How edtech should react to the next Big Thing


This week has all been about Pokemon Go. Inevitably there are pieces about Pokemon Go for education. This happens with every technology that makes a popular breakthrough. I’m not going to comment on Pokemon here, I’m sure it’s fun, and it does raise lots of interesting sociological questions about Augmented Reality and physical space intersection. Instead though, after a good discussion on Twitter last night, I thought I’d look for more general principles regarding how educational technologists should react when the same thing happens again in three months time with some new piece of technology. Off the top of my head, here are my thoughts on what to do when the next “Future of learning” innovation arrives.

Pick the narrative battle carefully – a common reaction (well from me anyway) is to be dismissive. MOOCs, learning analytics, augmented reality – none of these are new. But just saying “it’s not new” doesn’t mean it’s not relevant, and can make you look a bit pompous. Sometimes though there are battles around narrative that are worth fighting. I bemoaned this the other day about the manner in which MOOCs are now seen as the first generation of online learning. The narrative here is worth defending not just for accuracy, but because the new narrative has implicit intentions: to establish the tech industry as innovators, not education; to promote commercialisation of education as a result; to control the narrative and therefore direction of development.

Extract what is actually interesting for learning – I feel there is a tendency to focus on surface characteristics, and rush off to replicate those. Instead, take a moment to reflect and think what is actually interesting about this development, and why it has people engaged. Then map that onto what we want to do with education (developing a generic “Aims of education” scoring sheet might be a useful thing here). It may be that, despite some surface similarities, once you do this, there isn’t much that is relevant for education. In which case, be prepared to ignore it.

Recognise the opportunity – while it is often the case that the things that make the headlines are not new (museums have been playing with AR for years), they do represent a breakthrough moment. There is no point decrying this, and saying “it should’ve been me (or this project over here)”. This sudden attention means things you might have wanted to do are now possible. Which brings me on to the next point.

Be experimental – the very worst thing to do is simply ape the commercial solution (hello MOOCs). So, just sticking Pokemon in your library might get some people through the door, but it won’t make them engage, and they’ll probably just leave litter in your nice atrium. Use the attention the new buzz has created to do different things that only universities can do.

I’m sure you will have other factors, but whatever they are, taking this higher level approach to every new technology will allow us to engage meaningfully, ignore hype and develop useful ed tech. I’m off now to capture a Jigglypuff in my garden.


  • John Kirriemuir

    Good points. Seeing some variable comment, through to uninformed eye-rollery, being blogged about Pokemon Go elsewhere this morning especially, so this one is pleasantly robust. I remember why your blog is essential/shortlisted for the required reading of DfE mandarins 🙂

    One of the things about PG is that it’s not at all new; the core components – Pokemon itself (20+ years), the core ethos (collect and complete a collection, which is central to most Nintendo IP), AR (as you point out has been used in museums for years) – all of this is old hat. There’s also been lots of other geolocational games over the last decade; it’s just that Pokemon is a very high profile example because of the existing, and large, user base, and because pictures of lots of people wandering around make for great tweets and news stories. Hence, it’s getting the headlines, tweets and commentary. Some folk who have been geocaching for years are possibly bemused by it all.

    Because none of this is new or even recent there’s already a bundle of pre-existing research, complete with the problems and limitations of research into the evaluation of games/AR in learning (see pages 13-22 of Nic Whitton’s “Digital Games and Learning” book for a frank listing of the former).

    Can Pokemon Go (specifically, as opposed to other Pokemon titles) be used in curriculum-oriented education? Difficult to see. Less formal, or soft skills, education? Quite possibly; the community aspects are interesting, especially. Though the inability to adapt the game really limits possibilities for learning use, and that’s a large part of a gut feeling that there isn’t going to be a prolonged wave of PG-oriented research ideas, or proposals based on “Because of the success of Pokemon Go, we should do X”. It’s not, for instance, going to be like Minecraft which has been the focal point of several years of funding and research proposals and is arguably far more interesting pedagogically than PG.

    But if people do shove Pokemon Go into their research proposals – I’m saying this as someone who assesses them for three different organisations now – I’d personally really like to see PG discussed in the context of recognised learning theories, or at the least previous (and robust) research. There’s enough of both of these for Pokemon Go to not just be used as an excuse to try and justify research, without involved discussion.

    (Side-point – amusing FB point from another games researcher: “Go through your Facebook feed and find all the posts which refer to Pokemon Go. Then determine which of Sutton-Smith’s rhetorics of play each belongs to.”)

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