Part 4 of 4
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
This is the final article in a 4-part series about the roles that games might play in the future of online education. In the previous installments, I discussed how learning can be enhanced and deepened by the sounds, sights, textures, and emotions of a well-designed, narratively rich multiplayer game, particularly when students experience the game with the most cutting-edge virtual reality technology. My focus here is on the prospects for game-based learning right here at Excelsior College.
Game-based learning, which is the mastery of new disciplines and knowledge via game-playing, is potentially more innovative, and a far greater challenge for educators, than gamification, which simply adds a game layer to an existing course without changing its basic design or nature. Game-based learning demands entire courses designed as games, and these course-games will require, in addition to rich content, their own scoring and grading systems, plots and characters, game rules, and goals that are compelling (not just passing or getting a good grade) – in sum, they demand a top-to-bottom rethinking of the educational enterprise.
Lee Sheldon describes a game that he and David Seelow are developing for an Excelsior humanities course.
So what would this transformation look like in practice at Excelsior College? Lee Sheldon, a game designer and professor at Rennselaer Polytechnic in Troy, New York, gave us a preview. At a talk in Washington, DC in June 2014, during the launch of Excelsior’s new Center for Simulation and Game-based Learning, Sheldon discussed the work he has been doing with our own David Seelow, Chair of Humanities, on Secrets, a new online humanities course that Excelsior will offer in the near future. The topic covered in the class will be the construction of online identities, and the content will be delivered in the form of a game rather than a traditional online survey course.
In the first week of the course, every student will receive a message allegedly from a character who lives 70 years in the future but needs help from the class. In a video whose link becomes available during the first module, this character explains to all the students in the class that her future society has created a technology called “primal empathy,” which allows every one on earth to identify with one another and end hatred and war.
Then, there’s a surprise. The folks behind Primal Empathy have an enemy, a group that calls itself Fortress Nine, who also post a video warning the class not to trust the woman they’ve just heard from. Fortress Nine claims that the Primal Empathy procedure will turn the people of the future into haves and have-nots – haves if they are empathetic, have-nots if they aren’t. The leaders in the video ask the class for help in their efforts to destroy Primal Empathy, which, as they now reveal, had its roots in the Internet of today. The students, who have now been presented with two contrasting points of view and need to decide which side they are on, must go online and conduct extensive research in order to decide which faction to support.
Sheldon explains in his presentation that “students must question what they are being told, and learn about identity on the Internet–research, solving problems. The lectures affect the story, and the story affects the lecture. At one point, one of the students will meet a potential love interest on the Internet, and must ask the class whether it’s a good idea to meet this potential partner in person. Students will get to know one another and probably discover secrets about their classmates.”
Since this is an online course, where students won’t actually meet in person, Sheldon plans to include two “mock students,” whom he calls “shills.” They will fill out profiles exactly like the other students in the class. They will drive the discussion, offer hints, and become characters in the story halfway through the term. “At one point,” says Sheldon, “one of them will tell the class not to drink the bad guy’s vitamin water.”
According to Sheldon, the purpose of Secrets, and of any course designed as a game, should be to allow students to learn through playing. A well-designed game-course will have a multilayered story that draws on real human emotions and presents conflicting points of view. It will feature 3-dimensional characters each with his/her own secrets, and can feature both competition and collaboration. Students must “ decide who they can trust… and, literally, learn to learn what is truth, what is a lie, and what’s somewhere in between.”
In addition to watching Dr. Sheldon’s presentation, I also interviewed Dr. David Seelow, a permanent member of our faculty who is co-designing Secrets. My first question was about “flow,” that elusive state of mind in which we feel so completely immersed in the work we are doing that it seems as if the world falls away. I asked Dr. Seelow, “How, wrote do you think online game-style courses might increase students’ creative ‘flow,’ and how might this increased flow contribute to student engagement and retention?”
David Seelow says there are other game-courses under development at Excelsior.
This is Dr. Seelow’s response: “Flow is a very difficult state to describe let alone design for. However, video… and computer-based games are very good at helping induce the flow state where optimal engagement occurs. I suspect we have all attended a class, but not an entirely course, where flow happens- and you simply do not want the class to end. This is always the goal, but how to encourage that? The biggest key design element, according to flow’s theoretical architect Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (a psychology professor at Claremont Graduate Center in Los Angeles County), is probably immersion. In order to help induce flow courses must be designed from intrinsic not extrinsic motivation. This means focusing on… autonomy, competence, and relatedness. A course needs to enable these three factors and attempt to create something like an immersive environment to induce flow. Engagement happens when a player/student’s instinctual motivation is tapped. Flow’s not likely to happen if a student simply wants to complete a course, or get a certain grade. The instructor has done something right when a student loves a class. Jenova Chen’s games like Journey are brilliant examples of designing for flow, the name of one of his games. Chen designs primarily for emotions. Keep that in mind.”
Dr. Seelow also explained to me that there are other game-courses under development at Excelsior. During the fiscal year that began on July 1, 2014, he is working on introductory English and math classes and a course on critical thinking in nursing. It may be a while before students can actually enroll in these new courses, because, as he points out, “designing for games is more complex than our process for designing and revising courses… A game expert is needed, and courses need to be much more customizable than usual… Although some courses can be resigned with virtually no technology cost others might require complex programming.”
That being said, there’s no question that Excelsior College is a pioneer in this area; it’s virtually the only college to offer fully-online, for-credit courses based on game learning. If the Excelsior model works, it may be picked up and imitated by other colleges and universities, and eventually play a part in the transformation of higher education.