Can gamification change education for good?

External influences on the Education system

Employers have long complained that the education system doesn’t provide them with the skilled workforce they want and need.  In part, that’s why they go looking for them overseas. Even the UK Government admits there is a ‘digital skills crisis’[1].

The rapid changes in technology will displace hundreds of millions of jobs globally – up to 47% of all jobs in the US[2] and the Bank of England estimate over 15 million here in the UK[3].  That means we need a new way of educating our youngsters and retraining our adults.

In our primary schools children now turn up with digital skills because they are used to playing games and watching videos on their parents’ smartphones and tablets.  Many have some keyboard and mouse skills.  So they come to school ready learn, then encounter a system that often slows down their digital learning. 

And that continues into secondary education.  A recent survey shows there is a significant drop in engagement during the first three years in secondary school.[4]

Political uncertainty continues to churn the education system, with the sector expecting squeezed budgets for the next decade.  This is especially acute in the FE sector, the sector that caters to the cohort most often disaffected and disengaged by the academic drive of most schools and universities.

Despite the problems in the UK education sector, the global market for education was estimated at nearly $5tn in 2015[5], and with access to new technologies and accessibility in Africa and Asia, that figure is expected to rise dramatically in the coming decade.

How do children (and adults) learn?

Playing games in order to learn is the most natural thing in the world. And technology provides new and exciting ways to learn.  Not just youngsters with their tablets and smartphones, the augmented reality of Pokemon Go! swept the world played by adolescents and adults as well.  And virtual reality is getting ever cheaper and accessible.  The gaming market is already worth nearly $100bn a year. Combining games and education is a powerful combination.

So what happens if you successfully gameify learning?

A school in New York has based their curriculum around game-based learning[7] and have shared their blue-print for success.[8]  Their approach has proven that gaming can successfully be applied to engaging students who might otherwise struggle with traditional teaching and learning.  However their approach is not all about technology, and that’s where the big opportunity for scaling comes.

However, while a number of games manufacturers have tried to incorporate learning into their games, none have been hugely successful.  Literally hundreds of thousands of games for education have been created by teachers or parents, but these usually concentrate on a small area or ‘niche’.  Again, while many think they are successful, their appeal seems to be limited.    No-one yet appears to have created the blockbusting ‘Call of Duty’ for mathematics. Why is that? You have to assume because it’s not easy.

Because if you could, the rewards would be huge. Making it interesting, engaging and compulsive would be a massive ‘pull’ from children, young people and adults as they ‘wanted’ to get to the ‘next level’.  Imagine a series of inter-connected games that covered a range of skills and topics, with ‘levels’ that suited age and ability.  It would mean people could learn at their own pace, and to the level of their ability.  You could truly personalise learning. 

And the ability to create different ‘levels’ or modules can deliver massive benefits for employers.  They would have the ability to specify the exact skills that they are looking for, and the games manufacturers could create ‘bespoke modules’ that applicants would have to ‘pass’ before being interview.  Organisations like MI5 and Google already do something like this, why shouldn’t everyone else? 

So getting an electronic badge or certificate for passing a level suddenly becomes more important to an employer than a GCSE or an A-level, because that badge tells them the applicant can do exactly what the employer wants and needs.  All of a sudden you have a new, and disruptive, currency in education.  One that could be truly global and universally recognised.  No need so ask “How does this qualification match up to the US, Chinese or Indian equivalent?”

The BIG game in gamification

There is a big opportunity to make money from games in education.  In the Europe and America charging for games, even in education is commonplace.  Aspirational parents are always happy to pay a few pounds.  That is true across the world, even in poorer areas such as Africa, Asia and South America because education is seen as the route out of poverty.  There the prices are likely to be very much less, but the volumes very much higher.

But the really big opportunity comes in owning the data.  The ‘gaming history’ of individuals and groups will become extremely valuable.  Data such as: the games that have been played; success and failure rates; speed of completion; time and duration of play; and collaboration styles will all become extremely valuable to educationalists, marketeers and employers.  Educators will be able to tailor learning programmes for individuals; marketeers would be able to target marketing; and employers wold be able to identify the right employees for them. Being able to that on a global basis will be worth billions.

The BIG challenge

The big challenge for educators is to make sure that they remain central to the inexorable rise of gamification, working with and influencing the likes of Microsoft and Google to make sure that the games they are creating serve the needs of the students of all ages, no matter who they are or wherever they are in the world.