Video games, speech recognition hold promise as ed tech


Mission HydroSci is a video game that sends players on a ‘virtual journey’ to learn about topics such as water flow, groundwater, atmospheric water and water contamination, then challenges them to use that knowledge to complete missions. — AFP Relaxnews

Researchers at the University of Missouri are using US$12mil (RM50.22mil) in grants from the US Department of Education to harness game-based learning and speech recognition tools to teach science and literacy. The funding comes amid a boom in the education technology market, where K-12 schools have spent billions on digital learning programs for new mediums to enhance instruction and student engagement.

According to a news release from the university, James Laffey, a professor emeritus in the College of Education and Human Development, will use US$8mil (RM33.48mil) to develop Mission HydroSci, a video game that sends players on a “virtual journey” to learn about topics such as water flow, groundwater, atmospheric water and water contamination, then challenges them to use that knowledge to complete missions.

Laffey said the game was first created and tested by a group of 13 teachers in 2014 with the help of a US$4.5mil (RM18.83mil) development grant from the US Department of Education. Building upon the game’s early success, the research team now plans to expand the game to more than 60 middle schools across the US for further testing, in partnership with the Missouri Research and Education Network and the professional development nonprofit eMINTS (enhancing Missouri's Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies) National Center, which will provide tech support for educators to implement the game in their courses.

According to Laffey, the initial focus of the project will be to update the game and make it more immersive. Teachers will then spend about two and a half years testing it.

“We really have to rebuild it in a more robust way,” he said, adding that the team also plans to make the game available on tablet devices. “Our new grant will allow us to take the lessons we learned in our first grant to build a stronger game and test it more thoroughly, with a larger sample size of teachers and students.”

Laffey said he hopes the game will serve as a framework for other K-12 game-based learning programs spanning additional subjects in the years to come, adding that it’s already proven useful for teachers seeking new ways to keep students interested.

“What they saw in the classroom was that kids who typically were not very engaged in science education became engaged,” he said of testimonies from teachers following the launch of the game. “I think games have that capacity to engage kids, and to engage kids that don’t usually succeed with what classroom activities are usually like.”

Speech recognition

Betsy Baker, also a professor in the university’s College of Education and Human Development, will use US$4mil (RM16.74mil) to study how elementary school teachers can make the most out of speech recognition programmes on mobile devices to improve students’ reading and literacy skills.

“Core to reading is being able to make a match between the oral and written word,” she said, noting that mobile apps such as Alexa, Siri and Google Dictate have been shown to help students develop “over 98% accuracy” in their ability to recognise words in their lexicons.

“What we’ve found is that these kids develop rich abilities to make these matches between oral and written words,” she added. “They learn a lot of reading.”

Baker said much of the overall goal of the project, also conducted in partnership with eMINTS, is to find ways for teachers to implement talk-to-text tools into lessons, taking current technological limitations into account.

According to the university, the lesson planning and curriculum developed through Baker’s research will be implemented in underserved, rural Missouri school districts with high rates of free and reduced-price lunch programmes, and will serve more than 90 second-grade teachers and 1,800 students.

“We’re purposely targeting second grade to make sure we can get them prepared to read independently by the end of third grade, using help from speech recognition apps,” Baker said, drawing off previous research that found students who are proficient readers by third grade are more likely to finish high school and become employed.

Since much of the speech recognition technology available today is “notoriously inaccurate” and often unable to recognise certain words and vernaculars, Baker said, the technology could encourage classroom discussions about phonics and vocabulary lessons built to improve reading comprehension.

“There’s wonderful potential for kids to make matches between oral language that's culturally rich and personally meaningful and written words,” she said. “However, there are a variety of problems – one being that speech recognition isn’t always accurate.

“We think we can facilitate the ability for teachers to harness the potential while mitigating the challenges of speech recognition.” – Government Technology/Tribune News Service

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