Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Nintendo Goes to School

I've been waiting for this for a long time.

In today's Wall Street Journal (WSJ), there's an article (subscription may be required) about the Japanese school system making use of Nintendo DS's for teaching.
Every morning at 8:50, eighth-grade teachers at Otokoyama Higashi Junior High School bring out plastic baskets stacked with electronic devices. For 10 minutes, 122 students use styluses to scrawl English words like "woman" and "tree" on touch screens. Electronic voices beep responses like "Cool!" if the children spell the word correctly, and a mocking "Come on!" if they get it wrong.

The students are tapping away on Nintendo Co.'s DS videogame machine, a portable device customarily reserved for games like Pokémon and Super Mario Bros.

"Work sheets were such a pain," says Minori Yamanaka, a 13-year-old student, during a short break between classes. "These exercises feel like a game."

Atsuko! Put down that book and pick up your Nintendo DS and get back to your schoolwork! You can play with pen and paper on your own time.

Having worked on video game development teams before (I wrote software for Major League Baseball featuring Ken Griffey Jr. for the N64), I've wondered why there weren't educational games for some of these systems. Why buy a dedicated system like a Leap Frog when your kids already have a perfectly adequate hardware platform. In fact, I can guarantee you that the Leap Frog has nothing like the horsepower of even an N64.
Behind the fastest-selling portable videogame player in Japan is an unusual shift in the culture of gadgets: People are clamoring for it not just for games, but also to keep a household budget, play the guitar, and study the Buddhist scripture Heart Sutra. Since its introduction in 2004, the DS, which responds to writing and speech, has spurred software makers to fill the Japanese market with an eclectic array of reference guides, digital books and study tools.

Of the 500-odd DS software titles released or in the works so far, only about 200 are traditional videogames. Nintendo is quick to license uses of its DS device, which is also sold in the U.S., so long as they aren't violent or otherwise objectionable. Most of the software isn't available overseas, though Nintendo has released a few products like a "brain-training" quiz game called Brain Age and says it is considering releasing more. Game publishers believe the trend will eventually move outside Japan.
Brain Age has been a huge hit, selling more than one million copies.
Like many things, the transition from traditional educational methods to the use of the Nintendo DS, the shift is as much cultural as it is anything else.
There was another big advantage: It was teacher-friendly. Despite Japan's reputation as a gadget-loving nation, many schools, including those in Yawata, were surprisingly dependent on paper. Many teachers found computers to be a nuisance because they required preparing extra lessons, and moving children to a computer room. Some were even intimidated by the computers. But the DS could be used briefly and in the classroom. And it cut down on paperwork.

"It's not like we're letting the students play games without supervision," Mr. Hayashi says. "I don't even consider them to be a game device. It's a tool."

To avoid potential controversy, Mr. Hayashi introduced the device cautiously. He secretly approached IE Institute Co., a Tokyo educational-software concern, about making an English-vocabulary program. A year and a half later, Mr. Hayashi showed the finished product to his colleagues and proposed a test. Educators, including the principal of Otokoyama Higashi Junior High where the trial was held last fall, were impressed with the DS's ability to pronounce words and quickly recognize letters that were written on the screen.

Japan's Ministry of Education is taking a reserved view of Yawata's efforts. It says it is up to each district to decide which teaching tools to use, but hastens to add that the government isn't endorsing them. Still, the results of the five-month test have been impressive. The school found that nearly 80% of students who used the DS each day mastered junior-high-level competence in English vocabulary, compared with just 18% before. About half of those students had developed 11th-grade-level abilities. The school district is now testing other software for subjects like arithmetic and Japanese.
This almost sounds like the way certain corporate organizations are adopting Web 2.0.

Image used without permission from How Stuff Works.


Justin said...

Dude! I SO had that Ken Griffey game as a kid!

Jennifer said...

Really useful information, thanks for the post.