GlassLab Set Out to Prove Games Could Assess Learning. Now It’s Shutting...

Nonprofits

GlassLab Set Out to Prove Games Could Assess Learning. Now It’s Shutting Down.

By Tony Wan     Dec 12, 2018

GlassLab Set Out to Prove Games Could Assess Learning. Now It’s Shutting Down.

Since the days of “Oregon Trail,” educational games have teased at the possibility that learning in school can be freed from the doldrum of textbooks and tests. So if games are fun, and learning should be fun, doesn’t it behoove the education and gaming industries to join forces?

That question has spurred the creation of many companies, conferences and other collaborative educational gaming efforts. Yet building learning games—and selling them—is an expensive endeavor that tests patience and wallets, as several startups have learned.

Now, one of this decade’s highest-funded efforts to support an educational gaming industry is coming to a close. Last week, GlassLab, an online portal for educational games, announced that it will be sunsetting its platform on Dec. 20. The announcement was made in an email from LRNG, a Redwood City, Calif.-based nonprofit that owns GlassLab’s assets.

Launched in 2012 with a three-year, $10.2 million grant from the Gates Foundation and MacArthur Foundation, GlassLab aimed to prove that educational games could be just as fun as their mainstream titles, and serve as reliable formative assessment tools. (The first word in GlassLab’s name stands for games, learning and assessment). It also set out to find a profitable niche in the U.S. middle-school market.

It proved most successful in the first endeavor, says Jessica Lindl, who served as GlassLab’s CEO from its start to 2015. The nonprofit, which at its peak numbered 25 full-time staff, brought together educators, game developers, psychometricians and researchers to build a system that could extract gameplay data that can be mapped to learning objectives. The group partnered with research firms including ETS and SRI International in this endeavor.

Through this effort, GlassLab aimed to prove that challenges and puzzles in any game can serve as proxies for assessments, and that as a player solved these problems, they were demonstrating mastery of a concept. The games also offered teachers reports on how their students were faring on learning objectives, based on their gameplay actions.

“We set out to show that games could be used as a reliable formative assessment tool,” says Lindl, who currently leads global education initiatives at Unity, a game engine and development company.

While this research and development were happening behind the scenes, GlassLab won attention through its efforts to modify brand-name titles for use in a classroom setting. In 2013, it created an educational version of SimCity, the classic city-building franchise owned by Electronic Arts. A couple years later, GlassLab released a school-friendly adaptation of the tower-defense game “Plants vs. Zombies 2.”

These games were made available on GlassLab’s online catalog, which it modeled after Steam, a popular online platform used today to purchase and play games. (That’s not be confused with STEAM, the acronym for school subjects.) The idea was to create an online distribution portal, where teachers could find and buy learning games. For an annual subscription, a class can get access to any games on the platform, along with GlassLab’s reporting tools.

For developers, the GlassLab’s platform also offered technical integrations to support other features including roster, account management and data reporting.

Like most other philanthropic-funded efforts, monetization is where GlassLab had trouble. The U.S. middle school market, which the nonprofit was targeting, lacked “an appetite to sustain our work,” says Lindl.

While her team invested in getting researchers and game developers, GlassLab never built a sales team to reach schools and districts. “The challenge is building a sales channel,” Lindl says. “If you don’t have a sales channel, it’s not going to work.”

Without a dedicated sales force, GlassLab found it difficult to attract eyeballs and users. About a thousand teachers found their way to the platform—hardly a number that is financially sustainable or attractive enough to woo other game developers. The nonprofit had a revenue-share model that paid developers based on how much their games were played on GlassLab.

For Filament Games, one of the first third-party developers to put a game on GlassLab, that revenue share was negligible, says its CEO, Dan White.

“As is standard for initiatives funded by foundations, GlassLab was more of an academic venture than a business venture,” he tells EdSurge. “It set out to explore and prove that you can extract meaningful data from games that can be used by teachers. But that alone cannot drive the market adoption for learning games in schools.”

He offered an additional take on why GlassLab struggled to find a receptive audience: a misalignment between what games are good at assessing, and the actual (and higher-stakes) tests that students take in schools. While games focus on problem-solving abilities, he claims, most exams test for content and knowledge—things that require more memorization than problem-solving skills.

“If anyone can fundamentally change the nature of assessments in K-12, then there could be a big opportunity for game-based learning products,” White adds.

A total of 15 games were available on GlassLab’s platform, including two that GlassLab modded from existing games, three developed internally, and 10 from third-party developers that included BrainQuake, Schell Games and iCivics.

Lindl says her team earned more revenue through contract work—that is, being paid by other organizations to design and develop games on their behalf. But being a development contractor was not the GlassLab’s mission. Plus, there were other studios, like Filament Games and Schell Games—both early GlassLab partners—that were already in this line of work.

In GlassLab’s shutdown announcement, LRNG wrote that “the costs of running an educational gaming center are formidable.” (LRNG’s CEO, Connie Yowell, was not available for comment at the time of writing.)

Lindl left GlassLab in spring 2016, a few months after the organization became absorbed by LRNG, an education nonprofit spun out by the MacArthur Foundation. GlassLab’s assessment research and tools are currently used in LRNG’s community-based educational programs that encourages students to engage with local businesses. LRNG recently merged with Southern New Hampshire University to expand that effort.

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