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.