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Sasha Barab
School of Education
812- 856-1553

Nicole Roales
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Wednesday, January 10, 2007

IU receives $500,000 MacArthur grant to enhance students’ education

Researchers will expand a video game that helps student engagement and learning

Jan. 11, 2007

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The Indiana University School of Education has received a $500,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to help researchers better understand how video games can help students become empathetic citizens and to support their knowledge development. The project is called "Academic Play Spaces: Learning for the 21st Century."

Barab Game

Developed at IU, Quest Atlantis is a learning and teaching computer project for students, ages 9-12, that uses a 3-D, multi-user environment to immerse children in educational tasks.

Print-Quality Photo

Academic Play Spaces will build upon the existing "Quest Atlantis" (QA), developed by Sasha Barab, an associate professor in learning sciences in the IU School of Education. Lee Sheldon, an assistant professor in the IU Department of Telecommunications, and Douglas Thomas, an associate professor in the School of Communications at the University of Southern California, will assist Barab on the new project as co-principal investigators.

QA is a learning and teaching computer project for students, ages 9-12, that uses a 3-D, multi-user environment to immerse children in educational tasks. It combines strategies used in the commercial gaming environment with lessons from educational research on learning and motivation. It allows users to travel to virtual places to perform educational activities known as "Quests," talk with other users and mentors, and build virtual personas.

A Quest is an engaging, curricular task designed to be entertaining yet educational. The students, guided by teachers, engage in classroom discussion and reading materials, such as the trading cards, novels and comic books created by Barab and his team. Students in the 4th through 6th grades confront a series of ethical dilemmas in which they are required to make choices that open or close off possibilities for future actions.

"We developed QA because we wanted to engage children in ways we are excited and proud about," Barab said. "Schools have to be focused on content acquisition and standardized tests, and it is hard to enlist larger narratives. This program helps. Educating students for the 21st century requires us to think beyond standard, traditional pedagogical practice. QA is an educationally engaging learning space that helps kids understand science, language arts, social studies and other content related to being a citizen in this country."

"Learning for the 21st Century" will build on the QA multi-user, virtual environment platform. The new project allows students to interact and collaborate within a fictional, virtual world. Students participate in ethical decision making, exploring the world and making choices. Then they experience alternative options and see consequences unfold with real and immediate impact on virtual characters in the game.

Barab said video games can be a great way to teach children concepts and to work with other students.

"We didn't know that video games could be leveraged to engage youth to reflect on deep issues in ways that could work in the context of schools," he said. "When we think about games and learning, we think about the negative games, but we've found in the commercial industry there are many valuable games that get kids to think about issues."

The gaming industry has developed new design methodologies which have provided Barab and his colleagues with ideas about engaging kids in a meaningful way. The grant money will allow them to develop the next stage of QA, Barab said.

The multi-user environment will feature new, non-player characters and interactive narratives that position children and their peers as the stories' protagonists. Students will be able to "level up" on important citizenship values, such as environmental awareness, social responsibility and diversity affirmation, providing a new kind of game that entertains and educates, and advances educators' understanding of how to use simulated worlds to formulate knowledgeable, responsible and empathetic adults.

"It's important that we help kids understand what it means to participate in new media," Barab said. "In our schools, we are not necessarily teaching kids how to knowledgably engage these media. We need to support more digital media literacy.

"On another level, it is important to get kids to think about what it means to be committed to the environment and how the decisions we make about the environment impact society," Barab said.

According to Barab, video game companies are one of the influential storytellers of our time. But, in a video game, the user is not simply reading about another person's story. Instead the user is the protagonist, making decisions that have an effect on these story lines.

"The idea that actions have consequences is an incredibly valuable tool for educators," he said.

For example, in a virtual environment, kids can visit a 3-D park in which loggers are creating environmental issues. The kids learn about the different stakeholders and some of their perspectives on the park problem. If the student kicks the loggers out of the park, they see the consequences of their decision -- the park goes bankrupt. Students can visualize concepts like erosion, and they can also be engaged in a socio-scientific narrative that helps clarify such issues.

There are active QA centers throughout the globe, including in Australia, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Turkey, California, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey and North Carolina. This last month, Barab also received grants from NASA and Food Lion to make QA available to dozens of teachers in New Jersey and North Carolina. Barab would like to see the number of QA users increase from several thousand to 10,000 or more over the next year.

To learn more about QA, visit To speak with Sasha Barab, call 812-856-1553 or e-mail