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Professor creates way to teach reading with computer games

Though reading books used to be a pastime for students, reading for fun has taken a backseat to playing video games and checking Facebook.  

Glenn Smith, an associate professor in the USF College of Education, said he recognized this problem and created a hybrid medium that combines the interactivity of the Web with the comprehensiveness of reading. 

“Technology changes the whole model of education in an extreme way,” he said. “There’s a big movement for small groups in the classroom, and there’s a whole movement for computer games to be a part of the educational process.”

Smith was the lead developer for iMapBooks. The product started as a Web-based collection of interactive books about military history in an e-reader format, and tells a story or teaches a concept through the combined use of text and simple computer games. 

“I was trying to visualize the dynamic changes in battlefields and was having a hard time getting my head around it, even with maps in the book,” Smith said. “I had the idea to create an interactive map book, and that’s where the name comes from.”

Neither the text nor the game aspects of the technology possess a more prominent presence than the other, he said, making iIMapBooks an entirely new medium.

Smith said he hopes this product will assist struggling readers in improving comprehension skills and provide educators with an alternative method of education.

“You read some number of pages of text, and then you come to a game, based on something in the text pages that you just read,” he said. “You can’t win the game without reading certain aspects of the text, and you can’t read on unless you win the game … the games and the text tell the story together.”

With the website, educators can also assign students specific books to read, view the progress their students make and add new stories to the site by uploading selected text and corresponding games.

Smith said this technology would actually benefit students more than traditional education methods currently do, primarily because many students lose their enthusiasm for reading during middle school and because current reading methods may not be challenging students in a way conducive to learning new concepts. 

Contrasting traditional education methods with computer games, Smith said children who play computer games are constantly challenged in a way that they view as enjoyable.

“Failing on a test is not a fun experience, but losing at a game is inevitable and just a part of the learning process,” he said. “So we’re trying to use the computer games as a challenge for kids to … re-read and dig out information.”

Smith created a research team of three USF professors to conduct research in China, the Netherlands and the U.S.

These studies focused on how students retained different types of information read using iMapBooks, compared to reading standard textbooks. 

The studies also took into account which of the two methods students enjoyed using more. 

The research found fifth graders retained spatial information from stories and sixth graders in the Netherlands had better attitudes regarding reading using iMapBooks.

Chinese college students also learned more English vocabulary words and enjoyed it more than memorizing a list of words or multiple-choice test questions.

“(English) vocabulary is a huge challenge for Chinese students because English has more words than any other language,” Smith said. “These poor guys and gals are sitting there trying to memorize words and then do multiple choice to test them. They’re not liking it.” 

Currently, iMapBooks is a National Science Foundation (NSF) project, and Smith and his research team are working with the School District of Hillsborough County to develop an elective high school marine science course that would teach students about climate change. 

A three-year NSF grant will fund the creation of a science fiction novel to serve as the course’s narrative, the production of the games and the support for testing.

While iMapBooks may not find its way into every school across the nation, Smith said he’s confident that digitally interactive education methods have already begun to make an impact on traditional education.

Smith also said digital interactivity might be the future of education, given its advantages and the learning style it encourages. 

However, he said not every aspect of digital interactivity is positive, and it possesses its own challenges as an education method. The true future of education and teaching may be a hybrid method that lies somewhere between traditional education and complete digital learning.

“There’s a myriad of things that digital technology does to change education … but it’s not totally a positive … what you’re going to see is that the old technology will continue, but other (new technologies) will coexist with it,” Smith said. “So absolutely digital technology is the way of the future; it’s already here in the present.”