EdTech needs its Pokemon Go moment

But a carbon copy won’t work

Junaid Mubeen
Jul 24, 2016 · 6 min read

I caught my first Pokemon and never looked back. I probably should have done, as I found myself standing in the middle of the road, traffic oncoming. My fleeting moment of triumph was almost followed by a disaster of mortal proportions.

Thankfully, I retreated to the pavement in time, limbs in tact. I scarcely had time to take in my near-death experience, for there was a plethora of local Pokestops to hunt down. As I inducted myself into the crazy world of Pokemon Go (now with some caution to my stride), I could begin to appreciate its mass appeal. Pokemon Go had come to me, in my little world here in Oxford. It felt truly personal and engaging— everything learning should be.

I was left wondering what Education’s own Pokemon Go moment will look like.

What would an educational version of Pokemon Go look like?

Within days, Pokemon Go has morphed into a global movement, igniting the imagination of millions of children, and binding it with the nostalgic sensitivities of their millennial elders. Any phenomenon that can draw the intense focus and engagement of so many children demands the attention of educators.

Pokemon Go is the coming of age of augmented reality. The lines between our digital worlds and physical spaces are now blurred. For years we’ve heard the hype, but there’s nothing quite like holding it in your hands.

Niantic, the company behind Pokemon Go, have put education providers to shame. They have delivered a gaming experience that not only works on mobile, but can only work on mobile. They have woven hardware, software and design into a seamless user experience.

In stark contrast, the app store is littered with thousands of educational tools that simply retrofit old modes of learning onto a smaller screen size. These apps have neglected the affordances of smartphones. So while forward-thinking educators speak of embedding learning in the physical world, and cultivating children’s natural thirst for discovery, these fanciful ideas have yet to make it into our pockets. Personalised learning is the engine of digital EdTech, yet few innovations have fulfilled this promise.

STEM subjects percolate to the top of the policy agenda, dominating the school curriculum on account of being so core to our understanding of the world around us. Focusing just on the M, the maths curriculum of formal schooling is built on real-world applications. Parents are encouraged to integrate maths activities in their children’s daily lives.

Surely, one would hope, we would have a shelf full of maths apps dedicated to this purpose. Instead we are offered a mesh of digital flashcards, revision apps and mental maths recall games. Multiple-choice inputs rule the roost and both instructional and interaction design take a backseat.

Our twenty-first century devices are betrayed by nineteenth-century pedagogies.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this empty use of new technology. The media theorist Marshall Mcluhan warned several decades ago that new types of media initially replicate existing forms of content until they are eventually exploited for their own features. For instance, the first movies were just filmed versions of dramatic stage plays. In Education, we’ve seen this with interactive whiteboards (we’re still waiting for the interactive part), as well as the mass digitisation of textbook content.

When the failure of learning apps is juxtaposed with the mind-blowing popularity of Pokemon Go, the education community is left with some awkward judgements. We see mass gatherings at Pokestops and cannot fathom why learning, which is social and collaborative at its core, is not experienced in the same way. As people bridge their generational differences in pursuit of their next Pokemon, we wonder how formal schooling can be so inept at engaging parents in their children’s learning.

There is a tendency for parents and educators to turn all their hopes and expectations to solutions that were not built to solve education’s problems.

The optimists point to Pokemon Go itself as education’s cure. Cue the listicles breaking down all the ways in which Pokemon Go can — nay, must — be used to support learning. There is some legitimate fodder in there; nobody can defy the case studies of autistic students using Pokemon Go as an entry point to engaging with their world.

But there’s also a risk of overpromising, which EdTech providers have historically been prone to (Twitter as the new LMS, anyone?). So let’s dispense with some of the snake oil. Pokemon Go should not be used to trick students into learning because, well, authentic learning is just not a tricksy affair.

Let’s also be more judicious in selecting instructional models. The idea of teaching data literacy through Pokemon Go is arbitrary and ill-conceived. Have such advocates designed a coherent and complete curriculum experience? How do they suggest educators resp0nd when the Pokemon-chasing student struggles to compute their rewards because they remain stuck on two-digit addition? The Pokemon Gyms may not bear fruit this time.

Education is not a piecemeal affair. Pokemon Go may supplement learning, but it cannot become it.

We must do better than retrofitting gaming experiences into the curriculum. Pokemon Go resonates because it is built on solid principles of user engagement and hints at much needed pedagogies that are lacking in mainstream education. But Pokemon Go is not itself the solution, and it comes with its own baggage. A litany of security issues has dampened its success, with concerns around data privacy, prohibitive terms of service, and what Oliver Stone calls “surveillance capitalism”. These concerns can not be dismissed as the exaggerated whims of conspiracy theorists. Any serious player in EdTech has to appreciate the delicacy with which student data needs to be threaded. Pokemon Go is hardly the gold standard.

The cynics may go further and throw out augmented reality and smart learning altogether. But Pokemon Go has illuminated mobile user experience in ways that, in the hands of serious educators, can enrich learning. EdTech providers have the opportunity to put learning in the hands of students everywhere. It would be an unconscionable failure of the imagination if mobile learning did not combine the best of smart technologies with sound pedagogy.

Education is crying out for its own Pokemon Go moment; carbon copies will not do.

Junaid Mubeen

Written by

Mathematics. Education. Innovation. Views my own.

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