Wow! Ed: Newsletter from the Center for Educational Improvment
Virtual Experiences and Gamification  Transform Learning
August 2017
In This Issue

Update on ESSA

More from CEI on Gamification

More from CEI on Virtual Learning

Dear Educators,   
Imagine you have stepped into a hologram. Perhaps you are crossing the river with George Washington, or in a science lab with Madame Curie. Look around you. Who is with you? How are you feeling? What happens during the next 24 hours in your scenario? What would you be likely to remember from such an experience? Could you see yourself with Marie Curie receiving a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903? Could you picture crossing the Delaware with icy conditions and much uncertainty, not once, but three times?

Could virtual reality strengthen student understanding and memory? What are some of the best ways to use games in school? And do exercises that are in the many computerized cognitive training programs really help the students who are struggling the most? In Wow! Ed this month we share with you information on best practice for each of these.
With Virtual Reality Tech Burgeoning, Potential Seems Limitless
By Pat LeGates, CEI Intern 
Just ten years ago, the concept of using Virtual Reality (VR) in a classroom setting may have seemed like a pipe dream. Today, however, it is an absolute reality. And as the technology continues to improve, VR is likely to assume an ever-expanding role in the world of education.

VR was once thought to be a thing of the future, but now there is a broad market for both VR hardware and software. Some VR setups are high end, like the Oculus Rift (~$400), a headset and handheld device that connects to a PC. Other VR setups are cheaper, like the Google Cardboard headset ($15), a cardboard box that a smartphone fits inside.

Virtual Experiences for Students

For education, VR can provide numerous advantages. It can allow students to "go" places that may be typically inaccessible. Imagine students:
  • In a biology class traveling down to the size of a cell with the help of VR to learn about organelles, or
  • In a history class traveling to Ancient Rome to see the Roman Forum as it stood over 2000 years ago.
Aside from doing things that are logically or physically impossible, VR also enables students to perform simulated experiments in a virtual lab. This is especially useful for students in schools that cannot afford fully equipped laboratories, and does not pose the safety risks of a physical lab.


Schools all around the world are using VR to provide students with virtual first hand experiences. These include computer augmented travel, reliving moments in history, immersive technology to teach social skills, and opportunities to support students who have visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning strengths. For example:
VR is spreading quickly, and it shows no signs of stopping.

Critics may think that the technology might distract students from traditional forms of learning (Mutert, 2017). Although some early uses of VR appear to be novelty, the technology is definitely promising: More Evidence

The positives of VR for education are more than anecdotal; however, all implementation is not equally effective. Consider the findings of a meta-analysis performed by Merchant et al. (2014) which posits that game-based learning environments are significantly more effective for learning than virtual worlds or simulations. Their meta-analysis shows that:
  • Students perform better at VR tasks with some guidance from the teacher.
  • Students in virtual learning environments outperform students in traditional learning environments when students select their own learning activities, not when the computer selects activities for them.
Sitzmann (2011) studied the effects of games and simulations on work-related knowledge and skills and found an increase in measures of self-efficacy, procedural knowledge, declarative knowledge, and retention. The efficacy of simulations was clear: students tended to feel better about their learning, and their knowledge and retention increased compared to learning with traditional instruction. However, this technology should not be considered a replacement for teacher-led instruction: when students who were taught under conventional methods were actively engaged, their learning was superior.

Compatibility and Other Drawbacks. 

Certainly, there are drawbacks to VR. Some are simple like motion sickness; others are structurally complex, like school districts not being able to afford hardware units. Even schools with technology such as iPads or other tablets in their classrooms face problems (Mutert, 2017). Because VR is not compatible for use on all platforms, it is improbable that schools will replace all of their existing technology with devices that can run VR.

Are Your Teachers Interested?

A major roadblock to mass implementation of VR in classrooms is that schools with VR seem to have it because of individual teachers' interest, not because of interest from educational higher ups. This is likely to be a major challenge: for VR to be thought of as more than an educational gimmick, the technology will have to prove its value to school administrators. There is certainly ample reason to believe that VR can help the way students learn, but only time will tell if its widespread use will become a reality.


Mutert, E. (2017, July 17). To see the future of classroom learning, some look to virtual reality.NBC Universal website.

Merchant, Z., Goetz, E. T., Cifuentes, L., Keeney-Kennicutt, W., & Davis, T. J. (2014). Effectiveness of virtual reality-based instruction on students' learning outcomes in K-12 and higher education: A meta-analysis. Computers & Education, 70, 29-40.

Sitzmann, T. (2011). A meta-analytic examination of the instructional effectiveness of computer-based simulation games. Personnel Psychology, 64(2), 489-528.
Gamification as a Pathway to Engaged Learning
By Nicole Colchete, CEI Intern and Christine Mason
"Games are the most elevated form of investigation"-Albert Einstein.

The above quote can be found on several websites that are promoting gamification. So, when and where did Einstein make this statement? While we didn't find a primary source, Jane McGonigal, Director of Game Research and Development at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, CA, provided a potential lead, saying "So, odds are Albert Einstein was right: maybe games really are the most elevated form of investigation. Rumor has it he once was worried about being addicted to playing chess."

Does that suggest that games may elevate learning? What is the relationship between games and investigation? Investigation and learning? Think about it. Investigation is ultimately what a class is; teachers guide students on investigations to learn new material and understand it in depth through theories, questions, definitions, and strategies. The structure of a game guides a player to solve a problem through critical thinking, creativity, and deductive reasoning: essential skills students need for learning any concept.

Principals and teachers, how often are games used in your schools? Which games and why? Using games as a teaching strategy has been a common practice. Teachers use variations of games such as Jeopardy and Trivia to strengthen memory and problem solving and encourage studying, review and practice prior to tests. However, advances in technology have added a whole other dimension to the use of games in schools.

Gamification. According to Webster's Dictionary gamification is "the process of adding games or game-like elements to something (such as a task) so as to encourage participation." Gamification, or the application of typical elements on gaming to other areas such as education, business, and advertising, is beginning to spread to more and more classrooms. Among the specific gamification practices that have been very successful in creating an imaginative and exciting world within numerous classrooms are ClassCraft, Class Dojo, and Rezzly.

ClassCraft is an approach to teaching that collides the imaginary world a student creates inside the game with reality. In ClassCraft, students create a character inside a game world, based off of the game World of War Craft, and they work together with their team to earn points and "level ups" for positive behavior in the classroom and completion of classroom "quests." Students have avatars of themselves who can be knights, kings, queens, etc., and are part of a storyline similar to the story line of World of Warcraft. They are heroes who must overcome a perilous journey to save a kingdom.

 Class Dojo utilizes the increasing popularity and influence of apps by creating an app that allows parents and teachers to work together on managing the behavior of students. Like ClassCraft, this app gives each student an avatar, and parents and teachers can award points to the avatar for good academic behavior in class and while doing schoolwork at home. Students choose their avatars on the app and customize them, and when points are awarded to the avatar, they become stronger. The avatars are not involved in an in-depth story like in ClassCraft; rather they are more like a neo pet. Class Dojo is straight forward and fun, and more suitable for younger age groups (Kindergarten through 3rd grade). 

Rezzly is a quest-based digital platform where teachers design the game and assign quests based off of classroom material for the students to complete inside the game. Storylines teachers can create can be realistic, wildly imaginative, or anywhere in between: characters getting through the school day, solving a mystery, or investigating a sci-fi fantasy world. These three platforms introduce several new learning platforms to the classroom, which appeal to students from Kindergarten to 8th Grade, and can be taken to advanced levels for high school students.

Game-centered environments. As we consider gamification, let's also examine the possibility of the all-encompassing use of games in schools. Teaching through games may be especially suitable for today's new generation of students, who grew up being enraptured in imaginary worlds created through digital games. Recently, educators have taken classroom games to a new level by using the structure and idea of these games to create game-centered learning environments (Munetean, 2011).

What would this mean for you? Games for math? Reading? Social studies? Games for catch-up and remediation? Games for students functioning at the highest levels? Could games replace conventional teaching techniques?

By gamifying classrooms or integrating games throughout the curriculum and school day, teachers guide students in approaching academic content and material by using several fundamental elements of games. These elements are:
  1. Storytelling
  2. Problem-solving
  3. Aesthetics
  4. Rules
  5. Competition
  6. Collaboration
  7. Critical thinking
  8. Feedback
  9. Trial and error
  10. Rewards systems (points, levels, etc.)
But does It Work? The revolutionary aspect of gamification is demonstrated by its success in a diverse range of schools, countries, and cultures. For example, a school in Houston, TX, a school South Korea, and a school in Greece have all seen success when gamifying their classrooms by implementing different forms of gamification with a wide range of students.

Gamification in Houston: A racially diverse school in the Independent School District of Houston implemented gamification with 3rd graders and 5th graders. At this school, where 95% of the students came from low-income families, teachers gamified the classroom by implementing the above 10 structural elements of a game to create an imaginative and stimulating learning environment. For example, to teach students test-taking skills and class material, the teacher created practice tests in the form of gamified "quests." Students were rewarded badges for using these skills. Results: Student performance on standardized tests increased from performing 1.39 times the norm for the district, to performing 1.82 times the norm. Teachers also reported that they were able to cover more material more quickly and effectively, covering 14 to 16 months' worth of class material in just 10 months.

Using ClassCraft in South Korea: In this case, an English language teacher implemented gamification using ClassCraft. This teacher taught 250 Korean middle school students who were learning English. In class, students collaborated with classmates to complete quests. Results: By using ClassCraft, this school saw class participation increase by 300%. The classroom's learning environment became incredibly lively and active, in a structured way. The success of ClassCraft even startled this English teacher at times, as students would beat her to class and wait in anticipation, ready to receive their daily quests.

Using Gamification for Classroom Behavior Management in Greece: At Anatolia College, in Thessaloniki Greece, two middle school science teachers new to the school this past year implemented gamification in their 7th and 8th grade classrooms for the first time. Anatolia College is an international school in Greece and has a very diverse and unique student population. There had been many increasing behavioral and disciplinary issues in the middle school for a few years. As a solution, these teachers used ClassCraft to teach social learning, values, and empowerment into their ClassCraft curriculum. Teachers also assigned quests for students to complete so that they can practice social skills such as teamwork, kindness, and respect. Results: Anatolia College saw little to no disciplinary issues in these ClassCraft classes as students were empowered to emulate the values and characteristics of heroes in the gaming world.

These examples demonstrate how gamification can be a solution to many common classroom issues that may disrupt learning such as:
  • Lack of student participation
  • Disconnect between students and the teacher
  • Student disengagement
  • Differentiation
  • Low student achievement
  • Disruptive talking
Gamification can be used across all subjects because it teaches basic approaches to learning (ATL) skills that are essential for learning, studying and social development (Specht, 2015). This is accomplished through the basic structure and fundamentals of a game. Games train memory, investigative skills, and problem-solving skills. Beyond that, when using the structure of a game in class as an approach to teaching, many other valuable ATL skills are taught such as:
  1. Organization
  2. Collaboration
  3. Communication
  4. Information Literacy
  5. Reflection
  6. Deductive reasoning
  7. Improving from feedback
  8. Making connections
Gamification gives teachers a pathway to be creative when teaching and to customize the way they teach based on individual students' strengths, weaknesses, and interests. With gamification, students don't take practice tests to prepare for exams; they battle mystical beasts to save their kingdom. By presenting material in this way, teachers are redefining learning and teaching,  putting students' strengths and interests at the forefront of their lesson plans.


Muntean, C. I. (2011, October). Raising engagement in e-learning through gamification. In Proc. 6th International Conference on Virtual Learning ICVL (No. 42, pp. 323-329).

Specht, M. (2015). Gamification of learning. In Research Center for Learning, Teaching, and Technology Welten Institute (pp. 15-24).
Can Working Memory Training Improve Reading Skills?
By Masha R. Jones, CEI Guest Author, and Christine Mason
Should teachers turn to computer games to enhance learning? What of reading in particular? What are these games promising and will they deliver? The cognitive scientists who are studying this typically examine the impact of these games on both academic learning and also specific executive functions in the brain such as immediate and sustained attention, distractibility, and working memory, or the ability to remember and manipulate information in your mind (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974; Braver, Gray, & Burgess,2007).


It's in Your Mind. Imagine multiplying 25 by 7 in your head. First, you'd multiply 7 by 5. You'd then have to remember to carry the 3 and keep 5 while multiplying 7 by 2. Remembering the 3 and the 5 while multiplying 7 by 2 requires considerable working memory. If you have low working memory capacity, mental math and the most challenging academic tasks (including reading), will likely be a struggle for you. Working memory capacity is essential for efficient, complex language functioning, and having low working memory is considered a major underlying factor driving reading difficulties such as dyslexia (de Jong, 1998; Xu, Yang, Su,& Tan, 2015).

Working memory is particularly important for reading. Reading comprehension is a gate keeper for all academic disciplines since much of what we learn in school involves reading and understanding text. Reading comprehension involves the relationship between language and other cognitive functions such as attention and memory. These relationships are dynamic, interactive, and reciprocal. As Amanda Morin, author of the Everything Parent's Guide to Special Education, explains:
" Auditory working memory helps kids hold on to the sounds letters make long enough to sound out new words. Visual working memory helps kids remember what those words look like so they can recognize them throughout the rest of a sentence.
When working effectively, these skills keep kids from having to sound out every word they see. This helps them read with less hesitation and become fluent readers. Learning to read isn't as smooth a process for kids with weak working memory skills." 

Working Memory Training. If poor working memory capacity is at least in part responsible for reading difficulties, what would happen if we developed interventions to improve it? As it turns out, this has been done. Cognitive or "brain" training programs have been developed that work to train working memory abilities. These are typically designed to look and feel like computer games. They are played on tablets or computers and usually include game-like features such as levels and prizes. The theory behind these brain training programs is simple: it's kind of like running. Maybe you can only run one or two miles today. Maybe running that one mile is really hard for you. But if you keep at it, you'll be able to go farther soon. Similarly, with brain training games you work at your limit, and eventually your limit increases. 

Effective Working Memory Training in Schools

One example of a simultaneous increase in students' working memory capacity and  reading ability took place at a school in Switzerland. Students at this school played a computer-based working memory training game every day for about 20 minutes a day across two weeks. Before starting the working memory training, the students and their "controls" (some of their peers who did not get the working memory game) were given a series of working memory and standardized reading tests. Both groups took the same tests after the two weeks were up. Compared to the control group, the students who got the working memory training significantly improved their working memory scores and their reading scores (Loosli, Buschkuehl, Perrig, & Jaeggi, 2011)! A comparable study in Germany found similar effects (Karbach, Strobach, & Schubert, 2015). 

The Matthew Effect

An important caveat to remember, however, is that many classroom-based studies included typical children - not necessarily those struggling readers who might benefit most from working memory training. Sadly, the evidence we have now suggests a possible Matthew Effect. The term "Matthew Effect" refers to the all-to-common phenomenon that those who don't need an intervention benefit the most from it, while those who need it the most fail to benefit. This effect inherited its name from a parable in the biblical book of Matthew, which reads, "For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath" (Matthew 25:29). You can probably tell where we're going with this. Will working memory training really be important for improving reading skills for students who struggle, or will it be a better fit for those without reading disorders?

In 2002, Swanson reported that working memory capacity is really hard to change in students who have reading disorders. However, recent research (Dahlin, 2011; Peijnenborgh, Hurks, et al., 2016; Shiran & Breznitz, 2011) indicates that such training is promising. Knowledge in this field is advancing rapidly, and as we learn, the sophistication of our approaches also increases. When it comes to dyslexia, such training could potentially become part of every teacher's toolkit.


Baddeley, A. D., & Hitch, G. J. (1974). Working memory. In The psychology of learning and motivation advances in research and theory (Vol. 8, pp. 47-90). 

Braver, T. S., Gray, J. R., & Burgess, G. C. (2007). Explaining the many varieties of working memory variation: Dual mechanisms of cognitive control. Variation in working memory, 76-106.

Dahlin, K. I. (2011). Effects of working memory training on reading in children with special needs. Reading and Writing, 24(4), 479-491.

de Jong, P. F. (1998). Working memory deficits of reading disabled children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 70(2), 75-96.

Karbach, J., Strobach, T., & Schubert, T. (2015). Adaptive working-memory training benefits reading, but not mathematics in middle childhood. Child Neuropsychology, 21(3), 285-301. 

Loosli, S. V, Buschkuehl, M., Perrig, W. J., & Jaeggi, S. M. (2011). Working memory training improves reading processes in typically developing children. Child Neuropsychology, 18(1), 62-78. 

Morin, A. (2015). Everything parent's guide to special education. Avon, MA: Adams Media.

Peijnenborgh, J. C., Hurks, P. M., Aldenkamp, A. P., Vles, J. S., & Hendriksen, J. G. (2016). Efficacy of working memory training in children and adolescents with learning disabilities: A review study and meta-analysis. Neuropsychological Rehabilitation, 26(5-6), 645-672.

Shiran, A., & Breznitz, Z. (2011). The effect of cognitive training on recall range and speed of information processing in the working memory of dyslexic and skilled readers. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 24(5), 524-537.

Swanson, H. L. (2000). Are working memory deficits in readers with learning disabilities hard to change? Journal of Learning Disabilities, 33(6), 551-566. 

Xu, M., Yang, J., Siok, W. T., & Tan, L. H. (2015). Atypical lateralization of phonological working memory in developmental dyslexia. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 33, 67-77.
VR & Gamification at Your School in 2017-2018

Principals, who is leading technology implementation in your school? Are instruction with VR and gamification part of your teachers' skill portfolios? If not, could this be added to your plans for this year?


Christine Mason
Center for Educational Improvement