CHICAGO (MainStreet) -- With back-to-school season in full swing, there's a renewed seriousness in many American households. It's time for kids put down the videogames and pick up some books.
Except that at more and more schools across the country, videogames are part of the lesson plan, with small businesses at the forefront of this sometimes controversial trend.
Tech-based educational products have become such a diverse field that they even have their own awards. The "CODiEs," given out by the Education Division of the Software & Information Industry Association, include categories such as "Best Classroom Content Management System," "Best Social Sciences Instructional Solution," and "Best Student Assessment Solution."
The increasing use of technology in education has plenty of pros and cons. Yes, teaching children to type on a computer screen may better prepare them for future careers than learning to write in cursive. But too much screen time at school and at home might, for instance, leave students relating better to avatars than their peers.
With so many changes coming so quickly, there are plenty of issues to get worried about. But the reality is that the wired classroom is here to stay. What's most important is to figure out how technology can be used to help children learn and improve. And sometimes, it turns out, videogames are the answer.
The key is to recognize that effective educational videogames are not simply standard games with a few scattered facts and quizzes added on. They are designed rom their inception to incorporate learning into the very fabric of the game. Done well, they don't feel "educational" at all.
Two start-ups, both of which won honors for being most innovative and most likely to succeed at this year's SIIA Ed Tech Industry Summit, exemplify the role small businesses are playing in this growing field.
, a production studio based in Madison, Wis., has designed games that meet curricular standards in science, civics and reading. Some of their most popular titles include
You Make Me Sick!
, in which students take on the role of a pathogen working its way through a human body, and
, in which students role-play as city managers who must balance issues of energy production and conservation. (You can try samples of the games on
While Filament's site looks more like that of a cool anime studio than an academic-focused company, co-founders Dan White, Dan Norton and Alex Stone recognize that games are not the be-all and end-all for solving the nation's educational challenges. Indeed, one of their company's core philosophies is that games are not a good fit for all learning goals.
Another company that won an award for innovation at this year's SIIA gathering of educational technology pros was California-based
, which develops educational software to help children with autism and Asperger's navigate social situations. The company was founded, as so many are, to fill an unmet personal need. Tina and Marc Zimmerman noticed that their twin sons, both diagnosed with autism, appeared more engaged when a therapist worked with them using a laptop, but they weren't impressed by the limited programs that were available.
They dived into research, put together an advisory board, hired developers and started selling their first product late last year. The Social Express uses animated characters to act out real-life social situations; engaging with the game teaches users how to read social cues, communicate more effectively and interact more confidently with others.
Other educational software companies have sprung up from teachers' firsthand knowledge of what works and what doesn't in the classroom. Joel Levin, a New York elementary school teacher, saw how much his daughter enjoyed playing the world-creation strategy game
, so he adapted it for use in his classroom. The response was so positive that it inspired him to co-found a new company. Today,
is working with the Swedish company that created the original game to offer a customized, school-appropriate version.
The educational games market is no sure path to success or riches; the reason so many start-ups have found a place there is that large software companies find it a risky field. And many school districts are so strapped for cash that buying the latest cool games is a low priority. But today's educational game developers are proving slowly that it is possible to integrate technology, entertainment and learning into one seamless experience -- one school and one student at a time.
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