Prototyping Our Way to Reforming Education


In “Dow Day,” an augmented reality game, middle school students walk the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus using mobile phones to view footage of Vietnam war protests that occurred in the same campus locations.

1.4.11 | As anyone in the field of education knows, change comes slowly. It isn’t easy to move the needle in an institution like compulsory education that has existed since the turn of the last century.  Yet, some educators are beginning to test that assumption.

Kurt Squire, associate education professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, wanted to approach change differently—as a videogame designer would—by employing rapid prototyping of an idea and tons of user testing.

“I’m adverse to the model in education where there’s a group of people who develop this thing that is going to solve all your problems, that’s going to be your silver bullet,” Squire said. “I want to make education more participatory.”

In 2008, Squire, who is also a leader in the Games, Learning and Society initiative, a group of more than 50 faculty and students investigating game-based learning, at UW-Madison, started designing a curriculum that took advantage of mobile technology.

I don’t believe some expert has the answer to all the problems. Rather, it’s networks of people in conversation, working together to solve their own problems.

– Kurt Squire, associate education professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison

Squire and his team—including Eric Klopfer, an MIT science education professor and co-director of Education Arcade, and David Gagnon, an instructional designer with the ENGAGE program—focused on building applications using a mobile development platform that Squire and Klopfer had built when Squire was at MIT. But Gagnon thought he could improve on the MIT platform.

“David was a developer and said, ‘I can do this really simply, using web tools. It won’t be pretty, but it’ll be fast and cheap,’” Squire recalled. “I said, ‘Sure, right. Go ahead.’  Two days later, he’d built something.”

That something was ARIS, a computer platform for creating augmented reality (AR) games that encourage place-based learning. The motivation, Squire explains, was to use “the world as the hook to get students interested in learning.”

One of the first projects the group created with Gagnon’s platform was called “Dow Day.” Jim Matthews, a UW graduate student who teaches at Middleton Alternative Senior High, created the mobile AR experience, which walks participants through the Vietnam protests on the UW-Madison campus, and tested it with his middle-school students. Using their phones, the kids view footage of protests at the same spots where they’re standing. They also learn how the press covered the war and how that colored the protests.

While ARIS makes it possible to create AR experiences that hook kids, what is more remarkable from a development standpoint —particularly for education innovators—is how ARIS was created and continues to grow. Not only was the original platform built over a weekend using Flash, but Squire’s team started using it immediately, imperfections and all. The pedagogy of the experience, Squire said, was to have the kids meet every two weeks to modify and further design the game.

It’s worth noting that Squire is not only interested in using games for learning but is also steeped in the thinking of Henry Jenkins, who coined the phrase “participatory culture,” and with whom Squire studied at MIT and currently co-authors a column for Computer Games Magazine. ARIS is really a study both in rapid prototyping and user testing—and a belief that participation in authorship from many different levels of users is worthwhile.

Squire is also immersed in the thinking of game designers. Games are developed on the basis of feedback, with the premise that no time is wasted building more elaborate games that are neither fun nor easy to use. With constant user feedback, developers are assured that what they are working on, though it may change directions many times, will, in the end, be accessible and compelling.

Squire’s team adopted this model, making prototypes as fast as they could, testing them on the middle-school students, and modifying and designing as they went, drawing on a range of feedback and field experiences.

“I don’t believe some expert has the answer to all the problems,” Squire said. “Rather, it’s networks of people in conversation, working together to solve their own problems.”

Watch the video to learn more about “Dow Day,” which places players in the midst of 1967 civil unrest.

According to Gagnon, there are other equally compelling reasons for this approach, like the fact that mobile technology is so new that no one really knows where it’s going. Instead of spending inordinate amounts of time building big projects, it makes more sense to build smaller projects, he said. This way, the authors are constantly learning as they move forward and not wasting time rushing toward what might become dead ends.

“Most of your ideas are cooler in your head than actuality,” says Gagnon. “That’s motivating.”

It certainly seems worthwhile to think about how this method of fast failure, test-retest, and rapid prototyping might be applied to larger education reforms.

According to Gagnon, there are currently about 250 people at schools, museums and government offices using ARIS tools, and about half a dozen people actually hacking the code. Teachers are beginning to design their own apps.

Interest in the platform is wide-ranging, from the Smithsonian, which wants to build an interactive narrative to help kids relate to artifacts in the collection, to the Minnesota Historical Museum. Chris Holden, who worked on ARIS and now teaches at the University of New Mexico, is using the platform to build a game to teach students Spanish. Another of Squire’s grad students built a game to teach middle school students about a historically Jewish neighborhood in Madison.

While there are many interested potential partners, it’s too early to say what those partnerships will produce, Squire said.

According to Gagnon, the ARIS team is right on schedule. Mobile media acceptance in mainstream education circles is still a few years away, he says. But when that happens, the tools will be there, waiting.


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