Saturday, January 25, 2014

Students as Creators - Moving Beyond Recall and Decision Making

OK. It's been awhile since I explored the combination of PBL and GBL, by further developing one of the eight characteristics of these New Learning Environments. So, with a new year, it's time to pick things up.

Earlier, the importance of social learning was explored as one important characteristic that is unfortunately not naturally integrated by our school system or most educational games.

Social learning provides a good connection to the characteristic we'll pick up in this post:

  • enabling students to be creators of solutions - moving beyond recall and decision-making

Although these posts are centered around the opportunities for designers of games-based learning resources, the technology aspect is irrelevant. Good learning is good learning - with or without technology. And our only challenge should be in designing environments for students that meet these characteristics. Certainly, technology and GBL should be able to help.

Our early educational games focused on content recall. Think, for example, of all the great games to practice math skills. Later (and current) versions add badges or points to reward students. Many current versions now embed these math skills within a quest of sorts which may or may not be authentically math related. (Correct answers allow the player to continue on the quest.)

Another version of games allowed students to make decisions - usually multiple-choice decisions - within a specific environment. To the degree which that environment was authentic, this was a big step forward. I can recall many an hour playing Oregon Trail. In many ways, these games represent the online version of the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books. The environment provided an authentic context to allow students to make decisions.  Soon, users become (at least partially) focused on "outsmarting the programming" instead of assessing and learning from the situation.

Both types of games are useful and serve a purpose. But if we're trying to establish new learning environments, they fall far short. They help students and teachers "run the school race" faster and and with more fun - but the finish line still ends with correct answers, and I believe we need more than that. I believe our world (and even our students) are demanding more of us.

The idea of putting students in a position where they must create and present solutions is nothing new to PBL advocates. I believe (and hope) GBL designers are at the beginning of opening this idea up. This is where the connection with social learning comes in.  If our primary task for students comes from the open-ended framework of PBL, we have an environment - online or otherwise - where students are challenged to come up with unique solutions. Collaboration in such an environment is encouraged; social learning is almost a necessity. We won't see (nor want) students covering up their papers in fear of someone copying the work. We'll encourage the opposite.

Certainly, we're all familiar with a few of the drawbacks to PBL.
  • The planning is time consuming: for the individual teacher.
  • Difficult to assess: It's more difficult (compared to right/wrong questions) to properly assess student discrete knowledge (as opposed to applied knowledge) within a large PBL project.
  • The learning is time consuming: PBL is most effective in collaborative, social learning environments. The time constraints of a classroom can't facilitate this kind of collaboration. Teachers can get from "Point A to Point B" much faster.  (Needless to say, we might be aiming at the wrong Point B here, but that's not the teacher's fault.)
But games-based learning resources, set up to have students addressing the right kind of task, can help solve the PBL drawbacks. Game designers can:
  • design the environments and tasks - perhaps even allowing teachers to customize them to suit their preference.
  • provide ways to record student solutions (and even their thinking to get there)  to assess students more easily. Savvy designers can even integrate discrete (right/wrong) assessments inside the game itself if authentically presented.
  • take advantage of tech tools which facilitate and record communication and feedback. Compared to non-tech PBL, this exponentially increases the social learning as students learn from and with one another.
With or without technology, we won't see student creators unless we set up the right kind of learning tasks for them.

I'll leave with a shameless plug for [full disclosure alert !] our award-winning simulation, simCEO. It's a solid example of this type of learning and free; so what have you got to lose. 

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