Finnish games studio crafts creativity for schools
TeacherGaming is the brainchild of three teachers who are, themselves, gamers. The company has already made learning more fun in 10 000 schools around the world.
“Our greatest challenge is to make sure that the games don’t reek of school,” says Santeri Koivisto with a laugh.
The CEO of the games company TeacherGaming knows how to get students to pay attention. While still a student teacher, he came up with the idea of using the Minecraft computer game to teach his students. In Minecraft players can go on adventures and create structures in an open game environment.
The kids’ reaction was enthusiastic and other teachers came by to ask if Koivisto would give them instructions on how to play the fun-looking game.
“That’s how I knew that I had come up with something cool,” says Koivisto.
Koivisto took his students to the local Scifest science fair and received approval from Minecraft’s Swedish developers Mojang to use the game on a broader scale for teaching.
Koivisto also had the brilliant idea of asking Mojang if he could be the game’s Finnish educational representative.
“They said they had no idea what I meant. I said, neither do I, but let’s give it a go.”
At the same time, across the Atlantic, an American teacher named Joel Levin started up a blog describing his experiences of using Minecraft for teaching purposes. The blog made it onto the front page of Reddit and soon attracted more than 10 000 followers. Koivisto noticed the buzz surrounding Levin and suggested in a blog comment chain that they collaborate. In May 2011, at the end of their first Skype conversation, they decided to set up a company.
TeacherGaming was officially established in November 2011 and the next February the business partners met each other face to face for the first time.
Speaking the children’s language
The idea behind the company was to repackage entertainment games for teaching purposes. Currently the Minecraftedu and Kerbaledu games are used in nearly 10 000 schools around the world. This number is three times the Finnish school network.
“Our goal is to change the world, which we have, in fact, already done. At least the worlds’ of the children at those 10 000 schools,” Koivisto points out.
The games are meant to be fun, first and foremost, but their impact is much broader. Games are a familiar environment for children, in which they can be active learners. For teachers, TeacherGaming’s games are a tool for getting children involved – also in a school environment. Koivisto is hopeful that teaching through games will cause the power balance in schools to shift so that children will be able to impact and produce content for games themselves. In addition the games can teach children digital civics.
“A separate classroom is used in which the teacher or student can modify a virtual space to suit the situation,” says Koivisto. “Our goal has been to focus on building, working together and solving problems.”
How do the educational games differ from playing for entertainment? Koivisto draws an analogy with football.
“Playing in the playground at recess is fun but so is playing at a football practice with a coach. We want to draw teachers out of their comfort zones but in a way that allows them to still feel in control,” he says.
More than 5 500 teachers in more than 40 countries have already used Minecraftedu in their work. The subjects they teach vary between physics and languages, history and art. Approximately 60 per cent of users can be found in the United States, the rest in the UK, Australia and other countries. In Finland the network includes around twenty schools. In a good month some 500 schools join the network.
The games address the same challenges in every country.
“Most schools are built based on the same system and problems include students’ apathy and lack of interest,” Koivisto says. “In Finland these phenomena are relatively minor, so there isn’t a major hurry to change things in schools. In the United States criticism towards the system has continued for so long that they are more willing to try things on an impulse.”
Children can have many ideas for improving their schools but they lack the language to turn them into development suggestions that adults can approve of.
Learning by doing
TeacherGaming has grown at a remarkable speed even though its founders do not have previous experience in the games industry. The company, made up of three teachers, a lawyer and a programmer, doubled its revenue during 2014 and it looks likely that 2015 will prove to be just as successful.
“We have been lucky in that we have had the chance to work with games that are already wonderful to begin with. We’ve just thought about how to bring school into the picture without ruining the game,” Koivisto explains. ”We learn by doing; that is one thing I discovered in teacher training.”
The company has now started developing its own games, which are scheduled for release in 2016. Their guiding principle has been to develop games so that entertainment comes first and learning skills is an integral part of the game mechanics.
The company has, to date, been run on the founders’ money. With fresh winds blowing, TeacherGaming is beginning to seek out venture capitalists who would be able to offer not just financing for their projects, but also other things such as school networks.
According to Koivisto, instead of trying to raise money, the company’s objective is to create projects that are as crazy as possible, making school more interesting. Good feedback from schools has been an important source of motivation for the startup.
“Sometimes we get told that we have completely changed the teaching experience for someone. Strong feedback kept us at our work even when we weren’t collecting a paycheck,” Koivisto concludes.
Text: Aino Sirkesalo