Learning can be, and must be, fun and magical. And that is not simply a wish stemming from our own days as students bored to tears memorizing multiplication tables or listening passively to hour-long lectures. It is science. Study after study, such as those summarized by Michael Prince in his article “Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research” prove that active learning greatly increases engagement, retention of material and understanding. That’s why we are dedicated to leveraging new media and technology to empower kids through magically engaging experiences.
We designed SEMA as an adventure game that takes learners on an inspiring and incredibly entertaining journey, filled with obstacles to overcome, bosses to defeat and missions to finish. Rather than reinventing the wheel, we drew inspiration from some of the world’s most successful games, such as Super Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong, Teach Your Monsters, and Angry Birds to build on what already worked.
Why game-based learning? During our first field research trip in The Gambia – before we’d built anything – we tested existing educational platforms (including games) with target users. These were children who lived in rural areas and were either in school but weren’t doing well, or who had dropped out of school altogether.
We were initially hopeful that the appeal of technology alone would motivate children to learn, with the novelty of a tablet or a smartphone paired with an online curriculum being enough to create an initial excitement. The novelty, however, quickly wore off, and the only apps that children remained excited to use over several hours or even days, were games.
Half of the battle, we realized, was going to be around engagement. And our best chances of keeping our learners engaged month over month was to create a dynamic game that would motivate them to come back day after day and actively engage them in the learning process.
Nowhere is this more critical than for street children who lack the structure or push from parents to attend school. Many do frequent drop-in centres that attempt to provide some educational instruction even via technology, but they quickly lose interest and participate sporadically at best. However, engaging educational games change everything.
We tested SEMA in a centre for street children in Kibera slum, Nairobi and the director agreed that the research rang true to his own personal experience. He said:
“In our centre we always need to make sure our classes are fun because when children feel like it’s too much like school they end up dropping out and going back to the streets.”
In the past decades, game designers have become experts at increasing user motivation by understanding the science behind it. According to Matthew Jones in his article “The Ultimate Way to Increase Motivation, According to Neuroscience” motivation partly depends on the ability to anticipate a reward, as that anticipation triggers the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and one of the strongest influencers of behaviour.” For example, Reward anticipation, variable-rate rewards and visible short-term goals further engage players and keeps them motivated throughout. Cognisant of this, Peter Diamandis, the founder of the XPRIZE Foundation, reminded readers in his June 2016 post on the Singularity Hub,
“Learning needs to be less like memorization, and more like… Angry Birds.”
We couldn’t agree more. Playing SEMA, learners encounter a variety of engaging game dynamics that motivate learners to keep moving forward. For example, our protagonist Sema has to jump over holes, avoid animals, slide under trees, or jump over obstacles to catch the correct letters similar to Super Mario – which recently launched an iOS version that hit 40M downloads in the first 4 days. Similarly, SEMA’s Sound Blending Game, where the learner has to throw our little chameleon Tatu towards stacked boxes and letters to hit the correct letter – is directly inspired by Angry Birds – which hit 50M users in 2015.
To increase learner motivation and drive further engagement with the material, SEMA creates anticipation in learners through the map which helps learners visualize their progress. SEMA is also peppered with a variety of fixed action rewards, intended to create spikes in satisfaction and motivation. As soon as learners pass a level, for example, the camera within the app unlocks in a Snapchat-inspired way for users to take up to 5 selfies, which they can customize with stickers of characters and objects from the game and save to the camera roll. Learning what happens next in Sema’s story is an additional incentive to keep learning. Finally, our unique original graphics provide a fun and playful user experience. All of them are inspired by local culture, environment and surroundings – from landscapes to scenes of daily life, and characters to animals. Colors inspired by African fabric give a playful and friendly look to the overall experience. We even designed 400+ images for each word that we teach in SEMA, in the same graphic style as the game itself, for a consistent and beautiful educational experience.
In his post, Diamandis goes on to paint a picture of recent progress in education intersecting with the near future. “We are already seeing technology democratize access to education – but soon the education itself will become even more powerful with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual and augmented reality… AI will be able to personalize learning platforms to each individual student. AI will have unlimited access to information and will deliver it at the optimal speed to each student in an engaging, fun way.”
Kukua is situated exactly at this intersection and we are excited to see how new features we are adding to SEMA’s magical content will become an even more powerful tool to provide a quality and personalized education to all children.