Students, faculty win in digital environments

Laura Huenneke

          by Laura Huenneke, Provost

When the student next to me dropped head into hands, groaning, I knew Nancy Barron and I were in trouble.

The student-dominated audience at last Saturday’s Undergraduate Videogame Symposium was reacting to the announcement that faculty teams, including Nancy and me, would be playing—or attempting to play—“Surgery Simulator” in front of the crowd. (Perform a heart transplant while learning how to pick up and manipulate instruments through a keyboard!)

Students working with Barron’s Interdisciplinary Writing Program had organized a day of presentations, narrated play, guest speakers, and insightful analyses of the learning environments and experiences provided by gaming. The day was an excellent, if awkwardly hands-on, sequel to Friday afternoon’s President’s Technology Initiative Expo, where faculty presented how they have redesigned and transformed courses through technology.

Both events illustrated that digital environments, whether in a game or in a blended or “flipped” course, move much of the opportunity (or responsibility) for learning to the student.  Exploration, assessing and interpreting contextual clues, and repeated trial-and-error all facilitate “deliberate learning” in a more active, often more individualized fashion than simple classroom presentations.

Some exciting course redesigns funded by the President’s Technology Initiative have enabled significant change in pedagogy and types of learning. We saw a lab course with more hands-on content than the original demonstration-based approach; a redesigned course in which the instructor and teaching assistants engage individuals and small groups; and a lecture course restructured to apply “Wordle” to student pre-class online postings to identify topics that students most need to have more discussion of in class. And there were examples showing a great increase in the number of students that can be accommodated, counteracting space limitations.

Students in the videogame symposium provided insightful descriptions of the analytical, experimental and interpretative skills that can be gained. It is clear that the same young adults who frequently fail to do pre-class reading or preparation are willing to spend enormous effort trying new, creative and independent approaches to master something in a game environment. (As one speaker commented, “Grand Theft Auto” is NOT about learning to follow instructions.)

What might we learn from games and gamers that would help us prepare our students—some of whom are not necessarily tech-savvy—for the technology-enabled educational experience? It is not an attempt to “gamify” (e.g., substituting badges or leveling up for grading) but the need to draw upon possible insights into cognition, learning and motivation. We’ll be encouraging further investigation of this—just as soon as I get through the next phase of “Journey” on the PlayStation … .