Games for a Digital Age, Part 3

In January 2013 the Joan Ganz Cooney Center released the report Games for a Digital Age: K-12 Market Map and Investment Analysis by John Richards, Leslie Stebbins and Kurt Moellering. The report features a sector analysis and market map of game‐based learning initiatives with an analysis of relevant trends in education and digital technology that are likely to impact development of a robust game-based learning market segment.

With permission from the Cooney Center, AEP is republishing key excerpts from the report. Our goal is to create a common language surrounding discussions of educational technology and to help ensure that digital learning providers develop an understanding of the unique challenges and opportunities in the K-12 market. In the section on the Dynamics of Selling to K-12, the report discusses important factors—market segmentation, channel analysis, school buying cycle, market leaders, and key demands—that often dictate purchases of educational resources. Below are highlights of the key market demands as well as overall recommendations.

Selling to Schools: The Dynamics of Selling to K-12

Key Market Demands

Standards Alignment: Throughout the 1990s, legislative activity relating to education focused on raising academic standards and holding schools accountable for student performance (NCES, 2003). The final Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were released in June of 2010 to provide an agreed-upon set of state-led educational standards in English/language arts and mathematics for grades K-12.

Finding the right mix of standards alignment—whether to existing state standards or to the Common Core—is one more factor that needs to be attended to in designing useful learning games for schools. But, the eventual establishment of a single set of standards for all states and the subsequent process of aligning content to one set of standards will lower the cost of entry and open the market to smaller companies.

Platform Compatibility: Increases in BYOD initiatives and the use of interactive  whiteboards, tablets, mobile devices, and laptops in the K-12 school setting is forcing both schools and technology developers to support mixed device environments. The issue with this is that each tool enters the market bundled with a different level of software and cross-platform compatibility, and providing even forward/backward compatibility within a platform can present significant challenges.

Despite progress being made in universal design and interoperability standards, producing cross-platform products is expensive and often involves different development teams for each major platform type. Thankfully, such issues are likely to be resolved in the next few years, lowering the cost burden of making products available to multiple devices and browsers.

Professional Development: Teacher support goes a long way toward determining the longterm success of any game in the classroom. As more teachers are becoming supportive of using games in the classroom, initial as well as ongoing professional development support will likely be paired with the purchase of new digital curriculum products such as interactive tools or learning games. In a recent survey sponsored by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center (Millstone, 2012), results indicated that the majority of teachers first learn about using digital games in the classroom from in-service professional development workshops (46%), followed by self-directed study (35%).

Research on Effectiveness: The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act requires that schools use federal money only on products and services that have an established research base through “Scientifically Based Research” (SBR). SBR is, in essence, a randomized trial similar to the clinical trials required for pharmaceuticals. Among the numerous challenges are the difficulties of randomly assigning subjects to treatment and control groups in a classroom setting and creating a true control group (the equivalent of a “placebo” in a medical setting).

Unfortunately, the requirements of NCLB fail to acknowledge that evaluating different types of products requires different kinds of evaluation design and devalues valid research methods that are useful in ferreting out product effectiveness and supporting product development. Formative evaluation, ad hoc measures, and various quasi-experimental procedures provide useful information about the effectiveness of a new product at relatively low cost, and they can greatly aid in improving the product, even though they lack the putative rigor of SBR.


The K-12 market is unique and it can be difficult to access. We recommend that learning game investors, publishers, and developers consider the following:

  • Market games as supplemental material.
  • Keep in mind that English/Language arts budgets are larger than any other curriculum area, with math a somewhat distant second.
  • Consider using a third party to complete sales of learning games. Doing this keeps overhead low and allows a small company such as a game developer to concentrate on what it does best—develop great learning games.
  • Remember the buying cycle: successful companies roll out new products and market them in the spring, in anticipation of a new budget as of July 1.
  • Develop partnerships to leverage the resources of the Big Three publishers and universities, foundations, media conglomerates, and other small publishers.
  • Create and market short-form games that are aligned to state standards and the soon-to-come Common Core standards.
  • Ensure that products can run on multiple platforms and in multiple infrastructure environments.
  • Integrate teacher training and professional development opportunities with any new learning game.
  • Remember that any learning game that receives federal money must adhere to the Scientifically Based Research standards mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act.
  • Develop collections of short-form games that allow teachers great flexibility for using them within the 40 minute classroom period. Develop long-form games in conjunction with engaging schools in large and small reforms to reallocate school time to allow longer game playing and more immersive learning.
  • Consider developing short- or long-form games that can be used as homework to avoid the constraints imposed by discrete blocks of class time.

Read the complete report for a more detailed discussion of the dynamic of the K-12 school market.

Richards, J., Stebbins, L., & Moellering, K. (2013). Games for a Digital Age: K-12 Market Map and Investment Analysis. New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

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