Sunday, 8 April 2007

Level 11 - Game-based Learning in the UK: The current state of play

As an overview of the field of GBL in the UK, the JISC report on this subject has some up-to-date findings on how games are currently being used for learning, and how they might be used in the near future. This blog posting is devoted to those findings.

Firstly, the review of GBL literature highlights some interesting points that I've not already covered in previous postings. One recommendation (Garris et al., 2002), is that for effective learning to take place, learning outcomes for a game must be clearly apparent, and not indirect or inconspicuous. De Freitas, the author of the JISC report, writes that 'the key challenge for effective learning with games is for the learner to be engaged, motivated, supported and interested but also importantly for the learning to be undertaken in relation to clear learning outcomes as well as being made relevant to real world contexts of practice. A key challenge for designers then is to get the correct balance between delightful play and fulfilling specified learning outcomes.' I had previously believed that there might be some value in the learning outcomes not being explicit, so that the player learns without even realising it, but it seems that vague and discreet learning objectives aren't of much educational benefit.

The literature findings also raised some interesting points in relation to player motivation. Factors such as a sense of reasonable challenge I have covered already in previous postings, but this report raises some other key factors for motivation such as 'game realism', 'opportunities to explore of discover new information' and 'learner control' that I've not really considered yet. Starting with game realism being an element of appeal, this seems to go against Malone's findings of (relevant) fantasy being a factor of appeal. However I don't think the two are mutually exclusive - for example, you could have a realistic fighting and war game (such as America's Army), which also involves what are really fantasy scenarios. Thus it would appear then that *realistic fantasies*, as opposed to unrealistic fantasies, offer the most motivational appeal to players. The second factor above, 'opportunities to explore and discover', is an interesting feature of appeal, as such a feature is also likely to encourage *exploratory learning*. This type of learning is taken to mean, in De Freitas's words, 'play as rehearsal or ‘pattern formation’... This notion of learning is based upon the notion that learning patterns can be helpfully transferred to dissimilar situations through meta-reflection. Unlike Kolb’s experimental learning this process is not always circular (although it may be), and does not rely upon lived experience. Rather the approach acknowledges the cognitive process that help individuals to use their imagination and creativity to draw out lessons from interactions as well as extracting meaning from data.' Include these opportunities for exploration with learner control, giving a greater sense of ownership, and game designers can ensure increased appeal and greater scope for learning potential.

In terms of current trends of GBL highlighted by the report, there are already several different modes of uses of digital games, including games: 'as metaphors, as tools, for therapy and for the rehearsal of skills, for supporting higher cognition in microworlds and as open ended spaces for experimentation'. It also appears that an increased usage of digital technology in the home, workplace and for entertainment, is making digital learning games more accepted as valued learning tools. Previously digital gaming had negative connotations associated with violence and unproductive entertainment, but this is no longer viewed to be such a prevalent social attitude.

In terms of future trends for GBL, the report mentions the potential for non-technical game authoring tools which are becoming available for educators, and the increased potential for 'modding' and teacher participation in game design. Many COTS games now are being designed to maximise player control and customisation, which is good news for educators. One example of such an adaptation is the game *Revolution*, a mod of *Neverwinter Nights*, used to teach about American revolution history. It was developed by the MIT-University of Wisconsin Education Arcade initiative, led by the project director Henry Jenkins and with a design and development team led by Philip Tan (Education Arcade, 2006). The initial design document was written by Matt Weise with additional inputs from Kurt Squire.] Russell Francis of Oxford university (2006), studied the effectiveness of this game for school learners, aiming to explore the educational potential of virtual role-play as a new medium for supporting learning and teaching about social aspects of history. The study focused upon story-telling as the basis for experiential learning, and found that 'stories based on historical events or stories that explore real world social issues allowed learners to step out of the immediacy of the present and imagine what it might be like to be someone else who may have lived at a different time, place or under different social-historical circumstances'. The study found that Revolution was indeed a useful tool for giving learners the chance to experience historical periods from many different viewpoints, encouraging students to see history not as a series of facts, but as a complex inter-relation of opinions and sources.

The conclusions from the report perhaps reflect the general trajectory for GBL study and application. Included is the token 'more research needed', but specifically this includes the necessity for further empirical case study data. There are also suggestions for the development of more effective support materials for teachers wishing to use games in education, and likewise opportunities for staff development/training in GBL possibilities. With one of the main barriers to using games in schools cited as being a lack of access to equipment, it is also predicted that the ever-growing prevalence of digital technology and communication will make the practicalities of GBL more likely. All in all though, the outlook for further application of GBL looks pretty positive.

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