Monday, 20 May 2013

Learning with games, a visit to the 3DHive

I had a chance to spend an afternoon with developers and researchers from Playware Studios, a Singapore based company that includes UWCSEA Dover alumna Akshay Maliwal as Head of Strategy.

I really enjoyed the experience for a few reasons:

-The team that went included myself (Digital Literacy Coach), the High School Principal, and a Middle School Humanities teacher. Having the multiple perspectives was really powerful as each of saw the presentation slightly differently.

 -I was expecting to go in for a product demo, but was pleasantly surprised when we spent the first hour entirely discussing the role of games in learning and working on a concept for our own game. It was especially nice having the perspective and guidance of Richard Sandford to take us into the mindset of developing and using games for learning.

Here's a look at 3DHive, a game development environment from Playware Studios.

Students can make games, not just play them.  

We had quite a lot of debate on the value of these games for learning. Is this the most efficient way to learn? Do teachers have the time to make them? Do students learn the intended concepts? All of these were good questions raised by colleagues, and they're all assuming that games would just be played by students. I realized that I was thinking about the value of games not just from the perspective of the student as player in a game created by teachers, rather I was thinking of the students designing and building games to show their understanding.

The demo game we played illustrated energy flow in the ecosystem and predator-prey dynamics as it pitted a group of lions against a herd of zebras. To build a game like this that accurately models the dynamics of grassland ecosystem, you've got to have a solid understanding of the Ecology and systems-thinking ability. Students tasked with building such a game would have to learn the Ecology in order to build a game that works like a real ecosystem. Game designers also have to consider the experience of the players which links strongly with our goal of practicing metacognition by thinking about the thought process, emotions, and likely actions of the players as they play your game.

The 3DHive software appears simple enough for anybody to pick up and create a simple game. You build your world, add characters and assign attributes to your game. I'm quite confident that a majority of our students 9 and older could create a game to show their understanding.

Letting go, students control their learning.

A big tension for people considering doing something like this, incorporating games in learning, is that you have to be prepared to hand over control of the learning to the students and you don't know exactly how the game is going to end up.
It's most comfortable when we deliver known content in a well-practiced way that takes a pre-determined amount of time followed by an assessment that gives results that fit a normal distribution.

Using games for learning allows for nuanced conversation between players along with the teacher. These conversations and analysis of the game are where the deep learning occurs, not so much during the play.  This is really no different than during a traditional lesson. Students need opportunities consolidate their learning after a series of activities.
I really liked how the software allows the teacher to control aspects of the game during play including a pause button where you can draw attention back from the game and have mini debrief conversations where students analyze play and game dynamics and even have peer-team meetings to plan strategy. Once the games ends, the teacher has access to analytics including video replay of the game that can be used to make points linking back to the learning objectives.

It's time we take a serious look at playing to learn and how video games fit in our instructional ecosystem. I really like the possibilities of using 3DHive, Portal 2 and Minecraft worlds built by students because they demonstrate their understanding clearly based on how well the game is designed.

What other game environments should we consider for learning?

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