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Explore This IssueApril 2019
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My nephew is an addict. These words do not come easily to me, but I have come to accept them as true. In retrospect, I should have recognized the telltale signs: He stopped picking up the phone when I call. He disappears and then re-emerges hours later, seemingly having done nothing. He has lost interest in leaving the house and keeps talking about friends I never seem to meet.
My nephew is addicted to Fortnite.
For the uninitiated, Fortnite is a multi-platform, multi-player video game, in which you and your team parachute onto an island. As with many video games, the object is to shoot anything that moves. Unlike many video games, however, you are fighting the clock; during gameplay, there is an approaching storm, which gradually limits the territory in play.
Fortnite has been compared by behavioral psychologists with heroin. There is Fortnite rehab. Divorce filings have started to cite Fortnite, by name, as a cause.1 When gamers are not playing themselves, they watch other people play. And they pay for the privilege: Tyler Blevins, better known to his fans as Ninja, earned $10 million in 2018.2 He earns $500,000 per month from subscribers to his streaming service. I’ll say that again: he earns half a million dollars each month from aficionados who pay to watch him play. A video game.3
From a purely scientific standpoint, one can’t help but admire what Epic Games, the creators of Fortnite, hath wrought. Fortnite is not Pac-Man. To play, one must master an arcane set of rules and reflexes. This takes time and effort. To date, 200 million players—mainly school-age students—have elected to learn this complex skillset, on their own, without the nagging that usually precedes learning at that age.4 Wouldn’t it be amazing if technology like this could be co-opted to teach something, well, you know, useful?
Teaching with Technology
Pac-Man is to Fortnite as the traditional classroom lecture is to a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). We are all familiar with the traditional brick-and-mortar classroom lecture, with PowerPoint slides at the front of the hall and students gently dozing at the back. The one thing that all of these lectures have in common is that all stakeholders—lecturers, small group leaders, students—are all physically present. The MOOC does away with that last requirement. Instead, lectures are taught virtually, through live streaming or recorded lectures. The sense of community is preserved through remote question-and-answer sessions, group projects and other assignments.5
The MOOC is a cornerstone of a revolution in education in which your educational experience need not be dictated by your institution. Instead, you can pick to attend the classes that best suit your needs and interests, regardless of where the lectures may actually be taking place. By October 2013, the company Coursera had registered over 5 million students for MOOCs.6