Monthly Archives: May 2012

Minds-on time in games: Look for Duty Cycle

This post is from a virtual roundtable on

In a post above I wrote about “duty cycle” in games. Something important to note as one considers programs.    What I mean is: if you were to take a stopwatch and observe how much time students spend doing what in a game, what fraction of the seconds would they be “learning”, whether actively engaged or passively. And I mean learning the intended subject, not the gameplay per se.    Let’s suppose math. The “learning” could be understanding a problem and finding the math in it. It could be observing example math procedures of problem-solving. It could be practice in those procedures of math problem-solving; even quizzes are practice. It could be getting instructive mathematical feedback or reinforcement on math problem solutions, whether video, audio, or animated. It could be watching a new math concept explained, or the thinking process before posing a solution to a problem.    In a math game, then, duty cycle seconds would not include: non-mathematical gameplay time, non-mathematical problem setup (i.e. the backstory to a problem), seconds spent navigating, watching a non-mathematical “win” animation, or (gulp) waiting for the computer to respond.    While I am not saying that 100% duty cycle is an ideal design goal, I do say that duty cycles can vary quite a bit among games, and I believe that one should be conscious of duty cycle and consider what a low duty cycle vs. high duty cycle means for effective learning. High duty cycle games can be as engaging as low.


Game taxonomy? my corner of the map & the transformed learning moment

This post is from a virtual roundtable on

The taxonomy of games and indeed the distinctions between games and puzzles are important distinctions for understanding research. We need to distinguish the mammals from the fish, even animals from plants, by their properties. I’ve tripped across little-to-nothing myself along the lines of a game taxonomy, and if readers can share schema they’ve found useful along with why that’d be much appreciated and interesting.

I have the luxury of focusing for the last decade on one corner of this map – in-school, supplemental, computer-based math games; blended online/student with bricks/teacher. Even in that corner, there is a wide range of niches for “game software” to fill: diagnostic/assessment. skills practice. personalized practice problems. “real world” problem contexts. with or without teacher role. concept introduction. remediation: adaptive concept/skill re-teaching.

I suggest that in the STEM arena, where understanding complex relationships of ideas, rather than fact memorization alone, are the learning goals, a focus on the following question is in order:    What exactly is happening at the moment (in the game) where the student is learning something new? In other words, aggressively strip away all the non-subject-matter gameplay and identify the learning environment that remains.

Finally I suggest that if the learning environment that remains is an electronic version of conventional instruction, then we are not looking at a game-changer. It can be highly valuable (save time, easier access, more duty cycle, quicker feedback, formative info for teachers) but not transformative. And transformative is possible with games/puzzles. In other words, if our shiny 21st century learning environment, even a highly engaging game, still rests on passive absorption of content (as if watching a lecture) then I say we should not expect transformative results for all students.

Google your way to Learning Complexity? I think not.

This post is from a virtual roundtable on

Effective learning requires an interactive experience, beyond browsing, passive listening or reading, or viewing. Games are an interactive experience.

Let me begin to explain why I believe this distinction is valuable and important. The organization I’m in serves the math content area. And math, of all subjects, is the most tightly inter-connected, yes? Most of what you learn in 2nd grade you will use again in 3rd. If you really didn’t get fractions in elementary school, you will suffer (and fail) in algebra. There is a logical and connected sequence of learning concepts and skills: place value should come before the standard multiplication algorithm.

In order to understand math and be able to continue to higher math, one needs to be constantly adding on to a conceptual framework of math understanding – a framework ultimately built and maintained by the learner herself, in the learner’s head. So, with higher math concepts in mind, imagine trying to learn math from scratch by browsing for web pages through Google. Imagine just browsing for the “answers” to specific math problems. Maybe you could even post the problem and get it answered by an online expert. Maybe you find a little bit of math concept on this website, and a little bit more on that. For me, this math-by-browsing thought experiment has me generalizing that Googling, or browsing, through many un-related bits of information, in search of answers, is an inefficient and likely ineffective way to develop a logical conceptual framework, i.e. to learn anything complex.

Unlike Google search results, lecture series and books on the other hand can describe complex subjects; each does have a lot of content designed to fit together. They have to have an underlying conceptual framework, the lecturer’s or author’s, which they intend to walk the learner through. The problem is that, no matter what shiny new technology delivers lectures or pages, from podcasts to YouTube to Kindles to iPads, asynchronous lectures and books are of course essentially passive. And watching an embedded video is still passive. Even live lectures, in my unhappy experience at a large and well regarded research university with 100+ student lecture halls, are fundamentally passive for almost all of the students in attendance. The problem with passive consumption of information is that while one might feel able to follow the thread of thought at the time, it all too easily breaks free from memory later. It takes an additional, often optional step of action to weave it in, whether that be active listening via smart note-taking; homework; or pausing while reading a book to synthesize, take notes, or draw diagrams on one’s own.

So, rather than requiring extra motivation and effort, how could we get interactivity and action to be the path of least resistance for every learner to take? So that new concepts introduced get the benefit of active learning, and get riveted onto a conceptual framework?

Here’s one way. There are two ingredients: i) A game-based learning environment, or more specifically puzzles within games. Puzzles are by their nature interactive: situation, objective, player action, game response, objective achieved?, new situation. Over and over, in a highly motivating way. Perception/action/perception is how people are designed to learn. ii) immensely challenging instructional design to create puzzles, sequences of puzzles, and games that are effective for learning.

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