How Digital Will Change Schools?

Digital learning is all the craze in schooling now, especially in the Western countries. It seems at times that going digital promises to fix all the challenges and problems in schools these days. The picture is, of course, not that simple.

The first truth about digital is that digital alone is absolutely nothing.

A book read from an iPad is still a book. And often, using old media in a new platform gives a worse user experience than using the old media itself. A printed book, after all, is still one of the best user interfaces for distributing information.

In digital, I believe the old adage is true: content is king. If the content is not of high quality and well adapted to the platform in use, learning results will more likely suffer than benefit from adopting digital tools. This has, in fact, been what many schools have found out after pouring millions into digital infrastructure.

A tablet or a mobile phone alone does nothing. In the worst case, the digital tool will even contain distractions that will draw attention away from learning. Hence, plummeting learning results.

The second truth about digital, the one fueling all the craze, is that once a digital tool is used well, it can boost our activities in ways previously thought impossible.

Email, with all of its shortcomings, is a massive improvement over penning letters. Digital imaging enables us to do in seconds what used to take graphic artists hours, days or even weeks. Music, video, desktop publishing and countless other fields have benefited massively from adopting digital tools. And so may schools, if they do it right.

There are a few guidelines that I think are critical for successful implementation of digital tools in schools.

First, school districts, schools and individual teachers should direct resources for content curation. It is critical to understand and differentiate high quality material, whether it’s online content, MOOCs or learning games.

Second, this curated material should be made available to teachers as widely as possible. (To be of some help, I compiled a while ago a list of what I think are the best learning games out there.)

Third, teachers should be aware of when to use digital tools and when to stick to the good old pen and paper. Sometimes using the chalkboard is more interactive than using a smartboard. And, as I already said, often a book beats an e-book just because you can leaf through it, fold dog ears and scribble in the margin. Try doing that to your iPad.

Lastly, teachers should also make sure to eliminate as much of the distractions online tools offer. While I’m not a big fan of content blocking, in a big classroom this probably does mean turning on the parental controls on the tools available to kids.

Also, trust is key: telling kids it’s ok to use their phones as long as they use them to study might work if you have a good relationship with your class. But I would be very careful with allowing non-study related online or mobile activities in the classroom. (That being said, there have been teachers successfully leveraging even Angry Birds in teaching, say, maths. So if that’s your thing, go for it.)

Digital tools are not a magic wand that will transform learning straight out of the box. But like so many other technologies, they do offer a lot of ways to make learning more fun and engaging – if they are used right. As with any tool, using digital in the right way in the classroom requires time to understand how it works – and how to get the best mileage for your and your classrooms’ needs.

When digital tools are used in the proper context and with the kinds of emphases that I have described above, I do believe they can have a huge positive impact on schools. But this is only if digital learning is done under the supervision of a capable teacher.

In this way, I think that the digital revolution, when done properly, will make the teacher’s role even more crucial than it used to be to generate truly engaging learning experiences.

Why Lightneer Exists?

The question that eventually led to the founding of Lightneer was: what if we could really leverage games for learning? And not just any games. What if we could bring together some of the best game designers in the world to create real learning experiences?

After having studied these questions for almost five years, we started the company, with a mission nothing short of ambitious. Could we make learning games that are as loved and as widely adopted as the best games out there, like Angry Birds, Clash of Clans or Candy Crush Saga?

Our goal is simple.


People play on average over two hours of mobile games every day. Could we take a chunk of those two hours and direct it to something that is as much fun – but where you also learn things, ranging from particle physics to biology, from history to new languages?


We want to be the missing link that creates in an informal setting connections to topics that might otherwise not appeal to people in formal education. People young and old may explore freely things like the periodic table by playing a Lightneer game. Not because they want to learn physics, but because it’s just a really fun game to play.


Then, when they first encounter these typically complex topics in a formal setting, like a classroom, they will instantly recognize concepts that are already familiar. Instead of feeling intimidated by the complexity, the players of our games will feel excited by it. After all, a physics teacher can explain so much more about what goes on in the life of atoms.


We see our games as taking some of that space that is now occupied by casual games, social media and other digital pastimes and offering something that is as much fun, but that introduces and helps stealth learn an abundance of ideas and concepts that can then be further deepened in formal learning. This is why we don’t see our games as teaching tools – but rather as ways to have fun in a whole new way.

Because learning doesn’t need to be funified. Learning, when it happens, is one of the most amazing things we can experience as human beings. Learning is fun.

It is this new kind of fun we want to bring to the world, starting with the launch of our first game, the particle physics game BIG BANG LEGENDS in January 2017.

Why Learning Needs To Be Fun

One thing that I bump into constantly is that learning isn’t supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be hard work. I think this is derived from the fact that schools – where learning is supposed to happen – usually demand hard labor from their students.

But the thing is, the whole assumption is wrong. First of all, learning, when it happens, is almost always amazing. So it’s not always song and dance, and it’s not always easy – but it’s one of the best things we can experience. And therefore, very much fun. (Also, playing football is fun. And you get all sweaty and sore afterwards, and still can’t wait to get back to the field again!)

Learning needs to be fun to be learning. If you’re just constantly frustated or bored, you simply will not learn. You’ll just grind or idle your days away, with no great advances in either your life or the wiring of your nervous system. Like the flow-researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found out, grinding at it will just burn you out. Whereas finding the right balance of challenge and skill will make you soar.

To advance in what we can do – which, in my opinion, is a great definition of learning – we need to be attentive to new things, and to put in the work to create new habits. The only way to guarantee this attention is to make the environment and activities favorable to such advances. So that we actually want to be there.

For learning to happen, learning needs to be fun. But fun comes in many guises. Sometimes it’s song and dance fun. And sometimes it’s frustating fun.

Sometimes it’s taking the seventieth go at Flappy Birds to one up your score.

I know, we people are odd sometimes.

But when you one up, you grow.

And growth is hardwired to every single one of us.

We were all born to learn.

Do You Think Your Job Will Survive?

This stopped me on the social media a few days ago: “If your job is boring, it will be replaced by a robot soon.” We live in extraordinary times in terms of the evolution of work.

There are two reasons for this, both stemming from technology. First, new technology enables massive boosts in productivity. Making a single investment in a robot that will take care of warehouse management, retail sale or even telemarketing will outperform any employee costs. Meanwhile, technology makes the jobs it replaces obsolote.

In other words, more and more people find themselves equipped to work in a world where their work does not exists anymore. And at the same time, the overall productivity is rising to a point where it does not even make sense for everybody to work. At least from a survival point of view.

In a just society, survival needs will be solved by sharing the fruits of the increased productivity to everybody. Quality of life can further be enhanced by creating value to other people by work. But if there is not enough work for everybody, what are people going to spend their days doing?

The scary scenario is that society will split into sort of reverse Morlocks and Eloi. In H.G. Wells’ classic Time Machine, humanity has evolved into two almost different races. The Eloi live their lives care free on the surface of the Earth. The Morlocks live underground and work hard, occasionally harrassing the Eloi.

The worst case scenario is a division to “working Eloi” – people who work and thus enjoy added benefits in quality of life. And “passive Morlocks” – people who do not work and consume brainless entertainment day in day out. This is not a happy view of a post work society.

This is where learning to learn is so important. Instead of structuring education around teaching work skills that may go obsolete we must teach learning skills that enable updating one’s skillset as the world changes.

Thus we can create a society where everybody learns to learn. Where you are guaranteed not just sustenance but also the capacity to provide value to others by updating your understanding and know-how and by offering your skills and services to the public.

In a post work society, you will be more likely to survive than ever before – but your job might not. Given that boring jobs will be replaced by robots, this may in fact be a great blessing for the mankind.

That is, if we learn to learn.

Frustrating Fun

Learning, when it happens, is amazing.

It’s one of the most inspiring experiences a human can have. This is the rationale behind our maxim at Lightneer that learning should be fun for everybody. Since it often turns out that in our educational settings people feel everything but fun when they’re supposed to learn.

So does that mean that what we have set out to do is to remove all obstacles from learning? To make learning the proverbial song and dance?

No. That would be stupid.

Fun does not equal easy.

In fact, if life was constantly easy, it would be super boring. We need problems to solve and obstacles to overome to make life interesting.

A great game is not just sailing from victory to victory. In designing a great game, effort and even frustration are crucial for an engaging play experience. If you don’t need to face difficult obstacles to overcome every now and then, you’ll soon grow bored of the game. Who would want to play Super Mario without the boss battles with Bowser at the end of each world?

The same goes for learning.

If learning objectives are constantly so low and easy you don’t need to put in an effort, you won’t learn. Learning takes work to work.

As Arnold Schwarzenegger put it in his autobiography, the secret of learning is reps, reps, reps. As you get beaten by Bowser again and again, you’ll gradually start to figure out what makes him tick. And eventually you’ll put in enough reps to beat him.

And oh man is it amazing when you do!

Learning, when it happens, is crazy fun. It is specifically the kind of fun that happens when you finally figure new things out – after having put in enough work, enough reps to do it.

My brother, the game designer Petri Järvilehto, once coined a term to describe this phenomenon that applies just as well to great learning experiences as well as great games.

Learning is fun.

Sometimes, perhaps at its best, it is frustrating fun.

That’s how we grow.

The Lightneer Mission

Here’s the deal. Innumerable people in the world struggle with learning and understanding. Education is broken: according to recent research, 25% of school kids are bored to death and almost 50% of them have no understanding of why they go to school.

Our educational systems are not well equipped to deal with the learning challenges set out by a world that changes faster every day. We want to fix this. Our mission is to make learning accessible and engaging to everybody in the world.

We believe in learning games. We have learned through years of research that games are an amazing platform for learning. In fact, every great game is a learning experience.

Learning games need to be as much fun to play as the best games out there. We want to design our learning games so that, in addition to teaching a lot about amazing topics like physics, new languages, history and whatever else, they stand on their own when compared to the best games of the world.

We want to make learning meaningful beyond what it has ever been before in the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the world.

We want to start a global learning revolution with learning games.


Read more from our new website at

The Best Learning Games, Part 1

There are two major challenges for the learning game industry. First, a great learning game is really hard to make. Simply put, a great game is really hard to make. And with a great learning game, you need in addition to figure out a way to make a game that has pedagogic value – without making the game elements seem glued on top of the learning substance.

There are, however, quite a few awesome learning games out there. This brings me to the second challenge: discovery. I’m sorry to say, but the great majority of learning games out there are really quite mediocre. I have found that the stereotypical learning game is simple math drilling sugar coated with cartoon characters like cute animals. And while this kind of a game may perform well when compared to a schoolbook, it will never last in comparison to an actually well performing game.

I’ve been dealing with learning games for almost five years now. During this time, among other research and activities, I’ve had the chance to review what amounts to hundreds, if not thousands, of learning games. Out of these reviews, I’ve generated a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t.

Since having this knowledge confined in my own head does much less good than sharing it, I decided to compile a number of lists of what I think are the best learning games out there. These lists are, at the end of the day, completely subjective, although some of the selections have been picked up by a pretty systematic set of criteria I developed with some colleagues in the last few years. So your mileage may vary.

I will post the first listing – the best math games out there – in a day or two. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with what still in my opinion takes the Gold Medal, even though the game is already more than three years old.

Last summer, I had the chance to discuss learning games with a very impressive crowd of the people who know the field very well. I asked about what they thought were the best learning games. Practically all of them answered something along the lines of, “Well, do you know this game called Dragonbox? And let me think, there are some others as well…”

Dragonbox, the algebra game by a small Norwegian studio We Want to Know, is a really mindblowing example of what learning games can and will be really capable of. It’s about relatively complex algebra. Especially if you have small children, give it a go. You will be amazed.

More to follow.