This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on April 28, 2016.
If you are over 40 years of age, the internet has been for you an acquired taste, one which still feels just a bit awkward compared with the pen and paper you grew up with. Not so for those who are under 40. For them, working on the web, logging onto social media, and the like feel every bit as natural as texting (something else to which we who are over 40 have had to adjust). Information technology has made the world new, and the new world has brought with it a new education-delivery system: online learning.
Online education has been and continues to be the subject of hot debate. On the one hand, the U.S. Department of Education’s analysis of 44 separate studies of online education found its learning outcomes to be as good and—in its “hybrid” form, which combines online with traditional learning—at times superior to traditional education. On the other hand, critics doubt that online learning can serve as an adequate substitute for face-to-face teacher-student interaction in a bricks-and-mortar classroom. They entertain similar doubts about online education’s capacity to replicate the “college experience.”
The responses to these doubts depend on who and what are being taught. Having said that, I should confess that, as someone who taught Plato and Aristotle at the university level for two decades, I approached the subject of online education with similar reservations. But my own experience over the past three academic years teaching political philosophy in a doctoral-level, fully-accredited program has overcome most of my concerns. I still wonder whether MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) can fill the bill for the sort of courses I taught, but I’ll admit that my reservations on this score leave open a wide swath of other subjects and disciplines where the size of MOOCs might not dilute the learning experience.
What sorts of courses might these be? I speculate that a number of math and perhaps other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) courses could be done well online.
The time for speculation is over, at least as regards the viability of MOOCs as the delivery systems for math courses. A new education platform, PaGamO, which was designed in Taipei City, Taiwan, has just been introduced in the U.S. PaGamO takes online math learning to a new level: It has turned math homework into “games”; that is, into competitive social interactions, and this with the view to increasing the pleasure of math homework for students, young and not-so-young.
PaGamO advertises itself
as the “first-ever online social gaming platform for education.” But while even oldsters like this writer are aware of the phenomenon of “online gaming,” how does this approach translate into math education? The new platform follows the principles of board games such as “Risk” and “Settlers of Catan.” Students compete to build their “own kingdom of knowledge, wealth, and land by answering questions and solving mini-quizzes.”
In addition to enhancing student motivation through competition, the platform employs back-end analytics in real time to assess each individual student’s abilities. It then adapts the questions it asks each student to fit his or her learning style and capacity.
As a teacher, it is not difficult for me to see the benefits that this program provides for instructors. In traditional classrooms with 20 or more students (and most classrooms have at least these many students), no teacher, however assiduous and discerning, has the time or the capacity to provide individualized instruction to those students who need it the most. In contrast, the PaGamO platform supplies analytics for each student after each assignment through which teachers can more easily assess both individual ability and especially difficult subject areas.
For their part, students react very favorably to their experience with this combination of gaming and individualized assessment. Close to 90 percent of students using PaGamOreport that it has enhanced their content knowledge and expedited their moving forward to more challenging math problems.
While the program has proven effective at the K-12 level as well as in higher education, its inspiration came from an online college course designed by Professor Benson Yeh of National Taiwan University. Yeh, a graduate of the University of Michigan and professor at the National Taiwan University, first designed the game to increase his students’ motivation in class. After doing so, he saw that PaGamO could be helpful to students everywhere.
“We launched PaGamO in my probability course on Coursera with about 4,000 students, and they absolutely loved it,” Professor Yeh said. “Our course completion rate was significantly higher than expected, and students kept asking for more problems to solve on PaGamO.”
Now that it has launched in the U.S., Yeh’s goal is to make the game available for all teachers. “Teachers helped us shape PaGamO,” he remarked. “Now teachers in the U.S. can use the game in the classroom, to assign homework, for exam preparation and for self-assessment for students and evaluation by teachers.”
Doubtless, PaGamO’s initial success will not end the debate over online education. But it might cause the critics to refine their concerns. Mathematics courses, at the least, seem especially amenable to this approach. Equally important, online education goes directly to where today’s students live. They live, more and more, on their laptops and cellphones (and parents are hard-put to stop them!) It is therefore more prudent to exploit the learning possibilities provided by online technology. “Gamification for education” seems to be the next step in this development.