Generation Next Blog
The positive internet-incentive strategies, serious games, online education & learning
When psychiatrists, psychologists and other clinicians discuss the use and overuse of computer-based technologies in schoolchildren and young people, it is tempting to assume that there is a near-exclusive focus on the negative, pathological and undesirable aspects of this rapidly evolving domain. Such pop-cultural terms like ‘internet addiction’, ‘cyberbullying’ and ‘sexting’, seen in the media on a daily basis, probably add to this perception. However there has, in recent years, been an increasing interest among researchers and leaders in the field to look at the positive uses of Internet-based technologies- after all, if maybe 5 to 10% of schoolchildren suffer from some form of problematic internet use, then of course 90% or more use it without a major issue or problem.
It is thus appropriate, and timely, to look at some of the more interesting developments in the exciting field of ‘positive internet psychology and learning’. This brief overview shall look at 3 of the major ones: gamification, the serious games movement, and internet-based schooling and education.
Gamification: This rather clunky, and also controversial, term is admittedly not confined to modern pedagogy and education: it has been seen all around us for decades now, in the form of reward vouchers, ‘frequent flyer’ points, club and shop memberships, etc. Commercial entities worldwide are increasingly using gamification principles to improve customer loyalty – and company profits. However, when applied thoughtfully to the classroom setting, it has the potential to make learning much more engaging and, indeed, ‘fun’. Put simply, gamification principles use simple techniques such as a clearly defined goal, regular feedback as to one’s ‘progress’, a sense of self-efficacy, and strategically placed ‘mini-rewards’ along the way to the final goal (or prize).Cynics may, possibly correctly, think this is simple manipulation of people by companies, using age-old psychological techniques, and of course this has been used in the area of gambling, and pokie-machine design. But, since the 1960’s, there has been growing appreciation that the old, didactic, ‘Dickensian’ way of learning by memorization, data consumption and punishment, just isn’t appropriate to the modern, fast-paced world where problems are often complex and non-linear; requiring left-field and creative thinking, rather than simple application of facts. Gamification can usefully be applied to a range of school topics, from maths to the humanities, and music and sports. Indeed, the most inspiring and successful teachers since schools began have probably intuitively used gamification principles to make their lessons more enjoyable and effective.
The Serious Games Movement: Computer games, since their inception in the early 1980’s, were intended to be fun, relaxing, often social – and rather pointless, ultimately. As computer games became more sophisticated and multiuser, it was clear that, if the billions of hours spent by gamers worldwide could be harnessed to some form of social good in the ‘real world’ , then maybe those vast tracts of time would not be wasted simply in the virtual world (though hard-core gamers would most probably not see this time as being ‘wasted’ or pointless). Since the early 2000’s, some leading games designers adapted existing games, or designed new ones, with the final goal being raising money for projects in Africa, supporting hospitals locally, etc, instead of the typical ‘alien vs humanity’ scenario. Of course, for the games to succeed, real money would often need to be raised, but it is often not appreciated that a large number of popular games, especially the multi-user and role-playing games, require expenditure of money to maintain a successful presence in the game. The best example of a successful ‘serious game’ that didn’t require currency exchange was the ‘Folding At Home’ international collaborative biochemistry project (started in 2000), where the general public’s home computers, and even gaming consoles, were utilized to work out the immensely complex protein-folding ‘solutions’ from a mix of basic amino acid molecules, which were supplied virtually from a consortium of US universities researching diseases such as Alzheimer’s dementia, and potential new drugs. This major project, which did lead to many positive ‘solutions’, also utilized gamification principles which enhanced its appeal, such as clear goals, feedback from the parent entities, and a sense of deep involvement.
Closely linked with serious games are what are often described as ‘social learning games’. This area involves games which are targeted for, generally, primary school children. Again, using the engaging and fun environment of a well-designed computer game, positive skills can be taught, applied and reinforced which would then hopefully be applied to the real world. Such outcomes may include improved social and interaction skills, effective problem-solving skills, or even anger and emotional-management techniques. Research into just how effective and useful these games can be in young children is currently underway, with promising initial results.
Internet-based education and learning (IBEL): The most recent, and potentially the most revolutionary, of the 3 areas looked at in this article employs the principles outlined above, but goes beyond them in significant ways. IBEL, as defined here, does not simply refer to the use of the Internet and World Wide Web to access information, lecturers and testing materials, which has been done for many years in for example correspondence University courses, but refers to a learning environment where standard subject lessons are replaced by pupils’ immersion in a complex networked computer game, in which they have a stake, and which they may have indeed designed themselves in collaboration with their teachers. For example, a seemingly simple ‘virtual treasure hunt’ could incorporate mathematical puzzles or exercises, historic or geographic questions, or even a sporting or musical challenge; success in the games progress could depend on research, collaboration with peers, risk taking or experimenting. Essentially, the possibilities are as limitless as the Internet itself.
The first such facility to open using this radical approach was the ‘Quest To Learn’ school in New York City, which was set up with funding from Microsoft, Harvard Uni among many others. To this author’s knowledge, no similar school yet exists elsewhere in the world, but there is sure to be global interest as the first pupils there progress through, and are investigated as to the possible benefits (or detriments) of this approach over a more orthodox schooling experience.
In summary, what is clear is that society in general is only opening the gates of a potentially exciting, but unpredictable new domain in education and learning. Whether we can fully exploit those possibilities, and not dwell on the undoubted risks of cyberspace, remains to be seen.
Author: Dr. Philip Tam, Child/adolescent Psychiatrist, President/ co-founder of the Network for Internet Investigation and Research in Australia.