Back in the days of mainframes, green screens and cassette tapes, three Carleton College student teachers decided to get creative. Computers were used primarily for the military or university research. Fun was not on the radar; especially for 10-year-olds. But these guys thought, hey, why not. So, they set out to design learning programs that went beyond tutorials and drills. One of those students was Don Rawitsch. The year: 1971. His subject: history. Their program: Oregon Trail. The challenge: Manifest Destiny. Successfully cross the Western United States in 1848 and you win.
Three years later Don joined Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation (MECC), bringing OT with him for development. Don is quick to credit OT’s ultimate success to the gifts and talents of many. For the next 25 years, virtually every employee who set foot in MECC touched Oregon Trail in one way or another. Heck even I (the HR manager)did a last-minute voiceover as a French immigrant character on the first DVD version.
But what made it an enduring success? Why do 35-year-olds in my graduate classes light up and “get it” when I use stories from Oregon Trail to teach leadership and change management? What was it about Oregon Trail that imprinted lessons so easily recalled decades later? I had to know; so I called Don. Energetic and engaging, here is what he said. My commentary is in italics.
1. OT presents a challenge. It’s about survival. Students learned to deal with failure and try again the next day. Not everyone made it; but they got a second chance. Adult learner programs that hold students to minimal standards do them a disservice. Life is a challenge, often about survival.
2. OT puts the student in an environment that demands problem solving, gives them some control as well as the ability to learn strategies likely to improve their success. Success took work, time, learning and determination. The program never lowered its standards to help students pass, but encouraged students to learn from each other so all could succeed.
3. OT is intriguing. The simulation is easy to use but the guts reflect a complex model designed to provide near-infinite possibilities for the user. The game never plays exactly the same twice. Tired curriculum that doesn’t change makes students of any age tired.
4. OT requires reasoning and decision making. Only carefully thought-out strategies helped the user reach the end. Like a lot in life, there was no quick-fix or easy answer. Personal pride was earned.
5. OT was based on real events that happened to real people. OT was authentic. Each new version of OT included deeper historical research down to the details. Although academic to the core, Oregon Trail was practical and trustworthy.
I’d add one more: The quality of the technical wizardry and historical accuracy was built on an unwavering commitment to educational design – a model built in to the DNA of the organization that remained true even after the doors closed.
Not only did a generation of kids learn important subject matter, they learned valuable lessons for life:
Face the challenge. Try again if you fail. Solve problems using strategies that keep the end goal in mind. Make decisions based on reason. Be real. Have fun. Pretty good lessons for management students, too, wouldn’t you agree?