Designer John Murphy uses the SMALLab at ChicagoQuest school.

What does a digital classroom look like? Some schools roll smartboards and carts of computers into each classroom. At others, students plug into iPads at every desk to play interactive learning games.

The Institute of Play envisions a different picture: A dark, empty classroom with the window shades pulled shut, where a life-size computer game board is projected onto the linoleum floor, and students act as both the players and joysticks to accomplish problem-solving tasks.

There are only a handful classroom “labs” like this in the country that serve as a testing ground for “embedded learning environment” games, and a New York City middle school houses one of them.

The Institute of Play is a non-profit research group that studies the relationship between game-playing, learning and engagement. It is also one arm of the team behind the NYC Quest to Learn School, which opened in 2009 in Manhattan.

I will be visiting the school later this month to see how these classroom innovations are changing the way students learn now that the school is well into its third year. But last week I stopped at the school’s recently opened sister school, ChicagoQuest, while in Chicago for a Hechinger Institute conference about reporting on digital learning.

At ChicagoQuest, which is as a charter school and receives funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, each of its 234 sixth- and seventh-graders have an iPad. They use it to take notes, search the internet, and play games themed around concepts such as fractions and geography.

Though they are only a few weeks into the school year, students at the new school said they have very positive first impressions of the iPad-based lesson plans. One said she prefers taking notes on the iPad over traditional pen-and-paper methods because, “Even though it’s not as fast, we can do a lot more with it,” by changing up the formatting of the text and linking certain notes or phrases to each other.

Though students can be more prone to distraction when the internet (and, in this case, the popular portrait-taking program PhotoBooth) are readily available, Patrick Hoover, the curriculum specialist, said teaches have a simple but district disciplinary policy has kept goofing-off at bay: use the iPad improperly once, and it is taken away for the rest of the class period. 

Then there is the “SMALLab.” It’s a classroom, but dark and bare except for a row of chairs, a white board and a computer in the far corner. At ChicagoQuest’s lab, two game designers employed by the school build lesson plans around the human game board, projected from the computer screen onto the floor, and supervise students who come into the room to play—or learn, which mean the same thing according to the school’s stated mission.

New York City Quest to Learn has a similar lab. In Chicago, students do not use the lab as part of a regular class, but each one will visit the room a few times per month in small groups, according to John Murphy, one of the designers.

Murphy demonstrated for journalists at the conference how students can push digital objects around the room using a hand-held tool to perform problem-solving tasks—For example, by re-directing a laser on the game board toward a target to show they can manipulate angles.

Though the lab is an investment for the school, Murphy said students don’t need to use it on a daily basis. “We have to use this very purposefully,” he said, “To make sure students are getting something from this the wouldn’t in a classroom normally.”

Katie Salen, a game designer and the executive director of the Institute of Play, said the theory behind the schools is to bring school lessons in-line with the demands of today’s digital world, in which children are used to self-directed information searching, and near-instant feedback.

“Kids are going to grow up and have tons of experience solving complex problems,” she said. “We believe kids should be producers, not just consumers.”

Salen acknowledged that some question whether the boutique model would work in many places, especially where students are poor or have special needs. But she said the New York City and Chicago schools show that diverse students bodies can benefit from the model. In New York, 40 percent of the school’s 220 students are eligible for free lunch, and the ethnic make-up of the student body is evenly split between white, black and Latino.

Of the New York school, which the city runs, she said, “We wanted to start this in the harshest of conditions to show that this model works.”

Quest to Learn received a B on the city’s annual progress report this year.