An interview with the founders of Wharton Interactive

We asked Wharton Interactive’s founders, Sarah Toms and Ethan Mollick, about their mission, their goals, and the future of education.

How did Wharton Interactive come to be?

Sarah Toms: Ethan and I were long time collaborators on some conventional (though still awesome) simulations. One afternoon, we were talking at a coffee shop in San Francisco, and discussing what the future of interactive education might look like and we sketched three or four ideas on a napkin. Those ideas formed the core products that we are now releasing to the world several years later, including IdeaMachine and ARC (Alternate Reality Courseware) and some yet to be released products that I expect will make it from napkin to real-world in the coming years.

What does Wharton Interactive want to change about teaching?

Ethan Mollick: The traditional lecture is an entrenched method of teaching. Lectures can be powerful and when paired with an engaging discussion, they can be an effective way to teach. But lectures aren’t the only way to teach, or for students, the only way to learn. Thanks to technology and a fundamental understanding that has emerged about how people learn, we now know that there are other ways to engage with students. We want to give teachers new capabilities, that they can use alongside their lectures, to improve student outcomes. Our goal is to think about how we can take ideas from pedagogical research, the world of games, as well as other engaging interactive experiences in the world and apply those ideas to make teaching more effective and easier.

Sarah Toms: We want to make learning more personal for the learner. When you move learners into a gaming context, learning becomes very personal, memorable, and forms a lasting experience. In the game, learners can fail and learn from failure in a safe environment, with the support of experts — including academics, and experts from the business world — providing a guiding hand as they come through the experience.

“Traditional education cannot easily tackle the complexity of real life. Students are not generally taught to apply what they learn in the classroom to the real world. In a game, we can recreate the messiness of life, and take players through multiple, complex decisions, with every decision affecting the next one.”

What is your mission and why is it important?

Sarah Toms: Our mission is to radically transform education and to leverage the power of technology to do so. Despite some technological changes, particularly in the online education space, the practice of education hasn’t really changed all that much. The changes to online education have transformed access but not teaching; teaching remains largely passive and lecture-based. We want to go beyond just broadcasting video and make teaching an active endeavor.

Ethan: We want to make teaching more effective for everyone —for students and for teachers. The goal is not to cut out instruction, but to add new modes of teaching and learning, to reach more students and be more effective. There are a lot of commercial companies out there that say they want to change education forever, but we are in a unique spot in many ways. The nice thing about coming from an educational institution like Wharton, where faculty are involved in a deep way, is that we can keep experimenting and learn as we go. Our goal is not to sell products. Because we are in a research institution, we are going to keep experimenting and we are going to let people know what we find. Our goal is to make sure that we increase knowledge about how education works, and we plan to publish peer-reviewed articles and make what we find accessible to all.

“We want to make teaching more effective for everybody. We want faculty and instructors all over the world to feel like they have tools to help them better educate, measure performance, and improve student outcomes.”

Sarah: That really is one of the most important ideas for Wharton Interactive: democratizing access in the gaming and education space. Lowering those barriers of entry, in many cases, to zero, has never been done before. Usually, building games for education costs hundreds of thousands and it takes years to build a game. We can leapfrog that and make it universally accessible. Some of our products are complicated but every product is being built on the idea that these tools will eventually be out in the world. We believe that faculty, instructors, and researchers, should benefit from their own work and they should be able to publish lesson plans and games through our platform and generate revenue through those publishing efforts, making their expertise available to others.

Ethan Mollick: The interesting thing about being in a business school and starting out from a business school is that we are a professional school. We teach people to be better at business, to make the economy better, to be kinder bosses and better entrepreneurs. We have a lot of evidence that instructing people and teaching them how to do these things, improves the world. It makes people more innovative, it makes entrepreneurs more successful, and it makes people behave prosocially. We don’t want that locked up in the walls of Wharton. This is research for the world.

How is Wharton Interactive different from other online teaching courses and platforms?

Ethan Mollick: Our model in some ways is the MOOC model. There has been this realization that the tools of the internet can help millions of learners get access to courses that were previously closed off. And they have been transformative. But they aren’t transforming teaching; they are transforming access. Online courses give access to anyone wanting to hear lectures, which is wonderful, but they don’t take into account that we have so many more rich channels through which to communicate with people.

Sarah Toms: MOOCs showed us that millions of people want access to education, but we want to move beyond just watching videos. Every university is still grappling with what it means to have millions of people have access to your courses. That access is wonderful but doesn’t actualize in an interactive learning experience. It’s very difficult to have a meaningful discussion and to carry out a Socratic approach through a video. Our goal is to make teaching and learning active within the online space.

How can professors and students benefit from Wharton Interactive?

Ethan Mollick: We hope to give instructors the tools to teach using these new interactive approaches, based on the science and evidence that we have. And we hope to make sure that our tools and experiences are easy for instructors to implement. Our tools give instructors insights into what students have learned, and what they still need to learn. We have new ways of communicating teaching notes and teaching interactively that aren’t based on reading textbooks. We also want to create outlets for people who want to contribute and write up their own lesson plans; those plans can turn into interactive experiences that will benefit other instructors and other students.

Sarah Toms: For the students, the evidence is clear that multimodal education is useful. We want to provide different kinds of educational experiences across ability levels, subject matter, and grades. And we want to give students the opportunity to learn outside the classroom and be able to continue their learning. We use gaming techniques to make students more engaged with what they are learning and adaptivity to ensure that students are getting the instruction that they need when they need it.

We are also building a fully supported ecosystem and guiding students through a lifelong learning experience. Students engage in a meaningful learning experience and then are guided beyond that experience. We are building an engagement platform, beyond the teaching and learning platforms, that allows us to continue the conversation with learners to ensure that the memorable experiences that they had in the game, continue to evolve and grow. We will deliver the latest thinking about that experience and keep that experience top of mind. Learners will not only have had a memorable learning experience but will keep learning about and from that experience.

Learn more about our experiences and our platforms.