Roblox, which recently made its debut on the New York Stock Exchange, has quickly become one of the most valuable video game companies in the world. As I write this article, Roblox has effortlessly overtaken household video game names such as Take-Two (maker of Grand Theft Auto) and Electronic Arts (EA) (maker of Battlefield and FIFA) in terms of market cap, while only making a fraction of the incumbents’ revenues and none of their profits.
And there is good reason for this change in pecking order. Unlike Take-Two and EA, Roblox is not just a gaming company. It is a virtual playground for nearly 200 million monthly users, with two-thirds of those users being of school-going age. Such a congregation of children on any one platform has been unheard of—Roblox hosts more students every month than all school-going children in the U.S., U.K., and Canada combined.
With this level of scale, direct access, and market power, Roblox is now in prime position to disrupt the multi-trillion-dollar education market, which has so far been incredibly resistant to change.
A majority of what is taught today in primary and secondary classrooms is based on a mid-19th-century Prussian model of education. Around 170 years ago, this model became immensely popular in the west as it sought to unify students under a common national identity as well as train them for lifelong employment in factories. This resulted in what we consider to be norms in schools today: uniforms for students, a bell system that demarcates different activities during the day, a hierarchal grading system that determines if a student passes or fails, and a standardized curriculum geared towards creating like-minded citizens instead of developing the strengths of the students involved.
Such a top-down education system appears to have outlived its purpose. Students coming into the workforce today no longer must “fit in” to a certain company’s or country’s culture to be successful. Many research papers have now established that for activities requiring deep focus, such as software development, getting interrupted with the equivalent of a bell is highly unproductive. Hierarchal grading is also on its way out for most progressive companies. Last but definitely not the least, thanks to widespread automation, factory-based employment continues to plummet across most developed nations. And while technology has crept in to classrooms in the form of digital tools (especially during the pandemic), the fundamentals of the aging Prussian educational model still hold strong. This creates a paradoxical situation for students who end up spending a large part of their youth learning a way of life that is not relevant once they grow up.
Roblox is unencumbered from all this baggage. A Roblox educational experience starts off with teachers using prebuilt templates to customize game levels and interactive tutorials for their students around the topics they want to teach. They then invite students to play these Roblox levels (either as groups or individuals), learning complex concepts such as chain reaction simulations in the process. These subjects are not just a significant departure from what is commonly taught in classrooms today. Thanks to Roblox’s learn-as-you-play approach, they are also far more engaging for students than a typical Zoom session.
The platform has not been popular with instructors in the past, primarily due to the social networking side of the experience that allowed strangers to connect with children. But with improved security in place combined with the pressures of the pandemic, school teachers have increasingly adopted Roblox to teach subjects like coding, animation, and digital civility.
Roblox itself has also leaned into education and lists over 300 partner educational institutions on its website. During its recent debut in China, the world’s biggest video game market, the platform was promoted primarily for its educational benefits.
While it is true that children’s education is a primarily a societal endeavor, it can be made more effective by having the right economic incentives in place for both teachers and students. In the case of teachers, they can choose to sell their teaching content and level designs on the Roblox market place in return for cash. On the flip side, students can also choose to take the skills they learn in Roblox and generate income on the platform as digital entrepreneurs. There are now many success stories of children who learnt how to code on Roblox and grew up to create content for the platform that has monetized successfully.
In fact, in 2020, there were 345,000 content creators on Roblox who ended up receiving over $250 million in payouts. While it is unclear how many of those who were paid were teachers or students, the fact that Roblox’s virtual economy is working for its participants is fantastic news for its adoption as a mainstream educational platform. Further, thanks to the platform’s focus on more contemporary science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects instead of a more generalized curriculum, “Roblox taught” students should attract more job opportunities in industries such as software engineering, robotics, and media. If this trend holds, we can expect to see a virtuous cycle built up over the next decade, where both hiring managers and candidates end up having educational experiences in Roblox—allowing for higher trust and recognition for the platform, which in return increases placement opportunities.
Roblox is not the only video game platform looking to change the face of primary and secondary education, with Microsoft’s Minecraft also making inroads as an educational tool in schools over the past several years. Still, education as an industry has been remarkably resilient to digital disruption, with many education technology companies failing to change the status quo in any meaningful way.
However, video game platforms like Roblox, with their direct access to students and policies that aren’t hamstrung by an educational model from the 19th century, have a real shot at changing that (as long as they put proper safeguards in place). Given the early stage of this disruption, the next decade could prove to be a turning point in digital education as Roblox becomes a formal tool for learning across the world.
Hamza Mudassir is a visiting fellow in strategy at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge. He is the founder of Platypodes.io.