What is the role of fun in learning


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Seminar presented to OUCS, 23 Novemver 2010

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  • Hello and thank you for coming this evening. My name is Nicola Whitton and I work as a Research Fellow in the Education and Social Research Centre at Manchester Metropolitan University.

    I am one of the co-directors of the CREATE research group, which focuses on the use of technologies in learning, in particular digital cultures, emerging technologies and educational change.

    My background was originally in computing, but I became interested in the potential of computers for learning and moved into a variety of learning technology roles at different institutions. My research background is more specifically in the area of games-based learning, and I’ll be touching on the findings from a number of different projects today. My work to date has all been in the area of Higher Education, and while all of the examples and findings a from that area, I think that they are, on the whole, transferrable to other domains such as schools or training.

    But rather than a standard ‘games and learning’ talk, I thought I’d take a look at fun. I’ve recently becomes interested in ‘fun’ for two reasons: first, I quickly realised that when you research games or fun, you can get away with doing pretty much anything in work time; and secondly, it’s a concept that get bandied around a lot in relation to learning, so I wanted to take the opportunity to unpick some of the ideas around with fun and learning.
  • So, why am I talking about fun and learning, why is it even relevant?

    Well, for me this stemmed from a growing awareness at e-learning events over the past couple of years that ‘fun and learning’ is something that people have been talking about, and it’s something people seem to have very polarised opinions about.

    In recent years theories have abounded that say that learners are different from how they used to be. For example, Prensky’s idea of ‘digital natives’ or ‘games generation’ or Oblinger’s theory of the ‘net generation’, other terms such as ‘the Google generation’, ‘Generation Y’ or ‘Millienials”. Whatever you call them, they’re different: they have grown up with technology, think differently, work best when multi-tasking, operate in a networked world, requiring instant gratification and multiple stimuli. Surely learning has to be fun to appeal to this new generation of learner?

    Now I’m not going to get into one of my usual rants about the lack of evidence for these theories, and I don’t believe for a moment that learners’ brains have changed or that one entire generation is fundamentally different from any other, but I will acknowledge that the demographic of learners in our universities is different. Now over 40% of 18-30 year-olds now go to university, compared with around 10% thirty years ago. So our learners now have a greater range of abilities, as well as a greater range of expectations, and a wider spread of motivations. Perhaps by making learning fun we could appeal to more of these learners, and enthuse even the less able to engage?

    So what is the answer? Well computer games for learning clearly tick all the boxes. I mean, everybody loves computer games: they’re engaging, interactive, and more importantly, fun. And if learning could be made fun, learners would be motivated to learn, possibly without even realising they are learning. As Prensky says:

    “Digital-game based learning can certainly be hard fun. But at it’s very best, even the hard part goes away and it becomes all fun, a really good time, from which you have gotten better at something.”

    So what could possibly be wrong with fun?
  • So what is wrong with ‘fun’ as something for learning to aspire to?

    Well, my first point is really a semantic one: fun is incredibly difficult to define, and associated with that, to measure. Different people, and different disciplines, have different conceptions of fun and ideas about what it might mean. The Oxford English Dictionary offers a variety of definitions but the two that I think are closest to my idea of fun are “exciting goings-on” and also “a source or cause of amusement or pleasure”.
    But is fun simply about pleasure? Flow theory, which will be familiar to anyone who does games research as “that theory by the guy with the unpronounceable name” distinguished between pleasure and enjoyment, saying that pleasure is an immediate physical state – eating food, having sex – but that enjoyment goes further to provide a sense of psychological growth, fulfilling a previously-recognised need or desire in a way that is beyond the expected – an accomplishment. So even the word ‘fun’ isn’t straightforward. Johan Huizinga, authors of the seminal text, Homo Ludens, says “[fun] resists all analysis, all logical interpretation. As a concept, it cannot be reduced to any other mental category.”

    A second problem, separate I think from one of definition, is the subjective and individualistic nature of fun. Fun means different things to different people, at different times, in different contexts. Fun is not a universal concept. There are also different types of fun, for example physical, aesthetic, emotional, and these are of different relative importance to different people.

    Fun is also contextually situated, so what is fun now may not be fun tomorrow, what is fun here may not be fun there. At what point does fun become boring, at what point does the novelty wear off? Surely even fun gets boring if you have too much of it? How can we use something so subjective and transient to aspire to? How might we know when we’ve achieved it?

    Finally, and possibly the biggest problem with fun, is associated with the attitudes and expectations – both of students, and of teaching staff. Fun can be seen a trivialising learning, as a frivolous diversion. There is also the potential of being seen to create fun, but if it is at the expense of learning, many learners – particularly those who are paying – may see this as a waste of time. So, as you can see, I’m not convinced by ‘fun’ as something to which learning should aspire, which kind of knocks out one of the big arguments for using games straight off. So while I’m in the zone, let’s look at a few more reasons not to use games for learning.

  • So – three big myths about games and learning, that I’ve seen repeated over and over in the literature: games are motivational, students want to learn with games, and because students use games in their leisure time they want to learn with them.

    The first point I want to highlight because originally I believed it. As a gamer myself, and someone who is motivated to play games, I started my PhD making this assumption: games are motivational so how can we best use them for learning? However in my first series of focus groups (which didn’t even make it into the thesis) I was shocked when over half of the participants said things like “we don’t play games” or “I find computer games boring”. This is what really sparked my interest in computer games and motivation. Why does this propagate in the literature? a) game-player researchers; b) self-selecting participants.

    So I started looking at these questions in my own research and I’d like to share some of the findings from my that contradict these claims. In the early years of my doctoral research I carried out some exploratory interviews and questionnaires, that aimed to looks at the types of games students played, and whether they would like to use games for learning.

    12 interviews, 200 questionnaires – undergraduate computing students, who you might expect to be game players (and 87% were either occasional or regular players)

    Students were asked if they would be motivated to learning with games – only 63% said that they would find them positively motivating (28% didn’t care, and 9% said they would actually be de-motivating). This sounds good but remember that this is ‘optimum’ demographic – those you would most expect to find games motivating.

    I also analysed the data to see if there was any correlation between that amount that participants played games (i.e. Not at all, occasionally, or regularly) and their desire to use games to learn. There was no link. That means that there was no evidence that people who play games in their leisure time want to use them for learning any more than people who don’t play.

    Students were asked what types of game they played – predominantly first-person shooter, with games that might be more appropriate for formal learning (e.g. Adventure, strategy, roleplay) much further down the list.

    So, if games aren’t particularly motivational, and students don’t particularly want to use them, why are they interesting?
  • So can’t assume that will be fun or motivational, at least for many of our students. So why are they interesting?

    Well I believe that games have the potential to provide truly engaging interactive learning environments – that games can be seen as the ultimate constructivist learning environments. That is, some games.

    So, good games for learning are active, they support the player in taking part in authentic activities, and things happen, proving a cycle of action and interaction. They provide concrete experience, so that players do something, see the results and can reflect on their actions. They can be collaborative and support the sharing of knowledge and multiple viewpoints, not just online games, but players in the same physical space, and online communities and what Gee called ‘affinity groups’. They are also based around problems and challenges, providing motivation and purpose for learning and moving on.

    It is this model of challenge and progression, initially fast then slower, that builds interest in the game and supports players in learning to play and learning from the game. Ongoing provision of feedback – both extrinsic and intrinsic – allows the player to learn from his or her mistakes. The game provides context and purpose, a reason for undertaking learning activities, but also one that is safe, where learners can practices and the consequences do not matter outside of the game.

    So I believe that games are fantastic learning tools – but not because they are fun! Interestingly, from the interviews is that although there was little positive motivational effect, every participant said that they would be willing to use games to learn – if that was the most effective way.

    So if fun is a red herring, are there any useful concepts for analysing the way in which different people interact with games. There are two that I want to introduce that I think are more useful: engagement and playfulness.
  • My research shifted to looking at engagement. How does engagement differ from fun? Well, I think engagement isn’t simply about pleasure or excitement, but is something deeper, for example I remember being very engaged in the film Schindler’s List, but I certainly wouldn’t describe the experience as fun. So I wanted to know if engagement is something more, what is it, and how might I model engagement with learning?

    For this I first drew on the literature of games and learning, in particular Thomas Malone, who identified motivational elements in games, Czikszentmihalyi’s (CHEEK-sent-mee-hy-ee) Flow Theory, which identified characteristics of what he calls and optimal experience. I was also interesting in learning motivation and I found Knowles’ theory of andragogy to be useful. While I’m not convinced that there is such as distinct difference between adults and children as the theory purports, it is useful for highlighting that adults – and indeed many learners – have conflicting demands for their time, are strategic, want to learn when they need to know and need to engage in the meta-levels of learning.

    Coupled with these theories was the results of the interviews I carried out early in my PhD that highlighted reasons for game playing and motivations for learning. This resulted in a five-factor model of engagement with learning.

    Challenge – a task that is motivating, known, and believed to be achievable.
    Control – a talk that is fair, with choices of action, and transparent and timely feedback.
    Immersion – absorption and concentration in the task.
    Interest – curiosity about and passion for the subject of the task.
    Purpose – recognition of value in the task.

    These factors were used to create an engagement questionnaire for measuring post-experiential engagement. So that’s how you might model and measure engagement from a theoretical perspective, but what actual use is it?
  • These are some of the results from a more recent project, which created an alternate reality game for student induction. ARGs are a fairly new game form, that started as viral internet games that are played over several weeks or months in which a community of players solve puzzles and challenges so that a story unfolds, both online and in the real world. I’m not going to talk in any detail about the project here, except that as one of the user tests we carried out a trial version of the game and followed up each of the players with a telephone interview. This highlighted, among other things, the range of elements that different people found engaging and allowed us to come up with this six-part model, of elements from alternate reality games that contribute to engagement. While this came from work with ARGs, I think it could actually apply to all games. You will see, also that these elements are not unique to games.

    Community – having other people around to collaborate with and for support.
    Competition – pitting your wits against other people.
    Completion – the idea of ‘collecting the pieces’ or ‘completing the jigsaw’.
    Puzzle-solving – solving puzzles and problems.
    Creativity – developing artefacts, such as photographs, poetry or video.
    Narrative – following the storyline.
    I am now very interested in the ways in which these elements could be used in teaching situations to enhance engagement. For example, myself and a colleague ran a conference workshop recently in which we tried to embed each of these elements. Participants worked in groups, there was scoring and a leaderboard, they had a series of challenges to complete, involving both creativity and puzzle-solving, which were presented using narrative scenarios.

    For me, one of the big challenges of game-based learning is how people get the right games cheaply and feasibly and I think that this approach offers a simple way to learn from games without having to go down the full game-based learning route. So that’s engagement, but I also wanted to talk about playfulness.
  • Finally, I want to talk a little bit about an area that I’m becoming more interested in: playfulness.

    We learn through play and imitation, through having experiences , mimicry, apprenticeship, trial-and-error. Games and virtual worlds and simulations all provide these playful spaces in which learners can try out new things just to see what happens.

    They also provide safe spaces and enable users to see the consequences of an action without having to see the consequences in real life; so they are physically safe, but also mentally safe, and allow players to be anonymous or to represent themselves as they like. They can also take part in fantastic – as in unreal – activities, for example flying in Second Life. A tool like Second Life offers lots of opportunities for playfulness, yet more often than not educators go in and reproduce lecture theatres – is that really because people have no imagination or because playfulness is seen as inappropriate in education?

    I believe that playfulness is also intrinsically linked to creativity. Companies like Microsoft or Google think this too – you just need to look at the layout of their offices, with games consoles and pool tables in breakout spaces in breakout spaces.

    I think we need to get away from ‘serious’ games – whether it is the game that is serious, or the purpose. Games are meant to be playful, to be frivolous – even fun – let’s not lose that in learning games. It has to be seen to be okay to play, to experiment, to muck around even. And so with that mini-rant I will end there.
  • So, to conclude. I don’t like fun. Or rather I don’t think it is a useful concept in relation to learning. It’s over hyped but under considered.

    It’s really important that we, as educators and researchers, stop making assumptions about games and reasons for using them. I wholeheartedly believe in the value of games for learning, but this is because they are good learning tools, the fact that they may (or may not) be fun for some people is irrelevant.

    Finally, I just want to reiterate that the two areas I think are useful for further research are engagement and playfulness.
  • Thank you very much for your time.

    I’m very happy to take any questions now or to be contacted in future via email, my blog or twitter.
  • What is the role of fun in learning

    1. 1. WHAT IS THE ROLE OF FUN IN LEARNING? Dr Nicola Whitton Manchester Metropolitan University
    2. 2. WHY FUN AND LEARNING?  People are talking about it  Learners are different  Learner demographics are different  Game-based learning hype
    3. 3. SO WHAT IS WRONG WITH FUN?  Semantics  Different strokes for different folks  Context and timing  Learner expectations and attitudes
    4. 4. SOME MYTHS ABOUT GAMES AND LEARNING  Games are motivational  Students want to use games to learn  Students play games for fun so they want to use them to learn  Games that are played for fun are appropriate for learning
    5. 5. SO WHAT IS GOOD ABOUT GAMES?  Good games are:  Active and interactive  Experiential  Collaborative  Problem-based  Good games provide:  Challenge and scaffolding  Feedback  Context and purpose  A safe environment
    6. 6. ENGAGEMENT WITH LEARNING  Challenge  Control  Immersion  Interest  Purpose
    7. 7. MAKING LEARNING ENGAGING Community Competition Completion Creativity Narrative Puzzle- solving
    8. 8. PLAYFULNESS  Play is intrinsic to learning  Games as safe spaces  Playfulness and creativity
    9. 9. CONCLUSIONS  Fun isn’t helpful as a concept  Need to stop making assumptions about games  The key is making learning engaging and making it playful
    10. 10. THANK YOU FOR LISTENING Any questions? n.whitton@mmu.ac.uk http://playthinklearn.net/ @nicwhitton