Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Games and the Educational Establishment

Last night in ECI831 we heard a presentation by Sylvia Martinez on Mobile Games & Learning. Here are my comments:
1. I have always believed that games can be used effectively to attain desired learning outcomes.
2. I think that there are three difficulties in attaining that objective.

  1. We start the discussion of games and learning in the wrong place: with games. Instead, we should first get our thoughts straight about the learning objectives we wish to attain. Then we can examine a variety of ways in which we can achieve those objectives, including games. This means the questions that we ask about games will not be Which are "good" (with no definition of good for what)? or Which are "bad"? or Which can be implemented with little "political" difficulty? Rather we ask: What outcomes are facilitated by which games? Then we have a better chance of "selling" the games to the political system with which we deal. My main argument here: When we start the thinking with the outcomes desired rather that the processes to be used, we concentrate on the product, which is appropriate. Otherwise we would be like a car manufacturer that says design what you think best for something which we will combine with other ideas and declare to be a car. To stay in business the car manufacturer instead says: Here are the specifications of a car that we will produce. Design the components to result in that outcome. We should do no less as educators. But that is not how we normally operate. We think about what we will design as part of a package that will be called "learning" rather than asking what should those who purchase our goods and services know, be able to do or have experienced (more on that in a later post).

  2. As educators, we tend to want to include, or "package" games within our courses. We own the "courses" (the building blocks with no end product objective). Instead, we should recognize that games can be played within and without our courses. If games are effective learning devices, then the outcomes we desire (assuming we have modified our behavior from that described above) can be assessed without regard to whether we included the games in our instruction or not. We thereby reduce, or maybe even eliminate, the political issues that normally surround games.

  3. Even when we specify objectives and identify games which will move a student toward those objectives, or we have a large body of evidence that students have played games and have achieved some or all of our specified learning outcomes, we are often faced with a very serious problem: We may recognize the attainment of valued learning objectives through the playing of games, but the student does not so recognize them. I call this the failure to "own" the competencies attained. This often happens when competencies are attained through activities and procedures which are not culturally approved for learning, i.e. learning was attained through a means other than sitting in a class, listening to information, burping the information back to the deliver of the information to prove that it was retained (at least for a short while), and then rapidly forgetting that information if it is not used. So now I have introduced another argument: that learning outcomes are too often specified as "knowing" what the teacher knows (and therefore thinks is important) rather that meeting the overall learning objectives which should be the focus rather than the objectives that are specified by "courses" whether or not they contribute effectively to an end goal.

So... let us focus on what is important: the end outcomes, the car. Then we can address the issues associated with how we build the car successfully rather than starting with the manufacturing process ("courses") which tend to be the primary focus of educators which "own" those courses and gain their respect and rewards from them.
And... let us not forget that games can be effective learning tools. Our task is to determine whether learning outcomes have been achieved. If games seem to be effective in furthering the attainment of those objectives, we should encourage their use - inside or outside the educational establishment. And not only do we have to certify the attainment of the desired learning outcomes through games, we also have to assist students in acknowledging that the attainment of those objectives is real, even though they were attained through "non-traditional" routes to learning.

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