It’s No Accident that Words With Friends for Schools Is Free

Words With Friends EDU mixes the popular mobile game with ELA curriculum.

Words With Friends EDU mixes the popular mobile game with ELA curriculum.

The educational game incubator co.lab may be no more, but schools are still benefiting from its work. The accelerator program helped mobile gaming giant Zynga develop a new version of its wildly popular Words With Friends game intended for the classroom – Word With Friends EDU.

Director of Product Abby Speight at Zynga’s nonprofit wing, Zynga.org, that the game was deeply informed by the two years of work the gaming company had done with learning game startups moving through co.lab, which was hosted inside Zynga’s California headquarters.

“It’s the first educational game developed completely within the walls of Zynga,” Speight said, adding that their co.lab partner GlassLab had helped develop the assessment tools and classroom management side of the game.

Words with FriendsEDU is a free version of the game that has no in-app purchases and the development process leaned heavily on the companies that had come through co.lab and the experience of the Zynga mentors.

But more than anything, she credited co.lab and her colleagues from helping the company “work with teachers and students from day one to make sure we were building something they would want to use in school.”

The project has involved almost six months of play testing and involved the company making important decisions – like whether to charge or not.

“It was a philosophical decision to make it free,” she said. “Zynga is not in the edtech business and so we decided to make it free and pursue a grassroots adoption model, to make it easy for teachers to use.”

The result, from some of the teachers involved in the beta testing, has been impressive.

Zynga has also added dashboards and assessments aimed at helping teachers monitor student performance in the game.

Zynga has also added dashboards and assessments aimed at helping teachers monitor student performance in the game.

“In working with the Words With Friends team on the development of Words With Friends EDU, it was important that teachers and parents, regardless of their level of technology proficiency, could maximize the benefits of the game,” Jeff Brain, teacher, Del Mar Middle School, in a statement. “Through easy-to-understand dashboards and lesson plans, Words With Friends EDU delivers a truly unique learning experience for students, teachers and parents.”

Zynga also took away from the co.lab experience the need to ensure access beyond the mobile platforms the company has used for many of its games, launching the EDU game for iOS, Android as well as the web.

Speight said they saw the game as a way of both introducing potential new players to the Zynga games but also using what the company has learned over seven years to create an educational platform for improving vocabulary as well as learning English as a second language.

Vaibhav Sahgal, general manager of Words With Friends at Zynga, in a statement, “Working collaboratively with teachers and education experts enabled us to create a fun and engaging experience that also increases students’ vocabulary and educational outcomes. With students showing significant gains in the use of academic words in their first six sessions of Words With Friends EDU, we are proud to deliver this new learning tool to students, teachers and parents as they start the school year.”

The team has added several new features to the product to make it more useful to the classroom, including:

  • Power Words: The ability for students to earn bonus points through the use of high-value academic words, including those frequently used in required reading, textbooks and educational assessments
  • Definition Hints: Students can use hints to access the definition of the highest-scoring Power Words to meaningfully connect them to academic words and their meanings.
  • Badges and Avatars: Students earn badges for reaching educational milestones as they play, and each badge unlocks items to let them customize their avatars.
  • Interactive Dashboard: Teachers and parents can track students’ gameplay and learning through a dynamic dashboard measuring individual achievements and signs that students need help, as well as progress against Common Core Standards.
  • Lesson Plans: Words With Friends EDU features a curriculum-based suite of lesson plans for teachers to supplement the game in their classrooms.

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Lee Banville Lee Banville is editor of Gamesandlearning.org and editorial director of the Games and Learning Publishing Council. He is also an Associate Professor of Journalism at The University of Montana. For 13 years he ran the online and digital operations of the PBS NewsHour, overseeing coverage of domestic and international stories.