The role of computer games and social constructivism in skills development of learners from different educational backgrounds.
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This study is positioned within a specific South African context where many learners not only lack access to resources but are considered underprepared and therefore are seen as academically disadvantaged. Research findings presented here centre on learning theories within the social constructivist paradigm, make use of a developmental research methodology and use a number of different research instruments. The main objective of this study was to investigate the use of virtual learning environments, constructed as educational adventure games, as viable learning tools and to determine the influence of game play on skill development and overcoming learning difficulties. More specifically two educational games, Zadarh and ãKhozi developed at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, were used to investigate the use of technology in classrooms that included underprepared and academically disadvantaged learners. Zadarh was designed to challenge learner misconceptions related to photosynthesis and photorespiration and was used to investigate and evaluate the effectiveness of games to overcome these misconceptions. ãKhozi was used to introduce learners to issues related to HIV/Aids and to evaluate the use of such tools to develop skills. However, It was first necessary to develop an instrument, based on the Persona Outlining Model (POM), to evaluate and measure skills. The POM uses a number of interfaces (literacy, communication and visualization skills) and properties (age, gender and socio-economic background) to describe a typical learner, or game player. The instrument based on these interfaces and properties was used to evaluate the skills of young South Africans from Buhlebemfundo, Qhakaza and Tholokuhle schools and two universities, namely, University of Zululand [UniZulu] and University of KwaZulu-Natal [UKZN]), all from the region of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. The majority of the sampled learners appear to lack appropriate visualisation, logical, mathematical, reading and writing skills and results suggest that poor performance may be associated with a low household income and poor English language skills. While participants (Buhlebemfundo, Qhakaza and Tholokuhle schools, and UniZulu and UKZN university students) who played Zadarh individually solved game problems, they still held many of the misconceptions. Further investigation revealed that when participants were unable to solve a problem they learnt by rote the solution to the problem. Playing Zadarh in groups and allowing participants to ask for clarification of assessment instrument questions showed that many participants developed a deeper understanding on the relationships between photosynthesis and respiration. Participants from Qhakaza were asked to play ãKhozi in flexible groups whichchanged from session to session. Using the previously developed skills assessment instrument showed improve visual, literacy and communication skills. Results strongly suggest that only through dialogue can misconceptions be overcome and that learning is a social activity as proposed by Vygotsky over 80 years ago. More specifically research presented here supports Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, the role of play in development and the need for written language skills. The new art form of digital games when conceived as microworlds can play an important role in education if games support co-operation between players, peers and mentors, allow for exploration through play and support the development of reading and writing skills.