Interview: Globaloria Founder Dr. Idit Harel Caperton On Video Games As The New Language Arts


Dr. Idit Harel Caperton, founder of The World Wide Workshop and its Globaloria project. Image by Globaloria via Flickr under CreativeCommons and with permission

By Paul Glader

Dr. Idit Harel Caperton believes every child should build and design video games. She and her team at The World Wide Workshop just announced a $250,000 grant from to expand the Globaloria project – which teaches young people to design education video games – to Silicon Valley and San Jose area schools.

“Right here in Silicon Valley we have a situation where, if we invest two or three years in these kids,” says Dr. Caperton, “they can become future inventors and the highly qualified employees the tech, entertainment, education and game industries desperately need.”

Already, the organization is teaching game design in Christopher Middle School and Herman Intermediate School in San Jose’s Oak Grove School District and at several Boys & Girls Clubs in Silicon Valley. The Google grant means the program will expand into Overfelt High School. Dr. Caperton says that more than 60% of students are in the low-income bracket and 27% are English learners.

The Globaloria project involves teaching game design in schools. It also networks the schools so students how to share knowledge with others and to work on teams. The program started in 2006 and is now at schools in California, Florida, New York, Texas and West Virginia. The organization hopes to be teaching 3,000 students in Silicon Valley, alone, by 2014, up from 200 today.

Dr. Caperton is a seasoned education entrepreneur who has championed the idea of using new media technology for creative learning and teaching students about innovation. She holds degrees from Tel Aviv University (BA, 1982), Harvard University (HGSE EdM 1984; CAS 1985), and MIT Media Lab (PhD, 1988). During the 1980s and 90s, she studied and worked at the MIT Media Lab with Seymour Papert and wrote a book called “Children Designers.” She founded MaMaMedia in 1995, launching, and and winning a host of awards for the projects. Now she serves on several boards and advisory committees in the U.S., Canada, Israel and China, including on the board of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

She created the World Wide Workshop in 2004. Most recently, WWW launched Globaloria to invent ways of using social networking and Web 2.0 tools to teach computing and game-making in schools worldwide. She serves on several boards and committees in the education world. WiredAcademic managing editor Paul Glader caught up with Dr. Caperton by phone recently about Globaloria and the World Wide Workshop.

WA – Tell us about these organizations and what they do in a nutshell?

IHC – World Wide Workshop is the forward-thinking organization that develops technology-based learning to help engage kids in a whole new way, empowering them to be change agents ad leaders in their community and in their lives. We have three programs. One is Globaloria. The other is the Next Billion Learners program. The third one is the Worldwide Workshop Global Consulting.

WA – So tell us about Globaloria.

IHC – Globaloria is the first and largest social learning network that teaches kids how to make educational games. It’s also an innovative way of infusing STEM learning, creative learning, computer science and design into the learning process. We integrate it into formal public schools and after-school girls and boys clubs. In most schools, it is an elective, used as an enrichment to the core curriculum, but many schools use it to teach STEM and other subjects.

WA – How many schools and clubs are you in now with Globaria?

IHC – We are in 5 states, 60 schools and afterschool clubs, and we have about 2,000 educators and parents live doing Globaloria as we speak. We started in 5 schools 5 years ago. We are very proud.

WA – What is the value of teaching kids how to make video games?

IHC – There are a lot of people talking about learning through game making and game playing. We see this as the new literacy, and this is a way to get kids involved… The game-making is a way to form communities that engage kids oin global citizenship, business, government, and other areas. We are making them fluent in the language of their era, the language of designers, inventors, and engineers.

WA – Are there some young people still selling or using the games they created?

IHC – That is a great question. We are still too new to see what happens to Globaloria “graduates” as entrepreneurs. What is important right now is not the end product… The question is how can you start teaching everyone design and engineering in a way that is engaging and fun, and in a way that they become fluent in the new language. You need to immerse everybody in a purposeful, fluid, engaging process. You need to engage kids with gaming in two ways – playing AND making them and reflecting about it all in purposeful way, every day. This is what we do when we learn a new language. That’s what we are doing in Globaloria.

WA – What do students learn in the process?

IHC – They learn many things. They learn to think. They learn to learn. They learn to be resourceful and creative. They learn to invent. They form a team, they learn how to work on a team. We are bundling all these other skills that go into the making of an entrepreneur. We focus several hours each  day on giving a great quality education to  underprivileged kids. They are intimidated, as we see in our pre-surveys … They don’t know about Google docs and Google tools. They never imagine themselves writing a Wikipedia article or blogging about an issue or an idea. We just make them familiar with this process of thinking, designing, engineering, communicating, and spreading their ideas through these games. All of a sudden, if they want to do a report on climate change or something, they know how to do it. They can influence others with their games. They develop passion for their ideas. What is driving their learning is they fall in love with learning. They become catalysts of change.

WA – What tech tools or programs do students learn and use?

IHC – There is a blend. The kids use the industry-standard tools: MediaWiki, Google tools, GChat and Skype, YouTube and Vimeo to Flickr. They are programming media wikis and using Blogger for blogs and using Flash ActionScript. Two years of programming in Flash gives them opportunities for internships with us. We are now going to create a curriculum for HTML 5 and JavaScript. We are moving them to simulations and mobile computing and social networking. Our curriculum is going to grow in the next year or two. We are going to launch new programs. Maybe you do civics games in the 7th grade in JavaScript. You can start thinking about social games. We are going to take this and adapt it. We think about games and game developing as the new language arts.

WA – Why are these skills important?

IHC – You can’t be in business today without using media constructively to organize communities. I think we need to move into many languages, maybe Python. Our World Wide Workshop staff are ourselves programmers and game developers. … We wanted to put something together that is interactive and fun. Both girls and boys who don’t see themselves as programmers get into it. Before long, you just see them coding. It’s a very good way to get them into it… It is amazing when you go on our website, it is amazing to see what kids were able to do in only 30 or 40 hours, addressing topics like obesity and teen pregnancy.

WA – Where does the funding come from?

IHC – We have to be agile and flexible about that. Some state departments of education can pay. Some raise grants to pay us. Sometimes we help them get the grant. Sometimes we bring the grant. We know what it is like to give them the turnkey solution. We do everything from the tutorials to data management, to the back-end and hosting. We strongly believe in professional development. We integrate when a faculty is really prepared. The teacher doesn’t have to be a techie. All are mentored and trained and motivated, from the football coach to the music teacher to an English teacher.

WA – How much does the program cost a school?

IHC – If you are just one class in a school, it costs more per student. But if you use the same platform with 500 instead of 25 students, the costs come down.

WA – Can you give us your views on the landscape of educational gaming today?

IHC – There is not enough going on in the video game industry, not enough understanding that kids can learn by playing games. The industry) needs to come up with games that are for learning, and they shouldn’t look like school, be boring, or look like an educational textbook. There is a whole new group of talented people interested in raising up immersive games, mobile games for learning.

WA – What kind of change needs to happen in the video game industry?

IHC – This is a multi-billion dollar industry and a growing industry. The revenue from video games is now greater than from music and motion pictures put together. That’s a huge industry and a huge opportunity to create media that is entertainment and also for learning. It’s mostly led by white men. It is not very diverse. My theory is that if we start developing thousands or even millions of kids who grow up playing the games and making the games, they can influence the industry with new ideas that don’t exist yet. It will take a decade to see the new geniuses in the space emerging. Some will be girls. Some from diverse ethnic background. They will work together globally. I believe that the children of the Millennial generation will create an amazing game industry that will transform our education, business, and government systems.

Globaloria students at a Hackathon event in Summer, 2011. Photo courtesy of Globaloria

WA – Why should the video game industry care?

IHC – It has a responsibility to nurture the talent that will keep the industry fresh. It is also a great market for jobs. It is a fast growing industry. People haven’t started scratching beyond entertainment for guys. At Globaloria we ask, how do we teach people the writing of educational games? The making of immersive social learning games? If they grow up thinking more about impact games, they will be able to start writing and making a new generation of wonderful transformative game media that will dpread very fast because everyone loves learning. Our brain is happy when we learn something new!

WA – What happens to young people’s view of video games once they have made their own?

IHC – They are a lot more demanding once they understand how games are being made. Their taste is changing, I think for the better.

WA – So why do you think educational games are taking a back seat right now in the broader game industry?

IHC – There is a huge deficit. If you ask EA or Zynga today if they have great people who can think about learning and education, they would probably say no. But if they put together some creative people to think about it and produce great games it will sell really well. Once it sells, and become a business, they will do more….We all want to learn. If there are really amazing games for learning, we will all run to buy them because we humans like to learn. We all buy books. But I think we are at the beginning. If we will educate millions and millions of kids, new genres will pop out, and new titles will emerge. A lot of action will take place. It will be viral and unstoppable.

WA – What kinds of major educational games would you like to see out there?

IHC – I am really interested in those topics like poverty and the environment, trying to create a healthier democracy, and trying to help people learn about civil rights, empathy and leadership. This is a growing genre, as you know. For example, go play the game “Darfur is Dying on the Games for Change website.

WA – Who are your biggest competitors or allies? For example, what do you think about “Games for Change”?

IHC – Games for Change is not a competitor. They are great partners. The  run festivals and convene meetings for people like us. Like Cannes for film, or Sundance, Games for Change is for games. Developers of games about global and social issues are part of this great organization. We are creating programs that teach kids how to make Games for Change. They are trying to create an industry around games for social purposes. We are their education track. We educate the next generation!

WA – How do you market?

IHC – So far, it’s word of mouth. Teachers and principals and funders who love our products tell their friends. We started in 5 schools 5 years ago and we are in 60 schools now. Next year, we start some marketing. Everything we are doing right now is teachers telling other teachers and talking about it at conferences. We have a great learning system that is scalable but we are on a shoestring budget. We have raised $5 million in the last five years to demonstrate our model in multiple contexts. In the Spring of 2012, we will raise money against this. This is an MIT-style education we provide to schools not used to having an MIT-style education. This is a one-hour to an hour and a half per day project for 100 days. We have a solution that doesn’t exist in schools for digital teaching and learning of engineering and STEM. We get the kids and put them in this active role, leading their own learning.

WA – How far can this idea go do you think?

IHC – Very far! For example, The Institute of Play is a video game school in NYC. Everything this middle school does is gaming related. What we ask, “Can we be in the whole country? Can we be in the whole world?” … And we approach our design to be scalable from the start. In Texas, we have this amazing school that adopted us for the whole school. In West Virginia we are in the entire state. In California we are transforming a region. In Florida we are in the 8th largest school district in America.

WA – Are you hopeful the Obama Administration will give more funding to STEM and video game creation projects like yours?

IHC – Obama … he talks about it. Smartly. We are completely aligned with the Presidential mission. We foresaw it before Obama was elected. We knew there were millions of jobs unfulfilled because of a lack of talent. And lack of innovation in education. We knew what the STEM skills for the future are. We are very much aligned with the president’s program on “Changing the equation on STEM education” . There is talent everywhere. We just have to give people the opportunity. We need to think bigger faster.

WA – Is more money flowing this direction?

IHC – Yes, but not enough. I think the United States officials and policy makers talks a lot about it, about the urgent need for the innovation economy, but they don’t really legislate enough money to go into giving this to all children in the 120,000 public schools in the U.S. I don’t see enough thinking, leadership, belief and strategy that every single kid has a right to get quality education in the STEM fields. People talk about it, but it is not enough is featured about what should be done in the popular media. I think there is a lot more we can do as a nation.

Jesse, Kasson Middle School presenting his final game demo. Image courtesy of Globaloria

WA – What is your growth strategy and how does it compare or different from Khan Academy?

IHC – We are like Salman Khan, from the perspective of using technology for delivery and using technology platforms as a way to scale. What’s different about us from Salman Khan is we are trying to create a million Salman Khans. …. As good as he is, he is not yet teaching people how to make a great tutorial. I like Salman Khan. He was at MIT and caries the MIT spirit in everything he does. We both use technology to change the world. So we are kind of MIT buddies. But I told him last time we met in Mountain View, that He’s not doing enough to teach people how to make a great tutorial. I told him: “Let’s try to teach people how to be you.”

WA – You are expanding your program in the San Jose area. Why is this important?

IHC – The students there are mostly African American and Hispanic students. They represent a whole generation of American citizens who are growing up in the backyard of tech giants but not engaged in innovation and entrepreneurship. They do not even have a dream about technology and startups… What is their future there? We are coming at it from blending computer science and design and art. We want these students to convince themselves they can be imaginative, innovative — the next engineers and computer scientists. We are teaching kids the arts and crafts with engineering. We teach kids how to develop storyboards and videotape, telling their story in prototypes they create. Just owning that skillset of moving from an idea to a design and prototype is a tremendous, most important skill.

WA – What else is coming up in 2012?

IHC – We want more gaming companies and social gaming companies and innovation giants to understand it is not just about getting green cards and Visas for people from India. It is also about educating people in your backyards here in America, or the same for German companies, in Germany. How can you invest in people around us, locally, so they can be the next Steve Jobs or Sal Khan?

WA – How do you teach students to be collaborative?

IHC – Every student has a user profile on the network. All of our kids and their profiles and ideas are shared publically, including their ideas, code and design and process of how they are making it. It’s the idea that the more you share, the more help you can receive. It’s the idea that all of us can be smarter than just one of us. That transparency and openness are things we teach people. It is very different from a school culture, where papers are only between you and the teacher. With our projects, everything is uploaded, shared, posted, and commented on. Everyone is growing together. That are clear participation guidelines. If you get ideas from others, you should credit them. You are not allowed to leave nasty comments on other people’s games… There are also grades and a computer game design competition. But students are judged on the process, not just their product. Did they uploaded their prototype and explained everything clearly? ? There is a set of values we believe in that is expressed in the actual design of the Globaloria platform and its curriculum.

WA – What do you think of digital learning, flipped classrooms?

IHC – We are turning the school desks around a bit. Students and teacher learn together. Everyone use virtual resources. Everyone teaches the other, peer-to-peer or co-learning with your teachers. You asked me earlier about Salman Khan. Ho approach is excellent. You can learn anything in the world. But he is very instructional. It is innovative instructional methodology. Whenever you need is there — a tutorial on fractions, or functions or evolution — you can go to listen to Sal Khan’s tutorials. However, if you look at kids using Khan’s tutorials, they are still using pencils and paper to solve problems. In that sense it is limited from my perspective. We are more constructionists. We believe in providing structural, hands-on learning, … we believe that creativity and innovation result from playing to learn, coming up with an idea, messing around, building models… We believe that learners should be using the technology and network to produce and save their innovative  work towards a solution. We call it “blended learning” because we bring the curriculum or the digital text book and the expert live help, and the resources for research via the network into the classroom. Textbook, teacher material, and student material are all on the network. But we train teachers and support them throughout the year really well. The teacher is still managing the class. The teacher is still customizing a core syllabus to fit with content standards and the school’s mission for the year. Some teachers teach 7th grade math with Globaloria, some are teaching high-school chemistry. Others teach social studies or computer science with Globaloria. All the work, every single thing the kids are doing is online and we can go to do school visits every day.

A testimonial from a school principle about Globaloria.

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