Thursday, June 16, 2011

Designing Learning

It's easy to think that learning is what happens at school.  It's not particularly difficult to imagine other places of learning to go alongside the classroom: museums, for example, or (many years ago) libraries.  It's a little more challenging to imagine learning taking place while watching TV or playing a video game, sending a text message or reading an email.  But as long as the mind is remotely active, I would argue that learning, in some form, happens.

Now, it's not particularly interesting that learning happens all the time.  In some ways, it's so obvious that it's hardly worth mentioning, and so much of our learning is so mundane that we'd rather not hear or think about it for fear of choking on our boredom.  Learning, for example, that it's slightly faster - or at least more pleasant - to walk to the left of the science building on the way to class in the morning, is not particularly groundbreaking for anyone, including the learner (unless he were to fall through an unnoticed but open manhole, but that's not the point).

No, what's particularly interesting about this learning that happens all the time is how much of it is designed, despite how incidental it seems.  That is, even the route from car to classroom is designed in some sense, if not with learning in mind, with learning as a kind of ancillary and unanticipated outcome.  Of course, a science building on the whole very much is designed with learning in mind in a much more direct way.  And that's only the beginning.

Rather than list all of the myriad areas where learning design is potentially relevant, I want to talk about a couple in particular, an obvious one and a not-so-obvious one.  The first is the school, the classroom, the curriculum.  The second, video games, and not those horrid "educational games," so many of which pollute the game-o-sphere with their terrible controls, their convoluted plots, and their utter disdain for fun.  No, I mean real games, games like Portal or Final Fantasy, Civilization or Little Big Planet.

What do I want to say about each of the very different worlds of game design, on the one hand, and traditional education, on the other?  Well, I want to say that, at their hearts, they share a fundamental commonality: they are both designed, and they are both deeply concerned with learning.  Now, education might shun the "design" label and games might shun the "learning," but words are just words, and the actual actions behind these particular words bridge the vocabulary gap with or without my help.

That game design and curriculum construction have much in common is hardly a unique idea.  James Gee's career, for example, is largely built on recognizing the parallels between gaming and more traditional teaching and learning.  It is my opinion, however, that there's more that could be done here, not just in recognizing and defining those parallels, but in uncovering how the two might inform each other better, seeing what game design has to teach educators, and what educators have to teach game design.  I would not be surprised, moreover, if the expected conversation - that is, with game design bringing an understanding of design, and education bringing an understanding of learning - is totally reversed.  Game designers may know a lot more about learning than we'd like to give them credit for,* and educators more about design, even if they're using different language.

* Consider the challenge they face daily: make a game that is just hard enough to keep the player's interest, and make sure that difficulty scales well as the player gets more advanced.  In doing so, however, the designer must take into account the learning of the player - that is, the rate at which he or she improves - as well as the wide variety of potential play styles, learning styles, and personalities that might come in contact with the game.  In many ways, that's very much what a teacher does, with the added difficulty that the game designer has to code his game ahead of time.  He has to anticipate, because he won't be there to fix it on the fly, except in the abstract way of writing patches.

These suspicions of mine, however, about the potential exchange of information, ideas, and learning design between two very different industries are not sufficient or advanced enough to be beliefs or even arguments.  Rather, they are questions.  What explicit and hidden learning design processes does the gaming industry use?  What about education, both formal and informal?  What are their vocabularies?  What are their objectives, and how do those objectives aid or detract from improving learning (for example, does making learning itself your core objective make it harder to produce good learning)?

Within the gaming industry - as within the world of education - there are, I'm sure, an infinite variety of approaches.  There are certainly a variety of types of studios, from the major AAA production companies like Electronic Arts or Sega to the smaller, lesser-known mid-market studios like Paradox or Stardock, all the way to the miniature independent producers like 2D Boy (makers of the wildly popular World of Goo).  In addition to wondering about the game industry as a whole, I think it's fair to ask about the differences within the game industry.

I suppose what I'm suggesting is a kind of ethnography of learning design in the video game industry, and in traditional education.  The value of such an effort seems to me to hinge on the observation that learning - if only learning how to play the game - is built into each and every game that gets put on the market.  Failure to do so means failure to sell and, thus, failure to survive.  Despite the (mostly) non-profit incentives in education, failure to adequately design for learning has much more dire and far-reaching consequences, and yet the conceit of the educator (or education policy maker, or education researcher) is too often to assume that no one else has faced the question of how to design for learning.

1 comment:

  1. I really like your question about objectives. I've wondered at times how people can be so motivated by the purely abstract or symbolic achievements of a video game that they will lay down dozens (or hundreds) of hours of practice to perfect their technique. This happens for even the simplest, or most graphically old-fashioned, games. It's indeed a wonder that when comparing the learning objectives (and motivation) of games to education, with its far-reaching real-world rewards, student-aged people seem to tend toward devotion to a game over devotion to a class.

    Of course, a lot of that is specious, for I've done no research on comparisons between profound academic motivation and devoted gaming motivation, but I think it's valuable to compare the effects that these differently-styled objectives and rewards have.

    On a different note, some of your other thoughts have sparked my mind to explore tangential ruminations:
    What if we didn't treat school learning as so variable? That would change the paradigm from progressing through school with age to progressing through school by "beating levels." Classes could be as immutable as a pre-coded gaming level, yet supplemented by rigorous and aided practice, equivalent to perfecting gaming technique, to help students pass. Hmm...these could even be done with differentiation toward learning style and strengths, but without differentiation toward ability. Well...higher education is often like this. Would it really translate to everyone? Would we have different tracks? Wait...some other countries do that kind of thing, don't they? Etc. etc. etc.