2e Tech by Marlo PayneThurman

Alternative Education with MMORPGs and MOOCs:
A Reflection on Possibilities

May, 2014

Ed Tech Pick of the Issue

Sixteen years ago, I started a private K-8 school for gifted children with special needs. The school’s mission was to teach the state’s standards-based curriculum in ungraded, ability-leveled contexts, primarily through play. To do this, the school integrated therapeutic activities — vision training, listening therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, social skills training, and learning disability intervention — with constructivist teaching (a child-directed approach based on the idea that we learn best through what we experience and by reflecting on those experiences) and project-based learning.

This model often took the form of thematic, live-action role play. Relying heavily on props, costumes, and imagination, students traveled through time and place, into historical epochs of world history, for the purpose of learning content by seeing it, hearing it, and touching it. Then they demonstrated learning through speaking, writing, and building. To the extent possible, reading, writing, math, science, social studies, and humanities all followed the theme.

The school ran for seven years but was too expensive to be sustainable. At its conclusion, several edutainment gaming companies expressed interested in the school’s curriculum. However, the electronic devices and learning models needed to support this kind of game-based online learning on a large and financially viable scale did not exist; but now they do! Today we have Massive Multi-player Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs), Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), and inexpensive mobile computing devices (like smart phones and tablets). So let’s see how these three might come together as society begins to envision a new education model for children who are otherwise unsuccessful in traditional learning

Expectations for High-quality Online Learning

According to the field of educational technology, online learning must use technology in creative and imaginative ways. Its goal is to transfer learning experiences into student-centered, real-world sequences that are:

  • Content-driven
  • Interactive
  • Repeatable
  • Able to be evaluated.

For online learning to be considered of high quality, it should be all of the following:

  • Authentically active
  • Engaging
  • Student-centered
  • Collaborative.

Furthermore, like all good learning, it should:

  • Teach mastery of material
  • Provide feedback and expectation
  • Demand respect for diversity
  • Require students to engage with one another and with the “teacher” through communications and dialogue built into the lessons.

To date, unfortunately, I have not seen the majority of these expectations met in an existing online education format (no criticism to anyone implied). Given what exists, interaction, evaluation, and activity are all contrived. Little learning is student-centered and even less is collaborative. While online learning communities are minimally introduced, few are actually formed. Last, but not least, very little creativity and imagination are demonstrated in existing online learning.

Meeting Expectations with MMORPGs and MOOCs

Where can we find the opportunity for higher-quality online interaction and problem solving? In my opinion, high-end Massive Multi-player Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) could serve as our model. Although MMORPGs lack what we would consider an academic curriculum, serious gamers join together to engage in at least some aspects of “authentic” and interactive collaborative online learning communities to solve problems and master challenges.

Game designers know that gamers will do whatever it takes to master content and win the game. If need be, they will stay up all night learning a new game, even if that means reading lengthy backstories such as those presented in the new Elder Scrolls. No complaints, just reading (or as educators would call it, learner-driven mastery of material). Tracking of progress and reinforcement of success are inherent within game play as gamers work to acquire necessary strategies and materials.

Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), on the other hand, have the academic curriculum that MMORPGs lack. Educators create the content, map out the learning sequence and activities, and then deliver the courses online to any number of users. MOOCs are often self-paced and self-directed, and they provide a number of assignments and tests that are usually optional. While MOOCs have been primarily created to supplement existing course offerings at the post-secondary education level, the concept of MOOCs has started to appear in primary and secondary education through organizations such as the Kahn Academy.

Unfortunately, MOOCs face a primary challenge, as early research shows. Their lack of interaction, communication, and opportunity for group problem solving lead to high drop-out rates.

So on one hand, we have MMORPGs, which utilize interactive communication and problem solving through game play but lack learning content. On the other hand, we have MOOCs, which only provide learning content with minimal opportunities for discussions or group problem-solving activities. Why then can’t there be a marriage between MMORPG and MOOC?

Given what I learned while running the Brideun School, learning is done best within interaction and play. (We had the test scores to prove it!) These old ideas are newly reinforced as I stand back and watch the gaming and online learning worlds unfold. It leads me to the question, “What better way to teach authentically than by using the resources of MMORPG/ MOOC shared technologies and using inexpensive handheld devices?”

More than ever before, the tools exist to literally transport learners rather than simply teach them facts. Imagine a virtual world where math and science are applied to “survival,” where reading becomes relevant and writing tasks are necessary for communication, where the arts and humanities tie directly to history, and where history is taught, as it actually occurred, within the context of math, literature, scientific discovery, art, politics, and communication.

In my opinion, the marriage between MMORPG  and MOOC using hand-held devices is inevitable; but without knowledgeable professionals to drive this merger, I can only imagine where it might lead. We live in a time of endless possibility for the future of education. So, whether we consider change as reform or as true revolution, our gifted and twice-exceptional populations stand front and center to drive this future with needs and potentials. As I have often said, if we can design education to meet the needs of our most asynchronously gifted and twice-exceptional populations, then we do a better job of serving everyone else.

Marlo Payne Thurman, M.S., is a school psychologist, education consultant, and member of the 2e Newsletter Editorial Advisory Board. She specializes in assessment, advocacy, cognitive training, sensory and behavior support, and socio-emotional coaching for individuals from around the country who are gifted yet asynchronous. Marlo operates the Brideun Learning Communities, which designs custom play-based therapeutic programs and, in addition to her private practice, she provides consultative support to new 2e program start-ups. Marlo holds a board position with the United States Autism and Asperger’s Association, is the director of the U.S. College Autism Project, and teaches a course in the Special Education Department of the University of Northern Colorado.

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