In the future, students might dismiss stories about weather-related school closures as folklore.
The COVID-19 pandemic compelled us to experiment with edtech, but it’s still unclear whether attending school virtually with a laptop at the kitchen table offers the same benefits as being in a classroom. One recent study found that only 27% of schools asked teachers to monitor student attendance and 37% were required to do 1:1 check-ins on an ongoing basis.
Can education in a post-pandemic world become more accessible, asynchronous and persistent? Or will our digital divide deepen existing inequities in our educational system?
To consider the issue, four TechCrunch staffers looked at the future of edtech and remote learning:
- Devin Coldewey
- Natasha Mascarenhas
- Alex Wilhelm
- Danny Crichton
Devin Coldewey: Gaming will transform remote learning, but stigma must be addressed
When I was a kid, we played SimCity in computer class once we’d finished our typing lessons, five-paragraph essays and so on. I always thought I was pulling a fast one by zipping through the assignments and getting straight to building my city, but the truth is I was learning just as much with one as the other. The game fooled me into learning about city infrastructure, taxes and other civic concepts that I probably would have fallen asleep learning had I been reading about them.
As a preschool teacher I found myself on the other side of this phenomenon, finding ways to impart learning on my little charges without boring them — and they were easily bored. It was always better to learn by doing, but kids don’t do anything unless it’s fun.
The pandemic isn’t just affecting higher education; Fourth graders and middle school kids are being thrown for a loop as well — not to mention their teachers. Gaming has to be part of the solution.
Our education system has a sort of built-in fun-to-learning ratio that gets smaller as the years go on, because many of the tools we use to teach core concepts are dated and static. There are a few “edutainment” products if kids are lucky enough to have the iPads or laptops to use them on, but not enough, and they’re plainly of a lower order than the real games kids play all the time. When a kid’s hobby is playing something like Fortnite or Breath of the Wild, does an algebra worksheet dressed up like a 2002 Flash game really seem like anything more than work?
Educational games are stuck on the idea of adding fun to old methods of teaching instead of rethinking how learning can be accomplished outside of those methods. Yet the possibilities of teaching using remote presence and virtual worlds are staggering.
A simple and laudable example is Ubisoft’s educational mode, present in its last two Assassin’s Creed games set in ancient Egypt and classical Athens. For all that they came up short as AAA games, these astonishingly detailed sandboxes offer an entire college course’s worth of anthropology and history; in fact, a special nonviolent mode exists just for exploring those aspects of the game.
Imagine telling a classroom full of 14-year-olds that their assignment was to play Assassin’s Creed for an hour a day, find something interesting, look it up and write a paragraph about it. Or build a functioning rocket in Kerbal Space Program. Or finish a set of puzzles in The Witness and list the hidden rules that govern them. Or work with three other kids to build a model of the school in Minecraft or Roblox.
Right now, that’s practically unthinkable (outside a few forward-thinking classrooms), partly because the culture around gaming is weird, toxic and few people take the medium seriously for educational purposes. But if remote learning is going to be part of K-12 education from now on — and we’d better plan for that — we need to meet kids where they are, not try to contort them into a mold cast a century ago.
It’s difficult to visualize because “real” games aren’t built for education except as a secondary consideration. But virtual worlds are becoming venues for more than competition, and embracing that from first principles, by involving educators and students to see what is needed and how those needs can be met, will be a fruitful path for the industry to pursue.