VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENTS WORK BETTER?

But do Highly Interactive Virtual Environments (HIVEs) work better for formal learning programs? Are they a fad, or are they the future? Are they the pet rock or the Internet?

The early evidence, both rigorous and anecdotal, seems to strongly suggest that highly interactive virtual learning is a permanent transformation of the educa- tional landscape, coming out of its somewhat awkward adolescence and entering early maturity. This is due in part to interactive environments’ ability to produce better traditional academic results.

Here is one well-documented typical example: Researcher Kurt Squire tested a simulation/game called Supercharged, developed at MIT by John Belcher and Andrew McKinney, to teach about electromagnetic forces. Using pre- and post- tests with control groups, he found that the participants in the control group receiving interactive lectures improved their understanding by 15 percent over their pre-test scores, while those who played with the game improved their understanding by 28 percent (Squire et al. 2004).

In another case, Dr. John Dunning, professor of organizational behavior at Troy University, discovered that students gave high marks to a popular required capstone public administration organizational behavior class using traditional linear media. However, when he surveyed multiple classes six months after the course was over, the knowledge and theories learned were not being applied in the workplace. To test the use of simulations, Dr. Dunning ran two organizational behavior classes. One class used the traditional curriculum based on case stud- ies and term papers, and the other class used a leadership simulation. Six months after both classes were over, he again polled the students. The differences between the two classes were significant. Students who took the traditional class using case studies and reports, as was consistent with the earlier surveys, could recall some portion of class material. But the students who took the class that used the leader- ship simulation had significantly greater occurrences of being able to explain the material and, most importantly, being able to apply it (Aldrich 2009).

4 Learning Online with Games, Simulations, and Virtual Worlds

THE “WHY”

But it is still not clear why highly interactive virtual environments work. I suspect that we will be debating this for centuries. Here is a list of some current arguments, looking at the different components of interactivity.

Argument 1: Games as a Learning Tool

Games are a more natural way to learn than traditional classrooms. Not only have humans been learning by playing games since the beginning of our spe- cies, but intelligent animals have as well. Otters and African grays alike have been seen exhibiting what appears to be game-playing behavior. Lepper and Malone’s “Making Learning Fun: A Taxonomy of Intrinsic Motivations for Learning” (1987) is a good high-level framework for fun elements. Games researchers Habgood, Ainsworth, and Benford (2005) explain that challenge, one of the motivations in Lepper and Malone’s taxonomy, “depends on engaging a play- er’s self-esteem using personally meaningful goals with uncertain outcomes. Uncertainty can be achieved through variable difficulty levels, multiple level goals, hidden information and randomness.” Thus, the motivational effect of digital games comes from “the emotional appeal of fantasy and the sensory and cognitive components of curiosity.”

Chris Crawford, in his book The Art of Computer friv Game Design (1984), sug- gests that games are “the most ancient and time-honored vehicle for education. They are the original educational technology, the natural one, having received the seal of approval of natural selection. We don’t see mother lions lecturing cubs at the chalkboard; we don’t see senior lions writing their memoirs for pos- terity. In light of this, the question, ‘Can games have educational value?’ becomes absurd. It is not games but schools that are the newfangled notion, the untested fad, the violator of tradition. Game-playing is a vital educational function for any creature capable of learning.”

The optimal learning state is that of being in “flow.” The term, coined by psy- chologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990), refers to a mental state of immersion and clarity. Athletes call it “being in the zone,” and the term has made its way into a number of fields including video game research. (For more information on flow’s role in gaming, see Kiili 2005). Writers and computer game players alike talk about losing track of time for hours at a time.

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