Bill Gates Takes On Education's Biggest Bureaucratic Beast With Video Games

As states scramble to understand new educational standards, Gates eyes an opening for video games.

Around the country, a new career-minded education standard is slowly edging out the old academic focus on Lord Of the Flies book summaries and five-paragraph essays. So far 42 states have pledged to adopt the (coercively) voluntary standards championed by President Obama, the National Governors Association, and billionaire education crusader, Bill Gates. While educators are slowly dipping their feet into the pool of critical thinking, persuasive communications, and exploratory learning, the Gates foundation is looking to swing the direction of the standards with a mega-investment in digital learning.

Gates has previously financially supported YouTube sensation Sal Khan, funded the game-centered Quest2Learn school, and most recently, invested millions more in educational video games, hoping their addictive quality can lead to scientific curiosity.

And this week the Gates Foundation announced $20 million in grants for digital learning with an emphasis on instructive video games. Details are scant, but according to the press release,

  • "$2.6 million for iRemix, which is being developed by Digital Youth Network. It will be a set of 20 literacy-based trajectories that allow students to earn badges and move from novice to expert in areas like creative writing.
  • $2.5 million to Institute of Play will build a set of game-based pedagogical tools and game-design curricula that can be used within both formal and informal learning contexts.
  • $2.6 million to Quest Atlantis is creating video games that build proficiency in math, literacy and science."

Additional funds will also go to Florida's one-of-a-kind online public school. Florida has previously caught national headlines, and the ire of teacher unions, for its teacher-replacing technology. But, if the data sides with robotic teachers, then according to the new standards, they have a stamp of approval. A cool $750,000 also goes to another initiative sure to irk unions, Reasoning Mind, which makes "a single effective math teacher available across multiple classrooms."

Common Core

The controversial new national education standards are an attempt to bridge in the gap between high school and college—to find a Common Core. Summarization of literature is a common activity among high school students, for instance, but is a rarity in college essay assignments. As the The New York Times discovered in an investigation of New York City schools, summarization is being replaced with argumentative essays related to real-life issues, such as the effect of technology on cognition—a topic that has frequented headlines for the past year. (For a recent counter study, click here.)

Classrooms have also been given breathing room to integrate exploratory learning. In one Probability class, instead of merely memorizing the fact that samples drawn from a population tend to conform to the familiar bell curve shape—known as the Central Limit Theorem—students were asked to chart the heights of 15 boys. In the process, they discovered an important statistical fact: 15 is often not enough samples to produce a bell-shaped curve. Mathematics teacher José Rios said: "They learned that the size of the sample matters, and I didn’t have to tell them."

Time, of course, is a scarce resource, and traditional subjects that aren't normally emphasized in college or the workplace, such a literature, are taking a back seat. A few remaining holdouts have protested the changes. The Education Commissioner of Texas, Robert Scott, decried the movement as a "desire for a federal takeover of public education."

While the changes are still exceedingly new by education standards, it has given hope to alternative sources of information that previously never would have made it past the textbook selection committee—like video games. Educational games have evolved since the pixelated days of Oregon Trail. Dr. Melanie Stegman of the Federation of American Scientists adapted the addictive gun-toting first-person shooting model to the study of biological anatomy.

In Immune Attack, gamers race through an infected human, fighting off bacteria in an immersive 3-D environment. Not only did students' knowledge of Biology improve, many where inspired to make their own educational science games, "This motivation kept McKinley Technology High School students asking intense questions while they developed 2-dimensional Microbot games using Game Maker. The desire to create a realistic game made these kids active and engaged students of molecular biology," said Stegman to ScienceDaily.com.

Gates has been backing video game education for some time. Before the Common Core juggernaut, he helped fund Quest2Learn, a chic Manhattan primary school built around video games and computer literacy. Exploring Google Earth, communicating through their proprietary social network, and doing show-and-tell through a podcast is all part of a day's learning.

Theoretically, under new Core standards, games and other interactive digital content could supplement textbooks as original sources of learning.

So in the near future, if Gates is successful, the tired old "What did you learn in school today?" might be replaced by "What did you play in school today?"

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[Image: Flickr user Will Folsom]

Read More: How Bill Gates' Favorite Teacher Wants to Disrupt Education

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3 Comments

  • George Khachatryan

     I wanted to comment on the article's mention of Reasoning Mind, one of the Gates-funded programs. (Disclosure: I work for Reasoning Mind.)

    The article suggests that teacher unions might be unhappy with RM. I wanted to clarify that in fact, teachers and teacher unions are among RM's biggest supporters. The goal of the Gates grant isn't to increase student-to-teacher ratios, but rather to help out schools experiencing teacher shortages -- i.e., to mitigate the damage caused by these shortages.

    Teacher unions support RM because the program provides lots of support for teachers in the classroom and is extremely popular with the teachers who use it. 93% of teachers who tried RM said they wanted to keep using the program. The NEA (the nation's largest teacher union) invited RM to their conference as a featured speaker. Gayle Fallon, the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, is also a big supporter (and has publically endorsed RM).

  • Arup Bhanja

    Very natural progression and the word 'School' comes from a Greek word (schole) meaning 'leisure'. This industry is now the next hot potato and their will be killer apps in the near time future...

  • David Lynam

    Interesting! The use of game mechanics to aid learning is an exciting opportunity. I am a developer for WordStash (http://wordstash.com), a flash card based online learning tool that uses games for learning as well.