Monday, 8 October 2012

Marrying up to Situated Learning Theory

This final part of the series uses Herrington & Oliver’s ideas (described in the first part of this series) as a design checklist for our product Sustainaville.

Authentic Context
The Interface must map to the situation where the authentic activity would normally take place.  In addition, the learning should be complex and sufficiently large in scope to provide realism when problem solving.

In Sustainaville, learners are presented with a dynamic screen that shows the virtual community changing. The game play itself maps to the real world as learners play the role of decision makers (sub-teams in the overall game) in a virtual community.

Feedback from primary school students:

  • “It is harder than I thought to run a town.” 
  • “When you could see the town from the past years how it changed.”
  • “Sometimes there is a disaster that you don’t know.” 

Over the workshops there was also between 67% and 88% improvement in understanding of sustainable development.

Authentic Activities
Along with an authentic context, the programme should enable learners to participate as though they are the experts.  It is through simulated authentic activity that the learner becomes immersed in the process of learning.

In Sustainaville learners are assigned objectives. They have to develop strategy, deal with incidents, make decisions on how to use resources and negotiate with other sub-teams.  These authentic activities and context interplay to produce a rich learning environment.

Feedback from primary school students:

  • “It was like you were a proper business man.”
  • “I liked making the decisions on what to buy and how much to buy.”
  • “I will take away… planning, working together, making the right decisions.”

Over the workshops there was around a 57% improvement in decision-making skills.

Modelling of Processes and Expert performance
At the core of games-ED products sits the algorithm. It is the algorithm that fires out numbers in response to delegates’ decisions. Purchases in the game alter parameters, which in turn alter other parameters. The algorithm and the interface / activities that surrounds it represent the model of the reality. The algorithm is developed with the aid of desk research and interaction with subject matter experts.

Multiple roles and perspectives 
A situated learning environment provides the learner with the opportunity to investigate multiple roles and perspectives.  Roles and perspectives are brought to the fore in Sustainaville by the placing of delegates into sub-teams. Each sub-team has its own report (perspective), but at the same time the whole group is scored collectively (big picture). These sub-teams need to work together to achieve the overall goal (a constructed understanding). It is this pluralism of thought that the learners need to balance to gain a fuller understanding.

Feedback from primary school students when asked ‘what key learning messages will you take away?’:

  • “That when your managing somewhere you need to make sure people are happy and that little things can be very important.”
  • “That people have harder jobs than I thought.”
  • “We need to keep the environment healthy and public transport is better than cars.”

From the perspective of the situated learning theory, the decision to run Sustainaville as a whole class exercise rather than as standalone software makes sense and adds real value to the experience of learning. The sub-teams need to work together as one team and it is those that do so, that go on to post high scores.

Feedback from primary school students:

  • “I liked that we worked together to make the community good.”
  • “I liked it when we had to work in a group and play a game to improve the area.”
  • When asked ‘what key learning messages will you take away?’: “Work together, make group decisions.”

There was between a 41% and 61% improvement in group working after playing the game.

Game collaboration can have wider benefits. “Social interactions and relationships were seen by some of the interviewed teachers as having been positively enhanced by game-based learning activities in the classroom.” Ben Williamson, Futurelab 2009.

A situated learning environment should allow learners to reflect upon a much broader base of knowledge to solve problems. The game anchors the discussion, but the delegates are encouraged to share experiences and knowledge. At the end of the session and after each round, the class is asked to think about the experience from different points of view. The learners are encouraged to build abstractions. Follow-on exercises, either completed as homework or in the next class, allow the learners to further consolidate their understanding and reflect on what they have learned.

A pupil from one workshop responded on his questionnaire that he would like “To do this in citizenship lessons.”

Dialogue and articulation of knowledge occurs amongst learners (sub-teams), at the class level and can be educator-led. These conversations, not the technological interactions, should account for the majority the lesson.  In a workshop, the educator’s role is to encourage debate. A key question, as the learners’ decisions are keyed into the simulation is, “so what were you thinking when you made those choices?” The group can be encouraged with, “so what do the rest of you think about that?”

The learners often go through a process of transformation and feel able to participate in a way they could not have dreamed of before.  This is in part because of the inclusive nature of the exercise, but also because democratising nature of the game - games have a leveling effect: prior knowledge is only partially useful and game format may allow previously disengaged or under performing students to succeed.

A class teacher observing one workshop commented: “The children were fully engaged for all the session and the ‘buzz’ in the room was one of real active learning”.

Feedback from a primary school student when asked ‘what key learning messages will you take away?’: “How to discuss and think about decisions.”

Coaching and scaffolding
‘Many designers of interactive multimedia believe their programs should be self-contained ... Situated learning sees the teacher’s role in coaching – observing students, offering hints and reminders, providing feedback, scaffolding and fading, modeling, and so on – as integral to the learning situation’ (Herrington and Ron Oliver, 1995).

The role of the educator in Sustainaville is crucial. The teacher acts rather like the conductor in a orchestra, keeping the process flowing and providing scaffolding and stimulus as and when required.  The educator plays the role of the expert, as described in traditional situated learning. To enable the educator to do so, the software supports them. Contextual help is provided, by clicking on screen elements, to enable the educator to discover what makes up the particular element and its current value in the game.

A teacher overseeing one workshop commented: “the children were able to work [the purchase items] out with peer support or asked for clarification from an adult”.

Integrated assessment
Rather than considering the assessment as an add-on to the course, it should be integrated into learning itself.  Integration should not merely be a case of placing multiple choice questions within the learning sequence, instead the learning and assessment is one and the same thing, creating an authentic experience.

The score in Sustainaville is a highly motivating device. The decisions that the delegates make are fed into the algorithm and the score is fired out each round as the team endeavors to make the community a better place.

The in-game reports can be exported for analysis by the educator and to provide the basis for follow-on reflective / extension work. The reports are aligned to the curriculum, so that they can provide part of the evidence base for broader assessment.

A teacher overseeing one workshop commented: “[The children] were genuinely interested to see the impact their purchases had made on the town. They were disappointed to see the results/consequences of their purchases in Year 2 and were keen to rectify them in Year 3!”

Feedback from primary school students:

  • “I liked finding out what score you got at the end and looking at the improvements.”
  • “It was very fun and you learnt a lot.  It was great being in charge of the town and seeing what the result was.”

I hope you enjoyed this series!  We thought we had better show some practical evidence of the benefits of games based learning after so much theory.

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