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Lo-Tech Play and Hi-Tech Education

February 22, 2018

I recently saw an interview with a successful cryptocurrency entrepreneur. The tech-savvy guy, in his early forties, moved into this risky field a long time before most people have heard of it. When asked about his plans for his time after crypto-mania, he said that since his wife is a school teacher, he’d like to use his skills to improve our failing educational system.


His nevermind-the-details plan was using the power of Virtual Reality and Gaming Technology to create an individual, tailored and exciting curriculum. In the typical humility of Tech entrepreneurs, he concluded,


this way we can increase human happiness by 80%.


What qualifies that guy to know what’s good for human happiness, or the happiness of kids, remains a mystery. But when we’re in pain, there will be those selling us snake oil to fix it.   


 Safe, fun & educational activity. Image Source: Pexels


The intersection of Games, Education and Technology has been looming on the horizon, and every year billions of dollars are spent on EdTech technologies designed to make us and our kids smarter while we’re playing. 


Three underlying assumptions are driving this quest –


(1) Our current education system need to go through major changes to meet the demands of the 21st century;


(2) Information & Digital Technology can improve, if not permanently fix, everything that is wrong with any system;


(3) Adults and kids spend so much time playing computer and mobile games, that they may as well use it for something useful, like learning.


The first assumption can fill entire books. I recommend Ken Robinson’s Out of Our Minds, and Peter Gray’s Free to Learn.


Digital technology is indeed a powerful toolbox that has already improved many aspects of our lives – health, communication, transportation and many other field.

But the jury is still out on tech’s ability to improve our self-confidence, cognitive skills and overall wellbeing (apparently even of those who happen to own a successful tech company).


There are now more voices from within the tech industry itself, that are questioning the ethics of using of psychological manipulations and induced addiction in the design of digital technology. Mobile technology’s influence on our kids may be even more harmful than we’d like to admit.


There’s no doubt - digital & mobile tech will be present in our schools. This is inevitable. Like any other technological change, it’ll have its good and bad sides. What we need to question is not if tech should be used in schools, but how it will be used.


Risky, boring & noneducational activity. Image Source: Unsplash


There are many explanations to why kids play with computer and mobile technology, but it comes down to two primary reasons. The first reason is our increased use of technology, which means that there’s much more digital tech available inside our homes. The second and less noticed reason, is the fear that many parents share about the social and physical risks outside our homes.


The political and economic benefits of fear-mongering among parents – despite a constant decline in crime and accident rates over many years – can also fill entire books, like Lenore Skenazy’s Free Range Kids.


Whatever are the causes, the result is a constant decline in free, outdoor, social, spontaneous and unsupervised play time. On the other end, there’s an increased demand for academic achievements, planned extracurricular activities and more time spent indoor.


When we’re trying to understand why digital games are so popular, we should remember that kids play because it is a part of human nature. Across on the globe, kids are using whatever is available to play around them – rocks, cans, old tires etc. And, kids play whenever adults don’t order them to do something else.


So, when we keep kids inside for longer hours, cautiously plan their social interaction and activities outside and when digital technology is so accessible, they’ll play using this technology.


There’s no magic involved and no special power of technology. It was just there.


Tech companies understand these trends well and offer more and more platforms and digital games. And if we let them, they’ll be happy to keep pushing their products into schools, so kids will consume their products when they’re learning, playing, socializing, daydreaming and possibly sleeping.


Concluding that more hi-tech games are what will save our education system is intuitive - Yes, schools are failing, technology is useful, and kids love playing with digital technology.


But does it mean that games based on tech are good for them? Does it mean these are useful? will they be meaningful?


In their current form, apps and algorithms can imitate interaction, but they cannot become human interaction. Game engines, like all attention-grabbing algorithms, are designed to make us act and then react to our actions. Their designers feed an infinite number of possible actions and reactions into the engine, to make the game interesting (and possibly addictive).  


What technology cannot do is sit in front of us and play, which is what we need to make it meaningful. Human learning is related to meaning and usefulness. We like to discover new and novel things, like technology, or the next stage of a video game. But what we’re really looking for in novelty, is its usefulness or meaning.


Certainly, playing against an algorithm can be fun. Whether this fun will be educational, meaningful or useful is still something that needs to be demonstrated. And then scaled to help millions of children.


There are many things that are wrong in our education system – not enough creativity, self-exploration or movement, over-reliance on standardized testing, outdated direct instruction method etc. To fix this we’ll need a deep and long set of reforms.


And no doubt technology will be a part of it. If some elements of game design can help facilitate this change, it would be great. Place a screen or VR glasses in front of kids and they’ll play all day long.


It’ll keep ‘em busy, and most of them won’t complain. It’s cheaper than paying teachers and building schools. It’s less risky than letting them decide what they need to learn.


None of it means that learning will occur.

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