Building educational apps and games - don't assume technology is the answer

28 June 2013

I was at this month’s London Educational Games Meetup Group (#LEGup) event earlier this week, where they were launching their new site edugameshub.

Some of the talks got me thinking about the approach people take when they’re building things.

Everybody at #LEGup has an interest in educational games in one form or another. There are many app developers who go month after month, either with established products or because they are currently building something.

It is interesting to ponder people’s motivations for being involved in this area. Do they have a desire to teach something, and have decided that building a game is the best method for transmitting this knowledge or skill?

Or do they just like games, and think there is a market gap here, because other people must also think that games and apps are cool?

Too often, it seems to be the latter. It’s worrying how many people start working on educational products without a proper understanding of the market. As Tom Cole says in one of the inaugural articles on edugameshub:

many people have this strange assumption that schools are a hotbed of new technology, with bleeding edge devices available for all students to use. This, quite frankly, is not true.

This is the kind of assumption that gets made if you start at the technology and try to work backwards, instead of starting with what you want to teach and working forwards from there.

I wonder if 40 years ago there would have been such a thing as the “London Educational Videos Meetup Group”. We could have sat around and talked about all the educational videos we were making. About how kids got really excited when the teacher wheeled the TV into the classroom, because they felt like they were getting the lesson off. We could have debated the kinds of TV sets that were suitable for classrooms, and complimented each other on how lovely the videos looked. We could have wondered if we could ever really make money by making videos.

But wouldn’t we all have been missing something? Let’s not get things backwards. Let’s not ask “how can we use computer games in the classroom”, or “is there a place for iPads in schools”. These questions don’t have any meaning. They pre-suppose that technology, games, tablets etc. are the answer to some problem. Yet the problem rarely seems to be stated. Discussion is often along the lines of “how can we do better in the app store”, and only rarely “what do people learn from this app, and why is this better than some other way of teaching the same thing?”.

Instead, let’s focus on genuine educational needs, and see how we can build products and businesses around that. The answer may not be games. Or, if it is a game, that doesn’t mean it has to be based around technology.

Ask the right questions first, and work from there.