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Engaging Viewers, Virtually
The Research of Wirth Professor Christopher Dede

Harvard Graduate School of Education
August 1, 2004

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Wirth Professor Christopher Dede
Wirth Professor Christopher Dede (© 2003 Lisa Kessler)  

Video arcades, television, cell phones, and music videos. The vast majority of American children grow up enveloped by the world of high-tech media. In fact, according to a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average American home has at least three televisions, and children spend the equivalent of a full-time workweek jumping from sitcoms to video games to other addictive forms of entertainment. With flashy, action-packed diversions so readily available, children can often feel highly stimulated without exerting any effort of their own. As a result, classroom teachers have come to face even greater challenges as they strive to engage their students.

So how can schools intrigue students when the standards for stimulation are constantly on the rise? According to Christopher Dede, the Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies, educators can borrow from the entertainment industry itself, retooling its successful technologies for the classroom. “Computer programs are gateways to engagement,” he says. “What we put inside these programs can turn them into gateways to learning.”

“Computer programs are gateways to engagement,” Dede says. “What we put inside these programs can turn them into gateways to learning.”

Virtual Reality

Dede and a team of designers and researchers from HGSE and George Mason University recently developed a computerized middle-school science curriculum that does precisely that. The Multi-User Virtual Environment Experience Simulator—MUVEES, as Dede’s team calls it—looks very much like a video game; students inhabit computer-animated characters as they explore different regions of “River City,” a fictional American city of the 1880s under crisis. But instead of fighting their enemies with ammunition, River City visitors use their brains to battle their foe. Students draw upon their knowledge of biology and ecology to uncover the cause of a public health crisis plaguing the city. They eavesdrop on conversations between local residents and virtually converse with their classmates’ characters. Together, they use their scientific knowledge to answer the critical questions of survival: What can be done to halt the spread of infection, and who’s at greatest risk? Why are some populations more susceptible than others?

Last year, Dede’s team piloted the River City curriculum in three middle schools on the East Coast. As they’d hoped, the team found that students learning from MUVEES proved to be much more engaged than those who did not. They also learned that MUVEES offered critical help to students who need it the most: low-achieving students. Among this group, nearly twice as many MUVEES-users showed improvement over those in conventional classes.

“This is really an exciting finding,” says Dede, whose new research aims include determining how MUVEES can best hook and reel back disengaged students. “By middle school, many of these students have often given up on themselves. If we can boost motivation, we boost participation.”

Dede plans to take his MUVEES project into 10 to 20 new classrooms in the coming year, continuing to study its effects on students’ content-knowledge, as well as their broader thinking skills. “We want to teach children to ask thoughtful questions about complex problems, and then to be able to design experiments that will help them find answers,” he says. “Middle-school kids are brimming with those types of questions. Our goal is to excite and develop that curiosity.”

For More Information
More information about Christopher Dede is available in the Faculty Profiles.

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