learning, educators must ensure that their lessons are engaging enough to motivate youth to log on regularly, says Romero-Morales, who has more than 15 years of teaching experience.

“We’ve known that these kids are overloaded with technology,” she says. “They’re sitting in front of a screen from 8 to 3:30, and it’s really challenging for them to just stay there and stare into a screen when there isn’t going to be a lot of engagement. There’s a lack of motivation unless there is some dynamic instruction occurring on the other end.”

Gary says some of his teachers lecture throughout the class period, which he doesn’t find engaging. In Martinez’s computer science class, though, students go into digital breakout rooms that allow them to interact with each other in small groups. This motivates him to participate, Gary explains.

While mediocre teaching may bear some of the blame for low student engagement, caregivers likely play a role as well. The “When School Comes Home” report found that caregivers may not be able to provide the technical support needed to help their children excel as remote learners. Fifty-two percent of parents surveyed in the report said they had not completed high school, and although 73 percent reported using the internet daily, just 33 percent said the same of their computer use. In fact, a higher number, 44 percent, said they never use computers. These findings indicate that low-income parents may have a limited capacity to help their children address software and connectivity problems that arise during online instruction.

“There are gaps there that preclude them from helping their child, despite wanting to, in ways they think are important,” says Stephen J. Aguilar, principal investigator of the “When School Comes Home” report and a USC Rossier assistant professor. “Older siblings are now de facto tech support, which I’m not saying is something that we should avoid. Sometimes the older sibling is the one who knows how to use the device better, but it’s a finite resource where in helping a younger sibling, an older sibling might actually be choosing not to engage in their own work.”

Illustration of a hand trying to reach for a mouse device

Throughout the pandemic, families have had to make these difficult decisions while facing stressors such as insecurity in employment, housing and food. Closing the digital divide requires educators to consider all of the factors that might keep children offline and to make sure that if they’re going to engage certain technology in class, students know how to use it. If not, technology may become more of a hindrance than a help to learning.

When schools resume in-person learning, Aguilar says it will be important for educators to remember what the pandemic revealed about the digital divide. Policies, practices and infrastructure must be put in place to allow schools to better serve economically disadvantaged students should remote instruction become a necessity once more. Having recently introduced legislation such as the Internet for All Act of 2021 and the Broadband for All Act of 2022, California lawmakers are working to make broadband accessible to residents in underserved communities.

Also, in 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom launched the Broadband for All initiative and issued an executive order to get state agencies to pool their resources to provide Californians with access to high-performance broadband at home, devices to use the internet, and training and support for digital literacy. Today, an estimated 1 million California schoolchildren still lack internet access.

“The internet is basically the new electricity,” Aguilar says. “If we are to call ourselves a society that wants to ensure that every resident has what they need to be successful, then the internet has to be on the table. It has to be one of those things that everyone has because everything relies on it now.”

NOTE: This story appeared in the USC Rossier Magazine Spring/Summer 2021 issue as “Gamifying the Virtual Classroom.”