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Authentic Learning Experiences Through Play: Games, Simulations and the Construction of Knowledge

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Games and simulations have become the learning resource du jour in e-learning circles, suggested as the solution to a wide range of learning objectives. However, the results of previous endeavours in this arena have been mixed, causing many educators to approach games with some trepidation. Coupled with the overly-hyped and only marginally effective ‘edutainment’ market in the 1990s, many educators and trainers have been left with a sceptical view of what is popularly regarded as another attempt to merge learning and fun. Yet there is an important consideration that is often overlooked as we lump learning games and simulations into one general category of learning resource, though we may refer to them by a wide range of monikers. Games and simulations are only as effective as the pedagogical approach that is employed. Furthermore, their effectiveness must be measured against the learning objectives and methods selected vis a vis the needs of the resource’s learners. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Many learning games from both the ‘edutainment’ era and today offer only traditional didactic methods in disguise, a practice described by game designer and writer Brenda Laurel as serving ‘chocolate-covered broccoli’ (Laurel, 2001). In these cases, the content and teaching method are entirely unchanged from their non-game origins, so only the presentation style differs. Linear content is repurposed into an open-ended game context, a bit like shoving a square peg into a round hole. But this is not to say that these sorts of learning games have no place. They can often provide the motivation to learn in cases where the learners have no motivation to engage with the materials. Wrapping "boring" content in a trivia or shoot-em-up game format might make material that just needs to memorised a bit easier to "swallow". Repeated engagement with interactive drill-and-practice environments provides the repetition that may be needed for learners to memorise and retain the content. However to truly leverage the potential of games and simulations, one must look at what they do best, and at what they can do better than any other type of learning resource. In the past, we have tended to focus primarily on games’ ability to motivate and engage. While certainly an important component of the learning experience, to say that games simply motivate does them a tremendous disservice. So while part of the motivation may stem from novelty effects or competitive enjoyment, the best types of engagement stem from the learner’s enjoyment of a more effective learning experience, one that puts them in control and encourages active participation, exploration, reflection and the individual construction of meaning. It might be fun, or it might be the phenomenon that Seymour Papert refers to as ‘hard fun’ (Papert, 2002), enjoyment derived from a challenging but meaningful learning experience. This idea of a more effective learning experience is in no way new. Many theorists and educators have come to believe that we learn most readily from experience. From Dewey to Bruner, Rogers and beyond, great learning theorists have maintained that human beings learn from a process involving the personal construction of knowledge via the experience of ‘authentic’ situations that build on current or past knowledge. Over the decade, this perspective has been refined as constructivist learning. Interestingly, constructivist principles are particularly applicable to adult learners. Andragogical principles stipulate that adult learners learn best in environments where they control the learning experience and can understand its context, relevancy and applicability. Constructivist approaches appeal to the adult learner because they place the learner firmly at the centre of their experience and assume an active role in the construction of knowledge. Games and simulations can be incredibly effective when employed using constructivist principles. In this regard, they are especially good for: · Allowing learners to practise skills in a safe, private environment. · Offering a unique opportunity to engage learners who have may have struggled in traditional education/training environments, i.e. lower literacy or kinaesthetically-oriented students. · Allowing learners to access and repeat learning on their own terms and at their own pace, as many times as they need to. This is not a process of memorisation, however, so much as internalising systems, steps or processes. · Facilitating social learning by fostering ongoing collaboration and relationships between learners. · Providing for a customised environment that takes a learner's skills and context into account. · Supporting active participation through group play, reinforcing important practical skills like group communication, project management, conflict resolution, and group brainstorming. · Accessing the higher order skills in Bloom’s Taxonomy (evaluation, synthesis, analysis, application). · Practicing decision-making, leadership and other performance skills that are achieved through experience. · Shifting perspectives by allowing learners to experience situations from varying points-of-view. · Allowing learners to access experiences that are difficult or impossible in the real world. · Allowing formative assessment to be built-in to the experience, benefiting both learner and instructor. Drawing upon the ideas of Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger, Lev Vygotsky, Clark Aldrich, Marc Prensky, Roger Schank and others, this paper considers various learning theories and case studies that lend support to the idea that virtual environments can provide an authentic constructivist learning experience, when designed with that specific pedagogical approach in mind. The paper will also provide a framework and principles to assist designers in understanding whether the game or simulation they are creating for educational purposes meets its full potential by adhering to constructivist principles. Finally, a selection of educational games and simulations will be presented and evaluated according to their respective pedagogical approaches and demonstrated learning effectiveness. Keywords:, learning, interactive, interaction, games, simulations, collaboration, constructivist, construction, education, learning theory, training, knowledge. (note: also open to short paper or other format)
Contact: Lisa Galarneau, The University of Waikato, New Zealand,
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