Washington, D.C. — With less than seven hours until congressional brinksmanship would shut down the U.S. government for the first time in 17 years, a freshman Republican congressman boarded a plane destined for his home district in Mississippi.
He had just lost a battle to pass a bill that would mandate school uniforms, a piece of legislation that he failed to convince a single other member to co-sponsor.
Soon, he would head back to Washington to meet with a group of government lobbyists to learn how they could help him.
The congressman, known simply as Rep. Smith, doesn’t seem to have a first name. In fact, he doesn’t seem to even have a body apart from his well-dressed torso. That’s because he is an online computer game avatar, one of many available characters in McGraw-Hill Education’s “Government in Action.”
The congressman’s quest to win support for his school uniform plan, and ultimately reelection, was playing out Sept. 30 on a large monitor in a congressional meeting room. McGraw-Hill representatives had come to the Capitol building to demonstrate some of its software for congressional leaders.
While the timing was coincidental, Jeff Livingston, McGraw-Hill’s senior vice president of education policy and strategic alliances, couldn’t resist slipping in a barb as the shutdown loomed.
“This is Government in Action,” Livingston said to one senate staff member, motioning to the game. “Or today, it could just be called Government Inaction.”
All joking and nervous laughter aside, the event was an attempt by McGraw-Hill to help dispel any outdated notions that the publisher is simply a textbook company.
Like Pearson Learning, McGraw-Hill is increasingly pushing the idea that they are an “education company.”
See Page 2 for what steps McGraw-Hill is taking to remain relevant in the digital age.
In a world of massive open online courses (MOOCs), eReaders, and open educational resources, it’s no longer sufficient to just offer textbooks.
“You’ll know notice there are no textbooks here,” Livingston later said to another staffer, swinging an arm out to purvey the landscape of computer monitors. “That’s because this is not a textbook event. This is a McGraw-Hill event.”
Government in Action is just one of the several pieces of software McGraw-Hill now offers to college educators.
Introduced earlier this year at South by Southwest Edu and more widely rolled out this fall, the game, in which students assume the role of a congress member and compete for political capital, has been a hit with students and educators, said Matthew Busbridge, a director of products and markets at McGraw-Hill.
Gaming in education is nothing new – the computer game The Oregon Trail has been teaching students about the horrors of dysentery since the 1970s, with a particular explosion of popularity in the early nineties. This sort of software, however, has been mostly confined to K-12 classrooms.
“But we’ve found that there’s a huge gaming community among college instructors teaching American government,” Busbridge said. “A lot of them have been asking for something like this for a long time.”
Other offerings previewed at the event included ALEKS, an online math program that uses artificial intelligence to ensure students understand material; LearnSmart, an adaptive learning platform that “pinpoints” the exact areas of study a particular student is most likely to forget; and SmartBook, a selection of McGraw-Hill textbooks that have been converted into eTextbooks loaded with adaptive learning quizzes and other content.
The selection of programs and platforms inspired one Capitol Hill staffer at the event to ask no one in particular, “If software’s doing everything, then what’s left for the teachers to do?”
Busbridge, meanwhile, said McGraw-Hill’s tech-driven options are actually more teacher- and student-oriented than ever before.
For example, Government in Action recently implemented achievement badges at the suggestion of faculty who were using the game.
“In the old days, when we were really just a dusty, old textbook company, we would revise our textbooks every few years,” Busbridge said. “Now we’re learning from students and faculty how to make it better and we’re constantly improving things.”
Follow Jake New on Twitter at @eCN_Jake.