“Anyone can improve their classroom by adopting game-based learning strategies. Any lesson that requires practice, feedback, or scaffolding can benefit from the use of game mechanics.” – Robert Duncan, USA

Games-based learning works, and we’ve talked a good bit at Daily Edventures about the impact gamification can have in the classroom. But behind every one of these classroom experiences, scores of unsung heroes are researching, inventing and perfecting the games. Robert Duncan, who will serve as the Director of Undergraduate Research at York College starting in the fall of 2013, is one such educator.

While Duncan is active in a number of areas of research – from “neurodegeneration in human glaucoma” to “physiology of motion perception,” his research in “serious games” stands out for its contribution to the world of education. Duncan has said, “Transformative Games strive to incorporate everything we know about psychology, neuroscience, education, and game design into the learning experience.” In fact, Duncan brings the scientific method into game development, and is committed to not only making better games, but also to improving the process of developing games so that they work as effectively as possible as tools to educate, inspire and engage students.

Today, Duncan shares with Daily Edventures what he’s learned about the role of research in building better games, along with his views on the state of education. Enjoy!

Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?

My research is designed to have an impact on a local level. Students in my laboratory design educational games to positively affect the lives of their peers. These games are used to inform, shape, and assess behavior. Our games adjust task difficulty according to user performance, which facilitates sustained attention, engagement, and learning. Consequently, the players experience a state of “flow,” where time seems to pass very quickly. The Transformative Games Initiative at York College is designed to inspire educators, teachers, scientists, students, and game designers. We provide information about game-based learning, organize local efforts to incorporate games into the classroom, and analyze the results of these efforts in order to make improvements at the college. Our sister organization, the CUNY Games Network, also distributes this information at a national level.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

The games program has increased student and faculty participation in research. The Transformative Games Initiative works closely with the York College Office of Undergraduate Research to provide students with research opportunities. Students can collaborate on game-based projects with faculty mentors and domain experts in any field. By engaging in the process of design, student researchers further their understanding of a subject. The general student population also profits from these new opportunities for game-based learning. Faculty lecturers have used games to enliven their classrooms. And faculty who never participated in research are now getting involved by developing novel game-based pedagogies for their disciplines.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

Anyone can improve their classroom by adopting game-based learning strategies. Any lesson that requires practice, feedback, or scaffolding can benefit from the use of game mechanics. Games-based research allows a faculty mentor to work with a larger number of students on a variety of projects. Any educator can make an immediate impact on their classroom or research program using simple resources like pen and paper. The art of design does not depend upon technology. Add technology to your design process slowly as needed.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

While I use a variety of tools to create games in the lab, the most valuable tools are the simple ones. We have a dry-erase board installed in the lab and it’s used throughout the development process. All of my students develop working physical or paper prototypes of their games first. If the game demands digital technology, we gravitate toward the Adobe Flash platform or the Unity3d game engine. Recently, we are using the Unity engine more because of its intuitive user interface and because it can publish to a broad range of platforms. Unity3d has also proven to be a great environment to learn programming. Unlike traditional software environments, game engines allow new programmers to see the results of their code immediately. Even though educational licenses for software are abundant, we use open-source technology as often as possible. For example, all our art assets are created in GIMP or Blender.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

The greatest obstacle I face on a daily basis is breaking students of behaviors that are oriented toward grades, financial success, or other secondary reinforcers. Tapping into a student’s true passion and motivation for living is surprisingly difficult because they are often unaware of that passion themselves. Social and familial pressures for academic and financial success often occlude student needs but, as the psychology literature informs us, these indicators do not predict happiness. I try to shift the focus from grades and money to Quality of Life.

What is your region doing well currently to support education?

York College and the greater New York City area couldn’t be more supportive of these endeavors. The faculty and administration at CUNY understand our students are faced with unique challenges that require novel solutions. CUNY is working closely with the National Council for Undergraduate Research. At York College, we have started an annual research conference for undergraduates, we offer faculty incentives for participation, we sponsor faculty-mentor programs, and we are planning to offer research scholarships to students.

What conditions must change to better support education?

Most of the challenges we face result from overcrowding in primary schools, the same budget issues that affect everyone, cultural issues that emphasize financial success above happiness, and a lack of data-driven educational practices. An immediate change that can happen quickly is to incentivize members of the faculty to participate in undergraduate research. If the administration offers significant course credit for faculty, more faculty and students will buy into these programs, and more undergrads will have an opportunity to participate in research early in their academic careers.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

Data indicate that the best way to improve education in our country is to improve the student-teacher ratio. However, this ratio is getting worse around the world as the population increases. We must utilize the Internet and asynchronous communication to provide personalized attention to a larger number of students. We now have the opportunity to incorporate limitless resources in the classroom and reach out to more students than ever before.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Learn everything you can about traditional pedagogy in your field and the physiology of learning. Never forget that learning is a physiological process. Embrace models that are supported with data, and then fearlessly challenge these models. Document everything. Education will only be transformed if we challenge the status quo using sound scientific methods.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

I’m very happy to see a rapid shift from the traditional consumer-based model of education to a model where students are encouraged to design and create. Maker Labs are springing up in classrooms all over the world, which indicates that we are experiencing a paradigm shift. There is also a movement toward personalized education, where students decide what they want to learn in a course or a major. The largest obstacle to achieving this transition is our overdependence on state-mandated assessments. Assessment is critical for monitoring progress in the classroom and improving upon current pedagogy. However, the needs of one community are not the same as another. Insisting on a one-size-fits-all model denies the needs of the individual student.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

I am an avid supporter of One Laptop per Child and free Internet access for developing nations. Unfortunately, these efforts have proven more challenging than anticipated. Despite these challenges, offering free access to the Internet is critical for empowering children throughout the world.

About Robert Duncan, Assistant Professor of Behavioral Sciences, York College

  • Birthplace: California
  • Current residence: New York, New York
  • Education: Ph.D. in Psychology
  • Website I check every day: New York Times
  • Person who inspires me most: My mother
  • Favorite childhood memory: Surfing by moonlight
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): France
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why? A friend and I had a long hearty laugh to clear the air after a painful discussion about our aging parents.
  • Favorite book: Principles of Neural Science by Kandel and Schwartz
  • Favorite music: Claude Debussy’s “L’isle joyeuse”
  • Your favorite quote or motto: “An honest heart is a kingdom in itself.” – Seneca

Interested in Games-based Learning? Check out the hot topics area of the Partners in Learning Network blog:


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