Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Goldilocks of Customized Learning

We all want customized learning environments.  Or, do we? Unlike Goldilocks, we may still be looking for our “just right” fit.

The concept of providing customization in games-based learning is universally well-received, but it has a few different meanings. Paul Anderson has an engaging TEDx clip advocating for student-customization allowing for self-paced, personalized learning for student. Vicky Davis (@CoolCatTecher) speaks to customization when she shares “game experiences where students create, innovate and problem solve engage pupils in the game and learning.”  These are “epic educational adventures. Gee shares a bolder goal of customization within games which allow “real intersections between the curriculum and the learner’s interests, desires, and styles.” (2005, p.35).

These three descriptions scaffold nicely into increasingly effective models for gbl.

  1. Anderson’s customization allows students to personalize learning in an environment until mastery is achieved. Failure is a part of the process and not discouraged. Many video game designs are built upon the paradigm. Our goal is to have teachers and developers create these progressions so that students can work through them at their own pace in a gamified environment.
  2. Davis’ model speaks to a more powerful form of open-ended customization. Minecraft is a great example that fits within this model.
  3. Gee’s customization model goes one step further as games which naturally integrate the curriculum and tap into a students’ interests while still allowing the higher-order skills of creating, innovating, and problem-solving.

All three are strong enhancements to traditional classrooms; all three allow for student customization in the learning. But it is somewhere between Davis and Gee where teacher-customization can become messy. In theory, it sounds like something we all want. Or, do we?

Davis’ models are wonderful examples of Problem-Based Learning. Teachers can and will continue to create these learning experiences. But for these environments to scale, we need developers like MineCraft and other gbl developers to continue their increased involvement in helping tie it to curricular goals. For as fantastic as Minecraft is as a PBL/GBL resource, it is not a natural extension (with a few exceptions) into the curriculum as Gee would advocate.  It’s as if we are saying: “Here’s an engaging, open-ending learning environment built upon PBL principles. Now, teachers, do your best to customize it to your curriculum.”  That can be a big ask.

There are some great examples of this happening. Here are two of the most common.
Allowing teacher customization is a double-edged sword.

Gillespie is using the open-ended nature of Minecraft as a replicator and model-maker for his students. It requires minimal teacher-customization geared toward content, but will be weighed by future educators with the never-ending “time vs. effectiveness” debate. For instance, making a poster of a virtual NC historical environment is likely quicker, but may not lead to the same level of student understanding.

Dan Bloom’s model aligns far more with Gee’s integration of curricular content. But it requires a much greater degree of teacher customization. In Bloom’s case, he was working within the innovative Quest To Learn School it was created in collaboration with a game-designer thanks to a partnership with Institute of Play.  These are innovative models and partnerships, but far from the norm.  Either these models need to scale significantly, or we have to find other ways to reach Gee’s desired model.

Real world learning is open-ended, dynamic, and complex. By definition, it is not linear or based on multiple-choice answers. As we strive towards Gee’s model, we have to recognize that teachers are largely unfamiliar with interdependent environments (to say nothing of the time commitment it may ask of them to build a model like Dan Bloom’s). It runs contrary to the plug-n-play model of many gbl environments.

How much customization is fair to expect from educators?

GBL environments vary in their capacity to allow customization. Does it...
  • Naturally integrate established (traditional) content?
  • Allow instructors to add more/desired content easily?
  • Allow instructors to easily vary the complexity of the task, information, or problem?
  • Allow instructors to add current news or topics of student interest?
  • Allow students to create their own solutions?
  • Allow students multiple pathways toward desired goals?
  • Allow social learning where students to interact with (and learn from?) one another?
  • Provide an open-ended, dynamic, and complex (non-linear) environment?

This is something we wrestle with at simCEO as well. We don’t have it right.  Our simulation allows teachers to add their own assignments, news articles, and set the fictional time/place for their classroom stock market, and have the option to guide student share prices - if desired.

Our early feedback from teachers was that it was just too over-whelming - probably a similar sentiment that some teachers feel as they approach Minecraft. Lately, we’ve tried to streamline the simulation to provide a baseline model with default environments, assignments, and news - all of which can be adapted by teachers. But on the flip side, we now hear feedback from instructors who are unaware of what’s possible. As our learning environments provide more structure for teachers to ease implementation, we influence (directly or indirectly) the chances that they will customize the learning tool as their own.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not pessimistic. This is an important question for all of us in gbl to tackle.

No matter how we solve it at simCEO (or others solve it in their environments), I’m sure we’ll continue hear from teachers who want a more open, customizable environment. And, we’ll hear from others who want a more sequential, plug-n-play experience that minimizes barriers to classroom implementation.

Like Goldilocks, we need to find our ‘just right’ answer for teacher customization.  It’s at the heart of how close we can come to scaling the types of environments Gee envisioned into a growing reality.

We’d love to hear your experiences to keep the conversation moving forward.

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