Rick Ferdig: Power-Ups for Education

When Rick Ferdig first stepped off the plane in Rwanda in July 2007, he knew he was in a place completely different from any place he’d known before.

Kigali was worlds away from his hometown of Holland, Mich. The street life here – zipping scooters, sidewalk vendors, people carrying home freshly-killed chickens – seemed a century removed from the sterile commerce of cyberspace.

So why was Ferdig, an expert on computing in the classroom, in central Africa with a suitcase full of palm computers?

“Because they’re ready,” Ferdig said. “You look at the infrastructure in Rwanda and it may not seem like a hotbed of educational technology, but they desperately want to enter the 21st Century, and that desire is important.”

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the whole world is ready for Rick Ferdig and scholars like him – Generation X researchers who grew up with video games and graduated to the Internet, and understand the full potential of the computer as a teaching tool.

Across the U.S. and Europe, academics are beginning to hold classes in the alternate reality of Second Life (a popular 3-D virtual environment), asking students to prove their knowledge by writing their own video games, or using blogs to bring students’ work to a wider audience. Ferdig, 35, saw the trend coming, and he sees where it can go.

“People are beginning to realize that when they disappear into an online world, they’re learning at an amazing rate,” he said. “But most of us don’t realize that we’re also developing self-confidence, developing our identity, maybe even trying a new job.”

Like many people his age, Ferdig grew up with one foot in cyberspace. As a graduate student at Michigan State University and later as a visiting scholar at WSP Teacher Training College in Krakow Poland, he would study and teach educational psychology by day, then spend his nights blasting his colleagues to smithereens in networked games of Doom and Duke Nukem.

One of Ferdig’s friends suggested his gaming might be, well, unhealthy. It might have been meant as a warning, but Ferdig and his gaming buddies took the question more philosophically.

“We started this in-depth conversation about what we were accomplishing by doing this,” he said.

For Ferdig, that conversation grew, and is still growing. Applying his background in educational psychology to the evolving Internet, Ferdig spent the next several years exploring the implications the new online world held for teachers and students. Why are skill-and-drill educational games so boring, while non-educational shoot-em-ups are so much fun? How can we make online formal education as addictive as randomly surfing the Internet?

Along the way, Ferdig collected a host of power-ups. A Ph.D. from Michigan State, his position at UF, a vita full of awards and – perhaps the biggest catch of all – a $600,000 grant from AT&T.

The grant is allowing Ferdig and his graduate students to study state-led virtual schools in 22 states. Previous studies have shown that students learn just as much in online courses as they do in the traditional classroom.  Ferdig and his students are taking the next step – doing one of the first comprehensive surveys to determine which online teaching techniques are the most effective.

Ferdig has learned to expect the unexpected from this sort of research. In the past, he says, teachers have been surprised to find that “non-educational” video games like Sim City are often more useful in the classroom than “educational” video games. Ferdig is one of the leading voices in a new movement urging teachers not to reinvent the wheel.

“A shoot-em-up game has a potential audience of millions, and software companies can pour millions into production,” he said. “Educational gamemakers have rarely been able to compete with that – so why don’t we find ways to use the games and tools that are already out there?”

But Ferdig wants to go a step farther. Using Web 2.0 tools and game development software, students can show what they’ve learned in class by making their own simulations and virtual environments. That, he says, is when learning will truly take off.

Ferdig recently saw that lesson reinforced in, of all places, rural Rwanda. At the invitation of the Rwandan government, he spent the summer of 2007 touring that nation’s schools and looking for cost-effective ways to catapult them into the computer age. In some rural schools, students didn’t even have pencils and paper –and the dynamic in those classes reminded Ferdig of some high school computer labs in America.

“In a school without those basic supplies, it’s hard to get the students to use their knowledge to create something,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are classrooms in America where kids are using computers just for skill and drill.

“If you’re not creating something,” he said, “Chances are you aren’t learning.”