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Removing The Stigma From Edutainment

If you’ve learned something, does it matter if you played a video game to get there? The best educational content will appeal to human curiosity however it can. Instead of edutainment, maybe we should call it edu-engagement.

Education in general and education reform in particular abound in buzzwords. If you follow conversations concerning technology and its place in the realm of education reform, you’re bound to hear about "accountability," "data-driven assessment," "the flipped classroom," just to start. If you venture further into discussions around actual educational technologies, you’ll likely also come across terms such as "edutainment," describing products that incorporate games or game-like features. The premise underlying these products implies that today’s students require entertainment in order to learn.

This piece is part of a Collaborative Fund-curated series on creativity and values written by thought leaders in the for-profit, for-good business space.

A cynic might argue these products bribe students into learning important topics with the intellectual equivalent of cotton candy, making a mockery of the content itself. This mentality breeds the notion that tech is synonymous with entertainment. It completely misses the point. The promise of ed tech centers around engagement, easy access, and hands-on learning. Incorporating gaming elements into educational tools reexamines basic human nature and the values we ascribe to knowledge. But first, let’s take a minute to examine the "edutainment" label and its nefarious role in shaping our perceptions of high-quality, engaging educational content.

The concept of "edutainment" is not an outgrowth of web-based culture; the notion of packing educational elements into entertaining formats such as television, radio, and film has existed almost as long as the technologies themselves. The term "edutainment," however, is problematic because it puts unfair emphasis on entertainment when the real goal is engagement.  Edu-engagement (at risk of adding to the buzzword craze) seems like a better way to describe what we aim to do by incorporating game elements into educational content. So, then, why is engagement so meaningful to our education, and how can it differ from entertainment?

Curiosity is a vital part of what it means to be human. People have a natural drive to learn; it’s why babies learn to crawl and then walk, and why we produce meaningless vocalizations that eventually become communication. Instinctively, we seek to know the world around us and unlock its mysteries. While gaming elements in ed tech may awaken that innate curiosity—competition and survival—edu-engagement addresses a deeper desire to investigate what lies in front of us. If ideas are interesting enough, or are presented in a manner that makes them compelling, our curiosity will kick in and send us on an exploratory adventure.  Here is where technology comes into play, providing the means for this exploration.

Examples are always better than abstractions, so I’ll offer my own experiences. When writing my undergrad honors thesis back in the '90s, I found myself limiting my research as a result of external factors: Was the library about to close? Was that journal’s edition not on the shelves? Was I out of change for the photocopier? All these non-academic roadblocks stymied my desire to read beyond what might be relevant to my paper. Grad school in the mid-2000s, however, was quite a different story. For nearly every paper I wrote, including my master’s thesis, I had seemingly unfettered access to databases filled with articles, all available so readily that the only reason to stop following through all the various exploratory threads was the approaching deadline for my paper. In every instance, I read far more than I would ultimately use. Allowing myself to become absorbed in the research trail meant I learned far more about the subject than would be reflected in my assignment. The knowledge I gained through these intellectual explorations was as much of an educational achievement as the grades I earned for my written work.  

The idea of putting many different resources at a student’s fingertips is not new, but unfortunately in the education industry when resources involve color, sound, animation, or elements of competition, the focus shifts to the product as a means of entertainment rather than learning. When that happens, the evaluative lens changes. E-books that link to videos of the topic at hand, online games that provide immersion in a subject matter or foster competition, mobile apps that provide instruction or review—all these are judged as entertaining first and educational second. Yet the goal here isn’t entertainment, so why employ that lens? It’s about facilitating a student’s ability to pursue fascinating information in the quest for knowledge (and yes, they may run into some alien invaders on their way).

I don’t believe today’s students are any less capable of learning rote material than previous generations. But I do think they are used to more engaging forms of content. They will eat it up when well-designed products rise to the challenge. The goal, then, shouldn’t be to make educational content entertaining in a bells-and-whistles sense, but to provide as much opportunity for engaging a student’s natural curiosity as possible.