Piano Games in a Digital World: What Teachers Should Know

E-Learning games have been the focus of a lot of passionate commentary lately. Some celebrate them as the answer to all the shortcomings of formal education. Some fear they represent a future in which teachers are replaced by robots. While educators may be equally committed to providing the best experience to their students, they may argue over whether this is best accomplished through face-to-face instruction or by flexible e-learning systems.

We don't think that professional teachers are going to become obsolete. While the Internet offers fantastic resources for self-directed education, learning will always be a complex process. Especially when it comes to learning a musical instrument, a teacher can spot bad habits, offer complex and nuanced feedback, and provide the kind of motivation that only another human being can.

That being said, piano teachers should be thinking about ways to incorporate online and mobile games into their lessons. Not because they're new and shiny. Not because more technology is the solution to everything. Teachers should use e-learning games because:

  1. E-learning games can help students learn. 
  2. E-learning games can help teachers teach.

If a game doesn't accomplish one or both of these things, teachers shouldn't use them. So when you're considering adding e-learning games to your teaching toolkit, it's worth asking yourself how a good e-learning game works.

How Games Can Help Us Learn

Learning has always been a part of video games...even when all you're learning is how to play the game better! So educators started asking why their students tended to find gaming more compelling than studying for class. It turns out that video games solve a couple problems that teachers have been struggling with for a long time:

Games Provide Immediate Feedback

One thing that formal education has always struggled with is how to deliver effective feedback. Did you ever take a class where 100% of your final grade was based on an exam at the end? It's an extreme example of a common pattern: students are given a long, involved task, and then their learning is assessed at the end of it.

The big problem with this kind of assessment - besides being stressful for students - is that by the time the student gets feedback, it's too late to do anything about it. Contrast this to the feedback your student gets when they make a mistake in their lesson: you make the correction immediately, and have them play the part again a few times. This kind of feedback is a key part of the learning process, rather than just a summary of it after the fact.

But even the most conscientious teacher can't supervise every moment of potential learning. Your students probably only see you once week, but they practice (hopefully!) every day. Most of the time, they're trying to learn with only their ears to guide them - and much as we want them to develop great ears, there's a good chance that they won't catch every mistake.

With games, you always know when you've made a mistake, because something happens. Gamers aren't left wondering whether they're on the right track, because games always show you how to reach the next level. Well-designed e-learning games should do the same.

Games Make Failing Less Stressful and More Productive

Many of the ways we assess learning in formal education involve very high stakes. Piano exams are a great example, where many months of learning culminate in a few adrenaline-soaked minutes. Failure under these circumstances is very demoralizing, and does little to build the confidence learners need. Fear of failure is what makes formal education so stressful for many students. 

In video games, however, we expect to fail a lot before we finally succeed - in fact, if we find a game too easy we won't enjoy it! What is it about this type of failure that inspires rather than intimidates us?

Part of it may be that in a well-designed video game, we always feel like success is achievable. Game designers know that they need to keep this balance between challenge and achievability, and educators have been coming to the same conclusion. We don't have a problem struggling to overcome failure if the stakes are low and the progress is measurable. It's when the stakes are high and/or progress is difficult to see that we become discouraged and demotivated. 

How Games Can Help Us Teach

Many e-learning games account for the teacher-student relationship by giving the teacher a window into the learning that's taking place. They collect information about when the student is playing the game, and for how long. They let a teacher see what the student has accomplished, and what they're struggling with. 

One major benefit to collecting all of this data is that it lets teachers see patterns over time. It adds a measure of fairness, because students know that even if they have a bad day, they can show their teacher evidence of their hard work and progress.

At the same time, you can see what students are struggling with ahead of the lesson, which helps you use your precious face-to-face time more efficiently - you'll know exactly what needs the most work. 

So when you're looking for e-learning games that will benefit your students and help lessons run smoother, try to find games that:

  1. Give students immediate feedback that helps them improve
  2. Make it easy to repeat problem areas, while highlighting the student's incremental progress
  3. Give you (the teacher) access to detailed insights into how your student is using the app, and how their learning is progressing

And finally, if you aren't already comfortable with your mobile devices, spend some time playing with them! The better you understand mobile gaming in broad terms, the better you'll be at figuring out which apps will help your students learn, and help you teach more effectively.

Learning Doesn't Only Happen in Lessons

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