Voice mail from my alma mater, Bradley University in Peoria, IL: Google apparently notified them that BallparkIt was released on the iPod App Store, and Bradley wants to run an article in the December issue of Hilltopics. Spoke with Nancy on the publication staff and bent her ear for way too long on my philosophies of education and my prediction of where K-12 education is headed. Think of The Graduate updated by 42 years. One word: games.
I’m not the only person to make that prediction, of course. Steven Berlin Johnson (STA ’86) said essentially the same thing when he visited my statistics class in November 2007. I have to paraphrase, using a few of his words here and there: What we know from neuroscience is that optimum learning takes place when the content is paced at precisely the correct rate, and interactive games do a really good job of that. Well-designed games engage the student and adjust in real time so that the difficulty level is always challenging, but not too challenging.
There is a reason that I was able to tutor all of my geometry students by telephone one snow day in February 2003: Working one-on-one is much more efficient from the student’s point of view. We were able to cover an entire lesson in about 10 minutes on average, or one-fifth the usual time. (Of course, it was murder on me, since I was on the phone for about 4 hours straight, but it saved time for the students.) What will education look like when the content (DVD-ROM or Web-based games, I’m thinking) and interpersonal resources (teachers like me) are structured around the needs and schedules of students instead of the needs and schedules of a factory-like educational apparatus? Handled correctly, this revolution could mean a huge increase in the level of achievement, especially for the brighter students who are currently forced to putt-putt along at the so-called “average” pace, which is itself much slower than anyone, let alone a student of average intelligence, would follow if left to his own devices. Want proof? Imagine a TV show or YouTube video paced to match a high school class session. Even with an AP or honors class, but especially with a more basic-level class, nobody would want to watch the entire video, because it would be too dang boring. That is not to say that the video would be useless, mind you—merely that nobody would be able to resist fast-forwarding through portions of it. Those portions would be different for different people. If the video were replaced by an interactive game that constantly maintained a level of challenge and helped the student to stay engaged for nearly the entire time, a student of average intelligence could become much more productive.
One trick that I learned at a teacher-training session (can’t remember anymore where it was) is to have one student playing a quiz-type game while everyone else watches. This is engaging in the same vicarious way that Who Wants to be a Millionaire? is engaging—but I still think that if the budget permits it, it would usually be better to have each student playing his own game. That does not rule out the possibility of occasionally using the “group performance” concept, nor does it rule out the possibility of educational MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games). In fact, when I have pitched the GeometryQuest MMORPG concept to my students, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. If I could realistically scare up a couple million in venture capital, I just might quit my job and make GeometryQuest my life’s work.
It’s not that my students fail to be engaged. It’s that they fail to be engaged for more than a certain percentage of the 50-minute class. The slim minority who have slept adequately the night before and who have a basic interest in math can stay with me for, say, 40 minutes, or 80% of the class. Everyone else manages, I would estimate, 20% to 25% engagement on average. In a class of 16, that means that about 4 are fully engaged at any one moment. The others are usually partially engaged, and in many cases there is a perfectly good reason for that: They are saving their mental energy for the next thing that requires their full attention.
OK, so that means that in a 50-minute class, the average student is fully engaged for 10 to 12 minutes. Why not serve him 15 minutes of highly focused, highly interactive educational content (read: games) instead of 50 minutes of mediocre mush that is directed at the mythical “average student”? Technology will make this possible. We can then spend the remaining 35 minutes doing teacher-moderated work in lieu of homework, mind-expanding group problem solving, or (what most of my students like best, believe it or not) meandering conversations on math and philosophy. The other 30% or 40% of students who hate my tangents will have my permission to be excused and work on educational games if they wish.
This means that students will be happier and will get more out of their schooling. It may also mean a reduction in homework load, which is a good thing for everyone. The best of all possible worlds would be having a class in which everyone is so interested in learning for learning’s sake that the students start producing their own educational courseware: videos, web pages, games, etc. Well, why not? I can dream, can’t I?
After 6 takes, I finally have a compressed take for Topic #2B that I am happy with. There is one slightly muffed word (“finger nail” instead of “fingernail” during one awkward video operation), but since I have no ability to edit, I’m going to call it a success. The video was tricky to assemble, with 3 title slides and 4 video clips, 2 of which started in the middle and were therefore hard to cue when QuickTime was sized properly for Jing. Technical problems with PowerPoint also ruined a few takes. Apparently, PowerPoint centers slides differently (thus stepping outside the Jing frame boundaries I so painstakingly set) if graphic elements protrude from the printable area of the slide.