The last time I reported about iCue on this blog, it was part of an overview of the work of The Education Arcade. In what ways were the choices made on iCue informed by the Education Arcade’s previous experiences developing prototypes for “serious games”? What are some of the factors which have made it hard to get university-based games research beyond the prototype stage and into the world where it might have greater impact?
There is a lot of pushback in the system where change is required. If there is a change required in the way teaching and learning are perceived, then it is much harder to get adoption. As such, the teachers never really came for the games, but rather the other parts that they could adopt or adapt and plug into existing structures. In turn, NBC didn’t take the games as seriously; they didn’t grow the more innovative or risky ideas, and, due to the financial crisis in 2008, they couldn’t really even update them.
Thinking about how we moved from previous work into this project, we were working in a much more constrained space then we were used to. Rather than having the flexibility to build something rich and multi-faceted as we had with Revolution, we were working in the narrower starting space of media archives and integration with the AP curricula. That restricted the game space, but provided perhaps more realistic constraints than we were used to working within.
What do you see as some of the major hurdles which academic researchers face in terms of working with industry partners?
There are certainly competing interests. In academia, we can take a longer view, learning and refining over time. These learnings are valued in and if themselves. Of course, we also need a successful product, but we can take the time to get there carefully and be thorough. We can be risk prone in the short term. In industry, pressure to return revenue quickly creates risk aversion. Even though NBC News’ then-CFO, Adam Jones, protected iCue against those pressures more than the average project, it still had to make compromises that we had to stomach. For instance, there was early hope that the site would feature remix tools for young people to author their own content, but NBC Standards and Practices department shut down that talk almost immediately.
What factors make the education marketplace a particularly challenging one to navigate?
There are big issues around who pays for products, and who makes the decision to buy. Are schools paying? Can a teacher make the decision, or must they appeal up the food chain to their principal or district? Are parents going to pay? Would any of these stakeholders accept a free-to-play model with sponsored advertising? Then, depending on these factors, how do you design and market the product? There are also issues of metrics and measurement—how do you show that your product is working? Does it leverage existing metrics (which may be poor), or new metrics (which aren’t yet implemented or validated)?
Further, are the schools and teachers even ready for the product, both pedagogically and technologically? Do they have the preparation they need to use the tool effectively?
Finally, if you can settle all of those questions but have a new product approaching learning in a new way, how do you communicate that to your audience? It can be difficult to transmit that kind of messaging through the standard, narrow channels to schools and teachers.
If you could go back and time and leave a message for yourself at the beginning of the process, describing what you now know, what would it say?
Instead of moving our research team to an evaluation position on the project, stay on the design side. Convince NBC News that the need to sell something quickly shouldn’t obscure the original vision of what this product might do in the hands of students (where it never really got).
We would also push back on timelines and growth models. We might have seen more success if we had started in a more targeted area and grown from there. That would have almost certainly been a more effective model instead of jumping all in right away, diluting much of the opportunity for participatory learning and deeper learning experiences.
What challenges did you face working with the educational establishment? Were teachers ready for what iCue sought to do? Were students?
Teachers might have been ready, but ultimately the site lacked the depth and frequency of updates it needed to really achieve its goals.
Students might also have been ready, but iCue was a space populated with teachers when they arrived, perhaps sending the signal that it wasn’t a space for them.
The jury is still out on whether students can and will come to an academic social space like iCue was envisioned to be. That is an interesting question that we continue to explore in our work.
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.