Saturday, February 28, 2009

Learning in a fact fetish culture...

What traditional education fails to do is position the learner, the learning experience and the content in contexts. Consequently, it is hard for students to be motivated, because what is taught is taught out of context. Games afford this combination, as they situate the content in narratives and contexts, providing meaningful experiences, and immersing the players into mastering them. By combining interactive rule sets, narratives and spatiality, games unfold virtual worlds that embrace content and establish meaning. Context matters for learning; it affords players’ situative embodiment in the learning experience and facilitates repositioning players and their understanding through experiences. The emphasis then shifts from teaching abstracted content towards facilitating the learner to master the content framed in microworlds that evoke, enact, embed, of afford the emergence of narratives, as Henry Jenkins argues. Educators can chose from the plethora of games, commercial and educational, the ones that best serve their students’ educational needs and embed them in lessons, providing learning experiences in situ and extracting the value of content in ways that are obvious for learners.

The use of information in gaming contexts becomes meaningful, and therefore, the learning experiences can be much more powerful than the ones in the traditional classroom. Students can act on and interact with the gaming spaces, manipulating curricular content and making meaning out of their content-and-context interactions. Schools provide abstract knowledge by transferring knowledge from the world into the textbooks, emphasizing on putting that abstracted knowledge into students’ heads. Shaffer and his colleagues from the University of Wisconsin, Madison were arguing in one of their articles that schools adopt a 'fact fetish culture'... It is true! Knowledge is abstractly delivered to students. Teachers just try to catch up with the curriculum, and the ultimate goal is the standardized tests! I was reading an article by Thomas and Brown (2007) a couple of months ago, and I agree with them when they sat that, in the games’ microworlds, the content is being situated in rich contexts through which the meaningful scenarios that derive afford deep conceptual understanding and development of dispositions. Students learn to be, they do not just learn about things, and with their imagination they can simulate, change as individuals, and ultimately transfer what they learn into real life.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Games matter for learning!

Games matter for education, whether the scepticists admit it or not. As societies evolve, education must evolve accordingly. Students in contemporary societies experience and “talk games” constantly. Instead of initializing and framing learners in the constraints of the traditional educational systems, it is time to give a chance to new media and games in particular, to unfold their potentials for transforming educational systems from information, fact and test-taking greenhouses to life-based, situated, and transactive experiences. It is not all about learning content in abstraction. Educators must understand that education is also about ways of being in societies, and ways of interacting with cultures in different contexts. Once that is understood, then it will be easier to appreciate the value of games for learning.

Consequentiality and transactivity in games

One significant aspect of contemporary games is their property to situate players in scenarios within which they have to take actions and find solutions to problems. Players experience the consequences of their actions in the narrative, through the rule sets, and in relation to their engagement in the scenario, as well as through the immediate feedback from the game. Making the right or wrong choice has consequences in the game, which players experience immediately. It is important for educators to think of the effects that in-game actions can have on the learners, as it is also important to consider the fact that players experience those consequences in safe ways. Increasing the levels of acid in a lake will kill the fish. Failing to develop a strong army will allow the enemy to defeat you and take over your civilization. And building using false structures will cause the architectural creation to collapse. However, these consequences are safe to be experienced. In fact, failing in such cases is an opportunity to learn. Students can talk about their experiences and provide rationales about their choices of actions in class discussions.

Games afford a kind of interaction that changes players as they make those choices. It is what my advisor (Sasha Barab) calls to be transactivity, as the players’ actions inform and transform situations, which at the same time transform the players. In most games, players follow specific tasks with particular goals related to the narrative. Through their actions and in-game choices, they change the space, and live the consequences of their decisions from those changes, while reflecting on the experiences. Educators should appreciate this affordance of games as an attribute that can facilitate in-class discussions and personal reflection on behalf of the learners. Having experienced the consequences of their decisions, students are in positions to talk from the perspective they adopt in relation to the narrative and tell their own stories.

Games, education, learning

It is not enough to say that games are good for learning, and it is not enough to claim that they should be used in educational settings just because they are motivating and attract players’ attention. In fact, that would be an argument rather against their educational use, since in that case games would be considered to be a factor for potential academic failure. In another vein, Aristotle had pointed out that people cannot gain wisdom neither from generalities, nor from particulars. Today’s educational systems do not bridge this gap, but provide, either abstract and general content without connecting it with meaningful examples, or specific knowledge that does not connect with what students know. Games have started being seen as the diode towards educational transformation. Educators should care about video games as a pedagogical medium because of the opportunities that can afford for learning and for the several effects they can have on students’ learning, identities and literacies.