Starting from Scratch: Using gaming to teach social justice

Dr. George Noblit

The School of Education at UNC is dedicated to preparing educational leaders who are committed to values of equity and excellence. George Noblit, who teaches Social Justice in Education, believes that gaming is a tool that can be used to help students engage these issues.

The Social Justice in Education course examines how education can help create more fair and just societies, ultimately contributing to high-performing educational systems internationally. Students explore multiple perspectives on social justice; examine efforts at local, state, national, and global levels; and learn to articulate efforts in classrooms and schools with wider community initiatives. The course offers a thorough examination of the role of social justice in education. As Noblit explains, “Reducing inequalities requires working across sectors of life, and thus technology is now playing a major role in fostering access to knowledge and its interpretation.”

Students in the course develop knowledge of educative technologies as they work on social justice issues with the expectation that they will be able to use this knowledge to promote learning.

A game, you say?

According to Noblit, “Educational gaming involves both mastery learning and constructivist learning. Students will be asked to use a theory of how social justice-related knowledge, perspectives, dispositions, competencies and/or actions develop. These theories will become the basis of educational games that teams of students create.” Students will also develop games to teach specific content in P-12 curricula using Common Core Standards for use with future students.

The platform for game design is Scratch, a programming language that makes it easy to create interactive stories, animations, games, music, and art. Scratch is a product of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab and receives financial support from the National Science Foundation, Microsoft, Intel Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Google, Iomega and MIT Media Lab research consortia.

Why use Scratch?
Like Dr. Noblit, you can use Scratch to enhance learning in your classroom. Here are some key features that make it ideal for educational use:

  1. The Scratch platform does not require extensive programming knowledge, so teachers do not have to worry about a steep learning curve. Scratch users include both elementary and doctoral students along with many students who fall in between.
  2. Students who create games to teach content are more likely to retain the content themselves.
  3. Teachers and students can connect educational content from internet sources by inserting links into games they create.
  4. Over 2.8 million Scratch projects have been created to date, so users can browse through other projects to get ideas that promote learning. Design tutorials are also available to get new users started.
  5. Scratch is free and available to the public. Users can download the platform (on both PC and Mac operating systems) at

The Social Justice in Education course will culminate in a gaming evening where the games are played by others and assessed on the effectiveness of the game in teaching the content. Also, LEARN NC staff will review the games for possible inclusion as resources for parent, student, and teacher use.

Researcher bio:

Dr. George W. Noblit is the Joseph R. Neikirk Distinguished Professor of Sociology of Education. Since 1995 Dr. Noblit has been the series editor for Understanding Social Justice, Education and Policy (Hampton Press). He studies the various ways knowledge is constructed and how the competition over which knowledge counts constructs powers and difference. Through a study of school desegregation, he began a program of research on the social construction of race, using ethnographic research to study schools and other educational scenes. Dr. Noblit is intrigued with how knowledge—often taken as good in its own right—is implicated in creating the very problems it is asked to solve. He is coeditor of Late to Class: Social Class and Schooling in the New Economy (SUNY Press).

A full biography can be found on the UNC School of Education website.

A breath of FreshAiR: Educating through augmented reality

Dr. Matt Dunleavy

According to Matt Dunleavy, assistant professor of instructional technology at Radford University, augmented reality is the future of education. Augmented reality refers to an experience in which a live, physical environment is enhanced by computer-generated content. Company co-founder Daniel Burgess explains, “FreshAir is a web-based editing platform we developed for users to be able to take their smartphones, walk into an environment, and have a totally new experience.”

The team at LEARN NC recently took the technology for a test drive. Equipped with seven smartphones—both Android and iOS models—Dunleavy and Burgess led LEARN NC staff to McCorkle Place for a live demonstration. The sample program highlights three UNC-Chapel Hill landmarks: Davie Poplar, Silent Sam, and the Unsung Founders Memorial. At present, FreshAir relies on GPS navigation systems and Google Maps integration to identify where a user is located. As users approach the first stop on the virtual tour, the phones vibrate to signal an area in which an augmented reality experience is available.

Daniel Burgess

Information about all three preloaded sites is informative and enriching. For example, a user can stand in front of Davie Poplar while using FreshAir to view a picture of the historic tree as it stood in 1900. Users also learn about the complex and controversial histories of Silent Sam and the Unsung Founders Memorial through videos and recorded narration.  Teachers and professors can add content for an unlimited number of sites world-wide.

Using FreshAiR with your students

  1. Students can tour their school/campus guided by teacher-loaded content.
  2. Students can create their own content for use within the app.
  3. The platform promotes kinesthetic learning and engages students.
  4. Teachers can assess students’ acquired knowledge through in-app quizzes.
  5. Advanced gaming features using conditions and logic allow for more complicated tasks and scaffolding.

Developed at Radford University, funding for the FreshAiR platform was provided through a research and development program sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The platform has been tested as far away as China and will be available as a downloadable app on Google Play and App Store markets in the coming weeks.

Read the article “Montgomery County students seek to ‘augment’ reality” to see an example of how teachers use FreshAir to enhance student learning.

Visit or email the FreshAiR team at for more updates as they become available.

Immersed online

Both teaching and learning are changing. As our society grows more digitized, so does our education. More digital tools are being promoted and incorporated in K-12 education, and more universities are offering more teacher education programs online. Though we recognize learning as a social act, it is not uncommon for learners in these environments to feel isolated and disconnected. Dr. Stephen Bronack, Associate Professor at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Education and Executive Director of LEARN NC, has been working with and researching digital learning environments for many years. In a recent publication, he explored the role of immersive media in online education.

Immersive media

Immersive media allows for a deep sense of social or physical presence. This sense of presence can allow educators to incorporate powerful pedagogical practices in online learning environments. Some key types of immersive media being used in education are simulations, serious games, virtual worlds, and augmented reality.


Simulations are used to create an experience that is as realistic as possible but may be too difficult, too expensive, or too dangerous to physically experience. For instance, if a class is studying hurricanes, they may use a piece of software that enables them to manipulate weather scenarios to better understand meteorologic factors that impact hurricanes. This type of simulation would make an otherwise impossible experiment possible.

Serious games

These games are specifically designed and constructed for the purpose of training or learning specific content. These types of games are also referred to as educational games. These games may be used to teach the physics of electrostatics, as with the game Supercharged!, or to learn about biological processes of the human body, as with Immune Attack. In a previous post, we explored Dr. Anderson’s research into these types of games.

Virtual worlds

Virtual worlds are online social spaces where users represent themselves in various ways and interact with other individuals in the online space. Currently, in education, a program called Second Life is being explored and used as a virtual learning world. Whether it is serving as a virtual classroom space or a virtual representation of Shakespearean England, teachers and students are able to explore the created virtual world and interact with each other through avatars — digital representations of themselves.

Augmented reality

Augmented reality combines physical context with network-based information in order to provide an enhanced view of the world around us. New on the scene of education, augmented reality is not yet a commonly used thing in schools. A great example of an augmented reality application is Wikitude. Through the use of mobile devices, Wikitude creates a virtual overlay for the users physical surroundings with information from all over the web. One way to think about it is as curatorial comments for the world, not just pieces of art in a museum.

Teaching and learning in immersive media

While immersive media is exciting and new for education, Dr. Bronack points out that it is not the tools that are important, it is the pedagogical approaches that are used with these tools that are of the utmost significance. Dr. Bronack, along with many other scholars, identifies some of the most compelling pedagogical approaches employed with immersive media, including presence, immediacy, and immersion.

In immersive media, presence is created in multiple ways. There is an environmental presence, which refers to the degree and ways the digital space reacts to the presence of those participating in it. The interactions of those participants with each other through the digital space creates a social presence.

Immediacy plays a key role in creating a sense of proximity and fostering relationships. While individuals may be separated by a great physical distance, expedient and immediate reaction from individuals or software helps to break down the disconnected feeling that can often be associated with digital spaces.

Ultimately, immersion is created by the combination of physical and symbolic cues to create a realistic experience that causes the participant to willingly suspend disbelief that he or she is engaging in a mediated space. The participant simply becomes engulfed in the media.

So what?

With more education programs going online, it is imperative that we continue to explore the best possible ways to teach and learn in digital environments. Dr. Bronack reminds us that when it comes to teaching and learning in digital environments, it is the pedagogical approaches, not the tools in themselves, that are important. As such, it is imperative that we seek and use tools that allow us to employ pedagogical strategies that we know to be powerful.

Tips from Dr. Bronack

Don’t panic.
When it comes to technology in education, campfire horror stories and tall tales of a friend of a friend of a cousin seem to abound. Contrary to much of the folklore and popular news segments, incorporating new technologies into your classroom doesn’t mean changing everything you do. Just as you evolve your teaching style with every curriculum, available resources, and class of students, the same can be done with technology.
Allow yourself to explore.
Through some simple exploration online you can find communities of people who are eager to help teachers incorporate new technologies into their classroom. Engaging with these communities and exploring new technological tools will better prepare you to use technology in the classroom as well as give you some insight into what your students are talking about.
Recognize that students today have different expectations.
Today’s students are highly engaged in new technologies. Through this, they expect to engage in different ways in their learning. Sitting back and passively consuming information is not how they engage in learning in their personal lives and it is typically not what they want in their educational lives either. Today’s students prefer engaging in more self directed learning with constant and regular feedback.

Researcher bio

Dr. Stephen Bronack is Associate Professor and Executive Director of LEARN NC. His scholarship regarding the use of virtual worlds, simulations, games, and augmented reality is helping to guide the development of new educational systems and methods of instruction of the Journal of Virtual World Research and the International Journal of Gaming based on social and immersive media across the educational spectrum. Dr. Bronack also serves as associate editor of the International Journal of Virtual and Computer-Mediated Simulations, and also as a reviewer for journals such as Personal Learning Environments, and the International Journal of Online Pedagogy and Curriculum Development.

A full biography can be found on the LEARN NC website.