Advice from a teacher turned games designer


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As a former teacher turned games designer, it’s a shame to see so many developers expend so much quality effort and time on educational apps and games, only to see them sink or struggle to gain a following. I hope to provide some helpful advice, recommendations and pointers below to help people make successful education apps. I still strongly feel this is a great area waiting to explode!

Disclaimer: I am from a secondary science background. Whilst most of these points are applicable across subjects and key stages, some will matter more than others, depending on your aims.

Curriculum

No matter how amazing it is to play, how polished it is, how addictive/educational/life-changing your game is, schools/parents/teachers are unlikely to pick up on it and get kids to play it unless it directly relates to points on the National Curriculum (NC). You *must* be familiar with the National Curriculum for the subject you are trying to target. This is more relevant if the app you’re making is for use in lesson rather than at home/out of lesson. The National Curriculum is hefty in most subjects these days and the majority of teachers are under constant time pressure to complete the curriculum. If your game is not speaking to those curriculum points, it is unlikely that teachers/parents will be interested. Students have enough to learn as it is, without any extra information/skills to learn.

A related problem is that the secondary school NC tends to be content-focused (as opposed to skill focused). Games, however, naturally lend themselves to skills-focused learning more than content-based learning. This clash of ideas can make designing an educational game more difficult than most other types of game. That being said, if you sit a player down in front of a complicated RPG type game (e.g. Elder Scrolls Series, Fallout, Runescape, Eve Online etc.) they will be very happy to learn a vast amount of abstract information that is totally useless outside the world of the game. So how do mainstream developers make that information so compelling, how do they make *learning* it so compelling, and how can that be applied to the design of educational games?

Lessons

In a primary school the same teacher tends to have that class for most subjects for most of the day. They have the freedom to use apps for extended sessions. Playing games can also be easily used as source material/inspiration for a wide variety of activities and subject work.

Secondary schools don’t have this luxury. Lessons are shorter (often only an hour) with students going from one subject to another and teachers will only care about their own subject (cross-curricular initiatives are rare). So games/apps must be geared towards short play times, easy/instant to get into (no big login screens – a few minutes makes a BIG difference in a classroom) and self-explanatory.

Teachers

Most teachers are unlikely to use games/apps for the sake of it. Teachers are constantly under extreme time and workload pressure. If a game/app/system requires any effort/time on their part to learn, they will be unlikely to get round to using it, regardless of the benefits. Some can also be reluctant to use much technology (and if you’d tried to use unreliable school tech in the classroom for learning, you would feel the same way!).

One way to encourage them to invest the time in playing with your game is to offer other benefits with it, like data collection of their performance so that the teacher could use it as an informal assessment tool. Schools are data and assessment crazy these days, regardless of whether we feel that’s a good thing and whether we like it or not. Another would be ability to set part of the app/game as a homework activity, where progress is logged on a central server and the data made available for teachers to see who completed or not and how well they did.

Conversely, many teachers are starting to use social media and web forums to share ideas/resources. Teachers tend to be a fiercely passionate bunch, and if you make a good app that speaks to their needs, they may do a lot of your marketing for you! In other words – they will only spend the time if they can easily see how it might SAVE them time and if the benefits of the app are easy to see.

Technology

I’ve found that many people have this strange assumption that schools are a hotbed of new technology, with bleeding edge devices available for all students to use.

This, quite frankly, is not true.

I’ve worked in a variety of schools and the vast majority do NOT have computers for students in every classroom, and very few schools have tablets and laptops for students to use. They remain the preserve of private schools (with lots of money), or newly-built academies (*sometimes* with lots of money, initially…), and even then it’s very few of them. Your average comprehensive doesn’t have this stuff.
What this means is think carefully about the platform for your target market. If your aim is for it to be used in lessons then you may want to think about making it web-based – something that can be used in every school. If your app is aimed for the home education client, then tablets might be fine. But don’t make a tablet game/app and expect it to be deployed in thousands of secondary schools!

Summary

  • The requirements for apps/games in the education space are drastically different to that needed for other games.
  • It cannot be just ‘games with an educational skin’.
  • Most people make assumptions about the requirements for education. Most of these assumptions are wrong.
  • Research your market carefully like you would any other product!
  • Talk to teachers – what do they need?
  • Visit schools – what resources do they have?
  • Get familiar with the curriculum – or your app will be a non-starter.
  • Find out what resources are available to the customers you’re targeting
  • Teachers may be your hardest customer to convince, but could be your greatest advocate.

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