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Electric Worlds in the Classroom: Teaching and Learning with Role-Based Computer Games

reviewed by Brent Muirhead - June 05, 2006

coverTitle: Electric Worlds in the Classroom: Teaching and Learning with Role-Based Computer Games
Author(s): Brian M. Slator & Associates
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807746754, Pages: 182, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

The media has highlighted how a growing number of youth consider their junior high and high school classes to be boring. Teachers are pressured to meet state and federal mandates that often involve student testing. Public schools have become a difficult place for teachers to work as more stakeholders blame them for academic problems that are outside their control. I was a public high school history teacher for over 14 years and I am thankful for the hard-working students. Sadly, I have witnessed an increasing number of students who resist doing assignments, display negative attitudes toward learning and disrupt daily instructional activities. This is a problem that undermines the entire teaching and learning process. Students and teachers can become disillusioned about education when it lacks a dynamic interactive character.

Our youth should be encouraged to take personal responsibility for their learning but there should be activities that give them a vision for learning that sparks their imaginations and captures their heart. Relevant technology-oriented instructional projects can be a positive way to encourage greater student involvement. “[Research studies] indicate that the use of technology in the classroom not only increases student motivation, but also improves achievement” (p. 10).

Brian Slator and his colleagues have developed a diverse set of role-playing games using computer technology that covers a wide range of academic subjects. The book is a collaborative effort that reflects the diligent work of subject matter experts, graphic designers, computer programmers and cognitive specialists. It is a valuable resource that helps teachers offer meaningful learning opportunities involving elements of risk, while concurrently promoting creative learning experiences. Contemporary teachers strive to integrate critical-thinking activities into their daily lesson plans with a test-oriented curriculum. Gatto (2002) and other critics have legitimate concerns about public education being driven by standardization efforts that suppress reflective development in youth. The book offers insights into developing work that transcends the daily paper-and-pencil instructional exercises. Students are challenged to play various roles such as a biologist who works on experiments, examines the results, and discerns conclusions from the data.

The book devotes attention to the theory and research that strives to support their premise that problem-solving scenarios create opportunities for students to learn through experience. Role playing seeks to engage students in authentic virtual situations with real-world problems that require scientific thinking and reasoning. The authors have designed a text with practical information for teachers who want to integrate more computer technology into their daily routines. Virtual exercises are surrounded by a host of useful teacher aids and the text is written without excessive technical jargon. There are content-specific websites, helpful graphics, a glossary of terms, examples of grading rubrics, evaluation questions, and curriculum tips. This information will help teachers to have a good working knowledge of how to implement different lessons. The book contains numerous virtual games that teach concepts in biology, geology, computer science, microeconomics and archaeology.

What type of assistance do students receive when participating in simulated virtual role-playing games? Students will have built-in assistants during their virtual work known as software agents who provide intelligent tutoring in three separate forms: diagnostic, case-based and rule-based. For instance, diagnostic tutoring in the geology scenario can occur when helping students to secure the right equipment from the store, detect when a major goal has been overlooked during exploration of rocks, and to identify when a report lacks adequate scientific evidence on a particular mineral. Often, the agents will appear in human form as avatars and provide assistance to help students complete their tasks. I have worked with avatars, and they provide a dynamic interactive element to the learning process. Avatars bring a unique dimension to learning that reflects how computer technology can have a positive impact on the teaching and learning process.

The authors advocate more research into expanding the use of virtual environments into more public school classes and the community college arena. This will require increasing the sophistication of subject content and integrating role playing into more academic disciplines. The technological requirements for the educational simulations should reflect innovations in the field and enhance the quality of interaction within the virtual games. A major barrier facing simulation development is the difficulty in creating them; however, simulations are becoming more popular in higher education. The University of Phoenix has created a series of simulations for all their graduate business classes, and these simulations engage students with complex and interesting scenarios. Educators must work with instructional designers to experiment with digital content and multimedia resources to foster higher order thinking skills in their students. Norris et al (2003) comments that “in a world of ambient technologies, pervasive knowledge networking, and multitasking learners, the dynamics of the learning experiences must change to provide value to new generations of learners” (p. 22).  


There has been a growing concern that American youth have embraced a superficial creativity built upon the passive observation of others displaying their imaginations in music videos and movies. Business executives have managed creativity into neat film or television show formulas that are financially profitable, but fail to challenge people intellectually to be truly reflective and autonomous thinkers. The book contains a good combination of practical advice and innovative subject-oriented insights that foster meaningful learning activities. Virtual games can play a vital role in encouraging critical thinking and creativity by helping students understand and practice problem-solving skills. Students become equipped with the skills and knowledge that help them to produce original work. It is essential that teachers give their students plenty of opportunities to take intellectual risks and utilize their rich imaginations. Computer simulations can transform learning because “virtual worlds can take us places, like the interior of a biological cell or the rolling plains of a long-forgotten history. This is where learning and experience await” (p. 143).


Gatto, J. T. (2002). Dumbing us down : The hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling. Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers.

Norris, D. M., Mason, J., Robson, R.  Paul Lefrere, P. & Collier, G. (2003). A revolution in knowledge sharing. Educause Review, 38(5), 15-26.   

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 05, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12528, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 11:16:52 AM

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About the Author
  • Brent Muirhead
    University of Phoenix
    E-mail Author
    Dr. BRENT MUIRHEAD is the Lead Faculty/Area Chair of Business Communications at the University of Phoenix campus in Atlanta, Georgia and has extensively studied online interactivity. He has a BA in social work, master's degrees in religious education, history, administration and e-learning, two educational doctoral degrees and graduate work in cognition/technology at The Teachers College, Columbia University. He teaches a diversity of courses, mentors faculty candidates and dissertation students. The Associate Editor for Educational Technology and Society; Senior Online Editor of International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, and a visiting research fellow to Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland. His current research focuses on promoting creativity and critical thinking in online classes and he has published journal articles and e-books on a diversity of distance education issues.
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