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.

An example of online experiential learning: Ryerson University’s Law Practice Program

Lawyers 2

Alexandris, G., Buontrogianni, M, and Djafarova, N. (2015) Ground-breaking program for Ontario Law School Graduates – Virtual Law Firms, Berlin: OEB Conference

Online, experiential learning

Experiential learning is a very popular concept in education these days, but it is not always well understood, and in particular some see experiential learning and online learning as contradictory. It’s important then to have examples of successful online experiential programs.

Ryerson University in Toronto has one such program. Although hybrid rather than fully online, the online component is both substantial and essential.

Why Ryerson?

One of the many challenges in legal training is moving new law school graduates into the real world of law practice. Although most graduates become articled to a particular law firm, they are often ill-prepared for the actual work, which is much more skills- and context-based than the more theory- and content-based approach in law school.

The Law Society of Upper Canada, which regulates the profession in Ontario, recently introduced changes to its licensing process, requiring a new ‘transition to practice’ training that focuses on skills development. Although Ryerson does not have its own law school, it does have a strong reputation for innovative approaches to skills development in higher education, and as a result in 2013 the Law Society of Upper Canada chose Ryerson to develop the transition to practice program, now called the Law Practice Program (LPP).

The challenge

Ryerson had to develop an experience-based program, drawing initially 220 participants during each of its first two years, spread across the whole province of Ontario and beyond, but also capable of expansion if necessary. The program required developing realistic cases and practices, and a teaching approach that of necessity directly involved ‘real’ law firms and busy, practising lawyers and judges as mentors. At the same time, the training must not interfere with the actual practice of law while participants were engaged in training.

The overall program strategy

Ryerson turned to two of its centres, the Chang School of Continuing Education’s Centre for Digital Education, and the Interpersonal Skills Teaching Centre, which offers simulated learning and teaching of interpersonal communications skills.

Externally Ryerson partnered with the Ontario Bar Association. This enabled Ryerson to annually engage over 250 lawyers across the province as mentors and contributors to the program, and 220 law firms and organizations for work placements. This also allowed the program to integrate technology and legal resources already used in the law profession.

The program adopts a hybrid approach, with a four month practical training period consisting of 14 weeks online and three separate weeks on campus. During these seventeen weeks, candidates work on simulated files developed by practising lawyers. This training is then followed by a four month work placement, where participants work on actual files.

Curriculum

The practical training component consists of developing skills and competency in the following areas:

  • professionalism and ethics
  • analytical skills
  • research
  • oral and written communication
  • client management
  • practice management.

using seven practice areas of law:

  • administrative law
  • business law
  • civil litigation
  • criminal law
  • family law
  • real estate law
  • wills and estates law.

Program design

This is where the program becomes unique and innovative. There are several components of the design.

a. Virtual ‘firms’

Virtual firms are created with four participants, and an external lawyer as a mentor. Each firm also has multiple clients, actors specially trained to play a specific role. There are weekly firm meetings, often in virtual, but real-time, format.

b. Specially designed learning resources

Participants have access to more than 90 pieces of simulated legal correspondence, several specialized legal applications and databases, 40 custom-made videos, and 20 learning modules.

LPP presentation 2

A number of multiple choice assessments and interactive learning objects have been designed to facilitate comprehension and understanding of legal issues and the development of skills.

There are also in-person and virtual presentations by experts in key competency and substantive legal areas, and participants also have to meet virtually and in-person with clients, other lawyers and judges.

c. Communication

A wide variety of tools are used for communication between participants, mentors and clients, including:

  • a standard learning management system
  • online communications tools used within the legal profession (Clio, Webex)

d. Assessment

Participants are assessed through their interaction with lawyers and judges during the program, including live legal presentations and argument.

Conclusion

The main success of the program, now in its second year, has been the ability of the participants ‘to hit the ground running’ when they join a law firm/legal employer. Employers’ responses to the program have been generally highly favourable (see here), although no formal evaluation of the program has yet been conducted. The strong involvement of lawyers and judges as well as law firms has ensured that the training is both relevant and practical, while the firms benefit from better prepared future employees.

The creation of virtual cases, processes and procedures, the use of simulations and virtual meetings and virtual firms, and work placements under supervision, have combined to provide a strong, experience-based approach to learning which both participants and mentors have found highly motivating.

Lastly the ability for participants and mentors to work primarily online has provided the flexibility necessary for busy, working professionals.

There are of course many other online experiential learning programs, such as the virtual reality-based program on custom border services for Canada Border Service Agents at Loyalist College, Ontario. I would welcome other contributions or examples for future blog posts.

LPP case 2

Disclaimer

Since 1st January 2016 I am a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University, but I have not been engaged in any way with the design, development or delivery of this program. I am though indebted to Gina Alexandris, the program director for the LPP, for her help and advice in preparing this post.

That was the year that was: what I did in 2015

Image: Daily Telegraph, from the film "What we Did on our Holiday"

Image: Daily Telegraph, from the film “What we Did on our Holiday”

No, I didn’t die and get a Viking funeral at sea from my grandchildren, as did Billy Connelly in the wonderfully funny movie “What we Did on our Holiday” (but my grandkids are working on it.) Instead, this is more of a housekeeping item but hey, I do have a blog, so why not share it? Here’s a summary of my professional activities in 2015.

Book: ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’

The highlight of the year for me was the publication of my online, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, in April. Since publication it has been downloaded just over 14,000 times (mainly as pdfs). At the moment the whole book is being downloaded about 20 times a day. In addition the book web site receives about 160 visits each day.

The book has already been translated into Vietnamese (by the Ministry of Education in Vietnam) and is currently being translated into Chinese (by the Chinese Central Radio and Television University) and French (by Contact North) and I am currently negotiating for a Spanish translation.

The book is being used as a referred text in about ten graduate programs, as far as I know, and has been independently reviewed. In general it has been exceptionally well received and clearly meets a need for an up to date book on teaching and learning for faculty and instructors in higher education. I have been particularly gratified that it has succeeded in reaching a large number of mainline faculty and instructors, especially in the health, science and engineering areas.

The book is the main reason I haven’t been able to disengage more quickly from professional activities. During 2015, it resulted in a number of webinars and speaking engagements, which are listed below.

Keynotes and webinars

I gave a total of 12 ‘in presence’ keynotes/workshops and six online webinars, almost all dealing with issues raised in Teaching in a Digital Age, as follows:

Keynotes/workshops

  • Erasmus University, Rotterdam: University teaching in a digital age (plus a workshop on research and online learning for instructional designers in the Faculty of Medicine)
  • Royal Roads University, Victoria BC: Workshop: Thinking about theory in online learning
  • University Tre, Rome, Italy: Teaching in a Digital Age
  • ETUG (Educational Technology Users Group of BC), Burnaby BC: Reflections on writing an open textbook
  • OCULL (Ontario Council for University Lifelong Learning), Cambridge, Ontario: Continuous education: the impact of lifelong learning and technology
  • De Onderwijsdagen (Education Days), Rotterdam: The personalization of learning
  • CIINOVApp, Valle, Jalisco, Mexico: The future of online learning, plus two workshops: How to decide on what to do online and what to do face-to-face in a blended course and Choosing media
  • Conectàctica, Guadalajara, Mexico: Teaching in a Digital Age, plus a workshop on How to decide on what to do online and what to do face-to-face in a blended course

Copies of slides for any of these keynotes/workshops are available on request by sending an e-mail to: tony.bates@ubc.ca. Please give the title of the keynote/workshop you are requesting.

Webinars

I also did six webinars on topics related to Teaching in a Digital Age:

The Contact North webinars, which were open to the public, attracted about 100 participants for each webinar from all across the world. To access recordings of the Contact North webinars, click on the titles above. There will be one more, on the impact of open education, on January 12, 2016.

Analysis of proposals for funding of online courses and modules

I was one of the assessors for the Council of Ontario Universities’ Shared Online Course Fund, which involved reviewing and evaluating proposals from a number of Ontario universities for development and/or redesign of online courses and/or modules. In all, I reviewed 25 proposals. This gave me a glimpse into how online learning is developing in Ontario universities, and overall it was a very encouraging picture.

Appointment at Ryerson University

Lastly, I have been honoured to be appointed Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Chang School of Continuing Education, Ryerson University, Toronto, for one year from January 1, 2015. This is a great honour for me, as Ryerson is one of the most innovative universities in teaching and learning in North America, especially in the field of online and distance learning. It is largely an honorary position, but does involve at least two visits a year to Ryerson to give presentations, as well as general advice and guidance to staff in the Chang School, as requested. I’m really looking forward to it.

So, not quite dead yet.

 

Spotlight on online experiential learning at Ryerson University

Lake Devo is one of several e-learning initiatives at Ryerson University

Lake Devo is one of several e-learning initiatives at Ryerson University

A week or so ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Digital Education Strategies team at the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University, Toronto.

Ryerson is well known for its DMZ (formerly the Digital Media Zone), one of Canada’s largest business incubators for emerging tech start-ups, but it is by no means the only centre of innovation at Ryerson. As well as being responsible for the design of online learning courses at Ryerson, the Centre for Digital Education Strategies (CDES) has several very interesting e-learning initiatives. 

Online courses

The ‘bread and butter’ work of the CDES is the over 400 online courses, including around 300 degree-credit online and hybrid courses, four part-time degree online and blended programs, 23 fully online certificates, and 22 blended certificates. CDES serves roughly 23,000 online course enrolments a year. Ryerson recently moved from Blackboard to Desire2Learn learning management system to support most of its online courses.

Because of its expertise in online course design, Chang School’s Digital Education Strategies team has been engaged in a number of other innovative e-learning initiatives. The DES team has also built business efficiency tools and interactive learning applications. Each of these deserves a blog post on its own, but in this post I want to give a quick overview of some of the other work of the Centre.

1. Lake Devo

Lake Devo is 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.

The Lake Devo environment is fully equipped to allow an instructor to set up his/her class as an online collaborative community. He/she may enter students’ information, configure working groups and have the system issue login information to all users.

Lake Devo has been used by a total of ten online instructors, for at least eight different courses, involving over 35 sections of students. Students have developed over 100 different scenarios in Lake Devo (see “Gallery” for examples). 

 2. The Law Practice Program

This unique alternative to traditional articling was established by the Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC) and Ryerson University to provide new options and flexibility to meet the legal profession’s licensing requirements for law graduates in Ontario.

The program features interactive web-based collaboration tasks that replicate the experience of working in a law firm. This virtual firm activity is combined with expert guidance and mentorship to equip candidates with the skills and competencies required for effective practice. For a promo video, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKsu6P3ZUVQ

 3. Serious games

Mental health assessment during a home visit’ is a video-based game in which users practice their skills in a setting that is realistic and allows the user to make clinical choices within a safe environment.

This is another collaborative project involving Ryerson nursing faculty and professors from George Brown College and Centennial College.

4. Professional Development for Online Instructors

 As part of its commitment to offer high quality learning experiences for students, the CDES offers professional development for online instructors. Teaching Adult Learners Online (TALO) is a four-week, hands-on program designed to model effective facilitation techniques, and provide instructors with insight into the learning experiences of online students, while promoting an engaging community of practice.

Drawing on promising practices in online pedagogy and examples from leading open resources such as CU Open, TALO offers a unique experience that is helping to increase online instructor capacity and diversity.

I will do a more complete blog post on each of these initiatives over the next week or so.

Other initiatives

The Centre for Digital Education Strategies is involved in many other e-learning initiatives, including:

  • Providing training on foundations of instructional design principles to Pearson Canada Inc. employees.
  • Free multi-media e-learning modules to help Canadians boost their financial knowledge and plan for their future financial security for the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (see: http://www.fcac-acfc.gc.ca/Eng/resources/educationalPrograms/financialBasics/Pages/elearning-apprligne.aspx)
  • A project for the Bombay Stock Exchange to design a train-the-trainer program for effective delivery of a hybrid curriculum on intercultural communication skills for the workplace.
  • A partnership with the University of the West Indies provided students in 12 Caribbean countries with access to a high-quality online programming for their Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BScN). 
  • Entrepreneurial mentor training through an online seminar using interactive case studies and role play.

Further information

 More details of the work of the Centre for Digital Education Strategies can be found here: http://ce-online.ryerson.ca/ce/default.aspx?id=3665

More detailed posts on each of the four projects listed above will follow shortly.