Arete: Leveraging the Excitement of Competition to Inspire Academic Excellence

Could academic games and competitions be used to engage students in learning? A recent article by Greg Toppo looks at the roots of this idea in the work of James Coleman, who is perhaps more famous for his report on Equality of Educational Opportunity.

As Toppo explains, Coleman believed that schools should replace the competition among students for good grades with competitions across schools in all academic fields.  Toppo’s article goes on to describe Arete, a web application that tries to make this dream of Coleman’s a reality today by hosting live, online academic competitions.

Definitions of the ancient Greek concept of Arete vary, but scholars generally understand it as excellence of mind, body or spirit, often achieved through rigorous competition. As such, I thought it would be an apt name for an online endeavor which aims to challenge students toward intellectual excellence through competitive activity.

Here’s how Greg Toppo described Arete in his article:

In 2013, visiting Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, affectionately known as “TJ,” I watched as two members of the math team sat at computer terminals and worked through a set of high-level math problems. They were competing against a group of four other students who were sitting, at that moment, in a similar room in a similar high school 600 miles away, in the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel, Indiana. The opponents were simultaneously attacking the same set of problems. Each time someone solved one correctly, the digital score counter moved on all six screens.

Incorporating popular, well-known game mechanics such as point scoring in real time, leaderboards, personal bests, etc., all well tested in the world of sport, the Arete platform takes the vital academic activity of problem-solving/test-taking and injects excitement into it.

One of my first classes at the Kennedy School at Harvard involved the politics of education, taught by Marty West. I remember sitting with him in office hours and pitching a very rudimentary online competition concept. He told me that he was not aware of anyone doing something similar (quite surprising given ~15 years of internet expansion by that time) and he directed me to an article titled “Academic Achievement and the Structure of Competition” by James Coleman. It would become the most influential theoretical force in the development of Arete.

At that early stage, I had the great fortune to sit down with Richard Barth of KIPP, to have a short Q/A with Vicki Phillips of the Gates Foundation at an HKS event, and to receive feedback from prominent scholars like Marty, Paul Peterson, Sandy Jencks, etc., and I credit all these encounters for my decision to develop Arete. But during development of the actual app, this article is where my mind always returned. I wanted to build something that would live up to the promise of what Coleman wrote.

Our long term vision for Arete is one where academic contests across subjects are as popularly participated in as athletic contests across sports, with consequent student performance gains that are unmatched in the education arena.  we intend to offer the widest possible array of formats, from individual-based scrimmaging to formal, team-based tournament play.

Existing functionality enables a teacher to create a team of students and then arrange competitions for that team by dividing it into multiple teams that compete with each other (Pick-Up Play Intra-team); inviting another team to a match (Pick-Up Play Inter-team); or entering the team into a league of seasonal competition (League Play) administered by Arete. All Pick-Up Play matches are fueled by multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank questions that a teacher may easily upload into the system. Functionality is presently under development that will organize teacher-generated test item content into a communal library. Detailed results from any Pick-Up Play or League Play match played in the system can be downloaded, allowing the teacher to target deficiencies across students. Simple but prominent charts let students track their performance over time. Math Madness is an event launched two years ago which leverages League Play functionality to replicate the single elimination tournament held in college basketball, March Madness.

A new grant I’ve received from the NSF is allowing me to create a way for students to arrange academic matches entirely on their own (Singles Play). An advanced matching algorithm will allow students to quickly and accurately identify contestants of equivalent grade level and skill. In addition, a structure will be created for the hosting of a collective, individual-based event (Uberbowl). Hundreds of thousands of students will be able to simultaneously compete in a singular challenge deciding a national, and eventually a world-wide champion. While in the short term mathematics will be the target subject for this new functionality, with 6th-12th grade students the target group, the design protocol contemplates eventual usage in every grade and course, similar to the existing functionality.

As of January 2016, Pick-Up Play functionality is, and Singles Play functionality will be, offered free to the public. Going forward, a small fee will be charged for Math Madness and Uberbowl. By offering functionality for free, the hope is to quickly and significantly expand the user base. This, in turn, should drive participation in the hosted events but also lead to possible district-level consumption. For example, district X might be interested in using Arete functionality to create district-wide competition structures deciding the best grade school, high school, etc., for any given subject or combination of subjects, just as occurs in scholastic sports at the local level. Finally, given that the application is essentially an assessment device, it may eventually play a creative role in the current standardized testing regime.

– Timothy J. Kelley

Timothy Kelley is founder and CEO of Arete (formerly Interstellar). He is a 2011 graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.


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