Why Vinod Khosla is Wrong on Gamification of Education

Vinod Khosla, writing on TechCrunch in his continuing series on how algorithms are going to replace everything, believes that there are two trends in the future confluence of the internet and the web: decentralization and gamification. His arguments regarding decentralization are accurate (if a tad unoriginal at this point considering the overarching development of the internet), but his views on gamification deserve a closer look. He starts reasonable enough:

[…] I firmly believe that we should embrace [gamification] and harness its best parts to drive the education of our children who grow up with online and mobile games.

But then we reach this sentence later in the essay:

And with points and stars and badges and the like both [types of students: the A and D students] are likely to want to spend more time participating, and will be more motivated when they do participate compared to today’s average classroom.

Vinod Khosla is wrong. Dangerously wrong.

I want to start by saying that Khosla is certainly no small figure in the Silicon Valley community, and really, his track record of success is something to laud. I also want to note that some of my closest friends from college are working on mobile games that teach arithmetic skills. I think the work that they are doing is really interesting, worthwhile and useful.

Yet, there is a tremendous difference between having a game on a parent’s iPhone or Android and changing the entire U.S. education system to encourage the acquisition of arbitrary “points and stars and badges.” It’s funny, but this approach has been tried for years in U.S. school districts, without success. Those who want to read about it from an ardent critic can turn to the work of Alfie Kohn who rightly points out the incredible harm that this approach has on the development of children.

There is an incredible danger in the quantification of education. Teacher accountability, student test taking, GPAs, points, rankings, percentiles. The current trend is already moving toward gamification, except it isn’t really fun. And that is just the problem with games as learning: they can’t really convince the unmotivated to learn, can they? Sure, learning algebra by playing a mobile game may be better than reading a textbook, but no student is going to choose Math Blaster over Halo. And no math game can be fun when you are required to get a certain score in order to pass (I certainly hated Mavis Beacon when I was little, and that had already been gamified. And that was in 1995).

Dumping these sorts of entertainment toys into the toxic atmosphere that is American public schools is not going to solve our education problems. In fact, it may even make them worse. But that probably never occurred to Khosla, who like many ed tech pundits, is not and never has been a teacher.

At a time when creativity and originality are requisite skills for career success, why are we focused on developing technologies that take the creativity out of education? Perhaps I get so angry and passionate about this because I just barely managed to get through public school before the current regime of test taking. As I have discussed previously on this blog, it was the incredibly flexibility of my early teachers in elementary school that allowed me the opportunity to explore computers at a young age. Today, I am a product manager and majored in Mathematical and Computational Science with other interests in 3D animation, photography, writing and art. No gamification needed. To use Khosla’s example of A and D students: A students don’t need games and games won’t help D students.

Khosla does make a valid point regarding breaking up the lock-step approach of education progression. He sees games as a potential avenue for changing that model, but then again, nearly every technology developed for education has personalized learning as one of its major motivations. This personalization is going to change the way people learn and completely alter the role of the teacher in the classroom, but its success is still dependent on a willing and passionate student to get the most value. Games are just a subset of this trend.

If start-ups in education want to make a difference, focus on enjoyment, not fun. Games are fun: you can turn off your mind and lose a few hours shooting vampires or building human civilizations across the ages. Enjoyment comes from accomplishment and developing something original, realizing that you have the ability to challenge and change your world. To put it in concrete terms - don’t play games, make them. But that requires a level of confidence in children that American prisons public schools just have not been able to possess.

Khosla provides some interesting ideas, but we have to be vigilant of thinking that there is an immediate technical solution to a problem of human psychology and human society. Maria Montessori believed that students, when given an open canvas on which to learn, will learn masterpieces. That philosophy helped to create the Google founders, and it is exactly the kind of attitude the United States needs to educate students for the 21st century economy.