Technology and game theory

Mobile phones and e-books are already essential school supplies on many university campuses. But they’re just slide rules compared to what education tools might look like in a few years. 

Remember folders and heavy books, and the race for the library computer? That was then. Students entering higher education nowadays come fully teched-up: laptop, mobile phone, MP3 player and tablet. They enjoy wireless high-speed communications and use information and communication technologies extensively in their daily lives. Professors and lecturers are adapting more of their course work to take advantage, by using webinars, e-reading, and the like. Yet the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) project on the Future of Higher Education finds that these “new millennium learners” do not expect to see technology play a significant role in their advanced education. They may still have a few new things to learn.

An international body of experts in education, technology, business and other fields recently published a report on emerging technologies and their potential role in education. According to The Horizon Report 2011, technology in higher education in the not-so-distant future will involve far more than just e-books and mobile phones. Over the next five years, the report suggests, such technologies as augmented reality, video- and computer-based games, gesturebased computing and learning analytics may also work their way into the hallowed halls of academe.

Some of these “serious” games are already in use on campuses in OECD countries. A series of games under the title Global Conflicts, for instance, helps to teach students about sensitive geo-political issues and comes with lesson plans and assignments for students. Melody Mixer, developed at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, teaches students how to read and compose music; and Virtual Forensics Lab, developed at a US school of nursing, teaches students how to conduct forensic examinations at a crime scene. Proponents of these types of games argue that more intensive use of video or computer games at university would help students to develop their abilities to make decisions, innovate and solve problems–precisely the types of skills needed in informationbased economies. These types of games simulate real-life situations and offer students the opportunity to try to solve complex problems without risking real-life consequences. They also offer a chance to test and better understand different ways of approaching a problem. Ultimately, these games could lead to more interdisciplinary thinking within higher education institutions and beyond.

Still under development are what are known as “massively multiplayer online” games that are specifically designed for learning. These types of games, which already exist as entertainment or for training, bring players together from all corners of the globe to solve problems collaboratively. Proponents cite the variety of sub-games or paths of engagement that are available to those who play them. While they are often goal oriented, at their highest levels these games often require outside research. The challenge for designers of these types of games is to embed education content into them so that learning becomes a natural part of “play”.

Another type of technology, learning analytics, aims to enable teachers and institutions to tailor education to the needs and abilities of individual students. It does so by analysing a wide range of data, such as how students do in completing assignments and taking exams, their online social interactions, extracurricular activities and posts on discussion forums, for example. The beneficiaries are not just students; these technologies could be used to assess curricula and pedagogy, as well. While admissions offices and fundraisers are already using some of this technology, most of the work in this area is still conceptual; it will be another four or five years, at least, before these systems are widely used to diagnose and improve the quality of teaching. In addition, concerns about student privacy and profiling, and the perception that the technology reduces human beings to numbers, will have to be addressed before there is broad take-up.

Apart from the cost of these technologies, which can be considerable, one of the greatest obstacles to their large-scale use is, perhaps surprisingly, insufficient digital literacy among both teachers and students. While there is broad consensus among educators and business people alike that students must be digitally literate in order to participate fully in our fast-evolving world, there is no broad agreement on what constitutes digital literacy skills, nor are these skills comprehensively and universally taught. And, as most consumers know, these technologies advance and change at such breakneck speed, most curricula may not be revised fast enough to keep up. Some critics note, too, that an apparent lack of digital literacy may simply be an absence of desire. Students may still like pouring over books, and research authors may still prefer to see their names in print. The challenge for those who produce innovative educational e-tools is to make them not just exciting, but relevant and enhancing for learning and teaching. Only then will any vestiges of digital illiteracy go the way of the slide rule. Marilyn Achiron


Johnson, L., R. Smith, H. Willis, A. Levine and K. Haywood (2011), The Horizon Report, 2011 edition.

OECD (forthcoming 2012), Higher Education to 2030, Volume 3: Technology, OECD, Paris.

See also: 

The OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)

The programme "Engage: Transforming Teaching and Learning through Technology", University of Wisconsin- Madison.

©OECD Observer No 287 Q4 2011

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