Is it time to rethink education? We live in a time where many parents have anxiety about what schools are teaching and how well they are doing the job. There are concerns about test scores, relevance and how up-to-date the material being taught is. In the US, many students graduate without basic skills and some schools are unsafe.
At the same time, students complain that school is boring. How can it possibly compare with the marvels of Web sites, gaming and continual texting?
Of course, many teachers are working to integrate new technologies into their curricula, but — at least in part — redesigning from the ground up might make more sense. In particular, role-playing games could become central to how we educate our children. Let’s see how.
First, what do we want from education? There are many answers here, but I suspect most people would agree that we want to:
- To make good people.
- To make good citizens.
- To make each person his or her own personal best.
- To prepare our children for good jobs.
Imagine Montessori for the connected age, where kids are attracted toward learning of their choice and mentored by more experienced kids and experts. Role playing is a common method in education, and, technically, we are almost there as far as making online role playing a viable approach to education. (In fact, an IBM study showed that its employees had learned leadership – a notoriously difficult lesson – through playing on ad hoc MMORPGs (Massively multiplayer online role-playing games). What they learned didn’t just help them with the next session of World of Warcraft. It was transferrable to the workplace, especially their virtual teams.)
At one point, I designed an MMORPG aimed at building skills in innovation. It might make a good example. Here’s how it would work: I want to join the innovation game, but I have no experience. I choose my role from several that are available – inventor, promotor, fund-raiser, etc. Once I choose my role, I join an online team of people with similar experience, and we either take on a project or elect to go forward with an idea of a team member. We get to know each other through discussions, the kind of quizzes Facebook and other social networks have and some in-world challenges. (We may also get together in real-life, if we are all local.)
We begin to do our jobs: organizing, building alliances, preparing presentations, building prototypes, etc. As we take on a specific job, we will be offered readings and practice sessions appropriate for our roles. All of these are optional. The ultimate credit is achieving as a team and building reputation with the team members. Each person also has two kinds of mentor. One is the functional mentor, who helps us with the skills required for the specific role and activity. The other is an overall mentor who looks at how what we are learning comes together to match our talents, interests and goals.
The teams adventures include presenting to a venture capital firm, getting customer feedback, modifying designs so they can be manufactured, etc. Once a team takes an idea from gleam in the eye to general availability as product or service, they can move to a new level of complexity (and maybe start to mentor less experienced players).
Obviously, this is just a bare outline of one kind of learning experience. But let’s look at it against the education benefits listed above.
Does it help me become a good person? Anyone who has been part of an MMORPG will tell you that people who are selfish and don’t (within the rules) play well with others have reputations that suffer and don’t get to play on the better teams. Newbies get forgiveness, but chronic offenders learn the hard way to act with integrity.
Does it help me become a good citizen? Besides building teaming and leadership skills, the innovation game provides real experience in critical thinking, sharing ideas, respecting the law and understanding other cultures. Many of the lessons of leadership could be worked into the game (and, of course, innovation would be one of many games).
Does it help me become the best that I can be? We already see people in MMORPGs gravitating toward their passions and going deeply into subject areas that can help them succeed. There are many reports of economics, in particular, becoming popular among gamers. I call SimCity one of my best graduate level courses ever, drawing me deeply into urban design. (I did experiments, such as designing a viable city for an earthquake zone.)
Does it help me get a job? One is reminded here of the Far Side cartoon where parents look on with pride and anticipation of a great future as their son plays video games. The cartoon might be taken seriously now as gaming and social networking sites have become legitimate venues for finding/offering employment. Can the education be viable? Can it actually lead to a job? That learning takes place is undeniable. Since most people figure out how to use the tools and be successful, it could be argued that people also learn how to learn – something of immense value in a fast changing environment.
The missing pieces are accreditation and curriculum. We need to know the person being hired actually has demonstrated the capabilities needed for the job, and these need to be in a larger context that provides perspective. However, both of these are in question in traditional schooling. Cheating has become a huge problem, challenging accreditation. Relevant courses that connect the dots for real education are at risk because the boundaries of learning and social/business endeavor keep shifting and blurring.
Will education become online play? Probably not. But given the challenges we face, it might be good to consider it as a key part of the mix.