Students Playing Games in Class

I received this email today from a teacher today.

“I have a student in one of my classes who is constantly playing games on his Chromebook.  Can we block all of those on that device please?”

I’ve received many versions of this email over the years.  I’d wager to say if you simply change the words in bold text to reflect a principal or parent request and chose a different device like an iPad or cell phone, then almost every technology director has probably received a version of this message.  So we just block the games, let everyone know that done, and move on to the next request…right?  Its not that simple and I don’t believe it should be.

Why not just block all the games?
Blocking all of anything online is not an easy task.  Its important for anyone reading this to understand how a school district blocks sites in the first place.  Most schools have a content filtering appliance in place that controls what is blocked or not blocked.  Sites are categorized based on content (news, entertainment, sports, gaming, etc).  From there, a district administrator chooses which categories to allow and which ones to filter out.  This device and its categorization algorithms accounts for about 99% of all the filtering that occurs in the school.  There are times when a site is categorized.  In cases like that, a teacher lets someone in tech know that the site is educational.  Usually, the site is “white listed”, which makes it available for use.

Now that you understand how the content filtering works, lets look at why we can’t just block all the games by filtering out all the sites in the “gaming” category.  For starters, there are too many new website launched every day making it virtually impossible to keep up with blocking them all.  In this post from 2013, they estimate that 571 new websites are launched every single minute.  It can take weeks or even months before the major content filtering providers categorize these new sites.  At any one time, there are millions of sites that are not categorized.  While not every one of those sites are gaming websites, there are enough out that to confidentially say a student could find one.

The other problem with trying to block all gaming sites is that some of them are hosted on sites that are not categorized as a “gaming” site.  They are loaded onto websites that can be appropriate for education use.   A fantastic example of this is the site below.

https://sites.google.com/site/newstudyhall/games/

Sites.google.com is not a gaming website.  Sites.google.com is tool that Google created to host to millions of web sites on just about every topic imaginable.  If I were to block sites.google.com, I’d be blocking out too many perfectly acceptable sites including student created projects.  I could block this particular site, but ten more would pop up to take its place.

I could take an entirely different approach.  I could choose to block ALL websites except a small list of sites that are pre-approved.  While this would work at blocking games, it would ruin the education experience for everyone.  Every single site that teachers want to use would have to be hand entered into that list.  Assuming the district took the time to gather the thousands of sites that are used, we’d still be adding new ones to the list every day.  The district personnel would spend so much time dealing with filtering issues that I believe many teachers would just choose to abandon technology use out of frustration.  It would be an absolute nightmare for everyone involved: students, teachers, IT…everyone.

The last issue I have with simply blocking games is that blocking doesn’t address the root problem.  In the education profession, we always talk about giving students an authentic learning experience.  Blocking out gaming sites is representative of what they’ll see in the real world.

So filtering out all of those sites isn’t the best option.  What is then?
The best way to get students off gaming websites in the classroom is to figure out why they are on those sites in the first place. Aside from the quick answer of “they just love games”, there are a variety of reasons why a child might choose to be off task in your classroom.   I spoke with a class full of high school students a few months ago about this very issue.   There were two big glaring take aways from those conversations.

  • Disengaged – The content in the class was boring so the kids chose to take their attention elsewhere.  This was the most common response.  I believe it was phrased as “Well, if they teacher was more engaging, I wouldn’t be playing games in the first place.”  This is a hard truth for some educators to realize, but it may be time to rethink how they are teaching the material.
  • Consequences – The message that was clear from the students revolved around the consequences for being off task.  “I’ll play games is Mrs. Smith’s class, but I wouldn’t even think about it in Mr. Johnson’s class.”  All the students in the room agreed.  Why?  If you were caught on a gaming site in Mr. Johnson’s class, you lost credit for all the work you completed in class that day.

It became very obvious to me, after speaking with the students, that classroom management was the lynch pin in this equation.  The classrooms where the content was engaging and the consequences were clear had fewer issues related to in class gaming.

My suggestion to teachers here is two fold.  First, use technology and social media to revive some of those less than exciting lessons.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Ask students to create a fictional Facebook page for character in a novel or historical figure using Classtools.net.
  • Use tools like Google Hangouts or Skype to connect with someone outside of the classroom (local expert, author, etc)
  • Try EdPuzzle or Zaption to embed questions into videos from YouTube, Vimeo, Khan Academy and other similar sources.
  • Embed an live, interactive poll into your daily lessons with Socrative or Poll Everywhere.  These are awesome ways to engage students AND collect instant feedback on content understanding.

The second suggestion is to clearly define the consequences for gaming in your classroom.  You could consider hanging posters around the room that spell out the rules.  Need help creating a modern looking poster?  Check out Canva.com.  Once you’ve done this and enforced the new rules a few times, the gaming in class should slow down a bit.

What about at home?  I can’t keep my student off games at home.
I understand that technology can be frustrating parents, especially if technology is not your “strong suit”.  For starters, the defining clear consequences and enforcing those is the best option in my opinion.  With that being said, every situation is different and there are times when you need to rely on something other than  You have quite a few options for limiting sites and games in your home.

  • One of my favorite suggestions is to simply change your WiFi password on a daily basis.  Have a tech savvy friend show you how (its not hard).  Change it before you leave for work.  Then, you decide when to give your child the password and allow access to the internet.  This is one of the easiest and most effective solutions.
  • Install a home filtering package like Net Nanny or K9.  Applications like these give parents some control over the sites and activities that are allowed on the network.
  • Purchase an internet filtering device like Circle.  Circle is designed to filter the internet, provide time restrictions, etc.  I have not tried Circle yet, but I do have one on order.  I’ll review it in an upcoming post.

Summary
In a world rich with technology, it can be difficult to keep students on task and off games.  As a teacher, classroom management is the key to success. Highly engaging lessons coupled with clear consequences can make all the difference in your classroom.  At home, parents can look at filtering the Internet with a new WiFi password, filtering software or even a physical device.  You’ll just need to figure out what works best for your family.

Got some ideas I missed?  Let me know in the comment below.