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Jen Groff: Curriculum Redesign & Gaming

This interview is the second in a series looking at the intersection between gamification in education and the innovators behind the technology. Specific topics of discussion include women in the field of gamification and technology looking at where the industry is, currently, and the progressive steps needed to increase numbers and interest from females in the field. The first interview profiled International Game Developers Association’s Kate Edwards. Today’s interview focuses on Jen Groff as shed discusses the redesign of curriculum, game-based learning research and the role gender plays in the technology sector. 


Dr. Berger: Well, Jen, let’s look at redesigning curriculum. I know that’s a passion of yours in a lot of your work. So let’s look at technology, GBL (Game-Based Learning) and gamification in education. These happen to be hot topics, but they’re also very impactful. You’re in it every day. Tell us about what you’ve seen from the 10,000-foot perspective for those of us that aren’t studying it. You’re looking at it from the research level. Do you see changes in the general educational ecosystem that says, “Okay, these people are getting it.”?

Jen Groff: I think so. I’ve been working in this space for about a decade. Ten years ago, “game” was still a bad word in the educational context even though educators had been using games for a long time. I remember being a student in school and playing jeopardy, and other, paper-based game tools like that in motivating ways to engage students.

It’s nothing new, but, when the digital revolution came along, using games in the classroom was at first taboo. I think we’ve come a long way. It’s much more widespread and common now. At least it’s not such a blasphemous word as it was before.

I also think games now are more capable of showing what they can do. Ten years ago, the field was still pretty young, and I think at this point, we are at least at adolescence where we have a good swath of game-based tools to show people the power of this type of technology for learning.

Some are very easy on ramps and easy to see how one might use that in a classroom. Some are not so easy, and take a very skilled educator to facilitate, but we have an excellent spectrum, and we have a good body of research to support their use in the classroom. I think we’re getting there, but I think we still have a lot of work to do.

DB: Let’s specifically talk about what areas? We’re starting to see that there’s a better balance with regards to the user experience, and there’s rigor around the curriculum that’s being infused into graphical display and experience. Do you see a better balance?

JG: Yes. I think tools are collectively getting better, especially graphics and story lines. Tools for teachers are getting more attention, and they’re slowly getting better, with teacher dashboards, and those sorts of things.

Again, I still think we have a long way to go. Part of the challenge is everybody’s sort of all over the place. Everybody uses a bit of a different approach but having things like the common core helps us unify the way in which we present information in the classroom. We at least offer tools that teachers can make sense of to tell what’s happening in these gaming worlds.

But I think we’re in the beginning stages, and there are certainly still game based tools that we would not have had before in our lab. We would not say, “Hey, that’s a great game. You should use that in your school.” We would say probably the opposite.

DB: How do you identify those, Jen? Give us a quick rundown. When you see a game, what tells you that it’s not educationally based even if it’s touted as being educational?

JG: Well, for us, the hallmark of what makes a bad learning game is when the playfulness of the game is divorced from the content. We don’t want to see games where, “you answered three math questions, now you get to go have fun in the game and shoot the aliens.” “Okay, that was a good fun minute. Now, come back and do the work.”

That’s merely trying to motivate students extrinsically to seek a reward for doing something that we think they should be able to find pleasure in any way.

We believe learning is built into us by nature, inherently as human beings. That’s why things like edX and Corsair get a lot of views because people like to learn. That’s how we function in the world, so we don’t want to see that divorced.

When we design games in our lab, we find a playful mechanic nature of the content. The ecosystems, food webs or whatever it might be, picking it apart and saying, “What’s fun about this? Where is the playful nature of this? What are the boundaries of that system so we can help people push on to play with it so they can learn more?”

Good games should build playfulness around those mechanics and embed them in the game itself and bring them along for that journey.

DB: Let’s take a shift in the conversation, Jen, and talk about your unique position. Being a female in gamification from the outside can appear isolating when you look at the numbers of women in EdTech. And specifically gamification in education, the numbers seem quite small.

What can we be doing to open the door for young girls to say, “These are options,” in the experience; they have with technology so that it becomes sort of a natural transition? Plus, early career woman that are looking for ways to utilize their skills.

JG: In my local world, I am not the anomaly. Our lab itself is a good split between men and women doing both research and design. More broadly in games, it is less common. In fact, I’ve always been in education as my primary field and games I see as a secondary genre. So, I’m not usually the anomaly in what I do but in tech and game-based worlds, it is not as common.

I would say it’s easy to think about how to give young girls exposure to games. When I was going through school, a lot of these tools were just beginning to emerge. I grew up on Atari, and Super Nintendo, but I was never exposed to programming or ways to manipulate computers.

I remember being in middle school, and at least being exposed to Apple. And I remember at eight years old I was playing with tables and how to sort data. I think that set the foundation for me being excited about tech, at least being able to use it. It never occurred to me that you could program, I was never exposed to that. I think exposure is a big piece.

The other piece is exposure to people. When I teach new students today in IT media lab, there are some amazing women that I look up to that do incredible work, but they’re not a dominant group.

It takes some looking to find folks at a place like this where you can look up to them as mentors and see their pathway and get inspired. I think it is important that we empower women who are doing great work in these fields to be more accessible and give them more opportunities so that they aren’t few and far between.

DB: Do you think that there are ways that we can, in essence, I hate to use the word, market? Market the bigger picture of experience with a career for young girls and women? I think that there is potentially a divide between opportunities at institutions of higher education, and corporate America. At the private sector level, you may have a gigantic swing in genders that are represented at a gaming company that’s fulfilling an education need.

How do we look at the messaging? Some of it is just time and opportunity that, even in our generations, we only could experience a technology that was in front of us, because it seems so different now. How do you look at it from messaging, so that more people know what you’re doing even if they don’t want to pursue that work in higher education from a research perspective?

JG: Yes. It’s an important point, and I don’t think I probably think about it enough. Every now and again I get questions from teachers because I’m a former teacher. I started my career because I was always obsessed with learning. I enjoy learning, but regarding understanding it. How do people learn? Why do they learn that way?

I assumed teaching is the thing I would do. Only through my college classes did I get exposed to research and technology design and all these other fields that didn’t even occur to me.

I think part of it is; I get asked by a lot of teachers who then say to me, “Wow, you’re very far from the classroom now. How did you end up here?”

I think being able to tell that story is crucial. I also believe we talk a lot about freedom of identity in our work, and that’s one of the compelling aspects of game-based learning. Simulated environments give you a playful space to try a new identity in a way that’s fun, not scary and stays.

I think the idea that you can play with your identity is not something that we support kids in exploring very often. I think kids will do it by nature when they play, and then they don’t do it any other time. The idea that “of course you can be a technologist” and that immediate rub that you might feel in your gut like, “That doesn’t feel right,” and just allowing them just to play in the space.

And part of that is getting to see women being supportive and saying, “I’m not like you but you can be a technologist or possibly a designer.

DB: I’ve heard anecdotal stories of development teams that are sort of gender balanced where an equal number of men and women or male or female are working on building games. You can see outcomes that seem to be a smoother transition because you’re balancing different talents, skills, and personalities.

When you have an imbalance, it can be a bit messier. The composition of the team, and then what the outcomes are. What’s the impact if we look big picture and do a good job of marketing to young girls? Will we see different user experience as a result?

I would hate to think that we are so alike, that you and I being male and female would design the same game in the same manner with the same expected outcomes. I would think that it could be a richer experience the more people we have at the table.

JG: Yes. I would agree with that, but I always get a little nervous when we put too much emphasis on gender. I do not want to focus on it because I do not want it to be the center of the reason that I am hired or brought to a team.

I think that it applies to any dimension that makes us human, right? You have different races, different backgrounds, different ways people grew up. Anytime you bring diverse perspectives to a table; you are going to get a better design.

It is important that we think about balance in multiple dimensions, including gender. If you are in an unbalanced team, and if you have ever been the minority in the room, it does matter, and it does often impact the work. It affects the people and their self-worth, their self-identity in the group. I think balancing from many dimensions and zooming out is important.

DB: Yes. You and peers like you and what you have accomplished on your path can be very inspirational to young people. I know it can feel like a responsibility to communicate in a way that makes sense for lots of different people. I think the way you were talking about it makes sense to the larger ecosystem of education. How do people learn, both boys and girls? How can we do a good job of making sure that we are not just putting something shiny in front of them because we already have a lot of that in our society?

JG: For sure. I think a lot of it is self-confidence, too. One of my biggest issues with the existing educational systems is that it disempowers learners in many ways.

I think back to my early days of my career, I was young and probably overestimated my abilities and sold myself in ways that might have been over my head. It’s not that I wasn’t capable or worth it but at that point, in my career, I felt “I can do this, I’ve got this” and I experienced that young brazened mentality. But I have to say, it got me places, it helped.

I worry particularly about women, I guess, but I don’t like to put a ton of emphasis on gender. One of the things that is a concern to me is, peers of mine or people younger who question themselves, question their work and wonder whether they deserve a seat at the table. I find they apologize a lot.

I think that is one of the biggest challenges that I hope women, in particular, as a gender, start to get beyond that. There is no apology, there is no reason to apologize, and you should be at the table and helping people have that confidence in creating learning environments. Don’t take that away from learners. It does the opposite; it empowers them with their strengths.

Thinking about the role of educational systems in making that better or worst. Right now, it’s not in a great spot. We emphasize kids’ deficits a great deal, and we do not talk about their strengths or the paths they should go down because of where they shine.

DB: Yeah. I agree. Well said. I want to make sure that people can continue to follow your story and your research. And so I would love to get them pointed in the right direction because you are involved in lots of different things.

I will close with this, Jen. You have written a lot and done a lot of research, what is the research or paper you want to work on that you have not had the opportunity to do? If you could carve out some extra time, what area would you like to be a detective in your work?

JG: There’s a body of work I have been involved with but have not done a good job at documenting or spreading. It is working with schools to redesign themselves, and to put an engine of innovation inside them so that they can change.

If you look at most schools now, we ask, “Hey, we do not know what the future’s going to be like, you need to reinvent yourself, figure that out and get there on your own.” No company would do that, right? When IBM pivoted from hardware to software, I’m sure they didn’t just say, “Good morning, it is Monday. We are doing this now. You guys do it. Good luck.”

You know, I’m sure there were lots of consultants involved lots of work to help them pivot, and we don’t give schools that.

And so I have done a lot of work with schools and helping them put their whole model on the table and redesign it from the ground up and all the way, and then putting practices and engines of innovation in the school to make that change. Tighter teams, skunk work areas where they can dabble and play with ideas, genius bar spaces where only teachers are allowed to learn and play with new technologies and collaborate with one another.

So these tools that we embedded in our learning environment will help them move forward in a new direction. I am all for EdTech and EdTech research, and I think it needs to continue, but if I were a significant funder, I would be funding that type of work and create change agents in the schools and not worry about the next big game or assessment tool to be built.

DB: You are connecting the dots. That is what I love about it. You are saying, “Okay, great, we’ve got this innovation, but how are we going to empower the schools to infuse them.” I just love how you described the visual.

Where should people go? Where is the best place? You are a very busy person, Jen. (laugh) So if they wanted to follow you and read up on the paper you had or the Balance Design Guide, the Play for Learning Institute, MIT, you have many different things.

JG: Sure. There are a few places to look; our lab’s website is the Education Arcade, and so you can go to educationarcade.org and follow our work in game-based learning. My website is jengroff.net, I publish publications and projects there, and I guess the academia.edu is also a good spot to follow my publications. Now that you say it, I probably need to do a better job of streamlining my files.

DB: I take it back. I take it back. (laugh) Keep up the great work. I think it’s very inspirational, and it’s nice because no matter what area of education you are in, there is a way that it’s presented that applies and is digestible to many different groups. I believe that’s the testament to the way it has been approached.

Jenn Groff – Educational engineer, researcher and designer whose work focuses on redesigning learning systems, environments, and experiences through educational innovations and technologies.

Currently: Research Assistant and PhD Candidate at the MIT Media Lab and the co-founder of the Center for Curriculum Redesign—an international NGO dedicated to redesigning the general curricula for the 21st century.


VP of  at the Learning Games Network, leading the work on assessment in games and the executive producer on Playful Learning—an online knowledge base and community of practice for game-based learning in education.

US-UK Fulbright Scholar at Futurelab Education in Bristol, United Kingdom, studying innovation in systems of education and the use of console-games in Scotland’s schools.

Classroom teacher, named a Microsoft Innovative Teacher Leader in 2005 and a Google Certified Teacher.

Author of numerous frameworks on unblocking innovation in education systems, transformation and design over educational reform, and the ‘whole-mindedness’ pedagogical approach, and is one of the authors in the book 20Under40: Reinventing the Arts and Arts Education for the 21st Century—which selected submissions from 20 emerging arts education leaders under the age of 40.

Primary areas of expertise: the learning sciences, digital innovations for learning, new models of assessment and curricula, and the nature of innovation in education systems.

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