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English teacher ahead of the game

By Julie Clothier for CNN

A scene from one of the "Myst" games, which English teacher Tim Rylands is using in his classroom.
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(CNN) -- Visiting Tim Rylands' Web site, you get a feeling the primary school teacher is rather passionate about technology.

When you first arrive at www.timrylands.comexternal link, you are greeted with an animated caricature of him telling you to take a look around.

About five years ago, Rylands began using computer games in his lessons in a bid to improve children's literacy and communication skills. Now, he has picked up a top award for his work.

He introduced games from Ubisoft's "Myst" series to his classroom, after a friend introduced him to them.

At present, he says, there is no gaming software in the style of the "Myst" games that are specifically built for educational purposes.

The first "Myst" game was released about a decade ago and there are now four, and soon to be five, in the series: "Myst," "Riven," "Exile" and "Revelation." The games involve virtual reality landscapes in which the "player" goes on a magical journey.

The games involve solving a problem -- once you solve one part, you move on to the next stage. But Rylands says the problems are open-ended enough that they can be used for his creative writing lessons.

Advances in technology make the games so engaging, he says.

"They're remarkably realistic -- you feel like you could reach out and touch some of the things. They're the kind of games that are really child-friendly. There aren't many characters in the game and the ones that there are, are peaceful people and tend to run away."

His lessons at Chew Magna School, near Bristol in England, involve a screen at the front of the classroom on which the game is projected.

"I basically take the children on a walk. It's cheaper than going on a school trip and we don't have to worry about insurance."

The class "walk" through the virtual landscapes and the children write down vivid descriptions and commentate on what they see.

"I'll ask the children to take their shoes off and put their feet into the sea. It doesn't take long for them to figure out that I'm speaking to them metaphorically."

He believes the quality of his pupils' listening and writing skills is vastly improved because of use of the game in lessons.

"It has such a big impact on the children's concentration. It's about raising the quality of their speaking and listening. There's so much for them to write about, they are writing non-stop in the class."

Now, other teachers throughout the United Kingdom and other parts of the world are using Rylands' technique.

He teaches children aged between nine and 11 but says the game would just as well with children as young as six.

"It is a really inspiring, shared experience."

Rylands is also a composer of children's musicals and uses programming technology while writing his scores. He also uses digital film as part of his classroom lessons.

Rylands' teaching methods recently earned him a British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) ICT award.

Becta has described Rylands work as "innovative and imaginative," saying he is "an extremely gifted and inspirational teacher, with a love of the creative potential of technology and an excellent rapport with his pupils."

Corporations, meanwhile, are also using technology to train employees.

San Francisco-based company Pulse Entertainment has developed technology that can turn any digital image into a "talking character."

Company spokesman Ed Manning told CNN the "Veepers" technology was hugely popular for corporations to use for training purposes because "we as human beings respond much better to a face than just looking at text."

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