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John Beck - Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Could a video game teach a university or executive course as well as a great instructor? Yes!

You may think you’ve heard and read a lot about computer games in classrooms and in corporate education.  And you probably have.

There are some excellent games out there.  But almost all that have “proven”  learning effectiveness are designed for younger students (under about 10 years old) teaching basics like math and grammar.  For older students, there are simulations which are good for training specific skills and even a nice diversion as part of instructor-mediated higher education or corporate training courses. (Although one MBA program I know of that once loaded up with simulations, recently chose to pull back after poor learning results and student dissatisfaction.) The fact is that no one has cracked the code on games that can teach higher level, more conceptual subjects…until now.

I love teaching and students and I really believe education is a holy calling; but I also know that the traditional systems that employ instructors are, generally, deeply flawed—doing a disservice to teachers, students and society. I have long thought that applying 19th century educational methods to a 21st century world was acutely wrong.  I quit my last professorship so I would no longer “be part of the problem,” but my only solution to being “part of the solution” was to complain … and there were too many doing that already. I thought there had to be a way to use new technologies for education—both getting more knowledge into heads more effectively, and for getting more good education to more people.  Nevertheless, all the “new” educational methods I came across—common core, MOOCs, educational games, and even simulations—were not as good as a great teacher.  

As a young PhD candidate I became disillusioned by the effectiveness of in-class teaching techniques in Harvard MBA and executive classrooms (still using an almost century-old methodology of case studies) and spent an unreasonable amount of time during my graduate program futilely trying to write code on a first-generation Macintosh to teach business school topics through an interactive computer experience.  Periodically, in the intervening three decades, I’ve considered again how this might be done and given up every time.  But something changed in the last year. A combination of confidence, new skills, and new insights (and financial support from Steve Hodges and Hult International Business School) led me and a small group of designers and programmers to create a prototype that we thought was worthy of a test.

And our experiment well surpassed expectations. Based on the results of our test described in this Quartz article, we believe that standalone, effective interactive learning experiences will proliferate rapidly through secondary to graduate education and become the gold standard even in corporate training.  

When we were developing our prototype, we asked friends and colleagues to test it for us: these ranged from corporate CEOs to high school students.  As we were asking a favor of these folks, we expected them to play it once…if that. Instead, the vast majority of our informal testers played the game multiple times, constantly trying to better their personal scores.  One high-level executive told me, “I got a bad score the first time…and I know I’m a better strategist than that.  By the third time through, I was getting scores that were satisfactory, but I still hadn’t mastered the damn game.” I was honored that she was willing to test the game so thoroughly, but did have to wonder how she found the time to give the game multiple tries.

Bottomline: we know of no other educational experience (other than just plain old books) that appears to be as effective with 17-year-olds as it is with 50 year-olds. Teachers and professors always have to gear their teaching styles to the audience: never teaching undergraduates and executives in the same manner.  But our prototype interactive learning experience seems to appeal across ages and backgrounds.

Does this mean that instructors and professors will be losing jobs to this technology? I hope so. Those who teach for the paycheck while wishing they were doing something else, probably should be doing something else. But I have come to believe that in the very near future, great teachers—those who live to make their students’ futures better, those who think education is a holy calling—could be spending most of their time and effort on the parts of education that they actually love while leaving the basics to very capable technology.

John C. Beck is President of the North Star Leadership Group. A summa cum laude graduate of Harvard College and the first PhD in Business Studies from Harvard University, John has never quite figured out what he should be when he grows up.  Dr. Beck has taught at places like Harvard, UCLA, USC, Thunderbird, IMD, Singapore’ Lee Kwan Yew School, and the International University of Japan.  He has been the dean of two universities, founder of Hult Labs, and has advised presidents and prime ministers around the world on national strategies. For six years, he was the Director of International Research at Accenture, where he coined the term, “The Phone Wallet” long before anyone else had thought of using a mobile device for that purpose.   Author of nine books (two best sellers: The Attention Economy and The Kids are Alright) translated into 11 languages. John also dabbles in writing novels and developing teaching “robots.”

Photo: flickr/GrrlScientist