Educational Games — Balance between Learning and Engagement

Sharan Shodhan
Feb 8, 2017 · 5 min read

Can you think of any company that has cracked the educational gaming market yet? I have been wondering about why there hasn’t been any company that is successful in this space. I have been in the same situation as these companies and have struggled in the past to create really good educational games. I believe that the biggest challenge these games face is to find the right balance between learning and engagement.

Too much fun and too little learning

I have worked with few educational entertainment companies in the past whose experiences highlight this problem. At Playpower, we made Math educational games for kids in grades 1–8. These games did really well, receiving over 2 million app downloads globally, but they stopped being downloaded after a few months. After carefully studying the usage graphs, we realised that the game was not imparting enough learning value. The kids were having a great time playing these games, but the tests conducted showed that these game sessions did not have much impact on their learning graphs.

One of the many games inside Math Planet — a game by Playpower | Image Credit: Playpower Labs

I believe that this holds true for a lot of games out there. DragonBox Algebra is one example that comes to mind. They did a great job at transforming the abstract concepts of Algebra into a fun-filled game and people downloaded the game a lot as per App Store numbers. However, a study by Carnegie Mellon researchers found DragonBox to be “ineffective in helping students acquire skills in solving algebra equations, as measured by a typical test of equation solving.” The research highlighted that playing the game did not translate into conventional algebra proficiency.

Serious education is boring

At Teal Labs, we worked with a school in India to integrate technology into their curriculum. Each kid had an iPad for themselves and we had made a custom-designed app for them. The app required the kids to solve Math and Science problems that were based on their course structure. The app did a great job in making kids practice more and further tests showed that their performance had improved after they started using the app. The struggle here was that one month down the line, the engagement numbers had declined drastically. The teachers did not have enough motivation to make the students open the app either.

It is extremely difficult to capture the attention of kids for a long time. Kids want to consume media and information at a crazy speed and it is extremely difficult to provide kids with infinite content through software. Moreover, kids don’t want to play games that have learning written all over them. Going back to DragonBox — they did the head-fake really well and kids loved this game, but again Algebra is just a drop in the ocean of subjects that kids have to learn at school.

A student solving Math problems on the iPad app | Image Credit: Teal Labs

Inverted-U Model and “Flow”

Robert Yerkes and John Dodson created an inverted-U model that shows the relationship between pressure (difficulty) and performance (engagement). The middle of the graph shows where people generally work at peak effectiveness. They’re sufficiently motivated to work hard, but are not so overloaded that they start to struggle. This is where people can enter a state of “Flow,” a termed coined by psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, the enjoyable and highly productive state in which they can do their best work. Based on this, we conducted research in classrooms with some of our educational games and the results were surprising. The plot between engagement and difficulty came out to be rather linear — the less challenging the game, the longer people played it. This could be due to multiple reasons and that is a topic for another blog. The takeaway here is that a model that fits all entertainment games may not necessarily apply to educational games; furthermore, it is extremely difficult to optimise for engagement keeping in mind the educational value of the game.

Inverted-U Model

Playable toys to the rescue

The advent of robots or playable toys, as some call them, opens up a whole new medium for education. I feel that the struggle between engagement and learning could be solved with hardware. Kids love playing around with tangible objects and hence these hardware pieces could be inherently engaging. The software could come in and complement the hardware to create great products that impart learning and are engaging because of it’s tangibility. Also, using Block-based programming with robots has proven to be a lot of fun for kids. Additionally, products like Scratch and Blockly finds real-world applications for programming, making coding concepts meaningful for kids. When you give children educational toys to play with, they get a chance to learn and have fun at the same time.

Block-based programming

There have been companies trying to create some really good products for kids. Tangible Play and Wonder Workshop are two companies that are approaching the educational game space from a hardware / robotics standpoint. Anki, on the other hand, has created a cute little robot that is not necessarily education focused, but it definitely has a lot of potential to be an amazing medium of education. I am currently working with Anki’s robots to create engaging experiences for kids. I am also exploring ways in which the robot can be used to teach programming and Math to kids.

Kids enjoying Wonder Workshops’ Dot and Dash | Image Credits: Wonder Workshop

Five years down the line…

One of the things I am excited about is the use of robots to teach programming and Math to kids in higher grades. Block-based programming and elementary Math are comparatively easy tasks. I look forward to a robot that can teach kids about complex mathematical problems and help kids learn high-level programming languages. Even products like raspberry pi can intrigue high school students to create amazing stuff while learning Physics and Math concepts. This might sound crazy, but I would also love to explore the use of drones as an educational medium in the near future.

The education market is big, about $5-trillion globally. There have been predictions that by 2020, there will be $220 billion investment in the EdTech industry. For the past 150 years or so, most learning models — especially regarding children — have barely changed. Despite a lot of challenges in the educational technology space, these numbers suggest the kind of potential that the industry has to offer. The advent of robots, Artificial Intelligence, and VR/AR devices has already started to transform the classrooms. It is inevitable that within the next 5 years, there would be companies that would have cracked the educational technology market.

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