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The Twenty-First Century Learner and Game-Based Learning

Hiller A. Spires, John K. Lee, James Lester

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This article reports on research that illustrates the increasing use of technologies by middle grade learners. Focus group results are showcased and creatively expressed through an original video, entitled “Having Our Say,” which was designed and produced by Lodge McCammon, a doctoral student in the College of Education at North Carolina State University (view the video at Additionally, the article provides an overview of research that is being conducted at NC State on game-based learning environments and emphasizes the potential of gameplay as one context in which 21st century skills can be taught. The authors encourage educators to take student perspectives into account in the creation of new learning environments and focus on research breakthroughs that will facilitate 21st century teaching and learning.


Growing consensus among policy makers and educational leaders suggests that if the current generation of students is to be competitive in the 21st century, our education system must be transformed to address the needs of a connected global economy. Central to our system’s evolution is defining the knowledge and skills (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2007), as well as the performances and dispositions (Dede, 2007) that are necessary for 21st century life and work. Subsequently, K-12 educational experiences and assessments must be designed to align with evolving 21st century ways of knowing, being, and doing (Spires, McCammon, & Bouterse, 2007). Obviously, today’s students have opportunities to learn in different ways from those of previous generations, with much of the change due to advancements in information technologies. Growing trends among students demonstrate increased passion for and reliance on technologies for entertainment and communication (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2007). In many cases, out-of-school technology use is outpacing in-school technology use (see National School Boards Association, 2007). Schools and educators are searching for proven, low-cost ways to engage students that lead to increased academic achievement.

Young people’s enthusiasm for the Internet is not a trivial trend. Over one billion people, one sixth of the world’s population, were accessing the Internet in 2005 (see Internet World Stats: Usage and Population Statistics). Even a conservative estimate would suggest that nearly half of the world's population will be online within the next five years. In the U. S., the Pew Internet and American Life Project has conducted surveys on children and teen’s technology use since 2000. In the most recent survey, Lenhart and Maddan (2007) reported that 93% of teens use the Internet. A recent global study conducted by MTV, Nickelodeon, and Microsoft surveyed 18,000 youth from 16 countries and found that digital technologies have revolutionized how young people around the world communicate with their peers. A few of the results include:

  • Technology has enabled young people to have more and closer friendships thanks to constant connectivity.
  • Youth don’t love the technology itself—they just love how it enables them to communicate all the time, express themselves, and be entertained.
  • Despite the remarkable advances in communication technology, youth culture looks surprisingly familiar, with almost all young people using technology to enhance rather than replace face-to-face interaction (see

The Twenty-First Century Middle Grades Learner

On a local level, we recently conducted a survey of 4,000 middle school students who attended after school programs in North Carolina and asked them what they needed to be academically successful and engaged in school (for a full report of these findings see Spires, Lee, Turner, & Johnson, 2008). This mixed-methods study included a survey, as well as a sample of 48 students drawn from the larger group who participated in one-hour focus group interview sessions. In this previously published report, we organized the survey findings into seven categories: 1) Computer Usage, 2) Basic Computer Skills, 3) Technology Use for Sharing Work and Productivity, 4) Technology Usage for Communication and Entertainment, 5) Activities Liked Best in School, 6) Rural and Low Income Schools, and 7) Gender and Ethnicity. In general, students reported high frequency computer use at home and at school with the higher frequency users of computers reporting using computers more at home than they used computers at school. Students also reported high levels of basic computer skills, including word processing and spreadsheet skills, and reported that these skills were developed primarily in school-based contexts. Additional questions focused on how students used technology for completing and sharing school-based work. A majority of students reported using word processing, painting, and design technologies to complete and share their work. The focus group interview data took shape in four thematic areas: 1) “Do U Know Us?” 2) “Engage Us,” 3) “Prepare Us for Jobs of the Future,” and 4) “Let’s Not Get Left Behind.” In general, students expressed beliefs about technology that confirmed their digitally native status (Prensky, 2006). Students described uses of technology that were authentic, personal, and social. They used entertainment and communication technologies at home and made clear distinctions between inside and outside school uses of technology as being separately focused on academics (primarily computer-based in school technology use) and personal/social (outside school both computer-based and personal communication/entertainment technologies). These four themes are creatively expressed through an original video, entitled “Having Our Say,” designed and produced by Lodge McCammon, a doctoral student in the College of Education at North Carolina State University (view the video at

In addition to basic computer skills and computer-based productivity tools use, students reported high frequency usage of digital games, music services, email, instant messaging, and cell phone services. These technologies were used predominately out-of-school. This finding identified differences between what students said about their in-school and out-of-school technology uses. Students were also asked about where they found information for completing their work, and 86.3% of respondents indicated that they used the Web as opposed to printed materials. When asked about activities they enjoyed in school, students listed working with computers as their top activity—above working on projects in a group, working on a project independently, listening to the teacher explain things, and doing worksheets.


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Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal
a service of NC State University, Raleigh, NC
Volume 11, Issue 1, 2008
ISSN 1097-9778
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