Category Archives: non-linear learning

The Non-Linearity of Learning

thumbby Hap Aziz

This morning, I had the pleasure of giving the keynote address at the 2016 ATMAE Annual Conference in Orlando. (ATMAE is the Association of Technology, Management, and Applied Engineering). My address was titled, “Virtual Engagement: How Gamification Can Improve the Distance Learning Experience.” I admit the title was a bit of a stretch, as I was truly interested in discussing how gamification can improve learner engagement, no matter the modality of the course or program. And to be clear, “gamification” to me means a set of techniques, some technology dependent, that may appear to have very little do to with actual game playing, on the surface.

One of the points I made is that gamification allows for flexibility in the way content is presented to learners for their consideration. That is, games allow players to move forward via multiple pathways, and this is good for a number of reasons, one being that if a player gets stuck in one part of the game, things don’t have to come to a grinding halt. The player can simply move to a different area, and in the interim, a eureka moment may come that allows the player to come back and solve the previously unsolved part. Formal learning experiences tend to be more linear, however, which is one of the great elements of frustration for students. When they get stuck, there is no place else to go in the course. Until they get outside help, they are often left with no choice but to do something else entirely, while they curse the offending course material for being too obscure or complex or both.

I was pleasantly surprised to find corroboration of this gamification technique in an unrelated article that I happened to find while reading Inside Hire Ed online just a few hours after my keynote. The article by Matt Reed is titled, “Going ‘Full Florida‘,” and it is about Florida’s experiment to drop the requirement for remedial classes coming into college. Reed describes how this (i.e., going “Full Florida”) could actually be a good thing:

Having spent nearly a decade as a chief academic officer at two different community colleges, I’m increasingly sympathetic to going Full Florida. There’s something fundamentally broken about developmental education as it’s currently done, and placement has a lot to do with it. Forcing students who have had bad experiences in a given subject to start by re-taking material they’ve had before, on their own dime, with no credit towards graduation, is a motivation-killer. And it’s based on a theory of knowledge that I don’t think holds water.

It assumes that students can only learn material in one order. It assumes that material progresses linearly, and that students have to go step-by-step to make progress.

I’m just not sure that’s true.

Take languages. It’s possible to teach a language in a linear way, but that’s not how people best learn them. They learn languages by being thrown in the deep end and flailing around a while. Anyone who raised children can tell you that their learning is much more idiosyncratic than linear. Yes, that can lead to gaps, but gaps can be filled.  And the fastest way to shut down a kid’s interest is to reduce it to workbooks.

Notice that Reed writes: “It assumes that students can only learn material in one order. It assumes that material progresses linearly, and that students have to go step-by-step to make progress. I’m just not sure that’s true.” In other words, Reed has observed that people tend to learn better if their learning experience is modeled after the way they play. I certainly agree with this, and I’m gratified to see the idea articulated outside of the direct context of game playing.

Students do not learn material in one order, and, indeed, in many cases they cannot learn material in one order because obstacles can become insurmountable when there are no other paths forward. This is a design problem, not a learner problem, and it doesn’t matter if the audience is in need of remediation or perfectly suited for advanced study. The good news is that this is a design problem that is continually being solved in the gaming world. The bad news, though, is that many educators have not yet determined that the gaming world knows more than a thing or two about how people learn.

 

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