How to Make a Great Learning Game

Last fall we started work on our next generation of iNeuron. The first version of the game had enjoyed an enthusiastic reception from teachers, we had collected important feedback on content and user experience from our initial round of classroom research, Apple had released a new development environment for the iPad, and we had been successfully awarded Phase II SBIR funding from the NIH.

Initial classroom testing commences later this spring and will continue in earnest through the summer and into the new school year.

At the same time we began thinking about our next educational game. What comes after iNeuron? We started brainstorming about different STEM subjects where we could turn our focus. The conversation included how best to meet the needs of the underserved high school market, which subjects would be most amenable to our collaborative mobile-game approach, and what concepts are both critical to learn and most challenging to cover from an instructional standpoint.

In the middle of our discussion, our lead scientist interjected, "It's not enough to digitize content. We have to do something that justifies putting it on a mobile device." Reflecting back on it now, this key insight seems obvious, but at the time I considered it to be novel and significant, so much so that I tweeted it:

Being the newest member of the team, and getting ready to meet with teachers who I was going to try to convince to download and play iNeuron, I had to ask the question from the teachers’ perspective: How do mobile device games make sense in the science classroom?

Asking this question wasn't just an academic exercise. It is no small feat creating any curriculum that is engaging, educationally effective, affordable to cash-strapped school districts, and easily adopted and implemented by teachers. We know that teachers are quickly adopting mobile devices, and we know that mobile devices can engage and inform in ways that other kinds of curriculum delivery can't. But what specifically will make our mobile games work in ways that other kinds of teaching don't?

The specific things we do here at Andamio Games are a combination of solid pedagogy and smart classroom implementation. Here’s our recipe (so far):

  • Build for Secondary Students: Design a high school curriculum that also challenges first year college students and is within reach of industrious middle schoolers.
  • Align with Standards: Enable teachers to hit state and nationally prescribed learning targets.
  • Scaffold the Instruction: Promote mastery and deeper long-term learning with appropriate supports and carefully timed encouragement.
  • Test with Feedback: Reinforce new knowledge and bolster long-term retention with high-frequency, low-stakes quizzes.
  • Increase Student Engagement: Promote active, inquiry-based learning with a problem solving approach that leaves strategy and timing open-ended.
  • Pilot with Teachers: Limit instructional overhead by incorporating teacher feedback into the design.
  • Leverage Opportunities for Collaboration: At every moment facilitate the best possible peer learning.
  • Focus on STEM Games: Stick to our core expertise, and foster curiosity in science through a hands-on, constructivist approach.

In the coming blogposts, we hope to start a conversation with you as we delve into some of these ingredients in more detail. We have our own ideas about what makes a really effective learning game, and teachers' enthusiastic response to iNeuron suggests we might be doing some things right. But we're smart enough to know that we don't know everything. That's why we want to hear from you -- classroom teachers, home educators, administrators and students. In your experience, what's the best possible use of learning games in education? What makes mobile ed-tech worth having?