Reimagine Learning

Inspiration, Play, and Narrowing Inequality

Despite the title, Matt Greenfield’s Sources of Hope for Education Technology in 20181 presents a sobering account of the challenges we face in leveraging technology to improve educational outcomes. The past year has reminded us that progress depends on meeting minimal conditions such as having electrical power and well-maintained facilities. Even when those requirements are met, though, a crucial question remains: does educational technology do anything to narrow educational inequality, or is it actually expanding those gaps by providing benefits only to the affluent and their children?

If improvement depends only on dollars spent, widening inequality seems inevitable since our system generally provides more money to districts that have higher tax bases. But we can hack that system by using resources strategically, investing in the right things, and promoting a culture and mindset that inspires learners instead of seeing them as a problem to be solved.

Consider the actual experience of the people we are trying to reach. Imagine being told what to do all day without understanding why. Think about what message we are conveying when students receive detailed accounts of their classes’ disciplinary procedures but nothing about how useful and interesting their classes will be. Now add expensive technology on top of that. Does the technology make things any better?

In contrast, think about the best learning experiences in your life. Chances are, those experiences sparked something in you that led you to explore on your own, without being forced. You put in the work because it meant something to you, not because you feared the consequences of meeting some obscure standard or maintaining your GPA. We need to bring those kinds of experiences to everyone. Educational technology can help achieve these ends in scalable ways at affordable costs, but only if it works cooperatively with learners and not when it functions as an enforcement mechanism of a system based on compliance and punishment.

At my company, we reimagine the possibilities of learning and technology, creating experiences that illustrate the relevance of learning objectives while engaging learners’ instincts for play, exploration, and experimentation. And it works. While most learning content is used (maybe) once, players of our Martha Madison games replay levels an average of 5.1 times. Even better, playing the games closed 95% of the STEM affiliation gap among minority and economically-disadvantaged students in comparison to their majority peers. Once we engage learners, there’s no limit to what we can do.

When the standards learners must meet are so heavily focused on performing specific tasks in prescribed ways, some may be skeptical about a focus on inspiration. If we put lots of energy into inspiration, relevance, and play, will the learners do well on standardized tests? It’s a fair question, but it presumes that there is some sort of trade-off between providing inspiration and meeting standards based on compliance. In practice though, the inspired learner will have a reason to meet those standards and is more likely to put in the work to meet them. Who has a harder time passing the test, the learner who spent time being inspired or the learner who lacks any intrinsic motivation at all? We don’t have to choose between motivation and achievement. One leads to the other, and let’s not be confused about which should come first.