Why gamification is changing the face of 21st century education

Skillshare promo video

Every human being is born to learn because we’re all innately curious, and the moment we stop learning is when we stop living.

That was the message from the education startup Skillshare‘s first ever conference held in New York City last Friday where nine speakers advocating 21st century education presented their speeches on how society can reimagine the educational experience. The Web has made it easier for anyone to become both a student and a teacher. In one speech, director of digital for The Onion Baratunde Thurston shared his experience learning to write his new book by live screen-sharing his computer screen as he typed the chapters and using feedback from whoever was watching to stimulate his thought process. Another instance is Adora Svitak, a 14-year-old high school student who hosts an English class online every morning before she goes to school. The Web helps create a community in which people can learn from each other at low or no costs, just like how people have been looking up online tutorials off YouTube for the past few years.

There are many ways technology can reshape the future of education. One of the notable theories is through gamification, an idea in which Aaron Dignan, CEO of the digital strategy firm Undercurrent, strongly believes. During his speech at Penny Conference, Dignan states that video games put context into why people do things and help us become more engaged with what we do, rather than a math class which can initially show no purpose.

Aaron Dignan at Penny Conference '12

“If you play enough Monopoly or Risk or poker, you will walk away with new skills,” he says. Monopoly is a good example, because it combines learning how to strategize taking over land, investments and payoffs, money managing, negotiating and networking with other players, and helps players take into account probability lessons. These days, it’s not about what you have theoretically learned to do in school, but the skills that you can apply to real world tasks even if the skills came from a simple board game.

Dignan backs the idea up with an example most gamers can relate: The introductory process. “Tutorials are the worst part of a game,” he says. Most people don’t even like to sit through tutorials at the beginning of the game because there is no context there, and instead skip to the action to learn by doing.

The idea is similar to the creation of Codecademy, where co-founder Zach Sims (who also spoke at the conference) says learning to code is like learning to do everything else in life.

“Algorithms are misunderstood by people,” Sims says. “It doesn’t have to be on a computer. It can be anything that’s automated.”

For example, your morning routine is backed by logic and programming. Every day you wake up, the orders and process of when you brush your teeth, shower, put on clothes, and eat breakfast are no different than setting up computer languages to run in a specific way.

“We’re teaching technologies of today with methods from yesterday,” Sims says. “The computer is essentially our generation’s factory.”

Independent learning and picking up by trial and error is the best method, Sims says. He believes learning this way is a building block of computer science, or any other type of automated tasks necessary in other work places. It also helps that Codecademy works like a game, where your inputs and outputs are rewarded with social badges, achievements, and interactions.

While Dignan might be right in saying “games can retain attention more than schools,” what if everyone takes after the model of gamification for everything else on the Web? Can the model easily become overdone?

“Absolutely,” Dignan tells us. “Look at Farmville for example. That’s a game based on compulsion and nothing about learning. You have to ask yourself: Is this about building a skill?”

If that was the case, clearly 80 percent of people on Facebook would be farmers.

To catch the nine speeches that were delivered at Penny Conference 2012, visit the Skillshare Livestream site to view previous recordings of the event.


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