Q&A with Eric Klopfer, Professor and Director of The Education Arcade at MIT

Steve Nelson
klopfer headshot

Eric Klopfer is Professor and Director of the Scheller Teacher Education Program and The Education Arcade at MIT. He is the Head of the department of Comparative Media Studies and Writing.  He is also a co-faculty advisor for MIT’s J-WEL World Education Lab. His work uses a Design Based Research methodology to span the educational technology ecosystem, from design and development of new technologies to professional development and implementation. 

Much of Klopfer’s research has focused on computer games and simulations for building understanding of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He is the co-author of the books, “Adventures in Modeling”, “The More We Know”, and the recently released “Resonant Games”, as well as author of “Augmented Learning.” His lab has produced software (from casual mobile games to the MMO The Radix Endeavor) and platforms (including StarLogo Nova and Taleblazer) used by millions of people, as well as online courses that have reached hundreds of thousands. His work has been funded by federal agencies including NIH, NSF and the Department of Education, as well as the Gates Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Tata Trusts. Klopfer is also the co-founder and past President of the non-profit Learning Games Network.

When did you first become interested in educational technology?

My first foray into educational technology was as a senior in college. I was a TA for intro bio.  The course was in a format known as “auto tutorial”, which meant that students studied on their own and took oral exams with TAs to pass each unit. They would often study in a common lab, which had just gotten a couple of computers. One of my fellow TAs thought it would be neat to create computer simulations that would help the students with some of the challenging topics. I didn’t know much about programming at the time, but he helped me learn and I created my first educational simulation (it had something to do with kidney function). I really enjoyed the design, the programming and use of this technology. Later in life, one of my first NSF grants was working with this same colleague on simulations. 

What types of educational research are you and your team currently working on?

Over time our lab has diversified. I think we have three big areas that we are currently working on.  We still do a lot of work with simulations and complex systems, using our StarLogo Nova platform.  This work stems back to my first forays in educational technology, and my original connections with MIT (I connected with Mitch Resnick, while I was a postdoc). Another strand of our work is on educational games. We have projects ranging from simple mobile games, to complex virtual reality simulations. The final strand is on project-based learning. We see this as a critical piece of pedagogical transformation. Projects are a better way of structuring learning, and we think about them as something well beyond a supplement or culminating project, but rather a central organizing principle of the educational experience.

You’ve done a lot in your career. Is there one thing that stands out that you’re most proud of?

Some of my earliest work at MIT involved mobile technologies. Twenty years ago these mobile technologies (for example Palm Pilots) were a novelty. We started doing work on the use of mobile technologies for learning before they were ubiquitous. It seemed to some like fringe work at the time. Reviewers would comment that masses of people will never have these kinds of niche devices. But we saw the potential in mobile devices for transforming the kind of learning people do – from collaborative games to augmented reality. Now these kinds of uses are commonplace, and smartphones are everywhere. Our work led the way, and I’m proud of that work. I’m also proud of the lab that we’ve created here and the wonderful people that I’ve been able to find to work with. 

What is your favorite thing about working at MIT?

The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). I think UROP is the best part of an MIT education, and I think it is also the best part about being an MIT educator. My program and projects have relied on UROPs since the very beginning. I would not have been able to do the work that I’ve done without the dedication, creativity and hard work of hundreds of UROPs over the years. It is such a great program, and we have fantastic students. One of my very first UROPs (now a professor himself) is coming to visit next week.