“Make learning active and build experiences that support the intrinsic desire to ask questions and find answers” – USA

Four years in college seems like forever,” says Stephen Jacobs. “We strive to remind them of why they are really there and what they’ve really done. It keeps them engaged, and they are more socialized, they’re happier.” Jacobs is talking about gamification. And he should know. He is one of the premier minds in educational gaming today.  He and his colleagues at Rochester Institute of Technology, including Andrew Phelps, have developed a program called Just Press Play to engage university students in a fun, interactive and social “game system” where they can track their achievements.  To Jacobs, educational gaming is all about serving students better in terms of their entire academic experience. Jacobs strives to create meaningful learning experiences where students see beyond their daily homework assignments and understand why they are in class… and what it can mean to the world.

Jacobs notes that if you can tie computing (or any subject) to humanitarian or social benefit, you will see more and broader engagement from students. In fact, when his students were developing games for the “One Laptop Per Child” program, his students became so involved in their projects that even after passing his class, they would come back the next semester, and – on their own time – tutor the new batch of students.

Gamification in the classroom has been a popular topic here at Daily Edventures, so I asked Jacobs if he had any best practices he could share. “Gamify your classroom by swapping out a quiz or a lecture with a Jeopardy game,” he said. “Set them up in teams. Challenge them to exceed as a group or exceed with each other on demonstrating knowledge. Give them something that is challenging to do that will feed back to what you’re trying to do in the classroom.”

Here, Jacobs shares with us his thoughts on the world of education today, and what every student really needs to succeed.

Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?

I’ve had the pleasure of being a lead designer of two degree programs: the Masters and Bachelors programs in Game Design and Development at RIT, and I developed a program in Open Source Education.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

The game degrees are considered among the top 10 programs in the nation and have provided hundreds of students with education in a cutting edge industry that is growing to touch the world beyond entertainment, including health and education. The Open Source work, driven in part by games, includes a lab and research fellowship, which allow students to follow their passions while creating educational games for the One Laptop per Child program and other humanitarian technology.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

There are fantastic resources for folks who wish to go down either path.  For the game-related efforts, the IGDA Game Education SIG and Learning, Education and Games SIG have great communities of folks and, in some cases, on-line repositories of curricular materials, etc. For Open Source, the Teaching Open Source community and the education channel at Open Source.com are also extremely useful.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

I teach design, and so often the ways that I teach designers of high tech is to use innovative tools like pencil, paper, whiteboards and more. Otherwise, in game design we use game engines and all the creative software to teach folks how to build games.  One kind of off-the-beaten-track approach I took was to teach pinball design to videogame designers. The paper my colleague Chris Egert and I wrote can be found here.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

Really, as a college professor in a private university in the United States, the obstacles are mostly imposed by things like process, red tape, etc.  That’s nothing compared to what city public school teachers or other educators around the world face.

What is your country doing right to support education?

I think the charter schools movement holds promise for reinventing some of the pieces of public education that are not succeeding.

What conditions must change in your country to better support education?

The challenges are so large, and in many ways outside of education.  For mass public education to be truly successful it needs successful families to support the students.  Things like poverty and a lack of a stable home environment are huge issues that have a negative impact on even a flawless education system.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

Open education, open textbooks, Khan Academy and OLPC-like efforts are a great start, but they can’t stand alone.  Strong classrooms and strong teachers in a supportive environment are key.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Try to make learning active and try to build experiences that support a child’s intrinsic desire to ask questions and find answers.

What educational “trend” do you think is getting in the way of learning?

The demonization of teachers and education in the US is not helping anything.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

A supportive, engaged home environment. Without that, the average child’s learning challenges are almost insurmountable.


About Stephen Jacobs

Stephen Jacobs is an Associate Professor in the Department of Interactive Games and Media at the Rochester Institute of Technology where he teaches game history, analysis design, and interactive narrative. His research work explores the application of semiotic analysis techniques to the design and critical analysis of games.
He also directs the Lab for Technological Literacy, which currently is doing work in the areas of serious games and open source development, particularly for the One Laptop Per Child and Sugar communities.
He is a Visiting Scholar at the International Center for the History of Electronic Games (ICHEG) where he contributed to the design of eGameRevolution, the world’s first permanent exhibition on the History and Impact of Electronic Games and continues to assist in the interpretation of their collections.
Professor Jacobs is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Game Design and Development and will be editing a special issue of The American Journal of Play on Video Games.
Stephen received his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Media Studies from the New School for Social Research in 1986 and 1987 and did post-graduate work in computer animation at RIT from 1992-1994 before joint the faculty full-time. He is currently on sabbatical for the 2011-2012 academic year where he continues to work with ICHEG.

Birthplace: Washington D.C.
Current residence: Rochester, NY
Education: MA in Media Studies from the New School for Social Research
Website I check every day: Facebook
Person who inspires me most: My late mother
Favorite childhood memory: Cooking Snoopy French Toast out of the Peanuts cookbook I got from Scholastic at school 🙂
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Work, Grassroots Game Conference in
Philadelphia, Pleasure, cousin’s Bat Mitzvah in the Twin cities, both next week.
When was the last time you laughed? At dinner tonight with my son, because he’s endlessly funny.
Favorite book: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Heinlien
Favorite music: Type, acoustic Folk and Jazz. Current fave song (which means I’m learning to play it on Guitar and Ukelele) “All of Me”
Your favorite quote or motto: I live to serve

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