Everything I Need to Know About The Future of Education I Learned from Science Fiction

The future is coming.  Are you ready?  I am and I’m excited about what it holds for education!  As if it weren’t already clear that I’m an unabashed (and rather proud) geek, you might suspect that my favorite genre of literature is science fiction.  And, you’d be mostly right, though the number one spot is also shared with fantasy literature (big surprise, huh?).  Last week I wrapped up Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  It was a blast!  A mashup of 80′s pop culture and gaming with a healthy dose of dystopian cyberpunk, it really is this 80′s kid’s dream novel.

When consuming media, though, I find it difficult to take off my educator-glasses. So, as I’m reminiscing about the days of the blips and beeps of the mall arcade and the tabletop PacMan at the local Pizza Hut, I’m also paying close attention to what Cline says about education.  I highlighted several passages because they got me thinking…  Want to know what school will be like in the future?  Maybe science fiction holds the key!  Then, I reflected on other science fiction I’d read or seen in the movies.  What if?  Here are some possible futures:

 

Virtual Worlds for Learning – from Ready Player One by Earnest Cline (2012)


"Then, one glorious day, our principal announced that any student with a passing grade-point average could apply for a transfer to the new OASIS [the virtual world in Cline's novel] public school system.  The real public school system, the one run by the government, had been an underfunded, overcrowded train wreck for decades... ...every kid with half a brain was being encouraged to stay at home and attend school online."

 

This is a future that both excites and worries me at the same time.  However, look at the pressures our public schools are facing.  Imagine a system that was free, accredited, and offered experiences like these:

 

"...since the buildings were just pieces of software, their design wasn't limited by monetary constraints, or even by the laws of physics.  So, every school was a grand place of learning, with polished marble hallways, cathedral-like classrooms, zero-g gymnasiums [way cool!], and virtual libraries containing every (school-board approved) book ever written."

What person wouldn’t want to experience a learning environment like that?  Aside from the physical and monetary constraints on today’s schools, consider this, more personal statement by Parzival, the main character in the novel:

 

"Best of all, in the OASIS, no one could tell that I was fat, that I had acne... ...Bullies couldn't pelt me with spitballs...  No one could even touch me.  In here, I was safe."

Ever wonder why students are drawn to video games and virtual worlds?  Do you think, given the option to customize the appearance of their avatars that they’d hesitate to choose this kind of schooling over the traditional brick-and-mortar alternatives?

In later passages Parzival explains his experiences exploring ancient Egypt, touring a beating human heart (a la The Fantastic Voyage), and visiting Jupiter’s Io to watch a volcano erupt as Jupiter loomed on the horizon.  Imagine being able to have these sorts of experiences with your own learners!  Sleeping in class?  I doubt that would be an issue.

 

Personal Tablet Computing – Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985)

It’s interesting that I actually read Ender’s Game after I’d first used an iPad.  So, as I read passages like the one below, I was amazed at the author’s vision of learning in the future:

 

"Ender doodled on his desk, drawing contour maps of mountainous islands and then telling his desk to display them in three dimensions from every angle...
The bell rang. Everyone signed off their desks or hurriedly typed in reminders to themselves. Some were dumping lessons or data into their computers at home. A few gathered at the printers... Ender spread his hands over the keyboard near the edge of the desk and wondered what it would feel like to have hands as large as a grown-up's... Of course, they had bigger keyboards - but how could their thick fingers draw a fine line, the way Ender could..."

Already, tablet computers like the iPad are becoming frequent sights in our classrooms.  Their ability to provide technology-enhanced learning, individualized to a learner’s needs is powerful.  What might the future look like if every student had access to these devices to support their learning?  In some places, that future is already here.

 

Game-Based Learning – Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985)

Consider the Battle School from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.  Through rigorous game-based simulations, students in Card’s world learned standard curricula as well as military strategy.  Schools around the world are starting to pay attention to video games and how they can be effective tools for teaching.  (This blog has examples!)

 

Digital Learning/Research Assistants – Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson (1992)

Imagine what classroom learning might look like if each student had a personal, digital assistant to help them as they learned, adjusting to their specific learning styles, and helping them as they researched online.  In Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash, the main character, Hiro, has a computer program dubbed “The Librarian” who takes the form of an avatar and helps him as he researches a mystery that’s plaguing hackers in cyberspace.  Consider this interchange between Hiro and his assistant as they piece together information that each of them has collected:

 

"He believed that Babel was an actual historical event. That it happened in a particular time and place, coinciding with the disappearance of the Sumerian language. That prior to Babel/Infocalypse, languages tended to converge. And that afterward, languages have always had an innate tendency to diverge and become mutually incomprehensible - that this tendency is, as he put it, coiled like a serpent around the human brainstem."
"The only thing that could explain that is - "
Hiro stops, not wanting to say it.
"Yes?" the Librarian says.
"If there was some phenomenon that moved through the population, altering their minds in such a way that they couldn't process the Sumerian language anymore. Kind of in the same way that a virus moves from one computer to another, damaging each computer in the same way. Coiling around the brainstem. "
"Lagos devoted much time and effort to this idea" the Librarian says "He believed that the nam-shub of Enki was a neurolinguistic virus"

When I consider these elements I think about my iPhone and that quirky little personality that resides within, Siri.  The thing that makes Siri amazing is not that it can recognize your speech or conduct basic information gathering for you, but rather that it’s the beginning stages of tools that can make sense of what we are saying/asking.  This is beyond speech recognition.  This is semantics.  What if each of your learners had one of these?  This wouldn’t supplant a teacher, but would foster individualization and differentiation.  At the same time, this we can always direct students to Siri for those “Bloom’s Basement” sorts of questions.

 

If you haven’t read these novels, you really should.  Not only do they have interesting predictions about the future (and the future of learning), they’re great reads!  There are probably countless other examples from science fiction.  Perhaps you’ve got some?  Leave a comment and share!

 

-Lucas

Don’t Incentivize Games And Play in The Classroom

A few months back, I blogged about “The Wall.”  In the minds of many, play and work (or learning) are mutually exclusive ideas.  This continues to haunt me as I filter through the comments on a video of students in my district sharing their Minecraft creations on YouTube.  It’s not just adults who struggle with the idea that game play can be a fertile ground for learning. Even our youngest learners are conditioned to believe that school isn’t a place for play.  Learning only comes from textbooks.

Sadly, many of us, in our efforts to pioneer game-based learning in our classrooms are reinforcing that wall.  As I read about other educators’ game-based learning projects or have discussions with teachers who have well-meaning notions of bringing Minecraft or other games into their classroom, an all-too-common thread is emerging:  ”After they’ve successfully completed their assignment, I’ll let them play ____.”  I even see teachers using this approach with skill-and-drill “educational” games.

And so, another brick is added to the wall.  This only widens the gap of relevancy between what happens in the classroom and what happens outside of school in the minds of our learners.  Incentivizing play in learning relegates video games to a dessert tray that can only be sampled once you’ve eaten your spelling words and finished all of your algebra.  We’re doing kids a long-term disservice in their thinking.

My plea to educators, especially those brave enough to explore game-based learning:  make video game play a part of how you do business in the classroom.  Don’t make it a reward.  Good games can stand on their own pedagogical merit.  We often talk about fostering lifelong learning in kids and we need to encourage them to be critical and thoughtful consumers of media, including video games.

-Lucas

Refining “Game-based Learning”

In case you hadn’t noticed, education is full of jargon and rife with an alphabet soup of programs, policies, and practice.  It’s often challenging for me as a professional in education technology to keep my terminology defined.  What’s the difference between CIPA and COPPA?  When you say PBL, do you mean problem-based learning or project-based learning?  Of course, my own area of passion in education, the use of games and game principles for learning is faced with a similar, murky sea of words and ideas.  Recent discussions, between David Warlick, Mathias Poulsen, and myself via Twitter during ISTE 12, forced me to consider the issues.  For me, it’s time to refine the definition of “game-based learning.”

It’s exciting to watch the idea of game-based learning gaining market share in the discussion on educational change, especially, since I’ve been pushing it for a few years now.  There is, however, some confusion among educators, and even in my own mind, about how we define the different terms associated with the use of games and game principles in the classroom.  What’s the difference between using games to teach and gamifying the classroom?  Let’s take a look at some of the big ideas:

Playful Learning

One of the best things that game-based learning is bringing back to the education reform discussion is the value of play and a playful approach to learning.  This is nothing new (see Vygotsky, Piaget, and others), of course, but it’s an idea that has seen hard times in an era of standardization and high-stakes testing.  The value, here, is in encouraging learners to “play” with ideas.  In doing so, the idea of failure is either not possible or is an accepted part of the process.  Using this sort of approach also provides learners with opportunities to test ideas and hypotheses to solve ill-defined problems.  Some key thinkers in this area that you should review include:  Papert, Brian Sutton-Smith,  and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  Though an integral part of game-based learning, it’s a only a component of the bigger picture.

Using Games To Teach

First off, notice I’m saying “using games to teach” not “using video games to teach.”  I think this in an important first distinction.  While most of my work has been in the application of video games to instructional goals, I think that focusing solely  on video games is too limiting.  There are some incredible games out there that are not electronic at all.  Secondly, I think it’s important for educators to distinguish between simulations and games.  Simulations provide experiences through which participants experience concepts and are certainly valuable for learning, however, they lack many of the elements that games bring to the learning process.  So, how do we define “game,” then?  According to Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, “a game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.”  Others include variations on the definition, but the fundamentals of rules, challenge, and interaction are foundational.

I see the idea of “using games to teach” as the use of a pre-designed game to help learners reach an instructional goal.  In the world of video games, this breaks down into two areas that I feel are distinct:  the use of “educational” games (think Math Blaster) and the use of commercial, off-the-shelf games for education (think using Civilization V to teach World History).  The quotes around educational are intentional.  All good games are educational even if they weren’t designed with the classroom in mind.  My personal passion is exploring the use of games not designed for the classroom to help learners understand concepts.

Serious Games

Serious games is another term that you’ll often hear in discussions on game-based learning.  According to Wikipedia a serious game is, “a game designed for a primary purpose other than pure entertainment.”  That definition can encompass a broad range of games including “educational games,” games designed for training, games designed to solve real-world problems, etc.  I believe that the Games for Change movement would also fit as a subset of serious games.  Consider the game Re-Mission, designed to help cancer patients not only learn about the disease but also fight it.

Gamification

Gamification is applying the principles of games and game design to a non-game-related system.  This concept is quickly gaining momentum in the corporate world, spurred on by increased access to social media and mobile technology among consumers.  Take a look at FourSquare, for example.  When gamifying a business, consumers unlock badges and awards for being frequent patrons and earn points for participating in events and activities much as they would by completing activities in a game like Call of Duty or World of Warcaft.  When applied to the classroom, the discussion focuses on ideas such as replacing traditional grades with experience points and levels, player groups, and redesigning lessons to be more akin to the quests (see quest-based learning) that players might experience in a game.  It’s important for educators to distinguish, here, that this idea can be applied to any subject area and doesn’t necessarily involve the use of a pre-designed game.  A video by the folks at Extra Credits does a decent job of summarizing the idea – http://youtu.be/MuDLw1zIc94.  This is also another opportunity for me to plug 3DGameLab, an online system that makes this process manageable for classroom teachers.

For my own sanity, I’ll be lumping the ideas of using games to teach and gamification under the bigger umbrella of “game-based learning.”  Of course, I’ll still have to ask others using the term what them mean when they say it.  If you’re interested in learning more, follow the #GBL tag on Twitter.  If you’re looking to engage with other educators in the trenches who are wrestling exploring these issues, take a look at Jennifer Lagarde‘s Level Up Book Club (#levelupbc on Twitter)

(Edited 7/2/12 – Added Serious Games)

-Lucas

The Gamification of Education

Here’s a fantastic infographic by Knewton that shares some great concepts behind applying game design techniques to instructional design. I also might add that 3DGameLab does this beautifully and makes these ideas accessible to classroom teachers (click for a larger view):

Gamification of Education 

Created by Knewton and Column Five Media

 
-Lucas

 

Teachers Playing World of Warcraft

There is a certain thrill for me watching adult learners exploring a totally alien environment.  Maybe it’s the mad scientist in me?  I’m having those very sorts of opportunities in August as Peggy Sheehy and I lead teachers from around the world through quest-based learning experiences in 3DGameLab.  Our group’s quests revolve around the concept of using World of Warcraft (or similar MMO’s) in the classroom.  Our first week has simply been a chance to orient folks to World of Warcraft.  Simply put, we just want them to play the game, immersing themselves in the fantasy world of Azeroth.

As we move into week two, we’re asking our participants to look at the game through the lens of education and instructional design.  World of Warcraft is an incredibly complex game.  This first week has reminded me of just how much I take for granted:  the jargon, game culture, and of course the technical side of things.  We have a range of prior knowledge among our participants from those who have multiple level 85 characters, the highest level in the game, to those who have never experienced any virtual world, much less a game-based virtual world.

One of the first quests for our explorer-teachers this week is to examine how the game’s designers essentially are instructional designers.  The game has to teach you how to play the game.  This requires a great deal of thought, planning, and testing on the part of the designers.   Blizzard Entertainment, the makers of World of Warcraft, have become masters of this, as their subscriber numbers (around 12 million) indicate.

We asked our teachers both newcomers and veterans alike to reflect on their first experiences in the game and to consider what lessons we might apply to our classroom instruction.  The first responses coming in are very telling:

After a couple of unhappy days, something happened that turned it around for me. People started helping me – not only that, but on two different days, very advanced players went on quests with me. What a totally different experience it was! I loved playing. It was so much fun, and I was learning a tremendous amount by following their lead and asking questions. It’s lonely to struggle by yourself, and many times I thought that this must be how students feel when they get stuck and are not allowed to work with anyone else.

This response really highlights the value of the social component, something that good games typically foster but too often our classrooms discourage.  Another teacher shared this observation:

Each quest would expand the area you could investigate. Each quest would introduce you to more and more challenging obstacles to overcome. Some quests taught you how to fish, earn money with a trade, and use different talents. You were not tossed in the middle of the pool with all your skills in place, you had to learn them one or two at a time. New skills built upon previous knowledge.

This mastery-based approach is not common in our schools, primarily because time for learning is a set constant.  The mentality is, “if you don’t get it, sorry, we have to move on.”  Keeping your experiences within your “regime of competence” is a concept also reflected by this educator:

WoW is good at starting you off small – just a few spells, easily defeated baddies, and quests that let you go practice your skills without aggroing mobs. The game is also good at keeping you within your skill realm. You won’t find any level 30 foes in the level 1 areas so you’re usually pretty safe from biting off more than you can chew.

On the concept of feedback to the player (what we might call assessment), one of our educators shared this observation:

I could see that I was making progress, and that was motivating. Also the frequent advancing in levels at the beginning stages. I was so happy when my level went up! I’ve rarely seen this technique done in education, but it could certainly be borrowed.

I was so impressed by the thoughtfulness and reflection of these educators I had to go ahead and share it.  There are many more educators who’ll be sharing their reflections on exploring World of Warcraft this week.

Are you a gaming educator?  What parallels can you make between game design and good instructional design?

Minecraft in School? Yes!

Characters in MinecraftYes, I know I’m late to this game.  How did I miss it?  About a month ago, I started noticing Minecraft popping up in education technology discussions.  I’d heard of the game before and after a very cursory glance dismissed it.  This growing buzz I began to hear, though, got me asking around.  Of course, who had answers to my questions?  Students!  One even said, “Here’s my account info, try it out.”  So I did.

Within 20 minutes of game play, I’d shelled out the $20 to buy my own account.  There is something incredibly compelling about this game.  Don’t let the funny 8-bit-looking graphics fool you.  There’s more here than meets the eye. …much more.  Why?  Because this is a true sandbox game.  A sandbox game is a virtual world that allows free-roaming with almost no artificial barriers.  On top of this, this is a building/creating game.  Yes, punching trees for wood may seem silly at first, but then you find that you can construct things with the materials you’re collecting.  A few pieces of wood yield planks, four of these planks yield a crafting  table. And from there, a world of building potential is opened up. Within an hour or so of play, I’d constructed a makeshift castle and had begun to dig deep underground to find iron, coal, and other resources to build a variety of tools.

So, what do I, the educator-gamer do next?  Of course I put on my teacher glasses and begin to ask, “How could I use this with students?”  Immediately the ideas begin to come to mind.  Here are a few of my early brainstorms:

  • Give students login information and have them all log into a school-hosted multiplayer server (Yes, you can host your own private server).  Tell them they have arrived on a deserted(?) island (think Lost, maybe?).  They need to work together to build a society.  Who will gather resources?  Who will build?  Who will plan?  How will they feed themselves?  How will they defend themselves from the skeletons/creepers at night (though these villains could be turned off as a feature).  The key here is to have them plan and write all of this based on their in-world experiences.
  • Have students journal daily life on their island as though they were a real person in a real place.  Imagine… “Day 1 – Not sure how I got here.  Haven’t seen another person.  All was fine until nightfall.  I began to hear a groaning sound in the forest and that’s when I saw the zombies.  Now I’m holed up in a cave hoping they go away.”
  • Have students think of a real-world machine and attempt to recreate it in their Minecraft world.  People have even made basic computers out of Minecraft materials.  Yes, it can be that complex.  You can craft circuits with basic logic functions out a material called redstone.  Players have built working rail stations, musical instruments, and more.

Of course the multiplayer potential for the game opens up lots of collaborative opportunity.  Imagine different classes working together to build something, different grade levels, or even students from schools in two different parts of the world!

Other folks are talking about this game’s potential as well.  Check out Bryan Alexander‘s posts on the topic.  John McLear has a nice post on the topic as well.  Also, check out this interesting discussion on the same topic at Minecraft Forums.

Some of the principals in my district have asked me for ideas for a project similar to the WoWinSchool Project for earlier grades, either as an elective or a club.  I think Minecraft would be suitable for 4th through 8th graders (many high schoolers would certainly enjoy it too, though).  What are you thoughts?  Let’s here them!

-Lucas