The Oregon Trail ! Not the trail that Lewis and Clark traveled, but the memorable computer game. Ask a group of adults about their first memories of computers, and often they mention The Oregon Trail (OT). Some recall the original Apple II green and black version; others remember a CD-ROM or networked version. There’s no doubt OT had an impact. It’s still for sale in classic, 40th anniversary, Wii, Nintendo, and iPad app editions. It has its own Wikipedia entry and Facebook page.
My 30- and 40-something graduate students recently brought up The Oregon Trail in a conversation about their first experiences with technology:
I remember back in 2nd grade. My teacher taught me how to dial the telephone, place the handset into the modem cradle, and log into the Teletype so that my classmates could play Oregon Trail. What a thrill! I would get to accompany each group down the hall and get them logged in.
I remember Oregon Trail! Nothing like big and little floppy disks on the Apple 2 GS computers. My how I loved my computer lab.
I remember OT in the third grade as a computer game you got to play when your typing exercise was completed. You were never successful the first few times you played the game because it took so many trial and error tests of determining which profession gave [you] the most money versus keeping your family alive (in the end, the doctor was my preferred job). You needed to weigh all the variables of packing, fixing, hunting, weather, buying. It was such an involved game that would usually take the entire class. I remember the cringe of the disk loading because it usually meant something was going to happen to you on your journey.
I also remember the amazing 16 bit graphics and lifelike drawings of animals we hunted!!!
As a middle school media specialist, it was pretty easy to be concerned about students who wanted to shoot and kill and to play games at a time when I was trying to help students learn that computers were tools. All too often I saw a good program, which could have been used in so many educationally sound ways, used by teachers as a time filler or reward at the end of an instructional unit that had nothing to do with the westward movement.
What made it so engaging was that it was interactive. This gob of a machine, clunky and noisy, was telling me a story, asking me questions, and responding to my answers. … The process was dynamic, and like the best learning experiences, it played to my sense of curiosity and wonder.
At the same time, I couldn’t help but think that maybe the kids were learning more than we realized. One former kid, now an innovative teacher, said:
I think teachers liked it so much because it forced us to use our problem solving skills. Through repetition, you learned how to be successful and the chance you would be successful in the game increased as you played it. I think this idea of problem solving can be related to how we approach new technologies. … With time and practice, we learn how to navigate the technology just like we navigate through the Oregon Trail, traveling battered and bruised, fixing our wagon, restocking at the fort, sailing down the river. …
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