After watching his daughter grind her way through World of Warcraft – essentially repeating the same tasks over and over to earn points – Paul Cohen decided to build a social networking tool to promote teaching and learning.
Cohen, who heads the University of Arizona's computer science department, and his colleagues are developing "Teach Ourselves," which will use Facebook and other programs to teach and engage middle and high school students in problem-solving tasks.
The project has earned a $1.4 million award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is part of the U.S. Department of Defense.
"I hope that students, in large numbers, will to go Teach Ourselves to do math and participate in clubs, activities and everything else they are doing in schools," Cohen said.
Users could get points for doing their homework, showing others how to work through math equations, translating word problems into other languages, critiquing a student's paper, writing educational Web applications and producing electronic flashcards or an educational tutorial video.
Though details are still being worked out, Cohen said users might eventually be able to cash in virtual points for tangible goods, such as college credit. The team also is still figuring out ways to monitor cheating and how to financially sustain the program once the project ends.
Cohen, who also directs the UA's School of Information Science, Technology and Arts, or SISTA, said the three-year project is part of the team's larger effort to build the International Internet Classroom.
Teach Ourselves will supplement and complement what students are learning in traditional environments while giving them some ability to shape their own education.
"We're hoping students will want to do intellectual work outside of school and will find it rewarding," said Carole Beal, interim director of the UA's cognitive science program and co-principal investigator on the grant.
The team plans to include students from 15 states in the first phase of Teach Ourselves with plans to involve students in all 50 states by its end.
Chemistry, physics, biology and computer science are among the disciplines Teach Ourselves will focus on using "AnimalWatch," a tutoring program Beal created.
Beal, who developed AnimalWatch for English-language learners and students with visual impairments, said the program will translate well to the new environment.
"It's more like we are going to add a layer of a new interface on top of AnimalWatch to make it easy and smooth for the student users to work with in a new way," said Beal, who also directs the K12 STEM Education Programs for the UA College of Science.
So, think Second Life and Wikipedia, not FarmVille.
The team also wants the project to help students who have a difficult time with formal learning environments and offer lessons on subjects not typically taught in public schools, such as computer science.
"Teach Ourselves makes students responsible not only for their own educations, but for the educations of their friends – not as a purely altruistic activity, but as part of the valuable lesson that it pays use your brain to help others," the team noted in its grant proposal.
The team emphasized that Teach Ourselves is not about building software. Rather, its aims to determine how middle and high school students learn in a Web-based environment that was built for networking and entertainment.
Other team members are: Jane Strohm, a public school teacher specializing in biology, chemistry and mathematics; and William Mitchell and Tom Hicks, both research programmers with the UA computer science department. Hicks also served as the principal architect for the AnimalWatch project, and Mitchell was the principal programmer.
"I'm really excited," Cohen said. "I think this project is going to be really cool."