July 20, 2018

How serious should we be about serious games in online learning?

An excerpt from the video game ‘Therapeutic Communication and Mental Health Assessment’ developed at Ryerson University

In the 2017 national survey of online learning in post-secondary education, and indeed in the Pockets of Innovation project, serious games were hardly mentioned as being used in Canadian universities or colleges. Yet there was evidence from the Chang School Talks in Toronto earlier this month that there is good reason to be taking serious games more seriously in online learning.

What are serious games?

The following definition from the Financial Times Lexicon is as good a definition as any:

Serious games are games designed for a purpose beyond pure entertainment. They use the motivation levers of game design – such as competition, curiosity, collaboration, individual challenge – and game media, including board games through physical representation or video games, through avatars and 3D immersion, to enhance the motivation of participants to engage in complex or boring tasks. Serious games are therefore used in a variety of professional situations such as education, training,  assessment, recruitment, knowledge management, innovation and scientific research. 

So serious games are not solely educational, nor necessarily online, but they can be both.

Why are serious games not used more in online learning?

Well, partly because some see serious games as an oxymoron. How can a game be serious? This may seem trivial, but many game designers fear that a focus on education risks killing the main element of a game, its fun. Similarly, many instructors fear that learning could easily be trivialised through games or that games can cover only a very limited part of what learning should be about – it can’t all be fun. 

Another more pragmatic reason is cost and quality. The best selling video games for instance cost millions of dollars to produce, on a scale similar to mainstream movies. What is the compelling business plan for educational games? And if games are produced cheaply, won’t the quality – in terms of production standards, narrative/plot, visuals, and learner engagement – suffer, thus making them unattractive for learners?

However, probably the main reason is that most educators simply do not know enough about serious games: what exists, how they can be used, nor how to design them. For this reason, the ChangSchoolTalks, organised each year by the School of Continuing Studies at Ryerson University, this year focused on serious games.

The conference

The conference, held on May 3rd in Toronto, consisted of nine key speakers who have had extensive experience with serious games, organised in three themes:

  • higher education
  • health care
  • corporate

The presentations were followed by a panel debate and question and answer session. The speakers were:

This proved to be an amazingly well-selected group of speakers on the topic. In one session run by Sylvester Arnab, he had the audience inventing a game within 30 seconds. Teams of two were given a range of  existing games or game concepts (such as Dictionary or Jeopardy) and a topic (such as international relations) and had up to two minutes to create an educational game. The winning team (in less than 30 seconds) required online students in political sciences to represent a country and suggest how they should respond to selected Tweets from Donald Trump.

I mentioned in an earlier blog that I suffered from such information overload from recent conferences that I had to go and lie down. It was at this conference where that happened! It has taken three weeks for me even to begin fully processing what I learned.

What did I learn?

Probably the most important thing is that there is a whole, vibrant world of serious games outside of education, and at the same time there are many possible and realistic applications for serious games in education, and particularly in online learning. So, yes, we should be taking serious games much more seriously in online learning – but we need to do it carefully and professionally.

The second lesson I learned is that excellent online serious games can be developed without spending ridiculous amounts of money (see some examples below). At the same time, there is a high degree of risk. There is no sure way of predicting in advance that a new game will be successful. Some low-cost simple games can work well; some expensively produced games can easily flop. This means careful testing and feedback during development.

For these and other reasons, research being conducted at Ryerson University and funded by eCampus Ontario is particularly important. Naza Djafarova and colleagues at Ryerson’s Chang School of Continuing Education are conducting research to develop a game design guide to enhance the process by which multidisciplinary teams, engaged in the pre-production stage, approach the design of a serious game. They have developed a process called the Art of Game Design methodology, for multidisciplinary teams involved in the design of serious games, and appraised in participatory workshops.

The Chang School has already developed a few prototype games, including:

  • Lake Devo, a virtual learning environment enabling online role-play activity in an educational context. Learners work synchronously, using visual, audio, and text elements to create avatars and interact in online role-play scenarios.
  • Skills Practice: A Home Visit that promotes the application of knowledge and skills related to establishing a therapeutic nurse-client relationship and completing a mental health assessment. Students assume the role of a community health nurse assigned to complete a home visit. Working with nurses and professors from George Brown College, Centennial College this project is working to establish a ‘virtual hospital’ with several serious games focused on maternity issues.

Thus serious games are a relatively high risk, high return activity for online learning. This requires building on best practices in games design, both within and outside education, sharing, and collaboration. However, as we move more and more towards skills development, experiential learning, and problem-solving, serious games will play an increasingly important role in online learning. Best to start now.

Active learning at the Royal Military College of Canada

The interior of Currie Hall, RMC

The RMC

Following my trip to the UK Open University, I visited the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, where I was a keynote speaker at a one day conference on active learning.

The RMC is the military college of the Canadian Armed Forces, and is a degree-granting university training military officers. RMC was established in 1876 and is the only federal institution in Canada with degree-granting powers. Programs are offered at the undergraduate and graduate levels, both on campus as well as through the college’s distance learning programme via the Division of Continuing Studies. It has a total of about 3,000 students, with about one-third part-time/distance and about 300 taking post-graduate studies. It is fully bilingual.

Active learning at the RMC

This was the rough theme of the conference, and it was interesting to see how the College is working to make its programs, both on-campus and online, more learner focused and interactive. I don’t have space to cover all the presentations, which without exception were excellent, so I will focus just on those that were of particular interest to me.

The importance of retrieval-practice for learning

This was an interesting presentation by Dr. Mathieu Gagnon, a psychology instructor at the RMC, basically about effective learning methods. He drew attention to research (Gagnon and Cormier, 2018) that suggests that students who spend time writing down or retrieving what they learn from reading do better in long-term retention than students who re-read the same text multiple times. Another factor is that distributed learning, where students take breaks rather than study intensively, is also more effective in long-term retention. (I hope I have got this right, as I didn’t take notes during his presentation….)

The art and science of flying

I used to have my own small plane, a Cessna 172, which I have flown from the west coast to the east coast of Canada and back. I loved flying my own plane, and although I knew about stall speeds, the use of flaps and ailerons, and so on, I never really understood the basic principles of aeronautics (which is why it is probably fortunate that I have stopped flying now because of my age).

So imagine my delight when I heard Dr. Billy Alan and Dr. Steve Lukits discuss a radical inter-disciplinary course they had designed that combined English literature (books and writing about flying) with aeronautical engineering, capturing both the beauty and magic of flying and its downright practicalities. Unfortunately the course is no longer extant (too many challenges for the administration), but surely we need more such inter-disciplinary courses in higher education. 

Wi-fi on buses

Sawyer Hogenkamp is doing a master’s thesis at Queen’s University on the use of wi-fi on school buses. He presented some staggering figures:

  • 30 million students in the U.S. and Canada ride the school bus every day.
  • 40% of Canadian school students take a school bus every school day
  • the average commute time is one hour or more in each direction

Many school districts are now putting wi-fi on to their buses that connect to their networks so students can study to and from school. This is particularly important for students in rural areas who often have no or slow speed wi-fi access at home.

Google is rolling out a program across the United States called Rolling Study Halls that includes devices as well as connectivity for use on school buses. They claim they are ‘reclaiming’ more than 1.5 million study hours in this way. 

Hogenkamp is researching the impact on learning and behaviour of students on buses with wi-fi. He stated that the first person to notify the school district if the wi-fi fails is the school bus driver, because of the impact on bus behaviour. To see a great three minute video of Sawyer’s research on bullying on school buses, see: http://www.queensu.ca/3mt/results-and-galleries/videos-2018

Active learning classrooms

Queen’s University is also located in Kingston, and there is clearly a great deal of collaboration and cross-teaching and research between the RMC and Queen’s. Several instructors from RMC, Major Vicki Woodside-Duggins, Dr. Bernadette Dechecci, Lt. Glen Whitaker, and Mrs. Annie Riel, and from Queen’s University, Dr. Andrea Philpson, discussed their use of active classrooms at Queen’s University.

In 2014, Queen’s University installed three different types of active classrooms:

  • a small classroom (capacity 45) with flexible configuration, movable chairs with arm rests for tablets or notes, and extensive whiteboard all around the room, a podium and a projector with a screen
  • a medium size classroom (capacity 70), with round tables for groups of six with power outlets and connections to several interactive displays around the walls, enabling students to work in collaboration around a table or in presentation mode to the whole class, and a podium that connects to all the screens or can be switched to just one screen
  • a large classroom (capacity 136), with rectangular tables for groups of up to eight with a monitor at the end of each table, a and a podium connected to all the monitors with can be switched to just one screen.

The medium-sized active classroom at Queen’s University

A study was conducted in 2014 (Leger, Chen, Woodside-Duggins and Riel, 2014) and found:

Overall, both student and instructors had overwhelmingly positive expectations and experiences in all three classrooms across disciplines and course levels. Initial impressions and expectations about the rooms were optimistic with students expecting “active” courses and no lecturing, and most instructors immediately changing their typical teaching approaches to adapt to the new environment. The data collected at the end of the term suggests most learning expectations were met, with students being highly engaged throughout the term as a consequence of instructors using more active teaching approaches.

I had the good fortune to present in the medium-sized classroom to faculty and staff in 2016 and can personally attest to how the configuration of the room impacts on how one presents and engages the audience. I have already written about how the increased use of blended learning will require more active classroom designs and the RMC presentation strongly reinforced this.

Five active learning exercises

Dr. Holly Ann Garnett rounded up the conference with an interactive workshop where she got everyone to try five exercises for engaging students, including:

  • ball toss
  • pass-a-problem
  • students teach the class
  • think-pair-share
  • snowball

As these are all classroom exercises, I won’t go into detail but you can find them described more fully here.

What I found interesting is that best practices in online learning provide very different student engagement activities, such as online class discussion, student mini-assignments, and online tests with immediate feedback, which I believe have the advantage of being more authentic.

Conclusion

As always, I learn more than I teach when I’m a keynote presenter. The RMC has been doing distance education now for more than 20 years and it was good to connect with some of the RMC pioneers in distance education as well as the current Dean of Continuing Studies, Dr. Grace Scoppio, who was a delightful host. But I was also impressed with the quality and the enthusiasm of all the presenters. I am very fortunate to have such an interesting job!

References

Gagnon, Ma. and Cormier, S. (2018) Retrieval Practice and Distributed Practice: The Case of French Canadian Students, Canadian Journal of School Psychology, May, 2018

Leger, A., Chen, V., Woodside-Duggins, V., and Riel, A. (2014)  Active Learning Classrooms in Ellis Hall, Kingston ON: Queen’s University