Professor Eric Klopfer experimented with augmented reality long before the days of smartphones and Pokémon Go — he always saw the educational potential for it. He started out equipping kids with PDAs fitted with external GPSs. The earliest games took place at MIT, including “Environmental Detectives”, which was part of the Games to Teach Project in CMS.
Looking outside of MIT, Klopfer and his lab partnered with the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, using Augmented Reality to provide supplemental information about endangered species and climate change. The goal of this approach was to engage participants with the less visible issues connected to the zoo. However, he also noted that this digital experience should not take away from the physical experience of people appreciating what is actually around them. In an early iteration of the game at the zoo some of the kids trying it approached the lion exhibit as they tracked their progress in the game. But when they shushed a roaring lion only feet away from them as they tried to watch the video playing out on-screen, Klopfer knew something had gone wrong in the design process, and it was back to the drawing board. He noted that, “the game should enhance and deepen the experience, but allow for appreciating the spontaneous real life experiences that are happening all the time.”
As a pioneer in the world of educational technology, Klopfer is familiar with the process of working out the kinks in his games, simulations, and programming platforms. Later iterations of the zoo-based AR game, based on a platform now known as Taleblazer, worked harder to engage students with their surroundings by asking specific questions of habitat and environment.
“It’s about placing learners in challenging situations,” he says of designing educational games. “It’s about giving them agency and autonomy, but within well-bounded constraints.”
He finds that making educational environments more like games can make learning very intuitive, so he continues to explore the best ways to design educational games and simulations through his work at MIT. He work focuses on both preparing and equipping teachers for the challenges of teaching. As the director of MIT’s Scheller Teacher Education Program and The Education Arcade, he teaches prospective math and science teachers here at MIT, and works with many undergraduate and graduate students to create new playful 21st century interdisciplinary learning experiences. He also has recently been appointed as the co-faculty director of The Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL), an incubator for change in education.
One of his most far reaching endeavors was his involvement with the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform, EdX. “I was initially skeptical of the MOOC platforms for courses outside of the quantitative sciences,” he said. He wasn’t sure whether it would be able to serve learners who were interested in topics with more subjective course material. Seeing the potential impact on learners, he spent some time while he was on sabbatical developing four courses for an educational technology and game development series that ended up attracting 200,000 people. He spent a lot of time working with his team to ensure that these courses were really able to build a supportive learning community.
After 18 years as a professor in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Klopfer recently switched his appointment to Comparative Media Studies/Writing. With CMS/W’s longstanding games studies program, and a growing cadre in educational media, Klopfer sees this department as well aligned with his academic goals. Klopfer says that he appreciates the opportunity for the Game Lab and the Educational Arcade to work with each other in a more consolidated capacity and with new perspectives on learning.
“How do we reach people who don’t already know how to learn?” he wonders, looking forward. “I think that’s going to be an important frontier when trying to expand these tools to a broader audience.”