OCW Faculty Profile: Eric Klopfer

A man standing with a classroom full of people in the background.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Eric Klopfer has been at the forefront of bringing technology into the classroom since grade school. Instead of writing a standard book report for his English teacher, he recalls, he dragged him down to the school’s very modest computer lab—consisting of a few Commodore 64’s and an Apple IIe in the corner—and proceeded to demonstrate a game that he programmed which offered a series of alternate endings to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. “I’m pretty sure,” he laughs, “that was the first book report he had ever received on a computer.”

Klopfer’s enthusiasm for computer gaming traces back to the very start of the personal computer revolution, when his father, a high school math teacher, would bring home one of the school’s Commodore Pet computers from school over holidays, which allowed Eric to start experimenting with programming in BASIC at a very young age. When it was time to get the family’s first home computer, Eric had already done all the market research, and recommended an Apple II Plus.

He and his school friends traded software programs like baseball cards—he loved the first generation of interactive text games like “Colossal Cave Adventure” and “Zork”—and they inspired each other to learn even more about programming. “During those early years,” he muses, “I think it was our common interest in computing that probably influenced me much more than any particular mentor.”

Klopfer continued to use technology as a tool throughout his educational career. While pursuing his doctorate in zoology at the University of Wisconsin, he designed a simulation based on the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which allowed him to better understand and demonstrate the evolutionary consequences of cooperation among biological communities.

We’re going to see a shift away from very passive forms of learning, where students are the consumers, into a situation where teachers and students are active producers and creating things.

Today, Klopfer is at the center of an exciting confluence of technology, gaming and education. He is the director of MIT’s Scheller Teacher Education Program and The Education Arcade, founder or co-founder of several innovative educational technology ventures, and his work has attracted major investments from the Gates Foundation and Google. From his office in MIT’s Media Lab, his windowsill covered with dozens of tiny turtle figurines, relating to the programming environment for kids and goes back to the day of Seymour Papert's Logo turtle. Klopfer describes how technology and gaming fits into his vision for a fundamental shift in the paradigm of 21st century learning. “Playing computer games gets a bad rap because so much of it is designed for passive consumption,” says Klopfer, “but when games are putting people in challenging situations, and really promoting higher order thinking skills, they can be incredibly useful.”

He cites immersive, highly complex games like Myst as a key influence on how he approaches game design even today: “When games are well designed, they keep pushing people to the edge of their expertise, so they can fail safely, then move on.”

Several of the games that Klopfer and his team at The Education Arcade have created perfectly illustrate his point. In The Radix Endeavor, a multiplayer online game for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning, players battle a villain who’s trying to monopolize all scientific knowledge on a strange world. By solving complex problems in biology and mathematics, the players test their skills in advanced concepts, and unlock the secrets of this world. Another augmented reality game actually took place within the Boston Museum of Science, where middle school students were given smartphones and asked to zip through the museum collecting digital clues for a high-tech whodunit. “These games create situations where children are asked to make interesting decisions, and understand their consequences,” states Klopfer, “We’re using the unique properties of different technologies to tap into existing problems, and add new layers of information to get people more engaged.”

A third project, called App Inventor, which he co-directs with MIT luminaries Hal Abelson and Mitch Resnick, is founded on the notion that teachers and students should be able to create their own apps, and adapt them to specific real world situations. “We’re going to see a shift away from very passive forms of learning, where students are the consumers, into a situation where teachers and students are active producers and creating things. The democratization of programming is going to be a huge part of that shift. People may be making small apps that are only useful to a small number of people—maybe only for that semester or that class—but it will have a very powerful impact.”

On the hot topic of MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) Klopfer is a discerning supporter, who expects that the technology strategies for these courses will continue to evolve. He’s skeptical, for example, of an over-reliance on video lectures, which are difficult to scan for information, pointing out that pedagogical studies on the success of Kahn Academy, the Gates Foundation-backed educational website, show the majority of learner traffic using the site’s problem sets, not the tutorials. Neither does he think that discussion boards are an adequate substitute for the kind of open interaction that happens in the classroom.

He concludes that despite the MOOC hyperbole, schools and universities are not going away anytime soon. What actually happens in the classroom, however, is very likely to change: “As we start more and more to ‘flip’ the classroom model, with students consuming lectures at home, and doing their active learning in class, the role of teachers will shift. In that sense, OCW has a very important role to fill. It provides exactly the type and depth of resources that are needed—problem sets, modular exercises, reading lists—for exploring ideas in the classroom.”

Klopfer’s passion for the intersection of technology and learning, and his obvious love for teaching, are more than enough to restore anyone’s optimism that today’s so-called crisis in education is little more than the growing pains of a vital transformation in how we educate ourselves.

OCW Courses taught by Prof. Eric Klopfer: