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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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The Seduction of the Senses

thumbBack in October of 2011, I wrote an almost tweet-length blog entry on the transformation of education through an accident of technology (read it here). While I didn’t provide any details regarding that particular technology, if you have heard me speak on the topic, you know that I’m referring to the invention of  the alphabet.

My basic premise is this: human beings evolved to learn a particular way, which is through the use of all our senses in combination with lived experiences and traditions passed down from generation to generation, usually in one-to-one (or one-to-few) relationships. There were natural limitations to that education paradigm regarding the storage of information, the ability to pass on information without personal presence, and the facilitation of one-to-many teaching and learning relationships. The invention of the alphabet (first hieroglyphic and then later phonetic) essentially removed those limitations over time; however, at the expense of introducing an entirely new barrier to learning content: the requirement to learn how to code and decode symbolic information–the requirement to learn how to read and write before learning actual content.

The invention of the alphabet changed the way in which humans learn, and our model of education reflects the necessary prerequisite of literacy before learning: the first years of schooling is focused on teaching our children how to code and decode the alphabet in order to unlock content stored and conveyed primarily through text. Ultimately, the way in which our civilization has set up the learning enterprise is not the way we humans are built to learn; yet here we are at a point in history where a convergence of modern technologies is dangling the promise of another possible transformation to education. The digital technologies that appeal to our dominant senses of sight and sound have become sophisticated enough to meaningfully engage and (apparently) facilitate learning without the need to code and decode the alphabet. Hand some iPads to a room full of three-year-olds and watch what they learn to do without having to read a word.

This phenomenon hasn’t been lost on educators. There are studies on the use of video games to enhance the education experience (“Effect of Computer-Based Video Games on Children: An Experimental Study” and “Digital Game-Based Learning in high school Computer Science education: Impact on educational effectiveness and student motivation“); there are books and articles published on the subject (What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy and “4 Innovative Ways to Teach with Video Games: Educators from around the Country Share Their Best Practices for Using Educational and Consumer Games to Improve Students’ Engagement and Performance“); organizations have been created and conferences are held to share the latest best practices and even how to secure grant and investment funding for new and innovative learning video games (Higher Education Video Game Alliance and GDC Education Summit); and there are even education games being produced by Nobel Laureates (Nobelprize.org). Intuitively this seems to make sense, and I’m not going to present or argue data here. At the very least there are the educators who feel it might be beneficial to have learners as engaged in course content as players are in their game content.

Several questions come to mind when we consider the use of video games in education. How do we align gameplay with course learning objectives? What technology is required to play games, and how to we ensure access across the digital divide? What is the time commitment necessary to play the game to the point of content relevancy? Perhaps one of the most important questions to answer relates to the cost of game production. The new generation of computer games that is so attractive to so many educators and education policy makers is very expensive to produce in terms of time, development personnel, and funding. Everone seems to want to build the AAA game title in order to excite students about the history of English literature, but who can realistically hire dozens of developers and pay millions of dollars over the course of a year or more to produce that game? How did we get to the point where this is a serious question?

This is all a result of the seduction of our senses when it comes to modern video games. Everyone loves the breathtakingly realistic game visuals and film-like quality. And just like a blockbuster motion picture, the soundtrack and voice talent can tremendously enhance the experience. Make no mistake: these are characteristics that draw in game players, and educators see these as the same characteristics that will draw in learners. However, these characteristics aren’t what make games effective for either entertainment or education.

When imagination is combined with the power of abstraction, the artifact used to engage players (or learners) is a secondary consideration. That’s why a person is able to get as much enjoyment out of reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy as from seeing the films. Or why the same person can play either Call of Duty or chess and enjoy them both as games of war. The power of abstraction is amazingly effective when it comes to experiential engagement.

And it’s that power of abstraction that may allow us to “dial back” on the need for the AAA educational game with the AAA development requirements. As much as I welcome the digital media revolution that is poised to re-engage all of our senses in learning, I would suggest a more technologically humble approach to educational game design that would leverage less resource-hungry production models and recommit to the process of coding and decoding symbolic information: the old-school text adventure game from the genre of Interactive Fiction computer games.

What makes Interactive Fiction (IF) so appealing in the context of education are the same things that are problematic in using more multisensory intense simulation-like games. IF games are less difficult, resource intensive, and costly to develop. As a result, they can be customized for specific learning scenarios, and it is conceivable that micro-teams of instructors and storytellers might build IF game scenarios for individual assignments, tightly aligned with course learning objectives. There is existing research that addresses the learning efficacy of IF games (much of it dated from the mid- to late-1980s mainly because that was when IF games peaked in popularity), and the findings are largely positive regarding learner engagement.

While the traditional IF game was truly a text-only experience, the genre has expanded to include simple illustrations that supplement the narrative experience. In this way, a visual component is added, and the development effort remains low. The result is something that might be more akin to an Interactive Graphic Novel (IGN) rather than the traditional IF game. Consider the IF game 80 Days, designed by Inkle Studios. In a field of games dominated by 3D simulations and fast-paced shooters and RPGs, 80 Days is a testament to the power of abstraction and solid narrative. In a review of the game published in PC Gamer magazine, the reviewer (Andy Kelly) wrote the following:

80 Days can be funny, poignant, and bittersweet. It can be sad, scary, exciting, and sentimental. It all depends on the path you take and the choices you make. The story deals with issues like racism and colonialism far more intelligently than most games manage. Every trip is a whirlwind of emotions, and by the end you feel like you’ve gone on a personal, as well as a physical, journey.

And because there are so many branching paths, it’s extremely replayable. I’ve gone around the world seven times now, and every journey has felt like a new experience. Every time you complete a circumnavigation, additional stories and events unlock, giving you even more incentive to try again. It’s also brilliantly accessible and easy to play, making it the perfect game to share with someone who never, or rarely, plays them.

In other words, this IF game is exactly what we look for in an engaging game experience. What’s interesting to note is that the game was widely praised and recognized for the quality of gameplay. The New Yorker magazine listed it as one of The Best Video Games of 2014. Not only did 80 Days make Time magazine’s Top 10 list, but it it was ranked as the number 1 game for 2014. The fact that 80 Days garnered so many awards and accolades is a strong indicator that the IF genre doesn’t need to take a backseat to AAA titles.

I am not advocating an abandonment of the use of AAA games in education. Rather, it’s important that we use development resources wisely, matching gameplay to learning outcomes. It may make complete sense to pair robust multimedia experiences with particular capstone courses, for example, or in classroom settings that ultimately touch a large number of students. And as the cost in time and development declines while the capability of the production technology improves, we’ll no doubt see more opportunities to integrate AAA games into curriculum. In the meantime, graphically-enhanced Interactive Fiction is a tool that can help educators provide engaging and pedagogically relevant gameplay learning experiences to their students in relatively short order at relatively low cost.

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Filed under computer games, digital divide, education, education course content, education funding, education technology, future technology, games, gamification, government funding, grant funding, Hap Aziz, higher education, instructional design, Interactive Fiction, Interactive Graphic Novels, learning, learning outcomes, narrative, play, simulation, text adventure, Text Adventure Development System, text adventure games, Uncategorized, video games

What Tools Do Learners Really Need?

by Hap Aziz

Mark Helprin’s recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, “Skip the Paris Cafés And Get a Good Pen,” made me stop and think a little bit about the emphasis we place on technology tools for learners. What is truly necessary and helpful may be something completely different than what learners want–or what we (educators) insist on providing for our learners. I found this passage to be very enlightening:

“This brings up Levenger, which sells “tools for writers.” The fewer tools the better, and they need not be costly or complicated. Whether you use a pencil, a pen, an old typewriter or something electrical is largely irrelevant to the result, although there is magic in writing by hand. It’s not just that it has been that way for 5,000 years or more, and has engraved upon our expectations of literature the effects associated with the pen—the pauses; considerations; sometimes the racing; the scratching out; the transportation of words and phrases with arrows, lines and circles; the closeness of the eyes to the page; the very touching of the page—but that the pen, not being a machine (it does not meet the scientific definition of a machine), is a surrender to a different power than those of mere speed and efficiency.

“In short, a pen (somehow) helps you think and feel.”

How does this sentiment align with our expectations of digital literacy, technology competencies, and instant and ubiquitous connection and communication with anyone anywhere on the face of the earth? Does the proliferation of smart phones and tablets, for instance, set up barriers against our ability to think and feel? And how important is this type of thinking and feeling to the cognitive schemas we are constantly building and rebuilding in our minds?

In conversations with higher education faculty across the country, I often like to comment that our current educational process involves spending years to teach students how to code and decode information (read and write) before we even begin to teach about the actual content of a particular area of study. Ultimately, this will need to change if we hope to reach students and inspire them with the true love of life-long learning.

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Video Games: a New Frontier in 21st Century Learning

by Lauren Gosnell

Lauren is currently working with Datatel+SGHE as an intern on the Academic Services team. She has been conducting research on the current trends and concerns within higher education on topics ranging from remediation strategies to the integration of computer game technologies in the education environment.  Lauren feels her experience will give her the background and knowledge to help her grow in her passion around teaching and learning issues within higher education. This article represents some of her recent research, and it is a valuable contribution to the broader discussion around gaming and student engagement. Lauren recently graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a degree in Psychology.

It has become clear that the way we educate children needs to change.   The National Science Foundation found that in 2002 the U.S. ranked 73 out of 91 countries in the percentage on college students obtaining a bachelor’s degree in science or engineering.  This is not a problem created by universities alone, but rather one that begins in early education.  A 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and Program for International Student Assessment test found that U.S. 4th graders are 12th in the world in math and 24th by the 12th grade.  This trend continues across all subjects.  Traditional teaching methods are failing these struggling students and new frontiers must be sought before U.S. students are left behind in the dust.  A promising new frontier lies in the implementation of video games in learning.  Video games are currently being used for educational purposes across age groups and in a variety of ways that are proving more successful than traditional teaching methods of the past.

Kurt Squire’s article, “Changing the Game: What Happens When Video Games Enter the Classroom?” reveals a case study on Civilization III, a game which packs in 6000 years of history to be explored.  This study of two groups of middle school students found mixed results on this game in particular.  In one test group, 25% of the students found the game to be too difficult, but most promising was the game playing effect on typically unmotivated students.  The students receiving the poorest grades and who showed the lowest class participation were the ones most captivated and outspoken while playing the game.  In a similar study in “Games for Science and Engineering Education,” Merrilea Mayo describes a different group a middle school students and their results playing an electrostatics game called Supercharged.  Students who played this game along with receiving the typical lecture increased their test scores by 28% while students who received the lecture alone only increased their test score by 15%.  Some students do fine in the typical lecture based classes, but many students crave a more interactive approach and these games satisfy that need.  Students learn in a variety of ways and the way we teach should better reflect that.

Video games are not only useful for children.  Mayo also discusses a Northern Illinois University numerical methods course that used a race car game as homework.  This game lead to students being willing to spend twice as much time on homework and resulted in 80% of these students taking the next advanced course.  In Digital Game Based Learning: Educational Video Games, the author discusses North Carolina State University’s new interactive games designed to enhance geology and biology courses.  A widely acclaimed game called Foldit is discussed by Greg Toppo in “White House Office Studies Benefits of Video Games.”  This game was designed by the University of Washington and teaches players about the shapes of proteins.  Using this game, players were able to analyze monkey HIV protein in 10 days that had eluded researchers for 15 years.  This game is thought to be potentially beneficial in Alzheimer’s, AIDS, and cancer research.  These colleges are recognizing the importance of creating new avenues for learning and embracing the potential of 21st century video games in doing so.

Video games are also being used in a new generation of surgeons.  In “The Impact of Video Games on Training Surgeons in the 21st Century,” Rosser et. al detail a game called Top Gun which when played for 3 hours a week was shown to decrease surgery errors by 37% and increase surgery speeds by 27%.  Video games could be used more and more in the future as a practical teaching tool in training better, more efficient surgeons.  These games have allowed video games to take the broad leap from fun time-waster to a life saving tool.

High school students looking to get into the best colleges are receiving increasing pressure to achieve the highest SAT and ACT scores.  These scores can determine the college they get in to, the classes they are allowed to take, and ultimately their careers.  Students seeking to gain an edge over their peers are constantly looking for better study models and this has served as a vehicle for the introduction of video games in the college prepatory market.  One such game is Zero Hour Threat, an interactive game where each correct answer leads the player one step closer to stopping international criminals. Two other games, discussed by Barbara Ortutay in “SAT Prep Services Get Into Video Games,” currently on the market are “futureU”, designed with Kaplan Inc., and the Princeton Review’s My SAT Coach.  These games are easily marketable to students by making them available in a variety of forms from Nintendo DS to iPhones. Further studies need to be done to determine their effectiveness. Based off of what researchers, such as Squire, have already found though about interactive learning and its increase in the complexity and depth of what is learned, these interactive video games could be only the beginning of a continuing trend.

For years, students have been silently pleading for better ways to learn.  Traditional lecture format classes are not engaging many students and they are falling behind their peers, both here and worldwide.  Mayo’s article states that the average student spends 6.8 hours a week playing video games and up to 5-8 hours on homework (for college bound students).  If game makers and educators could combine these two activities, students could be spending more time than ever learning and doing so in a more engaging complex way.  Better games need to be designed to fit this emerging market that better combine the games students already love with the information they need to know.  By doing this, students who have struggled in the past may have finally found their niche in 21st century learning.

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Considering the Top 5 Education Technology Predictions for 2012

by Hap Aziz

Predicting any type of technology advancement is a potentially reputation-damaging activity, yet most people involved in tech verticals find it difficult to resist putting on the prognosticator’s cap. Add education considerations to the mix, and we find ourselves playing a very shaky game of “What If?” involving too many unknown variables for us to have great confidence in our predictions. It is with this in mind that I congratulation ZDNet Education Columnist , for having the bravery to take a stand by making his Top 5 Ed Tech predictions for 2012. While I won’t rule out the possibility that I’ll come up with my own view into the future, for the moment I’ll be satisfied in considering what Mr. Dawson has identified. So let’s take a look at his list:

  • Analytics and BI will go mainstream – Dawson states that “2012 will see an explosion in the real use of analytics to assist schools and districts in improving quality and outcomes,” and he thinks that we should be able to leverage both formative and summative assessments along with other currently mined data in order to accomplish tasks like identifying at-risk students before they would even need to see a guidance counselor. I’m a bit skeptical on this prediction, not from the technology standpoint, but rather from the institutional cultural standpoint. There is still much resistance within institutions around protecting data instead of transparently sharing it, and faculty as well as academic leadership have concerns regarding the validity of data interpretation. Add to that the fact that there aren’t any widely accepted models to factor the variables of student preparedness and motivation into outcomes, and we find ourselves still at the same crossroads of resistance here.
  • Google’s tablet will NOT be the holy grail of 1:1 – Both this item and the next (on Bring Your Own Device) presuppose the value in 1:1 initiatives, and the reasoning (at least in these predictions) is that the value of each student possessing and interacting with a computational device such as a tablet is a foregone conclusion. In this segment, Dawson speaks exclusively around the cost issue of a 1:1 tablet initiative, and he states that coming in under the price point of $300 would make the ideal of a “tablet in every backpack” a reality. But he doesn’t tie his reasoning here to any data (analytics and BI are supposed to go mainstream, after all!) that would demonstrate any connection to learning outcomes.
  • BYOD will make 1:1 possible in a big way – See my commentary for the previous segment regarding the value of 1:1 initiatives. However, I do believe the Bring Your Own Device prediction has some potential, considering the increasing acquisition of smart devices among students of all economic and cultural demographics. The question is whether or not curriculum will be designed in such a way as to maximize the utility of having smart devices readily available. If smart devices are used only (or primarily) as portable web browsers to access an LMS when a computer is not available, we’re not likely going to see any great improvements in outcomes.
  • Khan Academy, et al, will give publishers and mainstream educators a run for their money – Dawson makes no additional commentary on this point (and I’m not sure if this is the result of a misprint, Internet glitch, or his feeling that the point is self evident). In any case, I will split legalistic hairs here and say that this depends on the definition of “run for their money.” The Khan Academy (and similar) content provides a source for quality video accessible for supplementation of existing course materials, and if course designers choose to implement such content more widely, this might make publishers take notice. However, 2012 might be a bit soon, yet, for there to be a significant shift away from the traditional publishers–and many publishers are taking their own actions to stave off the slide into irrelevancy. But giving mainstream educators a run for their money? No, not until Khan Academy content becomes completely interactive and can actually address specific student learning issues–just like a mainstream educator.
  • We will say goodbye to a lot more libraries and hello to a lot more information – Again, this is a point dependent on definitions. Already we are seeing libraries at various institutions scaling back on their traditional media purchases (books, periodicals, etc.) and devote more resources toward the acquisition of digital and online content. I don’t think that portends the disappearance of libraries so much as it indicates a transformation of the kinds of libraries we build. Even as information becomes less centralized and more cloud-based at the source, the library as a place for academic community and gathering will still have a role. I might predict instead that libraries will have even a greater role as the place to go when trying to sift through and interpret all the terabytes of information ready to be called up by a few keystrokes of activity. Librarians themselves will have an invaluable role in helping our younger learners transition into savvy users of digital data.

At the end of 2012, it will be interesting to review these predictions, from both Dawson’s perspective as well as my own. I’d be willing to bet that we’ll see some events occur and technologies come to the fore by the end of the year that we currently don’t even suspect. By the way, earlier in the week Dawson wrote on his predictions for 2011 that he made a year ago regarding technologies “that should have had real impacts in education this year, but which never amounted to much” (see here).

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