Untapped lessons hidden in computer games 


We as a society need to be schooled on how today’s young people learn, why technology and gaming are not the enemy, and that traditional classrooms with rows of desks and 30 sets of eyes directed toward the same blackboard are outdated.

The computer gaming industry is booming, and we should better harness its power. Whether it is augmented reality Pokémon Go or massive multi-player games such as World of Warcraft, the opportunities for start-ups are mind-blowing. In 2015, the global computer gaming market was worth $70 billion.

Capturing the imagination and encouraging gamers to engross themselves completely is a very rewarding skill for designers, who have learned how to balance the attributes of a successful game including playability, plot and engagement. The best ones create a feedback loop between game and player; the more the user participates, the more rewarding it is.

When it comes to education, many parents still see video games as the enemy of learning. Nothing but a time suck. Yet, a growing number of educational experts are proving that the attributes of popular computer games get high scores when applied to learning.

EverFi co-founder and chief executive Tom Davidson felt that the education sector was missing an opportunity to adapt gaming principles for positive effect. Founded in 2008, EverFi is one of the fastest-growing education technology companies in the United States. When I interviewed Davidson on my radio show “What’s Working in Washington,” he explained how the top-down model that prevailed 100 years ago was clearly not the way to teach today’s computer savvy students. The 21st century classroom needs to provide a more personalized educational experience — one where students learn at their own pace.

Davidson wants to expand education into areas defined by life skills: don’t teach just math, science and reading — include everything else necessary to be a successful member of society. He says EverFi’s mission is to tackle this country’s “most intractable issues, from financial education and sexual assault prevention to workplace health, diversity and inclusion.”

His business has grown, educating millions of students through games that instill valuable knowledge and insights. Recently, EverFi received $190 million in venture capital funding to expand its business and products. This impressive financing sets up the company for success, but is also indicative of another trend.

To Davidson, this is part of a larger story. The greater Washington region is a hotbed for education technology startups.

“There is literally no better place in the world to launch impactful education companies,” Davidson says, citing as examples Blackboard, 2U, Laureate Partners and Ellucian. He heaps praise on the region, predicting even more valuable education tools sprouting here because this “is the best place on earth to hire great educational leaders.”

Nurtured learners become leaders themselves eventually. Davidson speaks with several former students, including one who became financially literate through EverFi’s products, helping his family avoid financial ruin, and another student who navigated a highly-charged personal crisis through life skills he had learned.

For Davidson, this double bottom line — the combination of meeting the challenge of being an entrepreneur, and hearing how EverFi products impact students — provides a rewarding experience that “shoots him out of bed in the morning.”

It also reminds us of another fundamental truth: opportunities to make tangible impact through technology abound in the D.C. region. The unique cross-section of policy makers and technologists is fertile ground indeed.

This column originally appeared in The Washington Post.

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