It was well worth the early start today to attend a fascinating webinar presented by Nicola Whitton of MMU on ‘assessment of game based learning’. Part of the successful series of webinars hosted by the Transforming Assessment project funded by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council and based at the University of Adelaide, this was the second of two events focusing particularly on games in education.
While the previous seminar looked less at assessment and more generally at games and pseudo-games such as Second Life, Nicola’s talk drew a sharp distinction between play, play worlds and simulations. Games don’t need to have awesome graphics or vast budgets to succeed: great learning designs may be gamelike without the author ever consciously intending to design a game. Games might ‘mashup the real world and the game world’ in imaginative and creative ways, but
lecture theatres aren’t particularly effective in real life, so reproducing them in a world where you can fly just seems really strange
I feel as though I’m SL-bashing again, but I found it really refreshing to have someone state so clearly that no, just because something’s virtual doesn’t make it a game, its the nature of the interaction between learner and content that does. It doesn’t make it a more or less legitimate learning tool either, but the distinction is important as they both have valuable but different things to offer, and represent very different learning models.
Nicola distinguished between the use of games as an assessment tool and the assessment of games based learning, an important distinction that often seems to be overlooked.
Assessment within games offers some valuable elements: it can be automated, repeatable, potentially integrated in the learning process, impartial. External assessment, defined here as any non-game assessment activity, by contrast, is capable of greater creativity, more tutor control, but is also more time-intensive and can be unconsciously partial. Higher levels of learning such as analysis and critical thinking are far more difficult to assess by any automated method, including games, as they attempt to use quantitative methods to assess qualitative outcomes.
Games often have a binary, win or lose outcome that doesn’t accurately reflect the subtleties of degrees of competence or ability, and which can be counterproductive to learning through play when used as assessment. By using external assessment processes and disassociating game performance from course grade, games can provide a safe learning environment in which failure in the immediate game context can actually be invaluable for further learning and growth.
As with any other form of assessment, including pen and paper tests, expertise in the assessment format – in this case, gaming literacy – can significantly alter the outcome of the assessment. As always, assessment must genuinely assess the intended learning outcomes and not, for example, the ability to navigate effortlessly through the game world (a major issue even for experienced gamers when it comes to Second Life) or familiarity with general gaming conventions. This suggests that assessing game based learning within the game environment would be a preferred approach, but while teachers may find it relatively easy to integrate innovative approaches within their teaching practice, applying this to assessment, particularly higher-stakes assessment, can provoke hostility from higher authorities. Nicola did, however, reference the SQA’s GamesSpace initiative, presented at a CETIS special event earlier this year, as an example of a national assessment authority embracing such technologies for a major qualification strand. GamesSpace is particularly worth noting as it allows the assessment of process and not simply product and incorporates human rather than automated marking: the candidate uses an avatar to progress through a series of role-related tasks, priorities and activities which are recorded in a format identical to the pen and paper alternative for manual human marking.
Learners too may demonstrate some hostility towards games as teaching aids – but this resistance is something that has been observed in relation to other innovative approaches too. Anything that appears to trivialise learning or that can be interpreted as trying to make learners ‘not feel they’re learning‘ can provoke scepticism and resistance in learners. It can be hard to get away from the priviliging of traditional models of teaching and learning, from the scholars seated at the feet of the master, from the three essays in three hours make-or-break finals paper. When learners can see the value in using such approaches, they are generally very willing to engage with them – learners are in general pragmatic, strategic and outcomes-orientated, whether their teachers like it or not. Interestingly, Nicola’s research has demonstrated that a ‘propensity to play games for fun is in no way related to an inclination to play games for learning.’ She also cast some healthy scepticism on the oft-quoted finding that women play puzzles while men play shooters, pointing out that these findings come from surveys completed by self-selecting groups and can’t be taken as gospel; as a women who’d far rather shoot pigs than click cows I find it good to have my preferences acknowledged
The two sessions offered very different views of a sometimes controvertial field, and regardless of personal opinion these varied perspectives were invaluable. This excellent series of seminars will be continuing for the rest of this year and into 2011 and is well worth engaging with, as is the rest of the project’s extensive and highly informative site.