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Playing to Learn
Blending Learning with Stories, Games, Toys, and Simulations

By Amy Finn / October 2002

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If learning is about problem-solving and skills mastery, what greater way to accomplish this than by using games, toys, and simulations to help us teach and learn? It is the experiential and problem-based nature of these diversions that renders them so powerful as learning tools.

Blended approaches to learning, which mix play and other techniques in a variety of media, help ensure that we are engaged, attentive, and fully involved in the process through which we master knowledge. By "doing" and by collaborating, it has been repeatedly shown that people learn more and retain that knowledge longer over time. Understanding how games, toys, and simulations can be used effectively to enhance learning enables us to create dynamic and interesting content in live e-learning sessions.

Learning from Sesame Street
From my perspective, one of the most successful approaches to learning comes from a television program called Sesame Street. If playing-to-learn works (and studies repeatedly show that it does), Sesame Street is a prime example of how blended, playful activities—repeated in short bursts of information for a finite period of time each day, presented over an extended period of months—works to secure retention of knowledge.

In addition, watching and interacting with the actors (teachers), and immediately applying the information provided (using the words, numbers, and phrases in everyday life), ensures that the knowledge gained is expanded over time. By the end, we played along and learned our numbers, letters, and even words in foreign languages without realizing we were being taught.

In 1997, Janet H. Murray of M.I.T. wrote an insightful book entitled Hamlet on the Holodeck, The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. In one section of her book, Murray discusses the ways in which games and simulations contribute to one's ability to learn, solve problems, and master skills.

Murray observes that, "games always involve some kind of activity and are often focused on the mastery of skills, whether the skill involves chess strategy or joystick twitching" (Murray, 1997). Games, like active learning and education, teach. Learners are actively involved in the process of working a problem through to solution. Murray continues, "most of all, games are goal-directed and structured around turn-taking and keeping score" ( Murray, 1997). As learning evolves, we must consider games an especially effective tool.

There is a wonderful project at M.I.T. called Toys of Tomorrow. Part of a research program at the M.I.T. Media Lab, this project involves an unbelievable array of toys designed to provide fun and learning. According to the Toys of Tomorrow Web site, "Playtime is among the least understood and most wonderful times in life. But play isn't all fun and games. While we play, we have our best ideas and make our best connections with other people." Playing together can help us learn in ways we never dreamed possible, and can be applied to live e-learning and other types of knowledge delivery.

There is one more component of playing-to-learn: simulations. Simulations are powerful tools that help us model activities and interactions. Web-based training uses simulations as a means to teach people how to use software applications (A. Karrer, et al.). Tips and techniques have been developed to enable scenario-based simulation and there are many papers published that outline best practices in simulation construction (A. Karrer, et al.).

The U.S. Military has an incredibly difficult mission—to train 2.4 million men and women in the four services (Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines), plus another million civilian employees. All must learn to work as individuals, teams, and units to meet all sorts of unforeseen and difficult objectives around the world under very high-pressure conditions. (A. Karrer, et al.). The Military has "embraced digital game-based learning with all the fervor of true believers. Why? Because it works for them," according to an article published in ASTD Learning Circuits in February 2001, "True Believers: Digital Game-Based Learning in the Military," by Mark Prensky."

Simulations are used by the U.S. Military to teach the following:

  • the proper use of sensitive and expensive equipment
  • military doctrine
  • art of strategy
  • teamwork and team training
  • mastering the complex process of military logistics
  • how not to fight when helping maintain peace (A. Karrer, et al.)
Simulations have tremendous potential as part of an e-learning strategy, and will be more widely used in the future. They offer experiences that help us model and shape the things we do based on "what if" scenarios. Where better to play out possibilities then during the learning process?

Games and Simulations in Live E-learning
Interactivity is a very important part of live e-learning. Sessions must be dynamic and active to motivate the learner in a virtual classroom. At Centra, we use games and simulations in our live e-learning classes for customers. These help us put the concepts we want to teach in context. They help us to build on existing knowledge and extend that knowledge base through "play."

Our experiences with live e-learning has taught us that the use of games and simulations can help bring to life knowledge and information that might otherwise exist only as bullet points on slides. The use of stories as the basis for case studies, scenarios, role-playing, and problem solving in a game or simulation-based format provides a memorable, vivid, participatory, and fun means for live e-learning session participants to learn, remember, and retain knowledge effectively over time.

Games and simulations are visual and appeal to multiple learning styles. They are almost universally accepted and help challenge students to learn.

By way of example, Centra offers a class to customers on interactivity and learning styles that is designed to demonstrate the usefulness of games and simulations. The class incorporates simple games for content review. The class takes a "virtual field trip" of sorts to a Web site that provides templates for constructing educational games for use in both live e-learning or physical classroom training. In addition, this particular class uses a game as the main activity to teach learning points.

In another class, Centra instructors with expertise in multimedia, create a simulation in HTML and JavaScript, that teaches the use of Centra's Agenda Builder tool for assembling an interactive, online agenda. The simulation can be incorporated into the session agenda directly. The Agenda Builder simulation gives participants the opportunity to individually apply, during the live online class, the information just taught and demonstrated.

Reinforcement of knowledge through immediate application is one example of the many ways in which the application of games and simulations can add enjoyment to the learning process.

Playing to Learn
Playing to learn is is now in its infancy as we come to understand that learning is really part of everything we do. There is a wonderful statement from the MIT Toys of Tomorrow Web site that says it all: " When a Cray becomes a Crayola, when a teddy bear sends a hug halfway around the world, when the beads on a child's necklace communicate with one another to make lights sparkle or music sound, we will be playing with the toys of tomorrow."

Similarly, when we use games, toys, and simulations and can "play" with others in the same room and miles away through the use of live e-learning, we will be educating others and ourselves with the learning technologies of tomorrow.


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