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Sarah Toms: Radically Transforming and Democratizing Education

Sarah Toms: Radically Transforming and Democratizing Education

Hi everyone, Spiffy here, your one and only interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth. I’m thrilled to be talking to Sarah Toms, the co-founder and executive director of Wharton Interactive at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Are you ready to be enlightened?

Spiffy: Welcome to the blog! Let’s jump right in. What challenge are you addressing at Wharton Interactive, Sarah?

Sarah: Happy to be here, Spiffy! Wharton Interactive is on a mission to radically transform and democratize education. Until now, the only way to deliver education at scale has been with Massive Online Classes (MOOCs), which struggle to retain students. Wharton Interactive has developed a new and more effective method. Built on our ARC platform, Alternate Reality Courses (ARCs) are a new breed of learning simulation. Every course combines world-class subject-matter expertise, hyper-immersive interactive fiction, the science of learning, and innovative game design. ARCs are deeply engaging, teach through experience, and promote robust and enduring knowledge. Early tests show significant increases in knowledge, satisfaction, and usefulness compared to traditional learning.

Spiffy: Wow! What motivated you to do it?

Sarah: I co-founded Wharton Interactive because education is crying out for an upgrade. Classroom instruction has been delivered the same way for thousands of years—lecture style where students are mostly passive participants in the learning process. Technology has advanced to the point where we can do better. It's high time we make learning more personal, engaging, memorable, practice-based, and fun! For now, Wharton Interactive is creating ARCs for the business curriculum, but it won't be long before there are ARCs for every discipline and subject. We are working to open up the ARC platform to others beyond Wharton in the coming year.

Spiffy: How are you and Wharton Interactive working towards a more equitable world?

Sarah: Recent research has shown that even small amounts of business education can be transformative to startup founders and managers at established companies, boosting profits by 25%, and adding jobs to economies. Wharton Interactive values making access to its catalog possible for all. We are committed to making our introductory ARCs free, and scholarships for our longer-form certificate ARCs. For example, BlueSky Ventures: Building an Entrepreneurship Mindset has been played by tens of thousands of learners on all 7 continents. In addition, the characters in our ARCs are highly representative of the diverse world we live in.

Spiffy: Tell me about a recent organization milestone or initiative and the impact it makes on your community.

Sarah: It has taken me and my co-founder, Professor Ethan Mollick, and the Wharton Interactive team close to a decade to build what you see in our ARCs today. In fact, the current ARC platform is second generation. We launched our self-service website about a year ago, which was a critical milestone meaning that our doors are open to everyone, and anyone can sign up and become a member of Wharton Interactive's community of next-gen learners and educators. When we first launched, we were lucky to see 100 unique visitors to our site a day. Now we see thousands of unique visitors every single day.

Spiffy: Please share an experience when you faced failure and didn't give up. What did you learn from failure?

Sarah: I believe in failing forward, which to me means that as an inventor, if you're not experiencing failure, you haven't pushed your innovation to the point where you know where its boundaries lie. The first generation of ARC taught me and Ethan a lot, including that our first attempt was never going to scale to global audiences. We knew that to deliver on our mission to democratize access, we would need to build the next version from scratch. We worked at a whiteboard for weeks to reimagine what ARC needed to become, and a couple of years later, I am proud to say that what we are delivering far exceeds our original expectations.

Spiffy: What is something you've unexpectedly learned from someone recently?

Sarah: We have a three-week-long certificate Entrepreneurship Strategy ARC that we launched last summer. We have a 98% completion rate of our certificate ARCs, when compared to MOOCs at 15%; this is another reason to get excited. But what surprised me is how many of these learners are signing up to play the ARC a second and sometimes third time! There is so much branching narrative to explore in the game, learners are so engaged they are coming back for more!

Spiffy: Is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?

Sarah: We have a lot of high-school teachers bringing our ARCs to their learners. We are in the process of extending our teaching notes and other instructional materials to provide specific support for the high-school audience. And we've also had a number of high schoolers play BlueSky Ventures, Machine Learning for Business Decisions, and also our Entrepreneurship Strategy ARC. At the other end of the spectrum, our oldest player is in their 80s!

Spiffy: How inspiring! Thanks for speaking with me today, Sarah—it’s been an honor!

Sarah Toms is a serious games expert and demonstrated thought leader in the educational technology field, fueled by a passion to find and develop innovative ways to make every learning environment active, engaging, more meaningful, and learner-centered. She has spent more than 25 years as a leader in the technology sphere. Sarah is coauthor of The Customer Centricity Playbook, and is dedicated to supporting women and girls in the technology field. (First published on the Ladderworks website on March 25, 2022.)

© 2022 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Anushree Nande. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. For the Ladderworks digital curriculum to help K-3 kids advance the UN SDGs, visit Spiffy's Corner here.