Radio, TV, computers, video games, the Internet, and MOOCs. As major technological innovations have occurred throughout our history they have been regularly touted as the next great thing in education. Few of them ever actually live up to the hype though, and eventually fade out of education even as their prominence in society as a whole rises. Starting in the 1920s radio was used as an educational tool (Interactive Radio Instruction) to supplement poorly trained educators in rural areas. In the 1960s aircraft broadcast educational television programs over the American Midwest for much the same reasons. In the 1980’s computers invaded education and ushered in the prospect of game-based learning with mixed results. In the1990s online education gained a foothold in higher education and, since 2010, MOOCs have arisen largely for the same reasons as earlier attempts to incorporate new technology into education – to provide "high quality" educational opportunities for those who may not otherwise have access to the best education. One of these innovations stands apart from the others in my opinion – games. In stark contrast to all of the other educational innovations mentioned, games have been a natural part of learning since the dawn of time and, as such, provide a far greater potential for sustained impact on education than other technological advancements. Here is a critical examination of all of these advances and an explanation of why games are the best positioned to have the greatest sustained effect on education.
The History of Educational Innovation in a Nutshell
Aside from the obvious innovation that changed education forever, the mass produced book, there have been four significant new mediums developed in the 20th and 21st centuries that have, in their time, all been touted as important educational technologies: radio, television, computers, and the Internet. Here is a brief look at the way each has been used in education.
- Radio – The first popular "edutainment" medium, radio, starting in the 1920s was widely used to distribute educational content via the popular household radio. Shows such as American School of the Air, Little Red Schoolhouse, and several shows produced by the C:eveland Board of Education (Hackbarth, 1996) reached millions of homes across the country and delivered free content on nearly every possible academic subject. According to Hackbarth radio is still used in developing countries as a source of distance learning. In the U.S., radio as an educational medium has gradually withered, being replaced by educational TV programs starting in the 1960s.
- Television – TV began to dominate the public interest within a decade of its introduction and has gradually pushed radio further and further to the periphery as an entertainment and educational medium. During the 1960s, educational programming was broadcast from airplanes circling the American Midwest to help bring rich content to rural areas. Nationwide educational programming began with serious intent with the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. The hallmark of American educational TV is probably Sesame Street, which is still broadcast today and features a hodgepodge of learning-focused content from numeracy, to basic literacy, and foreign language learning, all delivered by lovable puppets and their human friends.
While television still dominates as an American recreational activity, the preponderance of educational programming has waned. Children’s programming is currently dominated by commercialized, merchandise promoting shows such as LEGO: Star Wars, Ninjago, Dora the Explorer, and countless other heavily advertised and merchandised shows with little focused educational content.
- Computers – Starting in the 1980s, computers began to become an important part of the public education system. Despite Larry Cuban’s 2001 proclamation that computers are "oversold and underused" in education, they and digital video games have become an increasingly significant part of American education. The rise in their importance directly parallels their increasing centrality in our culture where we communicate, socialize, shop, work, and generally rely on information technology for much of our daily existence. Beginning with the first educational game, Oregon Train in 1978 schools have increasingly made computers available to help bring variety and engagement to student learning. As computers have decreased in size, increased in power, and become portable, they have become more important in our daily lives. The creation of the Internet has only served to increase their functionality.
- The Internet – Since the mid-1990s, the Internet has become increasingly more robust and more central to our daily lives and education. The spread of online access to schools has allowed teachers to diversify their curriculums to include real-time access to news, events, and resources from around the world. While distance education (correspondence courses) is not new, the Internet made it much more accessible and faster. Corresponding to the popularization of the Internet, online education has grown to the point where more than six million students are annually taking courses online. That number equates to more than 30% of all higher education students taking some classes online. Most recently (2010) a new breed of massive, open, online, courses, the MOOC (Massive, Open, Online, Course) has arisen that allows students anywhere in the world to sample lessons from elite universities like Harvard and Stanford, free of charge.
The above table is not a complete breakdown of all of the potential uses, advantages, and disadvantages of the described innovations. Further, the lumping together of computers/video games and Internet/eLearning/MOOCs is an oversimplification of the diverse uses of each. For example, it should be noted that the Internet is not usable without computers or computer-based portable devices. What the groupings do show, however, is the natural progression of the innovations For example, computers in schools were immediately followed by the introduction of video games into the curriculum, and the popularization of the Internet has led to the rapid expansion of eLearning, with MOOCs following more recently. These advances parallel the ways in which entertainment radio and television were adapted for educational uses. However, what these broad categorizations do allow is a direct comparison between these four primary technological innovations that have all, in their times, been heralded as major advancements in the way educational content can be delivered. To even the most casual follower of educational progress it is obvious that radio and TV have not had the dramatic impacts once predicted. eLearning, has established itself as an educational model which serves a definite purpose and meets the needs of an expanding audience. That leaves us to consider videogames and MOOCs as two innovative uses of technology that have thus far failed to meet their anticipated potentials.
Video Games vs MOOCs in an Ultimate Smackdown!
These two educational delivery modes are not mutually exclusive, but they do have enough points of divergence to make them vastly different, and worthy of comparison. There are four major ways in which they present nearly opposite sides of the educational spectrum, and which makes a comparison of their long-term success as educational innovations possible.
- Individualized Learning vs Mass Production – While modern games do often incorporate a massive social element, they are, at their core individualized activities. In games, each player/learner works through their own challenges at their own pace, even when playing collaboratively. The same cannot be said for massive online classes, which, at their core are vehicles for mass-production and dissemination of content. They are not adaptable to individual circumstances and present a significant challenge for providing individualized feedback. In games, all feedback is at the individual level and is instantaneous.
- Competitive vs Flock Mentality – At their core games are a competitive, challenging exercise that requires engagement and activity to reach a set goal or objective – winning the game. MOOCs, in contrast, are free and (until they are given academic accreditation) have no real objectives short of finishing and getting a certificate that has no real-world value. Both can help students to learn content, but the intrinsic and extrinsic rewards of completing a MOOC are far less satisfying than the artificial ending of a well-designed game.
- Immersive vs Pre-recorded – Much of the power of playing games derives from the immersive and thus engaging nature of game environments. Games create a world that learners can sink into, explore, and exert agency. MOOCs, by their very nature and the technology widely used to deliver them (pre-recorded video clips and readings) do not provide an immersive experience for participants. A well-designed game can draw learners into an alternate reality in which they have the freedom to participate in activities that simulate reality. MOOCs are removed from reality by both their mode of delivery and the design of the instruction.
- Natural vs Artificial – Most importantly, games are a naturally occurring method of learning. Ancient cultures, children, and even animals play games as a way of learning about the world around them and their place in that world. MOOCs are new, both in their use of largely non-interactive technology to deliver instruction, and their following of the most artificial of educational models, mass-produced, industrial education. Massive educational initiatives are a direct result of the industrial age, factory model and view people as interchangeable parts that can be swapped like spare machine parts. Play, in contrast, helps people feel out social boundaries, the workings of the world, and how they, at an individual level, can fit into that world as more than a cog in a wheel.
MOOCs are the latest in a long line of technological leaps that have been touted as the next great things, but ultimately were just fads. Games are different, and despite having taken a much slower path to inclusion in many classrooms, they rely on the oldest educational innovation of all for their success – play. Their slow adoption means simply that the process of gamification is becoming more refined over a longer time rather than the rush to apply wholesale as the latest, greatest thing that radio, TV, and MOOCs have exhibited. Further, the real interactivity afforded by games makes a significant difference when compared to the passive way that TV, Radio and even MOOCs operate. Games utilize the oldest known model of learning, play, and because of that, will ultimately prove to be the one educational "innovation" that makes a lasting difference in education.