Education Heartbreakers (and hiatus)
I seem to be taking an unintentional hiatus thanks to my real work and my personal projects. I might as well make it official – after this post, I’m on hiatus until further notice.
I’m going to use an analogy from gaming to talk about things happening in online education right now. The initial example is from tabletop roleplaying games, but I’ll add a few examples from other areas as well.
The “fantasy heartbreaker” is a concept in RPG design circles. This phrase comes from a post by Ron Edwards over a decade ago, with more detail in a follow-up post and many years of refinement. You need to know a little context to unpack the whole meaning, so let me give you the short version.
Dungeons and Dragons is the great grandaddy of fantasy RPGs. It is well-known and well-beloved, having been many people’s first game. Not everyone enjoys it, but everyone who plays RPGs knows it. Most of the folks who’ve played it for many years know that it has a few idiosyncrasies, oddities, and failings. Many of us create “house rules” that change the game in one way or another.
A “fantasy heartbreaker” is a case where someone takes their house-ruled version of D&D and goes through the difficult work of publishing it, usually with cover text that extolls its virtues in comparison to D&D. The problem with this is that we gamers already have our own house rules that work for our group. This person’s “new” game offers one or two tweaks to a game that we’d then have to re-learn. There’s little incentive to pick it up, regardless of how much “better” it is or how much “simpler” or “more realistic” it is. There are dozens of fantasy heartbreakers littering the gutters of game design. Most of them have one or two great ideas… but one or two great ideas do not make a good game, and they especially don’t make a game that can take down the D&D juggernaut.
To give a few other examples: Imagine that someone who comes up with a motorized bicycle, without realizing that motorcycles, motor-scooters, or vespas existed. Imagine someone who comes up with a “phenomenal, new” seven-card version of five-card-draw poker. Imagine someone who creates a smartphone, but this time, with a physical keyboard. Imagine further that these folks think their inventions would revolutionize the field. They’re earnest. They’re hard-working. They really believe. They really don’t know. It’s heartbreaking.
Let’s coin a related phrase for a few things I’ve seen in the past year: the Coursera Heartbreaker.
A Coursera heartbreaker is an online course delivery platform that purports to “fix the problem with online education” in much the same way that fantasy heartbreakers “fix the problems with D&D.” It does so by recreating an existing course delivery platform to about 90% accuracy, and then adding The One Feature That Will Fix Everything.
(Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. Coding is not fast or easy. These systems recreate the most basic features of an existing system, meaning that for the first few years of their life they will lack the majority of interesting and/or difficult features. They will lack polish, depth, and reliability.)
I want to see things that revolutionize education. So do the people who create these heartbreakers. I’m worried that these hard-working folks were inspired by people who knew nothing about the field they were entering and changed it completely by creating something amazing and unexpected. Such things absolutely do happen in this world. Unfortunately, those are one-in-a-thousand events. Not knowing what else already exists is more often a handicap than an advantage. In the case of both fantasy heartbreakers and Coursera heartbreakers, people re-tread the same ground that dozens of others have walked, wasting time losing out because of it. Skipping your research is not a laudable act.
These pieces of software are heartbreaking not because they’re bad, or because they’re unpolished, but because their creators are earnestly putting them in competition against juggernauts without doing their research. There’s nothing wrong with creating them, but there is something unfortunate about parading them around, and at this point I just sort of sigh when I see one.
Side note: Interestingly, there is a phenomenon where some games that might once have been heartbreakers take off and survive. There’s this “old-school revolution” within game design, with games that are throwbacks to older versions of D&D. They’re not huge (well, with one exception that most people don’t consider as old-school), and they’re a very splintered market, but they do fairly well and are well-respected. They’re a lot more like expansions and supplements for older games, intended to evoke a particular feel, rather than games designed to fix a particular problem with the old game.
Old-school education (of many different varieties) is still very much in vogue, so if the RPG market is an indicator, these might have a chance of surviving in a niche market. Most Coursera heartbreakers, though, are labors of love that are doomed by their very design.