By Ryan Wale
It was Fall 1985. That was when I was introduced to eLearning on an Apple 2 computer. I didn’t know it was called “eLearning.” Heck, I didn’t even know I was learning something at the time. All I knew was our teacher had taken us into a new room called the “computer lab.” She told us to find a seat, but “don’t touch anything.” Of course, being 8 years old, not touching something was much easier said than done.
I found my seat as quickly as I could and tried my best not to touch the coolest thing I had ever seen, but my best wasn’t good enough. The keyboard beckoned to me with its dark brown keys like Christmas presents on Christmas morning. How could I not touch it? And it was exhilarating. Click. Click. Click…click, click, click. Until Mrs. Olson yelled, “Ryan! Stop touching the keyboard. Sit on your hands until I say you can move them.” I turned beet red, but it was worth it. After what seemed like hours, Mrs. Olson told me I could stop sitting on my hands and showed us how to turn the computer on. The monitor flickered and the machine whirled. It came to life in front of my little bespectacled eyes and I could only wonder what we were going to do next. That’s when it happened. Mrs. Olson, the greatest 2nd grade teacher of all time, introduced us to “The Oregon Trail.”
More than likely, you’re familiar with it. It’s been around in various forms since 1974. It’s a video game that challenges players to travel the Oregon Trail by covered wagon. Throughout the journey, you face multiple challenges such as broken wagons, limited resources and illnesses. What made it great? Well, chances are, you already know because you’ve played it at one time or another. But, for the sake of this blog, I’ll go ahead and tell you why I think it was and continues to be great.
1. You learn by trial and error. There are real consequences based on the decisions you make: Fail to plan sufficiently, chances are, you won’t make it. You and/or your loved ones might even die (just like the real people who ventured on this trip). 2. In each play through, there is always a tangible goal: Reach the West without losing any of your family members to dysentery, cholera or the measles. 3. The gameplay challenges you to think and ask questions. What is cholera? What is dysentery? Is Fort Kearney a real place? Did people really carve their names into Independence Rock? What does it mean to “ford the river?” 4. And, maybe most importantly, the game captures your imagination. While you’re playing, it never feels like “learning.” You experience the Oregon Trail. While you play the game, you become that farmer, banker or carpenter and your sole ambition is to get to Oregon safely with your family. And it’s in this experience, you learn what it was like for so many as they traversed the dangerous trail.
Whether you’re teaching in a classroom, creating online courses or teaching in a blended environment, these are the things that make up an impactful learning experience. This is what every teacher and/or instructional designer should aspire to create for their students. It’s not easy. In fact, it’s one of the most challenging aspects of our profession because most subjects don’t fit neatly into a simple story arc like “The Oregon Trail.” But, if we can find ways to implement just one or two aspects that we see in this game, we’ll create better learning experiences for our students which, in turn, will impact workplace performance, classroom grades and, maybe even, impact a person’s life. That’s what “The Oregon Trail” did for me. It’s been 34 years and I still remember the day it was introduced to me…and when I teach a class or create a course, the experiences had in this game are never too far from my mind.