Multiplayer high: how games help learning

Listen to anyone talk about schools today: classical education just can't keep up. In the digital generation's world of constant change, most schooling is profoundly boring. But what else is possible? Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown on games and education.

Listen to anyone talk about schools today: classical education just can't keep up. In the digital generation's world of constant change, most schooling is profoundly boring. But what else is possible?

Imagine an environment where the participants are building a massive network databases, wikis and websites, and thousands of message forums, creating a large-scale knowledge economy. Imagine an environment where participants constantly measure and evaluate their own performance, even if that requires them to build new tools to do so. Imagine an environment where user interface dashboards are constructed by the users themselves to make sense of the world and their own performance in it. Imagine an environment where evaluation is based on after-action reviews to continually enhance performance; an environment where learning happens on a continuous basis, because the participants are internally motivated to find, share, and filter new information on a near-constant basis.

Finding an environment like that sounds difficult, but it isn't. It already exists, in the form of massively multiplayer online games. These large-scale social communities provide a case study in how players absorb tacit knowledge, process it into a series of increasingly sophisticated questions, and engage collectives to make the experience personally meaningful. What they teach us about learning is not found in the game at all, but is instead embedded in these collectives, which form in, around, and through the game. In essence, the game provides the impetus for collectives to take root.

In our view, the cultures created around MMOs are almost perfect illustrations of a new learning environment. On one hand, online games produce massive information economies, composed of thousands of message forums, wikis, databases, player guilds, and communities. In that sense, they are paragons of an almost unlimited information network. On the other hand, they constitute a bounded environment within which players have near absolute agency, enjoying virtually unlimited experimentation and exploration—more of a petri dish.

MMOs draw in players from every walk of life, of every age, and across gender, class, and socioeconomic divides. They require an immense amount of learning in order to play them and are grounded in participation. Most important, the engine that drives learning is a blend of questioning, imagination, and—best of all—play.

Understanding the New Context

In examining the world of MMOs, we have found that guilds constitute the most significant learning environment within the game. The amount of learning that goes on in even the smallest guilds is amazing, as is the amount of data that gets processed, filtered, and integrated into play and game practices. The game's forums alone produce more than 15,000 new pieces of information each night. Yet guilds have found ways to avoid being overwhelmed by this mountain of data and instead manage it with surprising efficiency, using techniques that may be evocative for other institutions that face similar problems. Guilds like the Garden Gnome Liberation Army (GLA), a collection of more than 100 players who twice-weekly engage in complex raids, sit at the intersection of the two elements that make up the new culture of learning. They are intensive and complex learning collectives that are deeply invested in constructing, utilizing, and managing large-scale knowledge economies (the information network). In order to succeed, every single member of the guild must take an active, constant, and enthusiastic role in learning information about the game, his or her character class, and the battles, fights, and challenges they will face. At the same time, the space of the world itself is fluid, changing, and dynamic. It presents players with boundaries within which they search for success through trial and error, finding idiosyncratic solutions to complicated problems. Solutions are not discovered so much as they are organically grown (the petri dish). Gamers bring these two elements together through play. They combine the knowledge gained from outside the game with an evolving set of practices that occur inside the game, both of which feed each other. As players create new solutions within the game space, they return verbal characterizations, analyses, and videos to the knowledge economy surrounding the game, thus disseminating them to a wider group of players, who then use that information to create even newer solutions, and so on. In short, they in engage in precisely the activities that we have been describing as inquiry. Within the new culture of learning, we can see networked information as providing nutrients for the petri dish, allowing exploration, play, and experimentation to continually cultivate new questions.

But perhaps the deepest level of play and, for our purposes, the most significant aspect of it, has to do with a sense of collective indwelling. When playing "massively," one moves beyond a sense of just playing with others. In order to succeed, players immerse themselves in the game, creating and constructing identities, relationships, and practices that constitute deep and profound acts of imagination. And that act of immersion is itself, at base, an act of imagination and collaboration. Very few challenges in World of Warcraft can be solved alone, and none of them occur at advanced levels of the game. A guild's success depends on how well its members can synchronize their efforts to solve problems.

GLA members, for example, would spend months advancing through a particular raid with only incremental success each week. Eventually, the guild would have a breakthrough and suddenly be able to succeed at something that it had been failing to accomplish for months. At that point, a major shift occurred, and in everyone's mind, the goal became achievable. And shortly thereafter, usually, the raid succeeded, seemingly without effort. So what changes? Not the gear the players possessed or their own skill levels and talents. Instead, there is a collective shift in imagination. As the fight unfolded one last time, the players—though dispersed all over the globe—had managed to completely synchronize their endeavors. Yet no one could articulate why they could do so on that day and not before. The knowledge acquired to defeat the boss and complete the challenge was principally tacit. As we have seen, tacit learning functions most effectively when students discover their own learning objectives. Games, which allow learners to play, explore, and experience, also allow them to discover what is important to them, what it is they actually want to learn—and that keeps them playing. When people stop learning in a game, they lose interest and quit. When understood properly, therefore, games may in fact be one of the best models for learning and knowing in the twenty-first century. Why? Because if a game is good, you never play it the same way twice.

The Virtual Space of Collective Indwelling

Members of a raiding guild have read plenty of information about what the fight would entail before they set foot into the dungeon, as gleaned from the information network. Yet there is no one "right" way to succeed. Each fight requires countless minor adjustments, which shape the events that follow them, making it impossible to predict what would come next. Knowing how the fight works, therefore, is necessary but insufficient for success. Information alone is just not enough.

Victory also requires a more organic notion of learning: experimentation. The three months of practice helped the guild steadily improve, and as the members made progress—however minor—each week, they set new incremental goals to advance through the fight. Practice made the players more aware of their individual roles and responsibilities and helped them understand both the mechanics of the fight and the possible combination of things they were likely to see.

Yet neither the first notion of the culture of learning (finding information) nor the second (practice, play, experience, and creating new knowledge constantly) accounts for the leap from complete failure to easy success. Something clicked for the guild, something that had not been there before—a key positioning or transition between stages of a fight, a well-timed spell casting, or perhaps a new series of moves that tipped the balance and cleared the path to victory. It's fascinating that no one in the guild could articulate exactly what had happened. In massively multiplayer games this is a frequent occurrence. Oftentimes triumph seems to occur without reason; battles are won that, by all rights, should have been lost. Players find themselves wondering, "How on earth did we do that?" What's more, once that shift happens, players find that it can happen again, and eventually it even becomes commonplace.

We believe that this provides a critical key to understanding what we mean by a sense of collective indwelling—the feeling and belief that group members share a tacit understanding of one another, their environment, and the practices necessary to complete their task. Collective indwelling evolves out of the fusion of the information network and petri dish cultures of learning, and it is almost entirely tacit. It both resides in and provokes the imagination. It is at once personal and collective. Though individual performance is vitally important—each and every player must execute the jobs flawlessly or the team doesn't succeed—it is inherently tied to the group itself. There is no way for a single player (or even a small handful of players) to succeed alone. The team relies on everyone to understand that their success as individuals creates something that amounts to more than the sum of its parts.

Shared Imagination

A massively multiplayer game may seem to be a strange representative of an environment in the new culture of learning, but in many ways it is also the most appropriate. Throughout this book, we have constantly returned to the ideas of change and flux. And we have found that gamers embody the spirit of embracing change as much as, if not more than, anyone.

Games have grown up, and playing with them is no longer reserved for children. In fact, the ability to play may be the single most important skill to develop for the twenty-first century. In this context, play involves what we think of as a questing disposition. Questing is an activity that is central to most large-scale online games, and it presumes a number of things. Chief among them is that the world provides multiple resources and avenues for solving problems, and solutions are invented as much as they are implemented. The key to questing is not typical problem solving. It is innovation.

As we have seen, the things that are learned through MMOs are fed back into the collective through a variety of sources and gradually become adopted throughout their standard practices. What begins as experimentation is replicated, tested, and incorporated into the stockpile of information that constitutes the knowledge economy surrounding the game.

This type of innovation is also a fusion of the two elements of learning, a pulling together of resources and experimenting with them to see what fits. Through questing one finds what works and what doesn't for a particular problem, but either way one also gets a feel for each object or item one encounters. At the explicit level, solutions succeed or fail. But at the tacit level, players gain information about the item at hand regardless of success or failure. That tacit knowledge is a key component of indwelling. Without it, players cannot understand the collective or their place in it. Each one develops a personal relationship with the world that, in turn, becomes shared and modified as he or she interacts with others.

Once players start to interact, they also develop a shared sense of imagination that is the means for, and the object of, collective indwelling. The multiplayer environment is made up of the acts of shared imagination among its inhabitants. And what makes that world particularly interesting and challenging is both constant change and the fact that the actions of the players in the world, as a collective, are driving that change. We look to gamers because they don't just embrace change, they demand it. Their world is in a state of constant flux, and it must continually be reinvented and reimagined through acts of collective imagination. That's what makes the game fun. But while players defeat bosses, kill monsters, coordinate raids, find new armor, and read blogs, wikis, and forums, learning happens, too.

What Really Counts

From the perspective of learning, battling monsters and collecting treasure are the least interesting things going on in, and particularly around, games such as World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online. These environments make it easy to see just how fun learning can be. They allow us to highlight the connections between knowing, making, and playing. They are places where we are permitted to let our imaginations run free.

That space of imagination is also scalable unlike anything we have seen previously. The information network culture and the bounded culture of experimentation get better, richer, stronger, and more innovative with each additional player, new idea, set of data, and bit of information. The multiple collectives that make up the space in and around a MMO process an astounding amount of information on a continual basis, seamlessly integrating new knowledge into play and action on a routine basis. Information flows and disseminates almost immediately. And as the game gets larger and more complicated, the new culture of learning works even better.

There are no answers online. There is only a progression of increasingly complicated and more difficult questions. And, more often than not, those questions are the result of players pushing against the boundaries that the game provides. Players quickly discover that when they encounter a problem they don't know how to solve, the fastest and easiest way to learn the solution is to tap into a collective that is already working on it. Maybe members of the new collective will provide an existing piece of information that makes the problem solvable. Or maybe they will inspire a player to find a new, unique solution to the problem and share it with the collective in turn.

The lessons we take from these games show us that the future of learning is not in lectures, memorization, and test taking, but in peer-based learning that challenges the imagination and makes questions (and questing) more important than answers. In many ways our games have always revealed deeper truths about who we are and how we interact, so it is not surprising that we see a new culture of learning unfolding through play.

We believe that where imaginations play, learning happens. Games like A Tale in Desert—a crafting and 'tradeskills' MMO set at the dawn of Civilization—demonstrate one more way that peer to peer learning, amplified by the collective, may hold the key to the future of learning in the digital age.

Screenshots from LOVE, an MMO by Quel Solaar

Published 7:00 am Thu, Apr 28, 2011

About the Author

Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown are the authors of "A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change."

Doug is an associate professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He is also the author of the book Hacker Culture and a coauthor or coeditor of several other books, including Technological Visions: The Hopes and Fears that Shape New Technologies and Cybercrime: Law Enforcement, Security and Surveillance in the Information Age.

John is a visiting scholar and an adviser to the provost at the University of Southern California and an independent co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge. He is an author or a coauthor of several books, including The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion; The Only Sustainable Edge; and The Social Life of Information. Prior to his current position, John was the chief scientist of Xerox and, for nearly two decades, the director of the company's Palo Alto Research Center.

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43 Responses to “Multiplayer high: how games help learning”

  1. Ito Kagehisa says:

    It seems to me that the most popular MMOs teach murder – here’s your task, go out and kill someone that you know nothing about other than hearsay. The In-Game Authority (Don Goombah by any other name) says Colonel BadGuy deserves killing, so you subjugate your moral compass to this IGA and find some way to slaughter Colonel BadGuy. In-game, there are no suffering children or grieving spouses – murder for hire is sanitary in the world of games. Ethics and morality aren’t personal, they are given to you if they exist at all.

    Many games also teach that ridiculous risk with life and limb is a good idea in combat situations. In-game, you can blithely take stupid chances or endanger your comrades – you’ll respawn, or they will, if that 25% chance doesn’t pay off this time around. It’ll work the third or fourth time you try… probably!

    So I guess most of the MMOs I have seen are extremely educational, assuming that one is being educated to become either a professional murderer or cannon fodder for a foreign invasion.

    When I point these things out I usually draw some fire from people who cannot distinguish criticism from condemnation. I’m not against gaming or computer games or MMOs, although I prefer games that are fresher than the tired old generic monster-slayers, and I’m appalled by most of the crime and assassination games.

    Another thing people don’t like to hear is that maybe games that are cathartic for adults are inapropriate for children. If a gory game provides a man who is enraged by his boss a way to blow off steam without attacking said boss, that’s a good thing, right? But that doesn’t necessarily mean a boy suffering through puberty should be learning to deal with his new set of hormones the same way, does it?

    Sorry about the unfocused post. It’s nice to see pieces like this that talk about more than just killing orcs, anyway.

  2. atomic_tarheel says:

    I’m a little incredulous about this. This can be an interesting meta-discussion about education and how humans learn, but how would you implement this as a practical solution that can be used in the classroom? How would I, as an educator, use this to help students learn chemistry or shakespeare? It seems to me that MMOs are really just a *simulation* of the social interactions that occur every day on the playground and in classrooms.

    • holtt says:

      but how would you implement this as a practical solution that can be used in the classroom

      That’s really the million dollar question. The question isn’t whether learning is going on in games – it is. The question is, “Why are games such powerfully effective teaching systems for the topics they cover? And can we channel that for more mainstream educational topics?”

      Clearly, some pretty deep learning and collaboration goes on in MMOs. The player’s knowledge grows from nothing to mastery of a highly complex system via scaffolding, just like what one expects in a “true” educational experience.

      There are classrooms already using Minecraft for teaching by the way. You might find the Minecraft Teacher blog a good read.

      I recently picked up the book Engaging Learning, by Curtis Quinn. It’s an excellent book that examines what makes good education, and what makes good engagement (in games), and how the two things have very strong parallels.

      Another poster pointed out that MMOs are just murder trainers. The poster needs to get their head out of the AAA game realm and start looking at other, lesser known MMOs. I would HIGHLY recommend the MMO A Tail In The Desert as a beautiful example of learning, crafting, collaboration and community in an MMO. And of course check out the HUGELY successful pseudo-MMO (it can be multiplayer) Minecraft.

      PS

      Kudos for using LOVE screenshots. That has to be the neatest looking game ever. And yes they are screenshots, not paintings — it really looks like that.

  3. jdparadise says:

    So, in a word, give or take: Montessori.

    • ManOutOfTime says:

      Make that MMOntessori. We could do worse, as a nation, than tech-enabled Montessori for kids – we DO in fact do worse … !

  4. Shart Tsung says:

    I wanna be a troll shaman when I grow up!!

  5. Sam says:

    “Resistance happens when you try to go against the flow. Smart people realize they are in a river fighting a current, so just get out of the river and don’t fight it at all. Or don’t even aim for what ever is up stream.”

    I’ll tell you what. You stand in the river and yell at the salmon. If you can get one to get out and walk the rest of the way, I’ll congratulate you. Unfortunately, river analogies suck when you’re dealing with complex issues. If you’re trying to change the educational system, you’re the guy yelling at the salmon. He’s there by choice, trying to convince the others to do something else, and they don’t want to listen, mostly because they’re stupid fish.

    • holtt says:

      Khan Academy has delivered over 46 MILLION video lessons online that don’t necessarily map to anyone’s standards. He’s not yelling at the salmon, he’s offering them another stream. And they like it a lot.

      • Sam says:

        Thats a fancy learning library you got there, dude. Reminds me of the Free School in my city where I can go and get my learn on for free.

        You see, the only problem for me is that I already have the skills I need. I just don’t have a piece of paper that says I’ve been trained to have those skills and that I posses them. I don’t have a *DIPLOMA*. I don’t have a school employee trying to seat me into a job where I can use those skills. This is the thrust of what I was saying, before you brought the river into it. I have a square peg that I’ve already gotten from non-standard learning sources. Now I need to find a square hole to stick it in.

        If you Khan School does that, if it will give me a test to prove that I can build robots and then issue me certification to that fact, and finally back it’s word up somehow, then I’ll be interested, cause I can take that to the bank. If there were charities that gave computer certification tests free of charge, like comptia a+ certification, instead of $173, that’d be great. Fantastic.

        As it stands, your non-traditional learning doesn’t amount to shit until I can put it on my resume.

  6. Anonymous says:

    As a longtime MMO player, I am skeptical of the central metaphor of this article.

    Most of the “optimal” solutions to MMO problems are figured out by a few “early adopters” or “hard-core” players who figure out how to beat a dungeon/raid and then post the solution on a wiki/forum.

    Then, 99% of the player-base just reads from that or learns the established wisdom from other players and follows it by rote.

    In Dungeons & Dragons Online (“DDO”), it is very common to see a LFM (“Looking For More”) post that specifies “NO FIRST TIMERS!”. In other words, these players already know everything that will happen in the scripted dungeon, and they only want to play with players who already know all the textbook answers and optimal strategies. (Wizard must cast X, Fighter must stand there, Cleric must cast Y at time T… It’s a choreographed dance rather than an exercise in inquiry.)

    In most raids & groups I have been in, one gets scolded if a player suggests an experiment or asks why a particular tactic is best. (“OMG noob! Everyone knows you have to do such-and-such to this monster!” is a common style of retort)

    I think MMO learning is not any different to the majority of learning in schools. Students look at the back of the book for the quick and easy answers.

    The article describes MMOs as some magical place where *everyone* is intellectually curious and nobody wants the quick-and-easy answer. My experience is that this is not the case.

    I like MMOs, but I don’t think the model they have is any better, or really any different, from the way public schools currently operate. There are a few curious students who try to do interesting things, and most of the rest are content to be followers, plodding along and doing things by rote.

    • holtt says:

      Even if as an MMO player you’re a “follower”, you’re still incredibly versed in a lot of things that keep your brain pretty active. If you know what DoT is or ever think about DPS, you’re exercising your brain at a fairly high level whether you’re conscious of it or not.

  7. pKp says:

    “Very few challenges in World of Warcraft can be solved alone, and none of them occur at advanced levels of the game.”

    The first part of this sentence is just plain wrong. Most of the early game (at least up to level 30, which is as high as I got before I got bored and left) consists in “grinding” (repetitively killing monsters for XP/gold/items) and/or doing meaningless quests, an almost completely skill-free process (click on a monster, use the best special attack you’ve got, wait for the monster to go down, repeat for the next six hours). The same things can be seen in every MMO I’ve played. And HL (high-level) players aren’t free of grinding either, from what I’ve heard from friends who still play.

    I have no doubt that HL players attain a state where they actually need some real skill and collaboration to get by, but this article seems very disingenuous in suggesting that this is the most important part of the game. Most of the time, playing a MMO seems to consist in repetitive actions with outcomes just unpredictable enough to get a nice Skinner-box response. I’m not trying to hate on MMO players here, I get the appeal, and I happen to agree that some lessons on education can be learned by examining some aspects of MMO playing, but anyone reading the article who hasn’t played a MMO would get the impression that WoW is this huge sandbox filled with hard problems you have to work on with all your mates. It’s not.

  8. Todd Sieling says:

    This scholarly-looking piece has a typo in it’s title :). That aside, pretty cool stuff not to mention beautiful artwork.

  9. SavvyTennisBalls says:

    This theory is a good step forward, but what fails to make the piece concrete as opposed to some abstract paper on the principles of collective learning alone, is a lack of examples. There were no examples of the types of problems that players encounter that require the type of collective knowledge economies that you talk about, and furthermore how those examples coincide with the type of subjects that are a staple of our society, such as match, literature, history, and science.

    Other than that, I feel like this can be applied to any subject that would benefit from teamwork, where as it can also be detrimental in so far as cheating and gliding by are concerned. Say there is a complicated problem to solve. Player A who is extremely lazy and has no drive nor any interest in finding the solution decides someone has already figured this out, so he searches the forums. Outcome A: He finds the answer, learns nothing. Outcome B: He doesn’t find the answer, so instead he waits for his guild to figure it out and tell him what to do, learns nothing. So to be honest, this form of learning seems no more conducive to motivating the unmotivated 80% of Americans who don’t want to go to school because it’s boring than our current methods. A math problem in a text book is no more boring than one in an MMO (providing you find it boring in the first place). However it does provide some security that the student knows what he’s doing when he answers it correctly on a test.

    Again, maybe I’m misinterpreting your theory, but from what’s written (without any concrete examples or game plans as to how this could be implemented) it just seems like a pipe dream. You don’t make it sound feasible.

  10. Sam says:

    All this talk about educational reform is nice and all except that it’s meaningless in a country where even the smallest shift is education resisted. Not only that, but the product of our educational system plugs into a metaphoric round shaped hole that a shiny new square peg just won’t fit into. That round hole being standard hiring practices of every single business in the country. You can’t get a job without a resume and you don’t have a resume without a job. You can’t get your first job without interning at a company, a relationship set up at your post high school educational institution and if you’re one of those people who doesn’t perform academically oriented jobs then you don’t have that opportunity unless you attend a second rate community college. If you never go to a “higher learning” school and instead decide to take on those skills on your own (by say, going to a library and reading a book), you have no chance of getting a job in that field.

    I guess I’m ranting. Let me just say that I’ve worked as a builder for the past 12 years. I also happen to be able to design and build robots, a skill which I’ve learned through hobby experimentation. I was recently crushed like a bug on the bumper of a car as I crossed the street, so I have to find other work now.

    Do I have ANY chance to get a job making robots? No.
    Do I have any chance of holding some college grad’s hand while he makes robots? No.
    Do I have a chance to get a job installing anti-virus software on pc’s at a local office? No.
    Do I have a chance to get a job doing anything thats not menial labor? Probably not.

    Even though I can build and program robots, I’m still screwed. I applied for a job as a custodian at Tulane yesterday. Maybe I can do some good will hunting shit. I’m not holding my breath.

    • sabik says:

      I also happen to be able to design and build robots, a skill which I’ve learned through hobby experimentation. … Do I have ANY chance to get a job making robots? No.

      * As someone else posted, a lot of hiring is about networking — who you know, as much as what you are able to do. Do you do hobby robots through a club, maker space, group of friends? Do any of them know somebody who needs someone?

      * Is there a charity in your town that needs robots? That’d be unpaid, but they’d probably help with material costs and it’s something you can put on your resume. It would also grow your network of people who know you’re good with robots. Maybe something like Technical Aid to the Disabled, if there’s one in your area?

      * If you can’t get hired as an employee, can you succeed as a business or a consultant? Depending on your country, keeping that option open can be as simple as getting business cards printed and being ready with an hourly rate (which should be roughly twice the hourly rate you’d get as an employee, or one thousandth of annual salary) so you can give reasonable professional quotes. (BTW, your website seems to be borked.)

      • penguinchris says:

        Those would be good pieces of advice normally, but I’m afraid they’re rather worthless for something highly technical like robots. The fact is if you’re non-traditionally trained and educated in something technical or scientific, while not impossible you’re really not going to be able to get a job doing that, excepting via connections.

        They’d have to be really, really good connections, though – in most cases you’d still need to get past HR, who are likely to turn down people who don’t have everything on their check list (a relevant degree being number one on the list).

        And while theoretically possible, few people are going to hire a robotics consultant without credentials either. This is not an impossible route to take, of course, if you can build up a name for yourself via your hobby robots – but that’s easier said than done. And sad to say, going into business for yourself building robots is not the most financially sound idea. You’ll need financing to start with (which a bank will never give out for that idea, unless you’re already a robotics bigshot, and it doesn’t sound like the commenter is independently wealthy), and you’ll need buyers.

        So again, not impossible, just very unlikely. Something you could make some money with on the side as a hobby, but you won’t be quitting your day job anytime soon.

      • penguinchris says:

        I should add that despite the pessimism expressed by the robot guy, advanced hobby and non-traditional training is perfectly valid as resume fodder, especially when lacking much of anything else. It won’t help if HR requires a degree, but it will catch the attention of actual engineers and scientists if they’re involved in the hiring process (which ideally they would be). It’s a long shot but it could help.

    • giuliano says:

      Hi Sam, I’m coming to this party a bit late. Saw your post, and some of the replies. They’ve got some good advice. Unfortunately, some of their attitude seems to deny central point you seek to make: it’s tough to get a job in high tech if you are self taught.

      And you are dead on about it being tough. But it is not impossible. Not even close to impossible. I work with one guy who never finished high school. Another barely finished, took a few classes at community college and was tossed out. And has founded and sold one high tech company, and is now on iteration two. I’ve worked with many folks who never graduated college. How is that possible when so many folks have never worked with someone who hasn’t graduated from a top college. Because I seek out places that demonstrate a desire for ability, not paper. They are out there. As hard as it is, you’ve got to find them, because they aren’t going to look for you.

      Other repliers have given a host of good ideas. Get your website working and show off your bots. Start a blog on it or elsewhere. Volunteer with FIRST or one of the other robotics programs. Bring your bots to a MakerFaire. Join a hobbyist robotics club. And most importantly, continue to learn about and build bots and show them to people.

    • holtt says:

      All this talk about educational reform is nice and all except that it’s meaningless in a country where even the smallest shift is education resisted.

      Resistance happens when you try to go against the flow. Smart people realize they are in a river fighting a current, so just get out of the river and don’t fight it at all. Or don’t even aim for what ever is up stream.

      Khan Academy is a perfect example of that. Sal Khan is making a great shift in education by just doing what he thinks is good. James Bower and Whyville is another great example.

      Both are moving towards educational reform and are successfully creating new things, mainly because they didn’t start by asking the status quo, “How should I start and where should I go?”

    • rebdav says:

      Benjamin Franklin was able to become a rich man, and ambassador to France commonly seen in court, and a leading scientist. He only was able to study in Latin school for two years dropping out at ten.
      Our system structured not to reward achievement, intelligence, or ability; it is mostly structured to let insiders hire and promote their friends. The system primarily rewards having and sharing access to power among insiders, members of the just like us club. The pyramid is capped by those wealthy and well enough connected to access financing, and then trickle down from there.
      Those people all connected up in college, the rest hire grads to justify their huge investment in school. It is a risk to a manager or HR person to hire an employee without a degree over an unqualified grad, getting a degree is a basic life pre-employment screening for most people.

  11. Anonymous says:

    A lot of people are looking too much at the WoW references and and the label of an MMO and not realizing that the MMO is simply an explanation tool. It’s a very small, partial example of what the article is trying to explain.

    The point is not that all kids should play wow and that they’ll all be astrophysicists within a week, and all go kill their neighbors for +2 golden swords of executiveness, it’s that a group of people collating, organizing, experimenting, learning from each other, and flowing in a natural way, with actual ideas, thoughts, and curiosity, rather than plain facts and repetitive tasks that teach nothing, is a much better way to prepare our kids for a future than what we currently offer.

    Those asking about how to “implement this in the classroom” are kind of missing the point in that you don’t implement this in the classroom, the “classroom” disappears, it is the proverbial box that we need to think outside of.

    I think a lot of people also see and agree that this could never happen in today’s world, specifically because those with the power and money have made it impossible, and those who are stupid enough ( because we’ve been bred that way for years now more and more… ) to accept what those people feed them, will go along with it, instead of standing up and taking the knowledge that is just as much ours as anyone else’s.

    It might be wise however to see that not as a defeat, but more of an opportunity to try and change things, one that we all ignore far too often for our own good.

    • Anonymous says:

      Anon- thank you so much. the whole point of the article is to to develop the point you first bring out “it’s that a group of people collating, organizing, experimenting, learning from each other, and flowing in a natural way, with actual ideas, thoughts, and curiosity, rather than plain facts and repetitive tasks that teach nothing, is a much better way to prepare our kids for a future than what we currently offer”

      and as such it is so much in the spirit of this particular FB collective.!!
      -jsb

  12. friendpuppy says:

    How much did the publisher pay BB?

  13. Beelzebuddy says:

    Sam:

    1) Why isn’t your website up?

    2) Are you Sam Joyce Farley? Because that’s the only topical result given by googling “Sam Joyce robot,” and even if so, that was from your freakin’ high school.

    3) Why isn’t your website up?

    Where are these robots you say you can build? What skills did you use to make them? How am I to know that you didn’t just buy a roomba, read the manual, and consider that “building a robot?”

    It sounds like you just put “robots” on an otherwise generic resume, and were shocked and dismayed when the world failed to beat a path to your door. I wasted two minutes trying to find stuff about your exploits, and failed. That’s 90 seconds more than any real company will spare for you.

    If you have talent, you can break into any industry, regardless of formal education. But you have to break into it. “Discovering” fresh, passed-over individuals is for con men and soulless talent agents.

  14. Beelzebuddy says:

    Since I’m feeling helpful, Sam, here’s some things you can do:

    Build robots doing something hipstery, like cutting out vinyl logos for t-shirts or being controlled by an iphone. Sell on Etsy.

    Mentor your local FIRST team: http://www.usfirst.org/ Nothing says “I’m familiar with robots” like helping kids become familiar with robots, and FIRSTers always need adults.

    Fix your website.

    Blog about your robots. Write about what you’ve learned, what you think about the different options. Arduino, yea or nay? What’re the most reliable stores? Make youtube videos. Make step-by-step instructions for other builders cum robotitians. You’re someone in a blue collar job who taught himself freakin’ robots in his spare time. Play to the TF2 Engineer stereotype. Emphasize pragmatism: making stuff that works well and robustly over gee-whiz fancy crap. People will perk up.

    None of these will directly pay the bills, expect maybe the first if you don’t mind catering to hipsters, but they’re all useful ways of making a name for yourself. Which, since you want to be a rogue robotics developer coming out of left field, you need.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Ugh. There’s a lot of basic changes to education that could be made without this sort of virtual world stuff. Part of the problem is that all of the reform so far is toward “accountability” and enforcing ideas that sound like they should work, but don’t. Like “more homework=more learning”. All that the recent efforts at reform have produced is acts of fraud by teachers and administrators.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Brick and mortar schools are outdated dinosaurs that are leeching creativity, innovation, intellegence, motivation and independance from our children right along with the tax dollars in our pockets.

    I taught high school English for 7 years (BA and MA in Literature, emphasis in American Studies, CA Teaching Credential) and am the mother of 4 children (ranging from 13 to 2). Last year I quit my job for two major reasons. One, I couldn’t ethically be a part of the broken educational system any longer. Two, I didn’t want my own kids educated in said broken educational system. I am now homeschooling my children. I have created my own curriculum for the most part that heavily depends on the use of distance learning and technology, hands on learning, and daily exposure to the real world. When we study Mesopotamia, we do it by reading books, watching documentaries, making cunieform tablets by following the ancient recipe, taking virtual tours online of ziggurats, visiting museums, attending conferences, meeting real anthropologists, and gasp! even video games! The learning is accessible across the age group and is dynamic. I don’t teach to the test–I teach to understanding and critical thinking. No school can do what I am doing at home. My children have grown so much in just a year. They are motivated, self-starters now who think for themselves and read voraciously now that every page isn’t recorded on a chart and graded.

    Every day the homeschooling community grows–its no longer just fundamentalists but people from all walks of life. Studies are showing that homeschooled adults make more money, are happier, more involved in the community, much less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, or break the law. They are less likely to be raped or molested. In schools, parents’ educational level and income predict the student’s achievement. In homeschooling, these issues are statistically insignificant. In fact, by the 8th grade, children of every race andeducational/finanical background who are homeschooled are an average of 4 grade levels ahead of their traditionally educated peers. Homeschooled adults are life long learners and refuse to be contained or restricted by standardized testing. They grow up, finish college at a higher rate than their peers, are more likely to own their own business and most choose to homeschool their own children!

    Very little learning is done in school–some studies have shown that as little as 2.5 hours in 8 are actually spent on scholastics. If you are a parent who wants to be more to your child than a banker and a chauffer and want to be a part of the process of shaping your children’s minds and beliefs, stop handing them over to the government to raise to be good little unquestioning citizens. For anyone who is interested in DIY culture, and against the overreaching arm of the government, it is the way to go. Like this article shows, learning isn’t reserved for the classroom. Your children can learn from playing WOW or DCUO, cooking breakfast with Dad, going to ComicCON. I’m so glad to see this article show the surprising and unique places that learning is happening all around us. Hopefully it will inspire some parents to stop protecting their children from the ridiculously demonized gaming community and the big, bad internet and start taking part in educational reform at home.

    • Anonymous says:

      Awesome Job! You definitely give hope to those in search of another educational option.

  17. Ted Curran says:

    This article describes all of the learning that happens in MMOs, but unfortunately, the CONTENT of what is learned is all about raiding, spells, and killing monsters. I agree with their basic premise that immersing people in a high-interest, rich interactive environment can lead to experimentation, self-directed learning and high motivation. The problem, as other commenters have noted, is that what you’re learning is HOW TO PLAY THE GAME better. Those skills aren’t really transferable to real-world challenges MMO players face– like moving out of your parents’ basement.

    As an example, I recently fell in love with the Assassin’s Creed games which allow users to explore expansive, realistic interactive models of 15th Century Italian cities, collect Renaissance art, talk political machinations with Niccolo Machiavelli, walk on the Roman aqueduct, climb the Coliseum, and use war machines designed by Leonardo Da Vinci. But even though you can do all that, you spend most of your time in the game knifing guards in the back with a stiletto. The designers of the game did a great job of including many historical factoids, but functionally, they serve as a distraction from the main focus– assassinating people.

    The big challenge is to create virtual online worlds that can reproduce the challenges of IRL environments while retaining the motivation and experimentation benefits of MMO games. The reason this doesn’t happen is because developing immersive environments is very expensive and very difficult to do well.

    In this post I examine Second Life as a tool for teaching health science skills to our nursing students. Even though the online learning environment may LOOK like the real world, the tasks they are mastering are just basically multiple choice. You don’t need a big fancy video game to give what basically amounts to a Scantron test.

    In this post I look at Angry Birds as an equally engaging alternative. Of course, the learning is still about “how to play the game better” but I discuss how the game mechanics encourage experimentation, persistence, and creativity.

  18. SavvyTennisBalls says:

    This theory is a good step forward, but what fails to make the piece concrete as opposed to some abstract paper on the principles of collective learning alone, is a lack of examples. There were no examples of the types of problems that players encounter that require the type of collective knowledge economies that you talk about, and furthermore how those examples coincide with the type of subjects that are a staple of our society, such as match, literature, history, and science.

    Other than that, I feel like this can be applied to any subject that would benefit from teamwork, where as it can also be detrimental in so far as cheating and gliding by are concerned. Say there is a complicated problem to solve. Player A who is extremely lazy and has no drive nor any interest in finding the solution decides someone has already figured this out, so he searches the forums. Outcome A: He finds the answer, learns nothing. Outcome B: He doesn’t find the answer, so instead he waits for his guild to figure it out and tell him what to do, learns nothing. So to be honest, this form of learning seems no more conducive to motivating the unmotivated 80% of Americans who don’t want to go to school because it’s boring than our current methods. A math problem in a text book is no more boring than one in an MMO (providing you find it boring in the first place). However it does provide some security that the student knows what he’s doing when he answers it correctly on a test.

    Again, maybe I’m misinterpreting your theory, but from what’s written (without any concrete examples or game plans as to how this could be implemented) it just seems like a pipe dream. You don’t make it sound feasible.

  19. rebdav says:

    Once we stop teaching facts and start teaching learning skills we will have a great educational system, instead we teach standardized test preparation.
    What happened to aspiration of being a renaissance woman/man able to learn and converse intelligently when presented with an expert in a social situation? Is that only for prep schools now?

  20. enkiv2 says:

    As a document about a potential new method of implementing mandatory education, this is mediocre. As a document about collective learning, it’s pretty good. Have you (the author) read the existing literature on the learning mechanisms of superorganisms?

  21. Sam says:

    Actually, I’m a really optimistic guy, I’m just having a really hard time finding a job right now. I haven’t gotten a single reply from craigslist, aside from one really determined phishing expedition. I think that educational reform is a good idea, but there need to be mechanisms out there in place, already, for the people who are already non-traditional learners. And there aren’t. Well sort of.

    I could move to china right now and make a god damn [chinese] fortune. I really could. That’s because I could just forge whatever documentation they’re looking for and go from there. But I don’t want to move to china. It’s a beautiful place and all, but I like certain things in the US that you just can’t get there. Like freedom of speech. I digress.

    I’d just like to be recognized for my accomplishments. In a monetary way. That’s all I guess.

  22. Anonymous says:

    My mom was the person in charge of what was then called “cooperative learning” at my school district. She’s a master teacher, and she brought in workshops, speakers and books to retrain the teachers into getting the students to teach themselves. The programs (in these early-computer era days) used pre-testing, puzzles, group assignments, and peer-to-peer-teaching (i.e. read this section then teach it to your partner or group mates, then they’ll teach you the next section).

    It was hell for me.

    If you are smarter, faster, a harder worker or already knew the material (rehashed history, or a book you’d already read in English or scientific principal that you’d studied on your own) you were bound to every other student you had to work with. They got to coast on your grade, because if you waited for them to figure it out on their own you would get theirs. And I was not getting a B (or C or whatever) because somebody else, no matter how often I explained it, insisted that blank verse rhymed.

    I’ve never had a job where I was judged as part of team. I never took a college class like that. My fiance didn’t date me and all my friends.

    I’m not an extraordinary person in any way (I read pretty fast, but that’s pretty well balanced out by the clumsiness). But carrying other students only made me angrier at them, only made them more willing to demand to copy off my homework, only made them slack off more, because hey, I don’t have to do anything: she’ll do it and I’ll still get an A. This idea of the magical internet school of shared learning is just another way to use the good students to cover up the bad ones.

    There are problems in the modern education system, but most of them arise for societal issues (from poverty, to helicopter parenting, to the constant novelty of the internet, to living in an instant gratification society, to the instability of the changing job market). Education can’t fix those problems on a global scale, and everytime we expect it to, we will be disappointed.

    Yeah, standardized testing probably isn’t the answer. But federalizing the school systems; removing transportation, feeding and health care from the list of things schools do (even if other government agencies fill those needs, none of those are damn well a school’s job); and agreeing, in some way and at some level what it is we want kids to learn are the first steps toward fixing the American public schools.

  23. Anonymous says:

    “The question is, “Why are games such powerfully effective teaching systems for the topics they cover? And can we channel that for more mainstream educational topics?””

    MMOs are powerfully effective at getting people to perform tasks that are easy to perform. It isn’t hard to create a game that teaches people to kill Uber-lava boss by learning his strengths and weaknesses through simple trial-and-error, discussing the results, and offing him. Crafting is the same trial and error and information sharing. Games are designed this way because they are not intended to challenge players; they are designed provide a constant stream of tiny endorphin and oxytocin bursts that keep players coming back for more. None of this requires, or teaches, more than minimal social skills and basic literacy.

    As soon as an MMO requires complex thought, writing complete sentences, critical thinking, or failures that cannot be resolved by looking up the answer, the MMO stops being fun. Those little chemical rushes go away. The game ceases to be a constant stream of self-esteem and becomes the terrible challenging real world that MMO players are escaping from. WoW has succeeded so well because it deliberately avoided the tough challenges and discipline of its model, Everquest. And WoW has been constantly refined to be easier, require less effort, and reward players with lots of “achievements”.

    If we really want to help students we need to teach them that NOTHING they do in a game is an achievement. No matter what Microsoft, Sony, or Blizzard want you to believe, you have accomplished nothing by crossing off all the action items in their games. All those items were put there just to be completed. There never really was any challenge or hard work. Just mental masturbation that eventually racked up a shelf of digital trophies that represent time wasted avoiding challenge and learning. Teach kids to appreciate discipline and hard work and not expecting life to be a constant series of entertainments capped off with a congratulatory boost to their self-esteem. Teach them that failure is a part of life and should be learned from. But don’t teach them that they should be entertained at every possibility just so they can avoid the rigor of putting a pencil to paper and thinking a problem through without a digital sound and light show.

    -James Puckett

  24. gstott says:

    unplug the kids from some of the technology! if they do not have that immediate gratification from video games and texting, they cannot function. its not my job as a teacher to constantly provide that kind of stimulation. if its REAL helpful technology, I am for it, not useless websites/tech that really does not make things easier.

  25. Anonymous says:

    This reminds me of two things: One, the “guild leaders will make great project managers!” thing from a few years back that went nowhere; and two, “this newest piece of technology must be used to reform our educational system!” which we hear every time there is a major new piece of information tech (it’s happened with the internet, with computers, with cable tv, and more).

    Being a teacher is one of the hardest, most under-appreciated jobs in the world (imho). Discussions of teaching usually gloss over important factors, like what grade level or college, or public/private and now also charter, city or rural. Every kid is different, yet you can’t teach to all 20 or so kids in your classroom in an individual manner. People typically do better when we make things (I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I learn; or something like that) and when we *do*, so yes *doing* in an environment, be it the real world or an MMO is a good learning technique.

    If the previous technology that we needed to reform education was so great (currently it was the internet), why do we still need to reform education?