Rini Das, CEO, PAKRA

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Where is the “Learn This” button? And Stop building Lame Games. Conversation with Maria Andersen, A Learning futurist.

As a learning futurist, an educational hacker, and a game designer, Maria H. Andersen speaks passionately about how technology, Serious Games and social media are making us learn and engage faster and how these are making “learning” free to anyone who is connected digitally. Maria is the Director of Learning and Research at Instructure.  She will be teaching a Canvas Network course on Social Media that starts later this month.

RD> Thank you so much for your time today. I met you on Twitter and have been actively following your posts ever since. So! Are you a gamer?

MHA:> I am a casual gamer. I don’t play hard-core games like World of Warcraft. But, I have a ton of Casual Games on my iPad. I am a sucker for the resource management games like Airport Mania, Diner Dash and the rest of the PlayFirst Games. I also like playing some of the good logic games like Contre Jure and World of Goo.

In these games, I do things, I make decisions, I work with resource constraints, I get rewarded, I learn from my mistakes and I can correct the course. This is the right mix for me. Ironically, I am not a big fan of Angry Birds - I get frustrated when I can’t throw the bird the way I mean to. It reminds me of Golf: if you can’t get the swing right the game is not very much fun.

RD:> I completely sympathize with your sentiments about Angry Birds. How do you learn?

MHA:> I learn a lot by reflecting and creating things. I enjoy the reward I get from “Figuring it out”. For example, sometimes when I want to learn something, I agree to give a presentation on the topic in six months time. The process of figuring out how the pieces are related, what is important — finding and exploring all of this information is very appealing to me. The best part is the last week before the presentation, when suddenly everything gels and you really get it.

These days, I use Social Learning a lot. For example, when I wanted to learn about game design, I found game designers in all spectrums and followed them on Twitter. I read their blogs. I learned who they engaged with, what they read, which conferences they go to, what game mechanics they liked, the words they use, and how they designed games.

By immersing myself in their world, I learned faster. Social Learning provides me that value of mentoring without a formal mentoring program.

RD:> This brings me to my next question, what skills does a learner acquire from Serious Games or Games-based Learning (GBL)?

MHA:> I think most games teach the basics like critical-thinking skills and logic skills. Well-designed Serious Games test your ideas in the immersive environment that they put you in. Unlike traditional learning, when your ideas don’t work out, there are pushbacks in the game and an opportunity to try again with a new theory of how the game works. Replaying and #failfast are the ways by which the gamer learns. Certainly some games teach additional skills like teamwork or good vocabulary skills – it just depends on the game. Unfortunately, about  95% of educational games are NOT Games. They are often just some variety of flash cards or multiple-choice questions with pretty graphics and the word “Game” in the title.  I call these “lame games” and I refuse to have anything to do with them.

RD:> Don't get me started on Lame Games. We get many requests to create games that are indeed glorified multiple-choice questions. We now maintain a list of flash/flex developers and whenever we get such requests, we recommend those developers to customers.

However, this brings me to another question, on the opposite side of the spectrum, when traditional game-designers engage in GBL, do you find issues with them?

MHA:> Yes! Bingo and Jeopardy are probably the worst, because those have no strategies that a player can use in order to learn. For example, in Bingo-based games, the only person who knows whether they have mastered the learning is the person who wins. The rest of the players don’t have any positive or negative reinforcement. In Jeopardy-based games, the only person who cares about the game at any given moment is the one who is currently playing. Even when kids play on a team, it is usually just the smartest one who is playing and everyone else is just along for the ride. Games that rely on Jeopardy or Bingo-type mechanics are also examples of lame games. Real GBL requires a delicate balance between learning and games.

RD:> This brings me to my next question. What are your recommendations to organize one's digital learning self? There is so much clutter and noise on the web today. What’s your advice to navigate?

MHA:> Filtering is a really important skill to develop. When I was first getting started with Twitter, I made a decision to ONLY follow people whose information-stream was valuable to me. If someone I followed was just retweeting someone with a more valuable tweetstream, I would move up the chain and follow that person instead. Even today, I actively review who I am  following on Twitter and stop following those people I do not learn from. Some people say to me, “Oh! I don’t do social media because I don’t want to know what you had for lunch today.” In the professional world, these so-called “lunch Tweets” are the exception rather than the norm.  If someone is only tweeting about their meal, then don’t follow them! Learn to filter rather than being a non-participant.

RD:> In March 2011, at ACU ConnectED Summit you discussed about the need for a Button and the importance of assessment. Can you elaborate on that and have you found the Button?

MHA:> The Button is this idea that I should be able to go any web media content (text, audio, video or game) and then after consuming the content, I might decide that I want to retain some aspect of it in my biological memory. So there should be a Button where I can indicate, “I want to learn that” and go into a personal learning system where I can take steps to learn it and share that event with others.  That’s the basic idea.

I see bits and pieces of it slowly emerging. The Tin Can project has developed an underlying framework that could work behind a Button. Learnist and StudyBlue and Anki are all moving in the right direction. We have all the right technologies – we just need to put them together in the right way now.

RD:> Our data show that by using Bloom's Taxonomy/Kirkpatrick Level 4 methods to teach skills, resulted in reducing the learning curve (This is measured from the day a learner gets the first exposure to the content to the day they become a "high performance" employee) — sometimes as high as by 50%. Are you surprised with such results? Can you tell us about research that shows immersive and Social Learning leads to better and faster learning retention? For example, if we had a Button, then the shares, the clicks, to who, by who, from who — can measure and assess the value of Social Learning.

MHA:> Oh! Those are great questions and points. I am glad your company is measuring effectiveness as part of the offering. As you know, measuring the effectiveness of learning modalities, especially games, is very difficult, as controlled experiments are very difficult to conduct in real world. I think longitudinal evaluation studies are needed for all kinds of learning. However, I can conjecture that some patterns will emerge if we start with the Button and then mine the associated data.

RD:> What new games are you building?

MHA:> I’ve recently come out with several Algebra games for iPad: Algeburst and Algeboats can be purchased in the iPad store. It has been fun to watch students play these games and push their calculators off to the side as they engage in the gameplay. You should check them out.

RD:> I will play indeed. Thank you so much Maria for your time and for sharing your insights.  It was great to chat.

MHA:> Great talking with you as well.




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