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Embedding Computer Games in Books

College of Education Professor Glenn Gordon Smith’s patented innovative reading strategy is helping struggling readers and improving science education in Hillsborough County Schools.

Associate Professor Glenn Gordon Smith teaches in the Instructional Technology Program in the College of Education.
Photos by Aimee Blodgett | USF News

By Barbara Melendez
      USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (Nov. 13, 2014) – At last, reading and playing video games need not be mutually exclusive. On the contrary, combining the two can help improve reading skills.

Glenn Gordon Smith’s passion for reading spurred him to create a unique way for struggling readers to join him in his appreciation for the written word. He found it using his passion for technology.

An associate professor in the Instructional Technology Program in the Department of Educational & Psychological Studies in the College of Education, Smith combines books with computer games in IMapBooks establishing a new technology that was awarded a patent this past spring – with the help of the USF Division of Patents & Licensing. And his research is showing that IMapBooks can make a difference in reading and science education at a critical time.

Students interact with a traditional book image on their computer screens.

“Adolescent recreational reading is declining in the western world, while computer games, videos and other digital media are booming,” Smith said. “This new medium taps into students’ motivation to play computer games, encouraging them to read while providing a non-stressful means of comprehension assessment.

“When kids read these books, all kinds of information is being stored in the database. We welcome people who want to do studies using this data; it’s a brand new area. This is also a truly powerful tool for school districts that are looking to improve their overall grades. Kids like it because it helps them learn.”

Research is Showing Results

Smith put together a research team that has conducted studies using the IMapBooks technology in the United States, China and the Netherlands.

“We found that fifth graders learned and retained spatial information from stories better when they read stories with computer games in IMapBooks, versus when than they read them in equivalent books with maps,” Smith said. “And that group enjoyed and liked the story better than the group without the games.

Before they can continue reading, students have to use their video gaming skills.

“Similarly, Chinese college students studying English learned more new English vocabulary from essays with the computer games in IMapBooks than they did with their usual method of study, that is, using hard copy booklets, lists of words with definitions, and multiple choice questions.”

In a yet-to-be-published study conducted in the Netherlands, Smith’s team found that “sixth graders with attention problems had a significantly better attitude about reading following the reading of books with game-like feedback, versus when they read equivalent hard copy books or online books without game-like feedback.”

IMapBooks are getting an important workout in Tampa this school year. Smith and his team, USF Professor of Science Education Allan Feldman, School of Geosciences Professor Ping Wang and Department of Educational & Psychological Studies Associate Professor Yiping Lou, have developed a pilot program with the support of an NSF grant to produce learning materials for climate change education in the Hillsborough County School District in 27 schools.

“We’re creating a local, place-based approach to teaching a very complex subject,” Smith said. “The prevailing metaphors related to climate change are simply too big. The earth as a greenhouse is too big for the average person to fully comprehend. The scale is too broad and the changes are happening slowly even though they are accelerating at this time.”

Using Science Fiction to Teach Science Facts

To get this complex subject through to students, Smith’s team has created a science fiction novel containing games that relate to climate change science. To create the curriculum materials, they are working with Hillsborough County School District Science Supervisor, Daniel McFarland, Hillsborough County School District STEM Director Larry Plank and with four “alpha” teachers who teach the marine sciences course.

The three-year grant is funding the writing of the novel, the creation of the games and supporting the testing of students’ success with the technology.

And things are going great.

“We have developed a lot of the materials and are doing a pilot tests,” Smith said. “The students and teachers, by and large, are enthusiastic."

It has taken a fully interdisciplinary effort to move the project forward: educators, writers, artists, game designers, software developers for the web-based platform and education professionals to create the administrative modules.

When all is in place, “teachers can set up logins for the students and chart their progress,” Smith said. “This is a research tool as well as a teaching tool. It is as much about reading as interaction with reading. In addition, built into the overall scaffold are common core learning standards.”

Because students are reading online, teachers can chart their progress from one chapter to the next and offer help where needed.

Any book can be adapted to the iMapbook design. “Our authoring tool can integrate any material and can take existing literature and put games into them.

“One of the most interesting things about IMapBooks is that from our studies and evaluations, they seem to appeal most to struggling readers,” Smith observed. “The funny thing is that when you fail tests, you get negative feelings. In this case, when you lose, you’re working to get good at what you’re doing. You can try again, win and be rewarded.

"For reading enthusiasts, the experience of reading often feels more powerful than the consumption of other media,” Smith said. “With an engrossing book you are creating and populating a world with your imagination. You’re transported. In other media the details are created for you. When you read, you are given some cues and you are building the world yourself.

Straightforward Process

“I felt that it was too bad so many kids are missing out on this and I asked myself, how can I stimulate them to have this experience?”

Rereading is a habit good readers take for granted. With IMapBooks struggling readers use rereading to win games and move forward.  Screen captures courtesy of Glenn Gordon Smith.

In the end it became a matter of, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” he says with a laugh.

The format is straightforward. Computer games are interspersed with eBook narrative text. Winning the game allows the reader to move on to read more and play more. It’s all about paying attention and along with improved reading skill, readers’ comprehension and critical thinking skills improve as well. When they don’t win the game, readers have to go back and reread.

“Rereading is a key literacy skill,” says Smith. “Good readers get used to doing this at an early age. Poor readers find this frustrating.”

Since the game relates to the text narrative and readers cannot win the game without paying attention to what is going on in the story, the games serve as a fun, stealth assessment.

Readers can even use this technology without using a computer.

“The patent also covers computer games in hard copy books,” Smith explained. “Readers can use a pentop computer and micro-dot paper technology. In this case, sections of the book are ordered randomly and the reader must win the game to find the next page number from which to read.”

Smith plays tenor saxophone with the faculty/staff jazz band he organized and is now learning to play bass guitar.

Smith earned bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science at Arizona State University and University of Utah, and a doctorate in educational media and computers from Arizona State. He does research on how computer games can combine with narrative text to improve reading. His earliest research focus was visuospatial learning, that is, the ways computers, and other tools, help people learn to think with shapes. His research also includes discipline-specific differences in e-learning, for instance, how the design of online courses should be different for mathematics versus nursing courses.

Smith doesn’t spend all his time with his head buried in books and computers. He recently organized a faculty/staff jazz band for non-Music Department faculty and staff and plays the tenor saxophone. Going one step further, he has just taken up bass guitar as well. An avid sports fan, he couldn’t get enough of World Cup Soccer. In fact, thinking globally suits him as he has lived all over the United States and in Europe and he welcomes interest in IMapBooks from everywhere in the world.

"I believe this technology can work with any written language. The interface is already in ten languages and it takes about a half hour to add a new language. Of course, the actual text pages of the books need to be translated. This technology can help just about any struggling reader discover the joy reading. This is a truly exciting prospect."

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563

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