Rochester Institute of Technology is widely regarded as one of the U.S.’s leading technology learning institutions, so the fact that Andrew Phelps taught the school’s first course in “game programming” is significant. Phelps went on to create the school’s Game Design & Development degrees, and to found the School of Interactive Games & Media, which houses these degrees as well as RIT’s New Media Interactive Development degree program. Phelps is currently working with Microsoft Research on Just Press Play, designed to engage university students by creating a fun, interactive and social mechanism for students to track their achievements. Phelps recently shared with us his insights on gaming’s influence on education, and his optimism that the “shared value” of education will ultimately ensure a successful transformation of the system.
What is your proudest professional achievement?
I offered the first course at RIT in “game programming” 10 years ago, and I’ve had the pleasure of watching things grow from a single course to an entire school, working with many friends and colleagues along the way. Our faculty, staff, and students are amazing. When I have a really bad day I can stop and play a game or interact with a website or media experience that one of our alumni has worked on, and that gives me an awesome sense of pride.
What has changed in your school as a result of your efforts?
We built the School of Interactive Games & Media within the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences at RIT. This includes undergraduate and graduate degrees in Game Design and Development (both of which are nationally ranked in the top 10 by the Princeton Review), as well as a fantastic New Media Interactive Development Bachelor’s program that we offer through partnership with the RIT College of Imaging Arts and Sciences. It’s a really wonderful place to work, and I think our students are getting a lot out of it.
How can other educators implement what you’ve learned through this project?
We built Just Press Play (JPP) to be scalable and to support community localization. The backend of how to generate and track achievements, cards, events, etc. is portable, and over the summer we hope to package this up in a way that is easily deployable for others. But that’s not really the important thing – that’s the easy part.
The tricky part, and the part that is ultimately at the core of the experience, is identifying intrinsic rewards relative to the culture of the local community that one is seeking to engage, and building game-like interactions on top of those. In JPP, we identified small, discrete actions that we felt would be meaningful (meeting faculty members and knowing where their office is, for example, or attending a talk, or finding certain places on campus), and then tried to build a game layer on top of them. You have to know the community of learners really well, and that takes a certain amount of getting down into the trenches and seeing things from the students’ point of view. This, in itself, often makes one a better educator.
What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
People who want to stand in your way because they have one perception of things and aren’t able to take the long view or embrace and internalize change. Fortunately, some of the most influential folks that I work with are visionary, and are the right kind of academics (i.e., facilitate good things and then step back and let them happen).
What is your country doing right to support education?
We care. A lot has been written about misguided attempts at mass-assessment, failing budgets and the incredible stresses in the current system of both public education and higher-ed. But if I could identify one thing at the core of America’s interest in education, is that deep down we believe as a nation in the value of education and the need and desire to continue and extend the discovery of new knowledge. We frankly don’t talk about this enough as a shared value, but we as a nation wouldn’t be trying so many things or even having some of these debates if we didn’t care.
What conditions must change in your country to better support education?
We have to be less obsessed with archaic assessment paradigms and more focused on individual outcomes, experiences, and holistic learning. People can (and do) learn a lot by building things and creating things, and getting feedback on what they did and made, but we don’t use the process nearly enough throughout education as a whole.
What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?
Basically, getting away from a one-size-fits-everyone approach and finding ways, technological and otherwise, to personalize these experiences to the learner.
What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?
Try new things, and don’t listen if people tell you not to.
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be?
Imagination. Many of them have it, but you have to work to preserve it.
About Andrew Phelps
Professor Andrew Phelps is the founding Director of the School of Interactive Games & Media at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York. He is the primary author of the Masters of Science in Game Design & Development within the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences, as well as the Bachelors of the same name, both of which are nationally ranked in the top 10 by the Princeton Review. His work in games programming education has been featured in The New York Times, CNN.com, USA Today, National Public Radio, IEEE Computer, and several other articles and periodicals. Phelps regularly publishes work exploring collaborative gameplay and game engine technology and maintains a website featuring his work as an educator, artist, programmer, and game addict. Primary research and teaching interests include online gaming, electronic entertainment, 3-dimensional graphics and real-time rendering, virtual reality, and interactive worlds.
Birthplace: Santa Cruz, California
Current residence: Henrietta, NY
Education: BFA Fine Arts (Painting and Computer Art), MS Information Technology
Website I check every day: ArsTechnica
Person who inspires me most: Gandalf the Grey
Favorite childhood memory: Playing with friends at the Brooktree Swim Club in East Windsor, NJ. We had a great crew that summer, and had a lot of wonderfully long summer days.
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): (work) San Francisco, CA. (pleasure) Middle of nowhere, Wisconsin.
Favorite book: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Favorite music: Led Zeppelin