The classroom will disappear

One of the most obvious features of college is also, in my opinion, one of the least useful. Classroom are not where real learning takes place: an average student in a lecture demonstrates about as much brain activity as they do when watching TV. In other words, a lecture can be interpreted as boring entertainment. On the other hand, the brain is much more engaged when playing video games because they are interactive, just as it would be easy to stay focused when a zombie is trying to eat your brains. They require an immediate response.

So, why did I title the post as I did? I think that the classroom is eventually going to be replaced by a new model enabled by better technology.

MOOCs, or massively open online courses, have given a brief glimpse of the new direction, but they are only the smallest step in this new direction. Video games are a better model here. So imagining we can provide content to each student individually which is already possible in MOOCs, what elements needs to be included to make this work?

(1) Something visual. Remember text-based adventure games? There’s a reason why everyone went to “video” games. They are more engrossing. Life is visual, so we probably need a visual element. What would that look like? For military history, you could easily create a historically accurate real-time or turn-based strategy game. For engineering, you could create a visual solver geared towards education (several of which already exist with some limited functionality). It may be a little tougher for certain other genres, like literature, but you could potentially do some adventure game. This part is conceptually easier, even if tough to execute.

(2) The ability to tailor content to a person’s skills. This should be possible through a big data approach similar to how Amazon suggests new products. Other people who viewed the same things as you viewed this other thing as well, so you probably will too. In an educational context, this would be: others who got this problem wrong got similar problems right after being shown some other problem, therefore you will get that other problem next. Using this approach, you could probably do all learning via problems, with no need for lectures at all. Skeptical? Video games use that strategy to teach some pretty complex concepts. I think it could be done here too.

(3) A way to generate a massive amount of content. In order to use the big data approach, you would need an enormous bank of problems for any given topic. There is no way that a small team could generate enough problems to make this work, so we probably need some mechanism for user-generated problems.

(4) An error-finding tool or algorithm if we use user-generated content. There are generally a lot of errors in user-generated content, but certain techniques like level editors (in this case problem editors) in video games or the user review process used by Wikipedia can be used to iron those out.

(5) Immediate feedback. There is nothing more immediate than falling into a pit and getting a game over when you misjudge the jump, and so video games are excellent models for this. A huge problem that currently limits the usefulness of homework is the 1-2 week delay between doing the work and getting the feedback.

(6) Some obvious measure of advancement, like badges or levels or achievements. This is another reason why video games are so addictive. People put an enormous amount of time into incredibly frustrating tasks in order to get a badge. Think: like every game ever. It is sometimes incredibly frustrating to master a new concept, and this is an effective way to keep people invested.

The wonderful thing is that none of these elements are new. Everything has been done before, albeit in non-educational contexts. Therefore, there should be no reason why it couldn’t be implemented in education. Now all that remains is to do it (although that part will, as always, be a thorny problem).

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