Six years ago, the Pullias Center for Higher Education, along with USC’s Game Innovation Lab, launched a project to increase college access through a play-based approach. The rationale informing the project was twofold: to engage students through mediums they enjoyed — and to create a scalable college guidance tool. Over the next few years, educational researchers, game designers and local students and practitioners have worked diligently to design, develop, playtest and assess the effects of four games on learning. Our work has been generously funded by the Institute for Education Sciences [R305A110288], the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, TG, The Bill & Rosalinde Gilbert Foundation, and USC’s Office of the Provost.
The initial research we conducted on the games was promising. Game play appeared to increase college-going efficacy and college learning (please visit the project website for more details). Students appeared engaged when playing; practitioners expressed appreciation for the game tools. What we couldn’t determine through preliminary research, however, was the effects of game play on actual college outcomes.
Enter First in the World (FITW). Our current federal FITW grant [# P116F140097], funded through the US Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, has enabled us to scale up game deployment and design a study that meets the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) Standards without reservations. In response to this grant, we have been able to expand an innovative project in rigorous and impactful ways. As you will read about in 21st Century Scholar blog posts over the next two weeks, we have been playing the Mission Admission game with thousands of students across 27 California school districts. Through a random control trial we will be able to evaluate the impact of the games on tangible college outcomes.
I have just returned from our annual FITW directors’ meeting in DC. We were invited to the White House where we learned about President Obama’s strong support of the FITW program. The President and the First Lady, through her Reach Higher Initiative , have been true champions of bolstering access to college. The FITW program is an example of the President’s commitment to better understand, address and innovate around the entrenched challenges related to ensuring all students have access to postsecondary education.
So here’s the catch: federal legislators did not appropriate funding for a new FITW competition this year. And while our project is not affected by the discontinuation of funding, I am very concerned that if not renewed, the field of college access/completion will fall into the familiar trope of doing the same thing but faster – or bigger – without addressing postsecondary challenges creatively. FITW projects are exciting and ambitious. For example, Fly By Wire, out of MIT, uses a blended learning approach to equip faculty with stronger tools for differentiating instruction. Another project out of the Georgia Institute of Technology is seeking to use digital tools to assist students with print-related disabilities.
Whether all FITW projects will be successful is yet to be determined. Yet without this type of funding, development of novel approaches and studies that meet WWC standards at this scale will be very hard to achieve.