I attended PAX, and had the great pleasure of attending a lecture by Tyler Black, a Child and Adolescent psychiatrist who has a special interest in gaming. Usually his panels focus on dispelling the myths about videogames and aggression while pointing out some of the serious concerns about the plethora of games that encourage addictive behavior by variable ratio/unscheduled reinforcement, in particular many of the MMOs and more recently some of the free to play games that feature in game purchases that can encourage a number of problematic behaviors.
After the lecture, I asked him what his thoughts were on the Khan Academy issuing badges that, in at least one case, have caused a fifth grader to become downright addicted to doing math. (Couldn’t find the article, curse my metal body, but the gist of it is there’s (at least one) 5th grader who, using khan academy, is on the same math level as high school seniors.) Tyler Black considered the question, but ultimately came to the conclusion that, within a learning environment, gamification of learning using badges and similar tools is a positive thing, even if it emulates the same principals used to keep people slaving away at World of Warcraft and slot machines.
At this point, I’m not fully sold. I think that while gamification in learning, when done correctly (and I think Khan Academy DOES do it correctly) is a fairly good thing, I have some concerns about what that means for a deeper math curriculum. It turns math equations into something as simple as pulling a slot machine handle so to say, while a really strong math curriculum brings in a lot more value. That being said, there’s plenty of proponents and classrooms where the sort of insert problem produce answer model of direct instruction is seen as a perfectly valid model of teaching mathematics, so I doubt anyone is going to have too many problems with it. Aside from me.
So, I suppose my thoughts on gamification of learning is that while the gamification thing can make the actual processes of learning fun, there needs to be more than that. The learning must be applicable, relevant to the real world (not badges, although then again, what’s employee of the month, or a diploma?), and to some degree interdisciplinary, I think the Khan Academy does a very good job of ‘decent’ math education. It will help students pass math tests, which in turn, open doors.
I remember an interview with Bill Gates concerning the Khan Academy (curse my metal body, I can’t find that either- I’ve tried for months) where he talks about a single mom who couldn’t get her nursing degree because she couldn’t pass an entrance math exam. The Khan Academy offered a solution, and with that, she was able to pass the math exam and start the program, ensuring that she would have a decent career to support her and her family. I think for situations like that, the Khan Academy is perfect. But if you want to create engineers*, which I believe Bill Gates does want to do, I think you need a bit more.
*And just a point on that concept of creating engineers and this idea of a tech shortage, there is no such thing. There’s enough data out there to show that there is a plethora of underpaid engineers and techies who can’t make it into positions because employers (read: HR departments) want Unicorns with 10 years of experience and pay far less than what that should constitute, and unfortunately, hiring agencies that bring people from India cost far less than the American ones. So, that’s just a huge problem there, but this idea that there’s a tech shortage in America is just daft. Unfortunately, the testing paradigm introduced by NCLB is driven by such misconceptions.