The following is an excerpt from the foreword I wrote for a new MIT Press book, The More We Know: NBC News, Educational Innovation, and Learning from Failure, which was authored by two of my former MIT colleagues Eric Klopfer and Jason Haas. Klopfer and Haas are part of the Learning Games Network, a joint initiative between games-based learning researchers at MIT and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and it describes the iCue project, which began while I was still back in Cambridge.
First, a bit from my foreword, and then, over the next few installments, an interview with Kopfer, Haas and Alex Chisholm about this book, which recounts some of the potentials and pitfalls in collaborations between industry and academia:
Three immovable objects walked into a bar. The first was the current world of corporate media (and especially what remains of traditional network news), the second was the current world of higher education (as it lurches towards new funding models and institutional practices), and the third, perhaps, the most immovable and intractable of them all, was the current policy and institutional mess we call public education (which is shaped by a profound mismatch between what we know of how students learn and policies setting standards that in no way reflect those insights). Each wanted to buy the others a drink, give them something that might ease their stress, sooth their tempers, or at least let them forget their problems. But they couldn’t agree on what the ingredients of this beverage should be, or how it should be paid for, or how they should decide what it should contain, or what kind of relationship would be implied by the buying and selling of drinks, or in what order they should be drinking or….
[Imagine there’s a punchline somewhere around here.]
This is the story of the book you hold in your hand reduced to the level of a farce, as in you’d best keep laughing in order to keep from crying. But of course, the iCue saga is more than a farce. It might also be called a tragedy, in which the best of intentions are waylaid, malformed, and brought low through a series of fatal flaws which prevent each of these institutions from fully embracing change, which block them from seeing the future that the others see so clearly, or which require them to sell out what they value the most if they are going to make any progress forward. Yet, calling the story you are about to read a tragedy is to imply that it was a perfect failure from start to finish.
And we all know nothing’s perfect.
In fact, as The More We Know makes clear, there were many localized successes along the way and as a consequence of the efforts described herein, other good things have happened. It is rather a story about imperfect failures and imperfect successes, about unintended consequences, unreached goals, and unanticipated results.
It is also an epic, involving a constantly changing cast of characters, each embodying as any good epic does, the contradictions of their times, and featuring multiple heroes, who push greater boulders up to the tops of high hills, only to watch them roll back down again.
The More We Know is also an adventure story set on the bleeding edge of innovation and reform, one which will offer some guideposts for those of you who would follow in the protagonist’s footsteps. There are relatively few post mortems on how great ideas and good intentions do not always turn out the way we expect. I would probably put this on my book shelf next to Brenda Laurel’s Utopian Entrepreneur, which describes the rise and fall of Purple Moon and the girls game movement, or perhaps Sandy Stone’s account of working at the early days of Atari. It certainly, as the authors suggest, provides a personal and extended example to illustrate some of what Mimi Ito has told us about the creation of educational software or what Collins and Halverson have suggested about the resistance of educational institutions to new technologies and practices.
Whatever its genre, The More We Know is the story of the people in the trenches on the front lines of media change and the authors, themselves key participants, tell it very well here….
In our classrooms, we were teaching our students that media change takes place through evolution rather than revolution, but in our labs, we still wanted to change the world, we wanted to blow down the walls and reshape core institutions, and we were painfully, awkwardly, sweetly naive. The path forward turned out to be harder than idealists predicted but not nearly as impossible as skeptics and cynics might insist.
The book you hold in your hands describes some of the walls we hit and the ways our faculty,research staff, and students worked around and through them. My hope is that readers will take from this the right set of lessons. We succeeded sometimes, failed sometimes, and learned a great deal always about what it takes to make change in the imperfect world around us. The More We Know is not a warning to “avoid this path – there be monsters here”; it is a challenge to “follow us if you dare.”
The More We Know is, in some senses, what game designers would call a “postmortem.” What do you see as the value of this genre of writing and why do you think we see so few postmortems coming out of academic research projects compared to their prominence within the games industry?
Much of this boils down to how differently industry and academia perceive “failure.” There is a perception within academia that funding follows success, and that small, successful projects attract bigger funding. In industry, there is (at least sometimes) a feeling that failure can lead to learning for teams, which, in turn, become more fundable based on that learning. This means that in academia we only want to talk about successes.
There is another issue, though. For academia, we perceive failure to be a failure of our product—the thing we made. But in industry one can perceive failure any place in a system – failure of marketing, timing, audience, etc. They can think about the whole ecology surrounding the product. Academics aren’t as prone to thinking about these things as much. As such, we feel the failure to be much more personal, even as the failure of academic products can be attributed to many parts of that ecosystem as well.
Describe to us the iCue project. What were its initial goals? What problems was it intended to address? What partners did it try to bring together?
Stated simply, the iCue project was originally conceived to bring younger people to the NBC News brand while supporting important learning goals through the repurposing of old media assets and the creation of a new digital experience. More pragmatically, NBC News needed a cost-effective strategy to digitize its vast archives without breaking the bank. Education and the perceived abundance of technology funding in schools provided the roadmap for what this project could possibly be.
The original pitch for iCue was that it was one part media archive, one part social learning network, and one part learning games and activities. iCue was imagined to provide young people with media and tools for learning in a more engaging way, creating a bridge between the curricula and traditional media their teachers were comfortable with on the one hand and the interactive world in which they’ve grown up on the other. It was intended to be supplemental, enabling teachers and students to engage with it in support of Advanced Placement curricula in English Composition, U.S. History, and U.S. Government. Since NBC News is a broadcast company with radio and television assets extending back to the very earliest days of broadcasting, project leaders sought to bring together a diverse set of education, archive, and print partners, including the College Board, Washington Post, and the New York Times, among others.
Eric Klopfer is Professor and Director of the Scheller Teacher Education Program and The Education Arcade at MIT. Klopfer’s research focuses on the development and use of computer games and simulations for building understanding of science and complex systems. He is the co-author of the book, Adventures in Modeling: Exploring Complex, Dynamic Systems with StarLogo, and author of Augmented Learning: Research and Design of Mobile Educational Games from MIT Press. Klopfer is also the co-founder and President of the non-profit Learning Games Network.
Jason Haas is Graduate Research Assistant in the Media Lab and in The Education Arcade at MIT. His research focuses on the design and efficacy of learning games. Recent research and design has been for The Radix Endeavor, a Gates Foundation-funded MMORPG for science and math learning. Previous research has involved the role of narrative in learning in the casual physics games Woosh, Waker, and Poikilia and in large-scale collective intelligence gaming in Vanished.
Alex Chisholm is Co-Founder and Executive Director of Learning Games Network, a non-profit organization bridging the gap between research and practice in game-based learning. He has collaborated on product and program development with Microsoft, LeapFrog, NBC Universal, BrainPOP, Federal Reserve Bank-New York, and the Hewlett and Gates Foundations, among others.