The videogame that teaches business strategy better than professors

Will computer learning put teachers out of work?
Will computer learning put teachers out of work?
Image: AP Photo/Christine Armario
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I’ve spent most of my career as a teacher. I think of education as a holy calling. Yet I now find myself in the uncomfortable position of championing computer games that will put teachers out of jobs.

Videogames have already been used successfully to teach elementary-school students basic math equations and grammar. But we have yet to crack the code on teaching more sophisticated concepts through games. A recent Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report showed that the middle-school students who used classroom technology more frequently than their peers posted lower scores on reading and math tests.

Now there’s reason to believe that videogames could be the future of higher education. A recent experiment suggests that an interactive learning game can be just as effective at teaching MBA-level strategy as a world-class professor.

This is big news for our fast-paced, knowledge-based world, in which it’s become increasingly clear that traditional teaching methods are out of date. Classrooms are stuck in the 19th century, broadcasting information even as children and young adults have come to expect interaction in every other part of their lives. Instructors teach to the test mechanically year after year, offering little variation or personalization for their students.

After 30 years of teaching subjects from business to psychology to communications, I quit my professorship so that I would no longer be part of the problem—and instead find a solution.

With the support of Steve Hodges, the CEO of Hult International Business School, and a small team of designers and coders, I’ve created an interactive online lesson called “One Day.” Over the course of a virtual day at an airline, the game challenges players to devise and implement a business strategy.

After working on this project for just under a year, we developed a prototype worth testing. A few weeks ago, we taught intensive MBA-level concepts to 41 randomly selected undergraduate students with no background in business strategy. Half were taught by a top-rated professor, spending a total of nine hours in classes that used traditional techniques like reading, lecture, case study and in-class presentations. The other half spent nine hours with the prototype of the game, playing it two or three times.

The purpose of this experiment was to observe whether its subjects were learning anything from One Day. What we found was that the game imparts knowledge just as effectively as a master professor.

After completing their training, all students sat for a written exam covering at least 40% of the strategy concepts I would typically cover in an MBA course. With one exception, students in both groups performed better after their training than they had on the baseline quiz they’d taken before the start of the experiment.

Average test scores rose from 47% to 77%. But our most striking finding was that the participants in the game-playing group improved slightly more than those who’d been taught by a professor.

These academic metrics were interesting—but we wanted to get a better idea about the real-world skills each lesson had imparted. We asked two former McKinsey consultants to give participants the same case-study interviews they’d once administered to job seekers.

The former consultants rated students on a scale of 1-10, where a 10 indicated “the best strategic ability I have ever seen in a young interviewee.” The average rating of gamers and class-takers was exactly the same: 5.5.

Not only did the game teach students as effectively as a real-life professor, it also engaged them. Sixty-seven percent of participants who played One Day said that they would prefer to attend a school that offered this kind of game-based learning. And 76% said that they would prefer to join a company that trained its employees with this type of game.

The implications are particularly astonishing when you consider that a “prototype” game—only six months old, and making its debut public appearance—matched the performance of a professor who has spent more than a decade and a half honing his teaching skills.

This result may alarm critics who worry about putting teachers out of work or depriving students who are already tethered to their screens of flesh-and-blood interaction. But turning over rote lessons to technology may actually be good news for teachers. The professor who taught the course in our experiment was practically elated by the results.

“This means that I can stop teaching all that basic material,” he told me. “Students can do all of that at home on their computers. Instead, I can guide them through real-world experiences and train them to make more sophisticated, sustainable decisions. I want to be doing that, while the computer does the 90% of a lecturer’s job that isn’t interesting to me—or most useful to students.”

Game-based learning can benefit teachers and students. With the right technological assistance, great professors can devote the bulk of their efforts to the parts of education they love: mentoring young people, offering individualized guidance, and teaching lessons that challenge and inspire students. Meanwhile, professors who simply phone their lessons in will find themselves up against a formidable competitor.

In the end, good educators have nothing to fear. Robots, games and computers may soon be able to take over many of the activities that fall into traditional teachers’ territory. But the advent of interactive games like One Day could help the teaching profession return to the fundamental goal demonstrated by Socrates thousands of years ago: teaching young people to become better humans.