Q1: What activity can’t parents get kids to sit still for?
Q2: What activity can’t parents get kids to stop doing?
A1: Online school. A2: Video games.
This juxtaposition is particularly powerful considering linguist James Gee’s observation that video games are, at their core, instruments of learning. Furthermore, he points out that they encapsulate complexity as a feature. That is, people play video games because of, not in spite of, the difficulty involved for them to win.
Teachers and software developers are already jumping to develop gamified learning tools for the classroom, which is a good start. Here is a “next level” thought experiment for you: school itself as a video game. Structured around proven modalities like Fortnite and World of Warcraft, it would see students assemble in small teams for well-defined game-level objectives, such as searching for treasure or fighting orcs. In order to succeed, they would need to pass school-level objectives such as solving math or reading comprehension problems or completing more complex tasks (like programming a robot to follow a path to get to a door). The intrinsic motivation for completing the former objectives would provide the impetus to complete the latter objectives.
Unlike brick-and-mortar schools, which need to be built for each neighborhood, School game-level infrastructure would only need to be built one time. Bringing together the brightest minds in video gaming and education once would propagate society-wide benefits for years to come.
Such a platform would be at its most powerful if it integrated tools for both teachers and developers. Teachers would create content and design learning pathways for their students to follow. They would be ever present, checking in with students where necessary and supplementing game content via direct video connections with individuals and teams. If students didn’t know how to complete a problem, they could simply click a button for live online help.
The current edtech landscape contains an embarrassment of riches. There are thousands of tools and applications for teachers and administrators to choose from, each with its own niche focus, interface, and pricing structure. By inviting these developers to School, the platform would provide a well-needed opportunity for consolidation. Application interfaces to teach vocabulary, writing, science, programming… all would be available for teachers to seamlessly integrate with their curated content. Assessment and performance evaluation would likewise be built into the infrastructure. Students wouldn’t need to take tests in School because all activities would require students to demonstrate competence. Teachers and parents could even print out a daily summary of tasks completed by the student. Intelligent systems could adapt content for learners so they don’t need to waste time on previously mastered curricula. The need for and effort of assigning, completing, and grading worksheet-style homework would evaporate.
This School proposal doesn’t presume to eliminate the need for teachers (quite the contrary), nor should it be implemented at the expense of real-world activities such as music, art, PE, and free reading. Rather it is a framework for capturing students’ attention where they already digitally live and directing that attention and their drive to learn and master complexity away from Fortnite and toward their education.
Heidi Brumbaugh, PhD, is the developer of Vocab Victor, a word-learning app for smartphones. She received her PhD in linguistics from Simon Fraser University in 2015, with a focus on vocabulary and computer-assisted language learning. She dreams of one day banishing flashcards to the shoebox of history. Follow her vocabulary blog at vocabvictor.com/blog.