Want to Help Students Prepare for College? Have Them Play More Games

The next step in the education revolution could look a lot like ... Zynga.

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Gamification, depending on what's being gamified, can either be elegantly fitting or weirdly redundant. Gamified social networking? Generally fantastic. Gamified shopping experiences? Generally not so much. One space that's obviously ripe for a little game-changing, though, is education. Kids like games; games can help kids; and BOOM! Win.

In February, the education services company Pearson introduced Alleyoop, a personalized digital-tutoring service that tries to gamify the classroom -- and to do it, specifically, outside of the classroom. Think Zynga, but smart. (And also: Zynga, but trying to make you smart.) The platform focuses on middle- and, in particular, high-school curricula, and emphasizes the immediate feedback aspects of the gamification model. Instead of a once-a-semester report card, featuring the blunt assessment metrics of letter grades, students get real-time feedback on the details of their performance -- from real-time tutors who are not their teachers. The system is personalized, iterative, and adaptive, so a student having trouble with, say, trigonometry can delve into trigonometry at his or her own pace, learning from mistakes and gaining immediate rewards from successes.

The service, which is being incubated by Pearson, is notable in particular in its attempt to provide a market answer to a public policy problem. The college dropout rate in the U.S. has become so dire that Education Secretary Arne Duncan just made a point of admitting that the Obama Administration hasn't done enough to improve it. Services like Alleyoop, under the corporate arm of Pearson, suggest the ways both grand and subtle that private enterprise is trying to step in where public policy has failed.

Today, Alleyoop is releasing the next phase of its product: a 2.0 version that takes into account the data provided by the 30,000 student beta testers who have been using the service since February. The new iteration of Alleyoop is an attempt to apply computer learning techniques to the experience of human learning -- which makes it an intriguing reversal of the top-down, verticalized paradigm of academic instruction. "Our goal with Alleyoop is that students' experience on the site feels very personalized and very adaptive," says Patrick Supanc, Alleyoop's president. "So every time they're doing something, achieving something -- either successfully or unsuccessfully -- the system is adapting to them with recommendations for their performance."

Like a video game, which almost always features an omnipresent widget that provides real-time performance assessment, Alleyoop tries to motivate students to drive forward by informing them of how they're driving forward. Constant assessment of performance, the thinking goes, leads in itself to better performance. "That feedback loop," Supanc told me, "is very motivating and important for students."

Though Supanc advocates ongoing performance assessment as a key to effective learning -- such assessment is "one of the things in education technology that we've been behind on, overall, as an industry," he says -- Alleyoop isn't alone in that focus. The platform is, in fact, a lot like TED-Ed, which facilitates one-on-one feedback conversations between students and teachers. It's also a lot like Civitas Learning, a fellow college-prep-focused ed-tech platform. Like Civitas, Alleyoop revolves around a desire to produce cadres of students who are well-prepared for college.

But Alleyoop differs from the school-administration-focused Civitas in that it's designed to operate outside of the school setting. "This is a service that's meant to be direct to consumers, direct to families," Supanc says. "We think there's a real need for supplemental services that address the market outside of school." So Alleyoop is, with its adaptive technology, also subtly adapting the way we might think about education in the first place -- not as something that's necessarily confined to a classroom, but as something that is experienced at home, at leisure, perhaps with friends and family. Something that is, fundamentally, personal.

In all that, Alleyoop provides yet another hint at the future of education as it becomes increasingly digitized: a future that fades the lines that have traditionally divided learning from everything else in the world. But Alleyoop, Supanc insists, wants to complement, rather than compete against, the traditional classroom model. "Increasingly, we're going to be drawing in data that's generated in school and using that to inform the recommendations that we give to a student," he says. "What happens in school is important, but what happens outside of school is also important -- and we want to draw all that data together to drive the best possible preparation and recommendations."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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