It’s tempting to treat technology as a panacea for education. In fact, we’ve been doing it for a long time—well before iPads or MOOCs or even computers came around . However, (and this is true of life in general) technology is only the answer in very specific cases, and we should be aware of what those are if we don’t want to waste valuable time and resources.
I wanted to learn more about the intersection of technology and education, to see what’s out there, what’s working, and why. So, last term, I took two courses offered by the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University: The Role of Technology in Learning in the 21st Century and Design of Educational Games.
The Role of Technology in Learning in the 21st Century, taught by Prof. Amy Ogan, was essentially an overview of existing educational technology, with an emphasis on students with low socioeconomic status. We covered dozens of technologies, in the form of papers, discussions, case studies, and expert panels. I learned quite a few things from this course, but the things that stand out are:
- It is incredibly difficult to create an piece of educational technology that is effective for a large audience. Of the success stories, all of them had a clear, narrow focus for a specific target audience. For example, Project LISTEN has been successful by many standards, but it targets literacy for children who are in grades 1-4, and are currently behind in school.
- Context is everything. Most of the failed projects failed because they didn’t take into account the existing infrastructure, educational culture, language barriers, etc
- Teacher support and understanding is crucial. You can create the best technology ever, but if a teacher doesn’t understand how it works, or how it can fit into his/her curriculum, it will be ignored.
To sum up: I think technology does have potential in the classroom, but, without good evidence to the contrary, one should be skeptical that it’s effective. Ideally, the person choosing or designing the technology should understand the teachers, understand the students, understand the curriculum, and see how the tech can fit in with all of that in order to supplement learning.
The second class I took, Design of Educational Games with Vincent Aleven, covered some of the same ground but was focused on games specifically. The two key takeaways from this class were: integrate learning with your core game mechanic, and evaluate out-of-game transfer.
Bad educational games are ones where the educational aspect feels “tacked on”. Good games have tight integration between the core game mechanic and the learning objectives. An easy test to see if there is good integration: if you replaced the learning objectives with something else, would the game still make sense? For example, in the Math Blaster games, in many cases you could replace the math puzzles with spelling puzzles and the game wouldn’t change much. On the other hand, if you took Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego and replaced the “clues” with math puzzles, the game wouldn’t make sense anymore.
Secondly, for an educational game to be considered a “success”, there MUST be evidence of out-of-game transfer. That is, progressing in the game itself is not good enough—the player must transfer whatever they’ve learned out of the game and apply it in a real-life scenario. The best way to evaluate this is with pre- and post-game quizzes. For example, take DragonBox. A Forbes article trumpets, “On average, it took 41 minutes and 44 seconds for students to master Algebra skills … using the DragonBox App” . But this is talking about in-game mastery—without data to show that kids got better at doing actual algebra (e.g., homework, quizzes, word problems) there’s no proof that this game is actually educational.
While those two takeaways are high-level, we also learned about a practical way of evaluating the details of an educational game called the EDGE Framework .
The EDGE framework looks at a game from three different perspectives:
- Learning Objectives: what knowledge or skills do you want to impart upon the player?
- Instructional Principles: what best-practices or techniques (ideally, proven by research or commonly used in industry) will you use to achieve those learning objectives?
- Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics (MDA): how does the game actually function, and how does this provide a certain experience to the user?
All three of these work together. For example, the MDA and Instructional Principles are chosen to support the Learning Objectives.
For some more information on this framework, and an example of it applied to a real game, check out the presentation I made about Where In the World is Carmen Sandiego.
 Aleven, V., Myers, E., Easterday, M., & Ogan, A. (2010). Toward a framework for the analysis and design of educational games. In G. Biswas, D. Carr, Y. S. Chee, & W. Y. Hwang (Eds.), Proceedings of the 3rd IEEE Conference on Digital Game and Intelligent Toy-Enhanced Learning (pp. 69—76). Los Alamitos, CA: IEEE Computer Society. doi: 10.1109/DIGITEL.2010.55
 Shapiro, Jordan. “It Only Takes About 42 Minutes To Learn Algebra With Video Games”. Forbes, 7/01/2013. http://www.forbes.com/sites/jordanshapiro/2013/07/01/it-only-takes-about-42-minutes-to-learn-algebra-with-video-games