There are some children who just love to learn — they love going to school and soaking in new things like an ever-expanding sponge.
Then there are the rest of us who need a bit more prodding to get motivated.
Thirteen years ago, my 5-year-old son was supposed to be working on his Kindergarten homework, but he wouldn’t stop playing the groundbreaking multiplayer video game Madden on his brand-new PlayStation.
I thought, “How the heck does homework compete with that? There has to be a better way to engage him to learn.”
That moment was the genesis of our company.
From that moment, I made the decision to leave a very lucrative career as an executive in healthcare IT to start an online education company — something I knew absolutely nothing about. My wife thought I was crazy, my own kids thought I was crazy, and my buddies in the healthcare IT industry told me I was, in fact, bonkers.
One completely insane, life-altering change and over a decade later, our company’s products have reached millions of students and taught millions of lessons — both inside and outside of the classroom. We’ve learned a lot about how to motivate students with the fun factors, while being vigilant in our academic rigor. Today, the K-12 community is finally realizing the value and power of gaming as motivation for learning, thanks to a historic nexus in near-universal access to technology and broadband.
We knew 10 years ago that students would be motivated by having any sort of brain-break for “game time” after they completed a reading lesson or answered some math questions correctly. But what we have discovered over years of close attention and feedback is that there is much more to motivating disengaged or hard-to-reach students than just some “game time.” The perfect formula for perpetual game-based motivation in students involves much more than you would imagine.
Students are picky about what they like, much like educators, and so it is critical that an edtech product like ours delivers in every key area that is important to both parties. After all, the classroom experience is not one-sided.
Over years of deliberate listening and observing students using our learning products and similar products in all kinds of academic settings — classrooms, afterschool programs, summer programs, in their homes — we’ve had very interesting breakthroughs about what really motivates these youth.
We made a conscious decision 18 months ago to also observe kids playing mainstream video games that are not connected to academics. We knew we had a tremendous amount to learn from doing so because of the sheer and indisputable engagement we see from kids in the non-academic video game environment. We could learn why a child will choose to play one type of game vs. another, for example. We could also learn why some games would “fit” into the edtech arena better than others.
Halo versus Angry Birds.
Look at Halo — a very expensive and time-consuming game (both in terms of creating and playing the game) — and compare it with Angry Birds, which is relatively inexpensive and can be played in much shorter intervals.
Halo is 3D, requires state-of-the-art hardware, hours upon hours of game time by the player, and although it is very successful among males, not many females play Halo. The expenses, the time investment, and the limited audience make Halo less than ideal for the K-12 edtech setting.
Now look at Angry Birds — so simple, but so much fun for all audiences. Anyone can get the hang of this. You can play it for 30 seconds or 3 minutes, put it away during the takeoff on a plane, and then come back to it once you reach 10,000 feet. A game like Angry Birds makes more sense (and more fun) in the edtech arena.
In our observations, we’ve also learned that students are motivated by bonus features in video games, so we’ve incorporated these into our system:
Leaderboards – Kids are highly motivated by leaderboards, so we’ve enabled educators to set up contests using their own parameters. Meanwhile, kids can watch the dynamic leaderboards to know where they stand in the rankings in real-time.
Badges – Badges are awarded for unlocking new levels, achieving a point threshold, and other in-game achievements. Kids are motivated by periodic, positive reinforcement and they constantly check their badge collection and want to build it up.
Avatars – Coins are rewarded for academic success and can be redeemed not only for game time, but for purchasing or customizing new avatars. Kids love these kinds of custom features in a video game.
We are constantly evaluating these kinds of gaming criteria to make sure we’re selecting the perfect games to interest students, and the perfect “dose” of game time to engage and motivate students without taking over valuable learning time. Balance is key.
This balance is reflected in the structure of our company.
From a development standpoint, our company is divided into two divisions. On the academic side we have Ph.D.’s, masters of education, teachers and advisory board members with decades of combined experience. We also contract with third party curriculum writers and alignment experts to ensure we have the highest quality of academic content available in the U.S. today. In the last 18 months, this team’s focus has been on Common Core and a handful of individual state requirements like Texas. Our education division also focuses heavily on our adaptive engine, working to recalibrate the algorithms to ensure our product differentiates instruction as quickly as possible, in order to best utilize the computer or tablet time each student has available to them.
The other division is focused on gaming, and I’ve talked about some of the research they perform. You’ll also be interested to know they’ve also spent a great deal of time and energy the last year and a half on developing a platform that will allow us to plug in any new HTML5 game into our edugaming product. Some of these games will be created by students themselves. The possibilities are literally endless, and I have a good feeling that the next 10 years are about to get even more exciting.
Brian M. Shulman,
Founder & CEO
LTS Education Systems