MMOCs/MOOCs are probably the wrong match for the kind of learning technology presented in The Diamond Age, which while fictionalized, was really a small extension of existing trends in *educational game technology* that existed in 1995. In other words, rather than fitting into trends related to the extension of traditional academic curricula with ed-tech (as MOOCs and video lectures do), it fits more closely with the Papert/Kay ‘mathland’ concept (and thus with things like LOGO, Croquet, MindStorms, and other systems built to encourage autodidacts to explore systems).

The middle ground — and a very useful and popular middle ground it is — between typical formal-instruction MOOCs and ‘mathland’-style environments is the new breed of quiz-focused gamified ed-tech services like Memrise and Duolinguo. Despite being truly useful for a fairly limited set of fields (i.e., those fields where the number of right answers tends to be limited and people can reasonably expect to learn from quick quizzes with immediate feedback in the absence of initial instruction — in this case, vocabulary, grammar, and lists of facts), they are very useful in these fields.

Both The Diamond Age and Ender’s Game reference and borrow from educational games from the 80s and early 90s, adding context-awareness and extra flexibility as their primary technical advancement; for the most part, the actual passages described from the educational video games in both of those books are cribbed from real games, and there’s no reason why such games could not still be made.

We have yet another very popular field of educational games: simulations (Sim City, Civilization) — we simulate a complex existing model of a system and the player is expected to become competent at understanding the behaviors of that model in order to execute his or her tasks. Closer to the Croquet model is Minecraft, which is educational insomuch as necessary tasks embed a great deal of fairly esoteric information about geology and about historical methods of producing common goods: Minecraft makes explicit the tech tree that Civilization uses as a progress bar, and requires players to demonstrate a familiarity with the general idea of what tools and materials are required for a given technology along with the previous technologies required to produce those tools and materials, at a much more granular level than Civilization.

Yes MOOCs rely too much on bad video. But, MOOCs are thirty years behind the curve on ed-tech and have never even attempted to be cutting-edge or maximally effective. If they had, they would at least focus on testing mechanisms rather than on methods for replacing books with AV presentations — because if engagement is sufficiently high, books are just fine.

Written by

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net

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