June 18, 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.

Pushing the boundaries of higher education – in Barcelona

The pavement of Passeig de Gracia, Barcelona

If you are going to push any boundaries, Barcelona is as good a place as any to do it. Home of Antoni Gaudi, Joan Miró, Picasso (for a significant period in his work), the chef Ferran Adrià, and the fully online Open University of Catalonia (UOC – Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, established as early as 1995), Barcelona has long been in the forefront of innovation and change.

The headquarters of UOC on Avenida Tibidabo

UOC is running an event up to and including October 3 that

will address the challenges that current higher education models face and showcase innovative initiatives and practices that offer creative answers for pressing issues.

Speakers include:

  • Terry Anderson (Emeritus Professor at Athabasca University and Director of the Canadian Institute Distance Education Research)
  • Lisa Marie Blaschke (Director of the Master of Distance Education and E-Learning at Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg, Germany
  • Jim Groom (Instructional Technologist, Co-founder Reclaim Hosting)
  • Brian Lamb (‎Director of Open learning and Innovation Thompson Rivers University, Canada)
  • Allison Littlejohn (Academic Director for Learning and Teaching and Professor of Learning Technology at The Open University, UK)
  • Annette Markham (Professor MSO of Information Studies and Co-Director of the Digital Living Masters Programme at Aarhus University, Denmark)
  • Yishay Mor (Director of the Centre for Innovation and Excellence in teaching at the Levinsky College of Education, Israel)
  • Rikke Toft Nørgård (Associate Professor in Educational Design and Technology at the Center for Teaching Development and Digital Media, Aarhus University, Denmark)
  • Philipp Schmidt (Director of Learning Innovation at the MIT Media Lab)
  • and yours truly

I will be focusing in my contribution on the changing nature of online learning (from mainly fully online, text-based, asynchronous to a blend of face-to-face teaching, video-based synchronous, asynchronous and social media) and the implications for faculty/teacher development and training.

There are still places open for the event. For further information, go to the web site. See ya in Barcelona!

The front of an apartment building on Consell de Cent

More details on ICDE’s World Conference on Online Learning

ICDE Toronto skyline 2

Contact North | Contact Nord, the organizer and host of the 27th International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) World Conference, launches the official portal for the World Conference on Online Learning: Teaching in a Digital Age – Re-Thinking Teaching & Learning to be held in Toronto, Canada from October 17 – 19, 2017. (For an earlier post on ICDE, Contact North, and the conference, click here.)

The theme of the World Conference on Online Learning is Teaching in the Digital Age – Re-Thinking Teaching & Learning with the program focused on five tracks:

  1. Emerging Pedagogies and Designs for Online Learning
  2. Expanding Access, Openness and Flexibility
  3. Changing Models of Assessment
  4. New Delivery Tools and Resources for Learning
  5. Re-Designing Institutional Business Models

Visit the bilingual portal – www.onlinelearning2017.ca and www.apprentissageenligne2017.ca – for information including:

Comment

This will be one of the major conferences on online learning in 2017, with participants from all over the world. Even though the conference is targeting a total of 2,000 participants, early registration is recommended (when registration opens) because of the likely number of people wanting to participate from Canada and the USA alone.

Registration will open in October 2016 (sign up for their newsletter to get the exact date).

Declaration of interest: I am a Contact North Research Associate and have been engaged in some of the preliminary planning. If the choice of conference title is familiar, it was not my suggestion, although I have not opposed it.

E-Learn 2016 conference near Washington DC

The Westin Alexandria Hotel

The Westin Alexandria Hotel

What: E-Learn–World Conference on E-Learning is an international conference organized by the Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE) and co-sponsored by the International Journal on E-Learning.

This annual conference serves as a multi-disciplinary forum for the exchange of information on research, development, and applications of all topics related to e-Learning in the Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education sectors.

Where: The Westin Alexandria Hotel, Alexandria, Virginia

When: November 14-16, 2016

Who: Keynote speakers include:

  • Mark Prensky, Global Future Education Foundation & Institute, USA
  • Richard Meyer, University of California at Santa Barbara, USA
  • Donald Clark, Plan B Learning, UK
  • Sheila Jagannathan, Head of E-learning, Leadership, Learning and Innovation, World Bank Group, USA
  • Mimi Miyoung Lee, University of Houston, USA
  • Ben Werdmuller, CEO & co-Founder of Known, USA

How: The call for participation is now open and closes on September 26, 2016. For registration information, click here

Comment

This is a large conference (1,000+) and a good opportunity to catch the latest technology developments and applications in e-learning. It has a strong list of keynotes. Although listed as a world conference and although it does attract many international participants, it is still mainly focused on developments in e-learning in the USA. It is broad-based though in terms of covering e-learning in corporate, government, health and higher education.

OEB Conference, Berlin, 2016

OEB 2

What: OEB: Shaping the Future of Learning: The global, cross-sector conference on technology supported learning and training (formerly Online Educa). OEB is organised by ICWE GmbH, an international events and communications company.

Where: Hotel InterContinental, Budapester Strasse 2, 10787 Berlin, Germany
When: November 30-December 2, 2016
How: Registration is now open. To register, click here
Keynotes
  • Jane Bozarth, North Carolina, USA
  • Marcia Conner, Consultant, USA
  • Stephen Downes, NRC, Canada
  • Nina Huntemann, edX, USA
  • Andrew Keen, author, USA
  • Diana Knodel, appCamps, Germany
  • Jeff Kortenbosch, AkzoNobel, Netherlands
  • Diana Laurillard, London Knowledge Lab, UK
  • Nadia Magnenat Thalmann, NTU, Singapore
  • Roger Schrank, Socratic Arts, USA
  • Andreas Schleicher, OECD
  • Toby Shapshak, Stuff Magazine, South Africa
  • Eric Sheninger, International Center for Educational Leadership, USA
  • Clive Shepherd, The More than Blended learning Company, UK
  • Jeff Staes, EOI Academy, Belgium
  • Mark Surman, Mozilla Foundation, USA
  • Monika Weber-Fahr, SE4All, Austria

Conference themes: 

Main theme: Owning learning: Tomorrow’s learning is about ownership. We will own our learning. We will control what, where, when and how we learn. We will access, link, combine, interpret and interact with knowledge. We will be empowered as never before. We will make learning work for us.

  • learning and ownership
  • learning without limits
  • learning and investment
  • learning and design
  • learning and connecting
  • learning and the future
  • new learning and new work
  • learning the new literacy

Pre-conferenceworkshops

There are 15 pre-conference workshops

The OEB plenary debate

Motion: This House believes artificial intelligence (AI) could, should and will replace teachers

Exhibition

Position your brand as a market leader to the OEB community of learning, training, technology and L&D professionals.

Official conference news platform: OEB News

Comment

OEB is almost the exact opposite of the EDEN Research Workshop, and no better or worse for that. OEB’s strength is that it covers formal education, corporate training and the business of educational technology. It is a huge conference, extremely wide-ranging in topics, audiences, and quality of presentations, from the very best to the truly awful. You will come across a lot of blowhards forecasting the doom of formal education, and a lot of thoughtful contributions about the future of online learning and education. It will have over 2,000 participants, so finding your way round the program can be a problem. However, as a result you might end up attending something you would never have deliberately chosen, yet find it is one of the most interesting sessions. You will also meet people you would otherwise never meet, and may learn something really interesting from them. Let serendipity rule (if you can afford it – the conference fee alone is about US$1,000. Rooms at the Intercontinental start at around US$150 a night).