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State of Play Workshop postmortem : building a learning environment

Our workshop on creating learning environments in virtual worlds — trying to learn tricks from game developers — ended up providing, in itself, a spot lesson about user-centered design. Rather than tread the usual path of presentation / questions, we went for a participatory workshop. With that framework in place, we put ourselves at the mercy of our participants — the perils of practicing what you preach! Which is not to pat ourselves on the back — weak points of the workshop highlighted potential pitfalls of user-led experiences such as accommodating wide ranges of learning styles, knowledge, experience, and cultures (more on these later). Nonetheless, I think we were happy with the way the workshop ran despite several rough spots. I’m also satisfied with our real life / Second Life interface, though that wasn’t hitch-less either.

As described earlier, our method was (1) to deconstruct successful games, running on the assumption that good games provide strong learning opportunities; (2) develop a set of principles of successful learning environments; (3) apply that framework to real-life examples, including a proposed project. Our starting hypothesis is that for teachers who are good at creating teacher-centered educational experiences, developing learner-centered experiences might be quite challenging.

Some lessons learned that are applicable both to future conference workshops and, I hope, to learning experiences in general:

1. Exploit small-group dynamics, but model them first. We started by playing the classic sequencing game (get yourselves in order of…) which assisted us into breaking into mixed-experience groups. But we squandered this effort by following up with a large-group activity that dissipated some of the early energy. We asked the entire group to identify factors in a game that they were familiar with that made them compelling experiences. While these questions were good, participants hewed to highly theoretical, general answers — most refused to give specific examples. Perhaps we should have modeled some of the answers ourselves. Then we might have had the small groups, rather than the whole group, answer a set of the posed questions, with narrow parameters for acceptable answers.

2. Focus on practical, not theoretical, activities. We should have played more games as object lessons for the session. Scot started us out with tic-tac-toe, which he used as an illustration of how games get us into a different zone even when the game is so simplistic. We probably could have teased that out more, and perhaps pulled some activities out of Rules of Play, especially since we couldn’t require participants to read Jim Gee and Raph Koster in advance. In any event, it was unrealistic to expect that we could develop a framework from scratch in the span of 1 hour. Better to do 3 spot lessons and then move on to the next phase.

3. Problem-solving is fun: Any game designer can tell you that! I think our case study was really the best part of the morning — each group went at it with some level of seriousness, though maybe not as much gusto as I might have hoped (see next lesson). We ended up with some really good responses. I think it was also at this phase that the Second Life participants got really into it (see lesson 5).

4. Culture matters. I could detect some pretty serious variance in individual participation even at the small-group level, and I attribute it to a combination of language, culture, and knowledge differences. There’s not much we could have done about the knowledge differentials, but I suspect we could have done more to have eased the group dynamics around language and culture. I noticed that most of the groups — about 10 people each — had only about half actively participating.

5. Let virtual participants actually do something. I think this is where we fell down in the first half — a large-group discussion just didn’t lend itself to Second Life participation. It’s also where the workshop shone — giving the SL participants a task was a great way to get them involved, and so we should have done the same for group discussion.

I will try to post pictures and video of this event as they become available.

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