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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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The Mystery of Grockit

A San Francisco-based startup named Grockit is working stealthily on what they call an MMOLG - a Massively Multiplayer Online Learning Game. What the game is and how educational it will be remains to be seen, but venture capitalists are throwing money at them. Something is afoot.

It’s not every day that educational games get much play, as it were, in the widely read Web 2.0 startup blog TechCrunch. So I was surprised last Friday when I saw a blog post there about a mysterious startup known as Grockit.

First, let’s talk about that name of theirs. For those of you who are assuming that they chose the name simply because domain names are becoming scarce, fret not. Grockit is a play on the hacker word “grok,” a verb coined by sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein in 1961 that means “to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed.” The word has become so commonplace in Internet slang that the Oxford English Dictionary even has an entry for it, defining it as “to understand intuitively or by empathy; to establish rapport with” and “to empathize or communicate sympathetically (with); also, to experience enjoyment.” In other words, when you say “I grok it,” it’s like saying you really, really get it - that you’ve learned a concept in a way that you’ve completely absorbed and made an instinctive part of your core knowledge.

With that background in mind, it probably wouldn’t surprise you that I’ve been curious about Grockit ever since I first heard about them at the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, TX last March. But what they’re up to isn’t exactly clear. From what they’ve posted on their website and shared in interviews so far, they’re working on a massively multiplayer online game that incorporates constructivist educational practice and peer learning techniques. Again, details are sketchy at this point, so you have to glean a lot from what they write on their blog. For example, a recent blog post compared their educational philosophy to their computer programming philosophy, which pairs up developers with each other so they work collaboratively and teach each other, building new skills as they build their code base.

Because we code in pairs, all our devs get in on the action. This means that every dev is constantly teaching and learning from the other devs… Does every dev come to the table with the same skills and skill level? NO. Does paired coding work despite individual differences? YES. In fact, it works because of it….

People think that students teaching students is impossible because, ‘Where do you start?’. It seems to imply that half the students need to already know the material if they are going to teach the other students. Not at all. Let’s look at what our devs do. When the team is faced with a challenge that nobody has the immediate know how to address, someone starts doing some research. This is what happens in real student to student learning. The first thing you need to do if you’re going to teach someone is to learn it yourself….

In paired coding, or paired learning, the group continually builds on top of its strengths. In this modality of learning it would be impossible for students to graduate illiterate. As it stands, an alarming number of 8th graders can’t read and write. We’ve been trying this education design for about 100 years now and quite frankly the bar has not risen much. I think it’s time for a change. I think it’s time that students take the responsibility to teach each other.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Reading blog posts with titles like Schools Make Students Like Factories Make Cars and Proof that Schools are about Grading, Not Learning, it’s clear that this small group of programmers wants to create an online educational experience that breaks the mold and changes the rules. Reading their blog, I feel like I’m following one of my edublogger colleagues rather than a team of geeks that has just over $10 million in the bank from venture capitalists to reinvent the notion of educational gaming.

Will they succeed? I have no idea, and pretty much no one else does either, since what exactly they’re creating is still a closely held secret. But if you’re interested in the intersection of Web 2.0, gaming and constructivist teaching, Grockit will be a company to watch. I just hope their coding and pedagogical skills match their rhetoric and fundraising skills - and that they really, really grok it. -andy

Filed under : Gaming


I hope they do a better job than Tabula Digita’s Dimenxia. Math problems bolted on top of a pretty weak first-person shooter. Doesn’t work as educational software, doesn’t work as a game.

I do think educational games, especially MMO’s, represent a tremendous opportunity for instructional technology. But the learning has to be seemlessly integrated with the game.

I signed up for the closed beta of Grockit. We’ll see…

Andy, nice post. Just to let you all know, I posted a recent interview with Grockit CEO/Founder Farb Nivi over at seedwatcher.com


I agree with Mike. DimensionX or whatever it’s called was quite a major flop and they too had raised a lot of money from investors.

Their blog also comes off as very arrogant. I’d rather they show a product so we can judge if it works or not rather than continuing to post such strongly worded posts with nothing to back them up.

This is the first time I have ever been introduced to Grockit and it is very interesting. I am going to go out and do some research of my own as well as download a version of it when available so that I can see how it works and if it will be something that I will be able to use in my future courses. I do agree with the comments that have been posted about it the learning needs to be integrated with the technology and the games. We need to be proactive, when these discussions are held we need to take what we are discussing reasearch, try it out, and reflect on, get our message, and opinion out on it and report back. That is the best way to get things going.

Thanks for the dialogue. As a freethinker, educator, investor and program developer, these tech innovations sound like they have a real contibution to make. Thanks Andy for the forum and the opportunity to participate in some meaningful discussion. If anyone has any ideas about how to integrate technology into my Youth Center for Human Excellence, called Kinetic Energy, i would welcome it. Ages 14 -17 innercity youth exposed to too much gang warfare and killings. Lot of trauma. I would like to have funded of internet-connected computers “crowdsourcing” so as to weigh in on the topic: HOW WE, AS YOUTH, COLLECTIVELY SOLVE THIS PROBLEM OF GANG WARFARE, KILLING AND DREAM DESTRUCTION? Wow, an international realtime youth conference ongoing? What would that produce, prosumers saying what they think and feel vs. our talking about what they think and feel. I get excited just thinking about it.

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