Monday, July 10, 2006

Games and simulations

On Friday, two colleagues and I attended an eLearning Network conference entitled "What can e-learning take from games and simulations?"

Just as an aside: this was the first anniversary of the 7/7 London suicide bombings and the police presence was very conspicuous at every station - both tube and mainline. Due to signal failure on our own line, we had to travel in from another station which feeds into one of the affected stations. The colleague travelling with me was not prepared to chance the tubes. I guess being a South African has deadened my senses somewhat, since I was quite prepared to do so. However, out of respect for her concerns, we opted for a cab instead... like most of London, apparently!

We arrived a little late for the first session, but were able to pick it up from there.

Session 1: Ron Edwards - Ambient Performance. Considering Adding Games to you Learning Mix? Ron talked from the perspective of someone involved in developing (and playing!) games. He discussed simulations and augmented reality (simulation "painted" over existing backgrounds). He outlined the growing popularity of online gaming and the reasons for this phenomenon.

He argued that games afforded people a fun, safe environment in which to practise new skills. Games provided engagement for the learner until all learning objects have been covered. Online multiplayer games afforded the opportunity to engage in team work.

His suggestion was to consider what problem it is you are setting out to solve and to match the learning needs to the approach being used. Of course, the next step would be the standard cost/benefit analysis, and he advised that we start small and grow with success. The resultant flow would be as shown in this diagram.

Session 2: Alan Samuel, TATA Interactive; Sue Honore, Ashridge College; Mark Frank, Training Synergy - Panel Discussion.
The unnerving thing was that the panel seemed to be no further forward than many of the members of the audience and it was unclear what it was that we could expect to take away from that session. What was even more worrying was that both the chairman and the next scheduled speaker on the programme expressed an agnostic attitude toward the benefit of games in learning.

Session 3: Nick Rushby, Conation Technologies. Nick was one the professed agnostics. He started off his session by stating that people have always learned from play and that we have only (comparitively) recently begun to be able to quantify what and how we learn. True. He then asked the audience to call out some examples of games. These ranged from ice hockey to Tetris to tiddlywinks. We were called upon to list some of the skills learned from such games. Similarly, we were asked to call out names if simulations and to identify skills acquired from these. His argument was that skills learned in games do not transfer to other areas of life. Learning teamwork skills in football, he contended, did not teach teamwork in an office environment. I was left wondering if non verbal reasoning (a skill learned and practiced in many of the games mentioned) is not a transferrable skill, why so much emphasis is placed on this ability in schools.

He used as an example, his own experience of the night before, playing Formula 1 on a PlayStation. Because the controls bore no resemblance to those in a real formula 1 car, he argued that he had not acquired any transferrable skills. I found this to be a strange conclusion to draw. First off, the PlayStation game did not hold itself up as a learning environment - it is purely designed for fun. Secondly, the sort of controls that do duplicate those of a formula 1 car can be obtained, if a more "real" experience is required.

He displayed charts showing the difference in effectiveness between simulation learning and what he termed real world learning, with simulation learning lagging behind. Apart from hard skills, such as driving or flying, I was hard pressed to think of examples of real world learning. Possibly mentoring? Even JIT learning and coaching tend to require a momentary suspension of reality as the skill is acquired. Classroom based learning, online learning - these are not the real world. These are artificial environments providing the learner with a safe space to get to grips with a new skill before applying it in the real world.

Most useful in this session was an audience member's point about the comparitive cost of failure in the real world as opposed to a simulation. When failure in the real world stands to cost vast fortunes or result in loss of life or damage to the environment, even costly simulation must surely pay for itself.

Nick, however, made a valid point that in order to sell gaming as a learning concept, we are going to have to come up with a stronger argument than that it is fun and engaging.

Session 4: Martine Parry, Kezos and Serious Games Conference. Martine addressed the thinking behind the use of the term "serious games". To my mind it was a semantic issue. We have used quizzes and games in learning since time out of mind, why should the transfer online be taboo? If we were proposing to replace an entire learning programme with a game, then I could understand the concern. But, unless I have completely misunderstood the matter, the idea is to introduce this additional approach into the blend.

Martine showed a selection of games, of varying degrees of sophistication. Apparently, of the organisations polled, 70% say they will introduce games-based learning in the next 2-5 years. She emphasised the need for collaboration between e-learning providers and games producers in order to develop games that are both engaging and effective.

Session 5: Kevin Corti, PixeLearning. Kevin talked about the need to address andragogy , not just pedagogy, through learning. The learner population is changing, and we need to address their changing requirements. He referred to the advantages of an administator being able to track user progress. As a developer of learning games, he listed several practical issues that need to be considered, such as whether off-the-shelf or bespoke games are required, licensing issues, assessment criteria, accreditation, etc. He pointed out that games are not designed to teach theory, but to provide an environment in which the theory can be tested and practised.

He, too, emphasised the need for collaboration between the learning designer and the games designer, for the same reason as Maxine gave.

My own view is that we need to stop limiting ourselves to thinking of games as being sophisticated simulations. Games include a far wider range of options. Then, if we remind ourselves of the quizzes that have been used in online learning for years, the transition to games-based-learning becomes less radical.

We also need to remember that the game is not intended to replace all existing learning materials, but to enhance the blend.

I also think that the real problem is not that we think people won't learn anything from games, but that we won't be able to control what it is that they learn... and therein lies the rub. It's going to be a little tricky to persuade someone to invest large sums of money in a learning solution that is going to provide an indefinable outcome.

I will be e-mailing a link to this post to the two colleagues who attended this conference with me. No doubt their perspective will be very different from mine, so perhaps they will provide their own insight in the form of comments....


Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher said...

I wonder how many of the panelists have children and how many have taught in a classroom.

My problem with many of their comments is that they are analyzing the past to predict the future. In a state of dynamic change, that doesn't work. Just because many games out there are not educational, doesn't mean that it isn't a great tool to harness. Also, it looks like several of them were strictly looking at action games. The adventure games genre such as "Civilization" and "Ages of the Roman Empire" have taught my 11 year old son so many things about government and civics. His "Red Storm Rising" submarine game taught him vectors and several geometry principles. My daughters playing of "Roller Coaster" tycoon and "Mall Tycoon" have taught her psychology, marketing, and math as well. I also like how the educator in the UK (I can't remember his name) has used MYST to improve writing skills among boys in particular!

I think they are missing the point. I am very excited about my new computer lab and one of my top purchases was a network version of mavis beacon. With this, I can import lessons and the students can play the lessons in an arcade style video game. Last year they loved it, but now I've integrated it into the curriculum.

I believe that you probably would have been more qualified and visionary in this field than those who were put "at the head of the class."

The New Internet has turned things on their ear and many industry experts have become outdated because they have opted out of blogging and RSS. It sounds like you came across such a group.

Best wishes and thank you for the excellent post.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the feedback, Vicki... and the compliment. There is a slight difference of focus here, in that they were looking at the andragogical value of games/simulations rather than their pedagogical value. My own children have learned a great deal from various simulations.

However, I'm with you - there is a lot that adults can learn from games and simulations, but one needs to start with an open mind to appreciate this. I didn't get the feeling that this was universally the case among those present.