At Florida Virtual School, history is taught through gaming

Morgan Mays isn't much of a video gamer.

The 16-year-old aspiring tennis pro from Longboat Key spends too much of his time on the court or traveling to bother with such diversions.

Yet he didn't hesitate when offered the opportunity to play Conspiracy Code, Florida Virtual School's first foray into online game courses. The 10-stage, two-semester game features two teenagers who try to save U.S. history from corruption at the hands of conspirators.

But unlike most games, which supplement course curriculum, Conspiracy Code is the curriculum — and experts believe it may the only online game-based, credit-bearing high school course in the United States.

Morgan loves Conspiracy Code.

"I got ahead right out of the gate because I was just having fun," he said. "It's a good variety from other classes that are all reading."

For years, educators have talked about how difficult it has become to compete for students' attention in the digital world.

To tell them to sit with pencil and paper and take notes on a lecture is an invitation to disconnect, says Sharon Sloane, a teacher and guidance counselor who's now chief executive of WILL Interactive, an educational video game company that focuses on character education.

"It's actually, to them, foreign to go back to what we think of as traditional," Sloane said. "The digital natives are the young people that we're teaching. Let's teach them on their turf."

Florida Virtual School did just that with Conspiracy Code. They teamed up with 360Ed, founded by the creators of Ultima Online, the first major multiplayer online role-playing game.

"We are all on a mission of creating engaging content," said Ben Nole, CEO of the Orlando-based company.

The idea germinated over three years. During that time, the developers studied brain-based learning with University of Central Florida researchers to ensure the game would get students thinking in the right ways.

They also crafted character assignments that would demonstrate real comprehension and not just game completion. For example, players have to interrogate and eliminate conspiracy agents, filling out logs detailing what they found, and then write a speech for the mayor explaining the truth to the public.

Orlando students gave feedback on the game's look and feel, down to the details of how Libby — one of the two major characters — would dress and wear her hair.

Conspiracy Code went live this year.

About 240 students are taking the course. About a dozen have completed it.

History teacher David Wilson, a 32-year-old with a passion for first-person shooter games, acts as much as the students' handler as their instructor. Wilson, who lives in Tennessee, said he used games in his school-based classroom in Georgia to help students simulate the landing at Normandy.

He offers students playing Conspiracy Code advice on how to avoid the pitfalls of gaming that might hinder the learning experience.

"I know that, as a gamer, I want to blaze through the prologue of any game. I want to figure it all out by myself," said Wilson, now a full-time Florida Virtual teacher. "I tell all my students to really pay attention at the beginning of Conspiracy Code, because we teach them a lot of critical information."

Wilson makes himself available to students at a moment's notice via texting. "I really don't want the kids to use that as an excuse to not to do the work," Wilson said.

Sarasota junior Patrick Geenan has made it about halfway through the first semester of Conspiracy Code and says Wilson has helped make sure the course is more than just a game.

"If I have any questions, I can call him at any time,'' Patrick, 16, said of his teacher.

Patrick, whose favorite video game is Madden NFL 10, said he likes taking courses through Florida Virtual and turning a course into a game adds variety.

"It's a cool thing to look at,'' he said. "You get to see stuff you've never seen before."

Educators caution such courses are not for everyone. Some courses might not lend themselves to the gaming.

But for those who like it, more games are on the way.

Florida Virtual and 360Ed are developing a series of games, mostly in the humanities and math. The courses also are being streamlined so they can work with other states' standards because students outside Florida also can enroll in Florida Virtual School. The fee out-of-state students pay helped fund the $1.5 million development cost of Conspiracy Code. Florida Virtual and 360Ed split the cost. A regular online course would cost $300,000 to $500,000.

Florida Virtual also is collecting data on the current course results to see where improvements can be made.

"In 10 years, you won't even be saying 'virtual school' or 'bricks and mortar school,' " Nole said. "You'll just be saying school."

And that school increasingly will be meeting students on their digital turf, as Sloane put it.

"It is their world," she said.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

What's in a game?

"Students are immersed in the course as secret agents Eddie Flash and Libby Whitetree. Their mission: Save futuristic Coverton City from a group of would-be conquerors known as Conspiracy Inc., a shadowy organization bent on erasing the past to rule the future. To stop them, Eddie and Libby must find, collect and piece together historical clues using a diverse array of powers and abilities to accomplish their goals."

— From the video trailer for Conspiracy Code, see links.tampabay.com.

At Florida Virtual School, history is taught through gaming 11/01/09 [Last modified: Sunday, November 1, 2009 10:03pm]

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