Game designers, educators, entrepreneurs and scholars came together at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center on Sept. 26 to play the latest digital games designed to improve college access and to brainstorm new ideas that could change the game for postsecondary outcomes.
“Players & Professors: Game and Social Media Innovations in College Readiness, Access & Completion” brought together fields of study and sectors of industry that do not traditionally work together at the interactive event hosted by the Pullias Center for Higher Education, which is based at the USC Rossier School of Education and the USC Game Innovation Lab.
University Professor William Tierney, co-director of the Pullias Center, set the stage with an overview of the challenges that students face when accessing and completing postsecondary education.
He noted that 31 percent of California’s workforce currently has a bachelor’s degree or higher, and by 2025, 41 percent of workers in the state will need a degree to meet economic demand. Tierney also shared troubling statistics revealing that in the Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, only 16 of every 100 students who enter the ninth grade will be eligible to attend a four-year institution after graduation.
“To remain competitive, the country needs to have more people going to, and graduating from, college,” Tierney said. “One way to increase the college readiness of students is to go where they are.”
Where they are is online. In unprecedented numbers, members of this digitally literate generation are on their phones and tablets. Social media, online games and digital tools have become seamlessly integrated into their daily lives.
At the Pullias Center event, participants interacted with six innovative digital games and tools designed to engage young players and help them acquire skills to prepare for college, get into college and succeed in college.
Throughout the day, approximately 100 attendees rotated through demonstrations of several games, discussing the features and possibilities for each product.
Sean Bouchard, research associate at the Game Innovation Lab at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, demonstrated FutureBound, a game designed to help middle school students develop career ambitions, self-advocacy and leadership skills. Co-created by researchers at USC Rossier as part of the Collegeology Games suite, the fantasy game uses characters and quests to help students identify and express their passions and ambitions, which they use as ammunition to battle and destroy their doubts.
“It’s really exciting to see kids’ engagement with the game in the classroom, and then turn to each other and talk about their real ambitions,” Bouchard said. “It sparks a discussion in the class.”
Brent Noyes, a retired principal in the South Pasadena Unified School District, said the tools demonstrate a new way of thinking about engaging students.
“I’m seeing new ideas for enticing students to learn,” he said. “We didn’t have all of this when I was a teacher, and I’m blown away by the possibilities.”
Nearby, participants played the newly launched Zombie College on iPads as Matt Wilson of the nonprofit Get Schooled talked about giving players incentives to remember the SAT information they read while advancing through multiple levels of the game.
“They earn extra ‘lives’ if they can answer extra-credit questions about college access,” Wilson said. “When it’s presented in a survival mentality, and you live longer if you remember the answer, it is amazing the amount of retention you will have.”
Jason Manion of Roadtrip Nation demonstrated another interactive platform called “What’s Your Road,” which helps players discover what a day in the life of a specific professional entails.
“Many students drop out because they see no connection in school to their future or the real world, and some students don’t even have the opportunity to see what’s outside their Zip code,” Manion said. “This app captures their imagination of whom they can be and exposes them to opportunities by showing them how to combine different interests into a job.”
Greg Franklin, superintendent of the Tustin Unified School District, was impressed with what he saw at the event.
“We’ve been trying to do this locally in our district, but we struggle to get enough good role models for kids to talk about careers,” he said. “This creates a platform for kids to get this information without being intimidated about asking.”
The inspirational exchange of observations among designers, scholars, educators, entrepreneurs and college access advocates was the chief reason for hosting the event, said Zoë Corwin, research assistant professor at USC Rossier, who organized the activities.
“We wanted to bring people with diverse areas of expertise into the same room to brainstorm about issues of innovation in the college access world,” she said. “We know the status quo is not working and we have to try different things, so we’re exposing participants to the latest innovations.
“When you have an entrepreneur sitting next to a foundation officer sitting next to a high school student, it makes for some very interesting conversations.”