Many of us have heard the term Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) by now; in fact, most homeschoolers today are involved in virtual classrooms in one way or another. With VLE’s, course information, learning materials, and assignments are provided via the Web, giving homeschoolers the opportunity to participate in some wonderful educational programs they might not be privy to in the home environment.

But even newer on the forefront of learning opportunities is the usage of educational video games in the classroom. It’s becoming the norm in many public schools: programs like Study Island, First In Math, Starfall, and RazKids are providing new classroom learning methods as well as a system for recording benchmarks and percentiles.

So what’s the downside? Well, for years we have eschewed television and video, as it has been deemed a negative influence on children’s cognitive functioning and physical well being. It’s been linked to everything from childhood obesity to eyesight problems and attention deficit disorder. So what’s the real skinny on the sudden wave of virtual learning opportunities through video games?

The Pros

Dr. James Paul Gee, a leading authority on literacy and educational games at Arizona State University, says that “new theories have arisen concluding that human beings learn from experiences – that our brains store every experience we’ve had, and that’s the key to what influences our learning processes.” Add some serious forethought and expertise into designing educational experiences for children through games and you’ve got some real potential. Let’s look at how:

1. Games Feed the Learning Process. The brain develops from being challenged by experiences. Video games have all the components of this: motivation, clear goals, interpreted outcomes, and continuous feedback. Kids play video games for fun with the goal of progressing to the next level and eventually conquering the opponent and overcoming challenges by thinking through possible outcomes in a variety of situations.

2. They Do Away With Testing. Educational learning games can negate the necessity of standard testing by providing kids with the ability to master levels by repetition – a much better way of retaining information than studying frantically the night before a paper test. “Learning and assessment is exactly the same thing,” says Gee. “If you design learning so you can’t get out of one level until you complete the last one, there’s no need for a test.”

3. Games Build a Love for Challenge. The greatest minds – whether they are scientists, engineers, or businessmen – are all adept at solving multi-faceted challenges that utilize many different subject areas across the board. Video games entice kids to seek out and embrace challenges. If levels are difficult to master without some logical thinking, it’s the proverbial carrot in front of the bunny. Kids are ready to go for it instead of giving up and asking for help – it can be very motivational stuff.

4. They Encourage Risk Taking. One of the biggest reasons for poor participation from children is the fear of being wrong in front of others. In a video game, the risk of failure by trying something new is much less stressful than raising your hand in front of peers or siblings. If you lose, you just get to try again – without social embarrassment.

5. Games Are Variable Speed. One of the best pros about educational games is that they allow children to advance through levels at their own pace – without pressure. Ideally, games can be a part of the individualized learning process.  And with every new game, the knowledge and expertise picked up in previous games can be applied to a new experience, a fundamental part of learning.