'Spotify for learning games' coming to classrooms

'Spotify for learning games' coming to classrooms

A screen shot from Legends of Learning, a new platform for learning games that debuts Monday.

WASHINGTON — A major barrier to getting high-quality learning games into K-12 classrooms could begin to dissolve this week as a D.C.-based startup unveils a free, Web-based platform that allows teachers to easily assign educator-vetted games to their students.

What's more significant: gameplay will be tied to academic standards in virtually every state.

The platform’s creator, a research scientist who sold his solar power startup to fund the venture, calls it “Spotify for learning games,” after the popular music streaming service that offers users unlimited music.

A casual gamer from the time he was young, Vadim Polikov discovered the power of learning games while playing classic titles such as Civilization and The Oregon Trail.

Since then, of course, computers have become cheaper, faster, smaller, more portable and nearly ubiquitous in school — and developers have made huge strides in creating groundbreaking learning games.

But when Polikov looked at how teachers were using games in the classroom, he found that they weren’t, for several reasons. Most good learning games, he found, are too long to be played in a single class session. “It’s not something that you can slot in and out.”

And most games don’t align with widely used academic standards, even if they teach appropriate material.

Polikov’s solution: Legends of Learning, a drag-and-drop Web platform that allows teachers to create “playlists” of games as short as five minutes and as long as 40 minutes. Working with more than 300 game developers, he has collected more than 500 titles for middle-school science, with more subjects to come.

The site, which debuted Monday, is designed to help teachers find and rate games vetted by a group of 450 colleagues. In some cases, they've consulted with the game developers themselves.

Polikov also created an “intuitive” interface that resembles consumer sites like Hulu and Netflix. “You don’t need (professional development) to learn how to use Netflix,” he said.

Access to the site, which offers an all-you-can-eat menu of games, is free for the first three months or so. It remains free after that if teachers agree to work with developers or other teachers to help them use the games more effectively. For a fee — about $8 to $10 per student — schools and districts can give teachers access to an online dashboard that lets them see student progress. In essence, the platform translates successful gameplay into proof that students have mastered the material. Teachers can also add quizzes and tests to the mix, further auditing the learning happening in the games.

“What we’ve focused on is making this for teachers and, really, by teachers,” Polikov said. When a game works well, teachers will rate it highly, he hopes, and assign it more, providing incentives for developers to make more of “the kind of games that teachers want.”

As with Spotify, game developers earn a portion of the site’s revenue each time their game is played.

Game designer Jesse Schell of Schell Games, a well-known Pittsburgh studio, said he has assigned a few of his designers to create content for the platform — budgets for the games are “super-tiny,” but his designers enjoyed the challenge.

“It’s an interesting experiment, certainly,” he said. “I think it does have a shot at working, because unlike most game-oriented approaches, this is designed to work with the classroom.”

Schell, who also teaches at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center, likened working on the platform less to uploading pre-existing songs to Spotify than to providing new content for a newspaper. "From a game developer’s point of view, it’s not exactly glamorous work, but on the other hand it’s kind of light. The key is to do things that are light and simple and to-the-point.”

Actually, he said, a better example might be an even more lightweight endeavor: “It’s just all these little tiny pieces," he said. "It’s just all these little fortune cookies. We’re not writing a book. We’re writing a bunch of fortune cookies. Each one is very targeted and very specific.”

If it all works, Schell said, textbook publishers could see its value and push to use platforms like Legends as another way to get their content into the classroom.

Rebecca Beiter, a sixth-grade earth science teacher at Bethlehem Central Middle School near Albany, N.Y., has helped pilot the site with her husband, Scott, who teaches middle-school science and high school physics. She said she has used games in the past — she's in her 17th year of teaching — “and I’m excited about this, because when I used games in the classroom, I didn’t have any data to back it up." The new platform, she said, "is really giving validity to something that I’ve been doing for a while now.”

Beiter and her husband said Polikov was smart to turn to teachers as the site was being designed.

“They really, really are trying to make this something that will be valuable to teachers,” she said, “and not just ‘another thing.’”



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