What online games can teach us about online courses

What online games can teach us about online courses

The acronym MOOC shares a more-than passing resemblance to MMO, gamer shorthand for Massive Multiplayer Online.* “Massive” and “Online” are shared, and “Open” and “Multiplayer” are related ideas. When most MOOCs say “Open,” they mean open to anyone, anywhere, in much the way that online games are. Once could even argue that there’s a relationship between the C for “Course” and the “game” that naturally follows MMO. Games are a kind of curriculum, leading players through a series of narrative, strategic, or conceptually challenging experiences.

* Often followed by RPG for Role Playing Game, though not all modern MMOs are RPGs.

Given this at least superficial similarity, I want to suggest three simple thinking points for MOOC course and platform designers based on the player’s experience of the online game space. Game designers have made both innovative breakthroughs and frustrating mistakes in their interaction with players, and MOOCs can, I believe learn from these in their dealings with learners.

1) Why Not Multiplayer?

The Internet enables multiplayer gaming at a scope and scale that was unimaginable a mere couple decades ago. The same is true in education. So why are so many MOOCs still effectively “single player” experiences? There is certainly space for individual learning online, but why not leverage the cooperative and competitive opportunities the Internet provides? Of all the MOOC platforms, Venture Lab is the only I know of that is actively pursuing this kind of model.

2) Players Dislike “Always Online” for Single Player Games.

Diablo and SimCity are game franchises from wildly different genres and development studios that each have large followings and an important role in the history of gaming. Both are primarily played as single player games (Diablo did make a name for itself in part because of MP, but most users are still SP). Both, in their most recent incarnations, require the player to always be logged into an active server on the Internet in order to play. This makes players unhappy (and can create massive server problems). Why should I have to log on to the Internet for a single player game? Why, if I pay for a product, should it be possible for the developer to restrict or eliminate my access at a whim simply by shutting down the server? While MOOCs are free, for now, the lesson is the same: if you’re not going to use the connectivity of the Internet, why force your users to be online to use your materials? Allowing students to download videos is nice, but they should be able to download the in-video quizzes, assignments, and exams too, even if they need to upload in order to be graded. If a MOOC is not a “multiplayer” MOOC, why can’t it be available as a piece of offline software?

3) “Free to play; pay to win.”

As MOOCs search for revenue models, they will undoubtedly be attracted by the “freemium” model of many modern online games. Gamers have a phrase for this: “free to play, pay to win.” Basically, you let anyone play your game, but only paying players ever have a chance of making meaningful progress. If MOOCs are going to stand by the “Open” in their name, they cannot go down this route.

It’s important to think about what counts as “winning” in a MOOC in this analogy? I worry about three possibilities:

i) MOOCs will restrict access to the highest quality learning materials.

ii) MOOCs will only allow paying users to take final exams / do final assignments and receive certificates of completion.

iii) MOOCs will provide advertising-ridden lessons to non-paying students, disrupting their learning with commercials, banner ads, and pop-ups.

Written by Paul Franz, doctoral student in the Graduate School of Education