Entrepreneurs Prove There's Room for Fun and Games in the Classroom
While Filament's site looks more like that of a cool anime studio than an academic-focused company, co-founders Dan White, Dan Norton and Alex Stone recognize that games are not the be-all and end-all for solving the nation's educational challenges. Indeed, one of their company's core philosophies is that games are not a good fit for all learning goals.
Another company that won an award for innovation at this year's SIIA gathering of educational technology pros was California-based The Social Express, which develops educational software to help children with autism and Asperger's navigate social situations. The company was founded, as so many are, to fill an unmet personal need. Tina and Marc Zimmerman noticed that their twin sons, both diagnosed with autism, appeared more engaged when a therapist worked with them using a laptop, but they weren't impressed by the limited programs that were available.
They dived into research, put together an advisory board, hired developers and started selling their first product late last year. The Social Express uses animated characters to act out real-life social situations; engaging with the game teaches users how to read social cues, communicate more effectively and interact more confidently with others.
Other educational software companies have sprung up from teachers' firsthand knowledge of what works and what doesn't in the classroom. Joel Levin, a New York elementary school teacher, saw how much his daughter enjoyed playing the world-creation strategy game Minecraft, so he adapted it for use in his classroom. The response was so positive that it inspired him to co-found a new company. Today, MinecraftEdu is working with the Swedish company that created the original game to offer a customized, school-appropriate version.
The educational games market is no sure path to success or riches; the reason so many start-ups have found a place there is that large software companies find it a risky field. And many school districts are so strapped for cash that buying the latest cool games is a low priority. But today's educational game developers are proving slowly that it is possible to integrate technology, entertainment and learning into one seamless experience -- one school and one student at a time.