MMORPGs in Schools: The Shift Ahead

One of my dissertation committee members asked that I address in Chapter 5 the paradigm shift necessary to implement MMORPGs in schools. I’ve chosen to include this in the concluding statement. I’ve just now finished a complete draft of the dissertation and finished composing the concluding statement. I plan to send it off to my committee soon, but I’m also dying to know what some of you might think. I’d appreciate any feedback you can offer on this concluding statement:

Shaffer, Squire, and Gee (2003) wrote that “videogames have the potential to change the landscape of education as we know it” (p. 111). They urged that games be designed with “sound theories of learning and socially conscious educational practices” (p. 111). However, they also noted that the theories of learning embedded in videogames as a medium run counter to the presiding theories of learning in schools. Squire and Gee (2003) explained that games may be viewed as suspect in an era when the value of instruction is measured by standardized tests (p. 30).

This study is significant because it explored a technology that may have the potential to improve (and perhaps revolutionize) education for Twenty-First century students and educators. An MMORPG might help students develop difficult to teach Twenty-First Century Skills, particularly if frequent and structured reflection time is provided for students. In addition, MMORPGs may be motivating and engaging for students while providing a context for learning and a framework for social learning. Also, as the serious games movement has demonstrated, these games might have the ability to inspire players to effect positive social change.

The future of education may be something very like an educational massively multiplayer online role-playing game. A century of artificially linear and context-free book learning may be replaced by a system in which students learn by doing. Traditional academic content might be learned by visiting a virtual world in which the content is situated and relevant. For instance, students of history might play a role in a simulation of the American revolution; a role that might just as likely be focused on drafting the constitution as it might be related to the war. Twenty-first century skills might be easier to teach because students are exercising them while working together in a game, and assessment will be authentic; either students will be able to apply their knowledge and skills successfully in the game, or not. Students might, for example, work together to launch a business in a simulated (or fictional) world.

Experiences like this might be available to students with an unprecedented degree of equity. Students in North America, Europe, Asia, and anywhere in less developed countries where an Internet connection is available might be able to take advantage of the same game worlds and educational experiences. Students might work together (for rigorous academic purposes) across boarders and cultural barriers. Everyone might be considered equal behind their avatars.

For this to happen in K12 schools, though, a paradigm shift of unprecedented magnitude might be required. This shift in thinking would need to occur in three major ways. First, schools would need to embrace the tenets of constructivist pedagogy. Schools would have to come to value such things as Twenty-First Century skills, reflection, engagement and motivation, context-embedded learning, and social learning. The wisdom of using a technology that can provide these things is not clear if these things are not valued. Hand-in-hand with this change, schools would need to accept and adopt new roles for educators, who might serve as facilitators, coaches, and debriefing experts to support student game play and reflection on game play.

Second, schools would need to overcome broader cultural resistance to using videogames in schools. Educational MMORPGs will need to be seen as learning worlds, not as a waste of time, and certainly not as violent or sexist in anyway. Educators, administrators, parents, and society at large would need to believe in the concept of hard fun, rather than believing as many do that fun and learning are mutually exclusive or diametrically opposed. Obviously, game developers will have an important role to play in this change, as will educational technologists who will be called upon to educate their colleagues, superiors, and communities about the value of the games.

The third change, though, may be the most difficult. Schools will need to accept a significant transfer of power. As with two-way web tools such as blogs, wikis, and social networks, MMORPGs allow students to interact with each other and create content without necessarily being moderated by teachers or other adult authority figures. Surely educational MMORPGs will need to include measures to address inappropriate behavior, but schools will also need to accept that students can say what they want to who they want when they want, that students will have relationships that extend beyond the school walls (and school hours), and that student solutions to in-game problems will be emergent, creative, and unlike what their educators may have predicted, expected, or hoped.

If such a paradigm shift is a desired destination, the road will likely be a long and difficult one. The results of this study suggest that significant infrastructure and logistical challenges may lay ahead for any implementation of MMORPGs in schools. Infrastructure challenges may include student access to computers, hardware requirements, and bandwidth requirements. Logistical issues may include great costs, in terms of finances, time, and human resources. Even more significant may be the kinds of organizational change necessary for successful implementation, particularly given the likelihood of resistance not only on account of MMORPGs being seen as videogames, but also on account of the tendency of educators and educational institutions to resist innovations in educational technology.

Pioneering early adopters, developers, and researchers are needed to overcome these challenges and work towards the necessary paradigmatic shifts. This work may require individuals with who are comfortable subverting the existing system. As March (2006) told educators struggling with similar issues related to two-way web technologies, to be successful pioneers may need to “be subversive” first in order to demonstrate the value of what they propose. Postman & Weingartner’s (1969) call for teaching to be a subversive activity (including their focus on the inquiry method, relevance, and meaning making) have gone largely unheeded, but that is exactly what may be necessary to bring about this potential shift in education and to allow students to realize the benefits that MMORPGs might provide in an academic context. The researcher thus calls for pioneers to innovate and be subversive in their efforts to act on the recommendations of this study and to further explore the potential benefits and drawbacks of using MMORPGs in schools.

11 Responses to “MMORPGs in Schools: The Shift Ahead”

  1. Heather Wolpert-Gawron Says:

    Hey Mark,
    My students and I interviewed you at CUE and I wanted to let you know that their podcasts from that weekend are slowly being edited as we speak. We have the first one online (your interview is going to be on the second episode), but I wanted to let you know because my students wrote a news broadcast that they presented live at CUE on the value of MMORPGs in the classroom. Check out their website at web.mac.com/bulldogradio and listen to the episode to hear their take on this awesome issue. We as a class are also starting to explore more video game possibilities. The kids who attended were inspired by CUE, as we all are after our first CUE conference.

  2. The Barriers May not be So Great | 2¢ Worth Says:

    [...] Last night, Mark Wagner posted part of his dissertation in his blog, Educational Technology and Life.  He’s asked for comments from readers and here are excerpts of my responses to MMORPGs in Schools: The Shift Ahead.  Wagner writes: They urged that games be designed with “sound theories of learning and socially conscious educational practices” (p. 111). However, they also noted that the theories of learning embedded in videogames as a medium run counter to the presiding theories of learning in schools. Squire and Gee (2003) explained that games may be viewed as suspect in an era when the value of instruction is measured by standardized tests (p. 30). [...]

  3. David Warlick Says:

    Geez! I just posted that blog entry less than a minute ago (see comment 2). That’s impressive.

    – dave –

  4. MMORPGs in Schools: The Shift Ahead « Gaming & Learning Says:

    [...] Full article available here. [...]

  5. Response to MMORPGs in Schools: The Shift Ahead « Gaming & Learning Says:

    [...] March 31, 2008 Last night, Mark Wagner posted part of his dissertation in his blog, Educational Technology and Life. He’s asked for comments from readers and here are excerpts of my responses to MMORPGs in Schools: The Shift Ahead. Wagner writes: They urged that games be designed with “sound theories of learning and socially conscious educational practices” (p. 111). However, they also noted that the theories of learning embedded in videogames as a medium run counter to the presiding theories of learning in schools. Squire and Gee (2003) explained that games may be viewed as suspect in an era when the value of instruction is measured by standardized tests (p. 30). [...]

  6. Shall we play a game? » Blog Archive » Two blogs of note Says:

    [...] MMORPGs in School: The Shift Ahead [...]

  7. Alexajef205 Says:

    I have to say, I love the idea of MMORPG’s preparing students. It’s not dry, dull facts put in front of you to try and soak up, like a lot of the educational software out there. It’s interactive, and what’s most important, it actually prepares the student for what they’re going to face. Take this statement for example…

    “Students might, for example, work together to launch a business in a simulated (or fictional) world.”

    I think that one of the biggest problems with our educational system is that, while it does give us the facts, it doesn’t give us the chance to apply those facts in the real world until we’re neck deep in it. In this way, students can get that real-world experience without the dangers of actually starting a new business (i.e. failure or bankruptcy). It gives the students a sort of practice/trial run before they’re faced with going out into the world on their own. The development of these games is a great way for students to see what they’re going to need later on in life and to practice those skills, and that, my friends, is what school is all about.

  8. Stoutma205 Says:

    “For instance, students of history might play a role in a simulation of the American revolution; a role that might just as likely be focused on drafting the constitution as it might be related to the war.”

    That would be AWESOME! I wish we had something like this while i was in school. I hope that something like this does take off, bc it will really help to captivate the imaginations of a lot of students. To be able to fight in a war, strategize it, or write the constitution? How crazy its that. The chance to fail or succeed is great too, bc it teaches kids what could happen before they find out in real life.

  9. Brian Slope Says:

    I think this could be revolutionary. There are so many educational opportunities within these games as is, if someone were to create a specifically designed virtual world for learning, the possibilities are endless. Just ask one of the students that really plays a game like WOW or EQ, and they can usually give you volumes of information about their character and exploits in game. They have trouble in math class but can calculate refresh rates, DPS , and other quantitative aspects of the game almost instantly. Context and motivation are powerful.

  10. Martine parry Says:

    I am really interested in this topic for the conferences I run. The next one is Apply Serious Games in its third year now in London on 10th July. I’ve been looking into language training and other areas where I believe there are no-brainers for using MMO approaches to learning. We are still shaping the conference so any ideas are very welcome. http://www.applyseriousgames.com

    martine parry martine@angils.org

  11. Heidi Says:

    A major paradigm shift, no doubt, is necessary. And although in some ways it’s inevitable that teaching and learning will have to change in this direction, school structures themselves will fight it every step of the way. The simple fact of bandwidth requirements, constant infrastructure problems, TIME, and teacher reluctance will stand in the way for a long time to come.

    I say experiment with the population that is already ripe for it: homeschoolers. They aren’t restricted by time, and many of them are searching for alternative ways to inspire learning. That population is growing by leaps and bounds, and fewer and fewer of them are techno-phobic.