Monday, April 5, 2010

A Method to Innovate Education Systems

It's probably no surprise that I am interested in innovating education systems, with the title of my blog, Learning Science Meets Game Design, but what about having a plan to get it to happen? Some people try to get it to happen inside the systems, some outside the systems and both have met up against a stout resistance to innovation and change. I think we've be going about this the wrong way. Why try to tackle something so massive and with so much momentum? We've been told repeatedly that what is needed is "proof", so why don't we give it to them? The answer, I'm guessing, is that we don't know how to give them what they want, but I think there is a way, and that's what the rest of this post will discuss.

As a game designer looking at education, I'm struck by the similarity of this problem to that of starting up a game company or hit series of games. We have a bunch of great ideas, but in the game industry those "great ideas" are considered worth less than a dime a dozen. We try to use those ideas, and they kinda work here or there with the help of designers and developers. Sometimes there is marketing and management with a lack of market research or follow through. Ya, that's about what there is in the game industry, and in education innovation. Maybe some of the lessons from the game industry innovation efforts will help education.

First is differentiate. Yes, we need some reason that our stuff is better, but we also need to know some people want that difference. This is a basic principle of selling anything. If nobody is interested in your cool variation, there will be serious problems in the future.

Second is to start small. Building up to the big, awesome, stupendous projects means you have a solid core and foundation to support that big, awesome, stupendous project. Do at a level that you can make it shine.

Third is
to build on your successes, and fourth is to learn from your mistakes. If you do a project, learn from it. Analyze what went well, and what didn't go well. Take that info into consideration when designing, and doing, your next project.

Fifth is to always go for quality over quantity. What ever you do, do it well. Doing it well will bring results. Repeatable results are proof of your ability to deliver those results.

Sixth is to aim for your target demographic. If your target is to help students do better in school, target students. If you want to help the ones who don't do well in school, target them, and work with them.

There are more, but let's take a moment to consider how these first six interact. Starting small, targeting your demographic and aiming for quality over quantity means you are focusing on a manageable number of people, responsibilities and variables. Whatever your results, this will be useful to learn from. While the unique selling points of a project may be set at the start, feedback from actually testing the project will help refine, back-up and verify those points as well as possibly hint towards new points to aim for.

Seventh is to prototype early and often. The above set of interactions shows how the prototyping and testing processes can reveal many useful lessons. Some of those can save a lot of time, money and effort is learned early in the project.

Eighth is to support all people involved. This means students, teachers, policy makers and anybody else interested. Transparency and "customer service" is just a part of the mix. If the project lives or dies based on what people think of it, helping them is related to success.

Ninth is to talk about the project. Share what's going on, good and bad, and most importantly how the project reacts to the events. The growth of the project into something amazing is part of the proof that it works.

Tenth is to always consider emergent behavior possibilities. To do this you have to consider the project, the people involved, the situation and plenty more. However, this is key to really making the project shine and getting the proof needed.

Maybe these aren't written as well as they could be, and there are more lessons to be sure, but these are some we need to consider for proving these projects and ideas are worth implementing. Yet, even that isn't all there is to my "method", as all I've really shared is a list of lessons to help you understand.

The method I see as most effective for actually getting schools to implement great ideas is to do some testing without changing there official schooling. If it works well to help students achieve, then you have grounds to motivate going farther with the ideas, even if it is just the students and their parents. Summer programs, after-school programs, clubs and more could be the vehicle of such attempts. Do the studies, improve the ideas and try again.

Now, there is something we need to leave open to the students, joining. Even if it isn't any more effective, if it gets students to want to join, you have something to study. If students like it, they will talk about it. If you're tracking participation and grades, you might prove something.

Grades are not the only things to record. Get some personality, emotional stability and similar data. Maybe they are working through personal issues rather than improving their grades. Get to know the students and teachers involved, and record what you can about them to find patterns. A better way of teaching may lower grades initially as students change and get used to doing things in new ways.

Culture and views of the projects can make a big difference. What does the group of students think about the project? What do their friends think? What do other teachers and family members think? These are things to consider and shape your communications to help shift.

I'd hoped for a better post, but this is what I have for the moment. I'd love to get some feedback on these thoughts and discuss these and other views. For a look at my own project to innovate education, take a journey over to the Legacy Of Lore project blog.

Have fun, spread the word and tell me what you think,
Igen Oukan
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The Student said...

Great article. Gaming and education interest me a lot. I recently read another article on Learning through Video Games that examined the design of a good "edutainment" game that would work better than teachers! You should check it out (it is very much tied into education reform).
The site -

vickithesmith said...

This is a marvelous article, an article that I have been waiting to read for some time now :)

I'm a master's student at the Guildhall at SMU, studying game development, and a former teacher. Like many people, I'm so excited about the idea in making world-changing educational games. I'm also getting pretty frustrated by all the roadblocks that seem to be in the way. It's nice to hear that experts are tackling the problem in such a methodical way.

Personally, I'm taking the Second lesson to heart and starting small: I'm making a small algebra game in Unity as part of my Master's thesis. I am finding even a small game a challenge, though, in both instructional design and game design. I don't suppose you could recommend any books or articles for someone just starting out?

Steven Egan said...

The first thing that comes to mind is which is a community of people interested in using games to change the world in positive ways. Second, fill out this contact form so we can chat through e-mail; . There are a lot of potential resources I could point you to, but without knowing you a little better it's hard to choose.

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