Serious Games and Social Media. What’s the connection?

There have been a series of provocative, challenging and inspiring conversations with colleagues at BPP University College this past week. Still in my ‘induction’ phase in many respects I find myself listening to bold, ambitious and potentially game-changing notions of tertiary education around the introduction, or expansion, of serious games and social media use. What makes these conversations so intriguing are the questions not asked, as much as those that are, and the connections to be made.

Like many providers of business and legal education (an interesting early example being Strathclyde’s SIMPLE project ) we have faculty deploying various forms of game-play, competitive simulations and transaction based role-play, over weeks of a given course. From real-world board games to online ‘second-life’ scenarios the idea of Serious Games has caught on. Prensky pointed out, from a largely K-12 perspective, a decade ago that students made more interactive social decisions before breakfast (through their use of PC online game, hand-held game console, portable music player and mobile phone), than they as ‘engaged students’ would have to do for the rest of the school day. (Marc Prensky: Don’t Bother Me Mom—I’m Learning! (Paragon House 2005).

That situation has changed, but not much. In University education the roles faculty have inherited from our monastic forebears have been difficult to change. If we play a game, we often already hold the answers, we know the outcomes and we can play God and determine an end, an early end often. We determine the rules of the game. What is significant about game-play is it requires students to make choices. Their engagement is to choose.

Serious Games are recognised ( as highly stimulating, engaging and challenging environments in which learning occurs, often consciously, often incidentally. Games can be individualistic or collaborative, sometimes both, and can be focussed on the ambiguity of the answer as much as on its validity, Arguably it is the ‘muddy’ ground of decision-making that make games such rich learning. Intriguingly, the Serious Games Initiative from the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C. has as the fourth of its four objectives, the question “How do we identify and proactively deal with any social, ethical, and/or legal issues that might arise through the application of game-based tools to public policy and management issues?

It is intriguing to me that in terms of our adoption, or advocacy, of Social Media in education that we really don’t determine the rules of the game. Primarily this is because we don’t fully understand them. Games may be radically different from twenty years ago in the technology used to enable participation, but they are still games. Games we have had for thousands of years. Games we understand. Social Media is different, radically different. I delivered a keynote in Croatia in 2007 entitled ‘Giving Up Control: the Future of e-Learning’ and suggested, I hope constructively, that the liberation of students engagement and creativity would only come from decentralising IT support in our Universities, releasing students to operate in the emerging cloud with an abundance of Web 2.0 droplets, and not from the next generation of online (V)LE. I believed then, and even more strongly now, that the ability of individuals to recognise the value of an application (Web 2.0 apps abounded) to their communicative processes, to ‘learn it’, or acquire the ability to use it intelligently, and to teach others to use it, was a fundamental 21st century skill. Indeed ‘learning to consciously learn’ is a skill that is essential to being able to not just learn, but to work, in this emerging digital communication landscape, as Michael Eraut implies in his useful 2007 “Early Career Learning at Work and its Implications for Universities.

We don’t know the rules of Social Media because they are being written by us, as we use these new ways of doing things we have done before. We have communicated with people in different ways, personally to those we know and impersonally (formally) to those at a distance. Now the person (seen and unseen) to whom I’m communicating chooses their relationship to me. They chose to read a blog, follow a tweet stream or watch a videolog. Their choice is like that of deciding to read a journal article, or book chapter I produce, except now they have the ability to respond, comment on the page, reply to the tweet, or leave a video response to mine. As self-evident as this may appear to those already in this digital space, it is radical. It has removed boundaries from the discourse that have existed in all other communicative forms for centuries. The answer to the question, “should we be using Social Media in education?” is surely self-evident, to not use it would be to provide an educational experience that was anything but contemporary.

The lack of ‘rules’, of established rules, in Social Media, far from making us nervous about its incorporation into formal curricula, should make us excited. No established rules, mean students have to make choices. Choices constitute an engagement.

So there is something exciting about having students play games, and something even richer in having them play games through Social Media where the rules themselves must be made-up to be understood and faculty don’t control them. There is a creative contradiction that we as faculty can harness. We have to engineer a serious game in which the abilities of its players and their purpose are unclear. How exciting is that! Choosing to use Social Media (in all its forms) is a Serious Game.

An excellent example of skills-based game resources is still SkillsWise from the BBC:

Contextual Learning not Blended Learning

Terminology in education is a fascinating thing. Words are after all concepts. Concepts change, evolve and mutate frequently more quickly than the words associated with them along the way. Learning once meant to go to the place of learning associated with what one wanted to know, the monastery to learn about religion, the blacksmith to learn about metals, and learning was learnt at the foot of the master. As European notions of learning evolved so did our concept of what was valuable to be learnt. The book gave rise to libraries, and libraries to Universities. Where else would one go to study the ‘learning’ in the books?

Our concept of learning has now reached well beyond the word itself, and so we have created prisms through which to view its process, pedagogy, andragogy, heutagogy; and an array of theoretical lenses, constructivist, social-constructivist, connectivist.

No where is this mis-match of word and concept change more evident than in the very new domains associated with e-learning in its multitude of forms. Even a ‘simple’ concept such as ‘online’ when associated with learning in the 1980s usually meant CBT (Computer-Based Training and a dedicated PC ), in the mid 1990s with home based dial-up browser based access (lots of CMC- computer-mediated-conferencing), in the mid 2000s with moderately rich multi-media VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments). In 2011 being online can mean all of the above, and access through tablets, television, game-stations and hand-held devices, in the office, at home and literally anywhere there is a wireless or data access point. Being online is changing.

Blended is the perfect example of this. Blended as a concept becomes fairly meaningless the more it is discussed. The addition of some online (see above!) activity to a campus based programme was in the 1990s deemed ‘blended’, although many would suggest a blending of lecture and self-study, reading and discussion had long been a feature. Blended meant blended with technology. But, as the technology environment evolves (the current notion is the ‘digital ecology’), the nature of the ‘blended’ learning experience necessarily changes. This environment or ecology is fluid, and variable (by social access and geography most notably) and so the nature of the learning opportunities associated with it are also fluid.

It is not only the contemporary nature of technology, its ‘here and now-ness’, it is also the contextual nature of technology. The choices I make about what I am prepared to access and when are not the same as someone who happens to be my age, or share my job title, or live in the same street. My context is unique to me. Hence my ‘blended’ opportunity is totally unique to me.

Learning designers who attempt to design effective ‘blended’ learning opportunities frequently fail to satisfy their students’ expectations. Not because some are digital natives and some are not, as Open University research demonstrates. So why? Because my notion and your notion of blended are simply different. What I can do as a learning designer is to design into your opportunities for study, into the learning that I am able to support and believe is appropriate, the flexibility for you to make the very best use of your context. With your digital ecology context, your prior learning context, your social context and your professional context, we can design learning that allows you to ‘blend’ it into a meaningful learning pattern for you. It doesn’t matter if we mean different things with the words we use. Blended should come to represent as a concept the choices we facilitate not the technology we provide.

%d bloggers like this: