The designers of Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games face a significant educational challenge. They need to efficiently and subtly teach new players how to use their game. This involves teaching players about the environment and the interface whist keeping them motivated and drawing them into the challenges of the game itself. This is situated learning in which the games designer is the ‘master’ and the player is the ‘apprentice’.
This educational challenge is similar to the one faced by those intending to teach in Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVE’s) such as Second Life. There are a significant amount of basic skills that need to be mastered before students can successfully engage in meaningful collaborative activity. The traditional ‘orientation’ process in Second Life is didactic and generic, teaching skills in an abstract technical manner. This has come about because unlike an MMO, Second Life has no shared goal, its possible uses are many and varied. However, a teacher who wishes to use Second Life should have a defined set of goals or learning outcomes they wish to achieve. They should be able to define task orientated activities which are relevant to the students motivations, for example, Art and Design students can be asked to compete to build the tallest monolith as a focus for learning building skills in Second Life rather than being given general instructions on how to create, scale and texture objects. In teaching terms this seems like an obvious approach but often when faced with a complex new platform teaching practitioners will often fall back on a basic instructivst style which may not align well with the approach generally taken at HE level for that discipline.
This is where we can learn from the MMO designers who are careful not to fall into this trap as it is likely to make a players initial engagement in a game seem like a chore. For subscription based MMOS such as World of Warcraft this would mean a high drop out rate and a massive loss of revenue, something that the HE sector can emphathise with.
The JISC funded Habitat project intends to learn from the game designers by capturing the processes in World of Warcraft in its initial stages and mapping the styles and types of task to the learning outcomes they fulfil. The data will be captured using pre and post activity questionnaires and video screen capture synchronised with video of the player at the computer. This data will then be used in the process of designing appropriate orientation sessions for pilots in Second Life with students from two disciplines: Art and Design & Philosophy. The Habitat project recognises that some of the most sophisticated collaborative learning spaces online at the moment are MMOs and that the design of these games can be a relevant model for the pedagogical structures that we put in place for the educational use of MUVEs such as Second Life.
Keep watching http://www.openhabitat.org to see how we get on.
On Tuesday evening the Habitat project had one of its most dynamic project meetings. It was ad hoc and spontaneous but what was said was very useful. It reminded me of those happy students days when I’d find myself in the pub with all my friends talking about ‘interesting things’ almost by accident. These days I need to plan 3 weeks ahead to get in to the pub with people I actually like who all have families and jobs (what can you do?).
Anyway, 5 of us happened to be in Second Life (yes, I left this fact late in the post deliberately) at the same time and a discussion took off. In fact it took off so well that I’m still having trouble (with my project managers’ hat on) working out what it all meant. In this way it is very like those student pub sessions 🙂
The Habitat team is based in Leeds, Canada, London, Oxford, Essex and Brussels so we have more chance to get together online than face-to-face. The Second Life platform was great for us because we shared some visual designs during our discussion which were projected onto blocks that we could all stand around and muse over. Plus, we did all feel ‘together’ which is important for any team. When I logged out I personally felt like I had spent time with a bunch of people rather than a stream of text.
So, what of those in the team who didn’t happen to be in Second Life? Well I suppose I can mail round the transcript of our discussion. Also, how do I get the best value from this’ happening’ for the Habitat team and for JISC? Plus, let’s not forget the question: ‘What is the relevance for our users/students?”.
Below is a pitch for a research project that doesn’t exist yet because I can’t describe it properly. The ‘Open Social’ concept and Social Graph API seem to be a tech kind of response to the phenomenon I am attempting to outline. I can’t seem to find an academic tool/framework to help me though…
The web continues to expand and diversify its capacity to support communication and collaboration. This is evident in the expansion and popularity of social networking sites such as FaceBook and communication tools such as Skype. The increase in groups that now straddle the real and the virtual is now having significant cultural impact. Individuals are increasingly part of a network of friends, acquaintances and colleagues that is distributed across multiple locations on and off-line.
These groups of distributed individuals are relatively new in form and are constantly changing in character as advances in online technologies provide new affordances which interplay with individuals aspirations to extend/refine their group and collaborate in novel and useful ways. Despite this being in a constant state of flux it is highly likely that individuals in the first world will be part of a distributed group for the majority of their lives. A 28 year-old in 2008 may have been part of an online group for over 10 years, a group that has morphed as that individual moved through a number of different life stages. The group is likely to have moved across a number of online technologies or environments and may exist across multiple environments at any one time.
Collaborative groups have been characterised in many ways, for example, Affinity Groups (Gee), Communities of Practice (Wenger) and Knotworks (Englestrom). Each theory describes different motivations, goals and structures of groups of people attempting to work together with some sense of shared participation. In each instance the theory in question is based on a particular area or type of collaboration or interaction for example fandom or institutional work. This is not to say that these theories are not applicable in a wider sense rather that their underpinning rational has a specific types or styles of groups. A similar bounding can often be seen in research undertaken in this area which is often focused on activities that take place within a particular tool or environment for example, Second Life, FaceBook or World of Warcraft.
It is increasingly important that we gain a better understanding of the phenomenon of the persistent distributed group, one which is not too closely tied to a particular style of interaction or type of technology. We are at a point in time where it is possible to trace the history of an individuals relationship with these groups, following that individuals changing relationship with other members of the groups they are part of and the technology involved. This would require investigating individuals motivations for being members of a group, their reasons for types and levels of participation and their changing perception of what constitutes the ‘real’ or what Castronova calls the ‘Semi-Permeable Membrane’ between online and offline worlds. The aim being to discover and map the underlying principles that are forming as online technologies facilitate the changing makeup of societies, becoming paradoxically more distributed and fractured while at the same time affording greater flexibility for communication and collaboration. In thinking about this it is important not to bounded by a single technology but to accept that many groups transcend specific technological advances or shifts and morph across the changing online environment. In this way a clearer perspective will be gained and a better understanding of the longer term implications and opportunities for society will be understood.
So there it is. I’m assuming that if you made it this far you are intrigued by the idea. Let me know what you think.
I gave my talk on ‘Cultural Capital and Community Development in the pursute of Slaying Dragons’ at the ALT-C e-learning conference last week. The talk was well received which was very encouraging. The poster of the talk won a runners-up prize in the poster competition! How much of this was down to tactical voting I cannot say but it would seem that the e-learning community is becoming gradually more interested in the possibleuse of Multi-User Virtual Environments.
Last Friday I partook in a stressful but useful event run by JISC. Anyone who could make it had the chance to pitch their project ideas for the Users and Innovation callrun by Lawrie Phipps. The format was similar to the BBC ‘Dragons Den’ programme. Each project had to go before a couple of JISC representatives or ‘dragons’ and pitch their idea in a 5-10 min presentation. The dragons would then feedback on the idea and point out/discuss it’s pros and cons.
I was surprised to find that this process put me into my old ‘exam fear’ mode and I panicked for most of the day. However, there is nothing better for focusing an idea than knowing that you have to explain it to a third party, especially when some of it relates to World of Warcraft! It forced us to look at the marking criteria for the call and to turn vague details into well thought out project plans.
Our actual pitch to the dragons went well and their feedback was very helpful. It seems to make sense to do this kind of grilling before, not after the projects are underway. Hopefully it will lead to a better breed of projects.
What can the massively multiplayer game ‘World of Warcraft’ teach us about how to facilitate learning communities? Below is a video of the talk I gave at the Games Learning and Society conference in Madison Wisconsin. (Running time 26 minutes)[flv:http://tall.conted.ox.ac.uk/video/maina.flv 500 375]
If you want more details before watching here is the abstract…
This presentation is an evaluation of ethnographic field work conducted in and around the World of Warcraft MMO. The study focuses on the motivation of guild members to construct communities of practice both to learn and to socialize. This suggests that the guilds can act as useful models for understanding how online social networks function and how they could influence the ideology of next generation e-learning services.
Successful collaborative learning can only be sustained if the individuals involved feel part of a group or community in which they can trust. The most robust communities tend to be those that form via a collective aim or interest; their formation has a social underpinning and is not totally utilitarian.
If an aspiration of e-learning is to move away from simply providing online programs of study, demarcated by subject, to increasingly fluid spaces in which students can build social networks, then we need to understand how contemporary collaborative and participatory environments encourage the formation of these types of groupings.
Some of the most sophisticated examples of online community creation and management take place in and around MMO environments. The current apex of this field is the ‘guild’ system which suffuses the World of Warcraft MMO. Guilds are effectively goal-oriented clubs or societies, many of which utilize the latest Web 2.0 technologies out-of-game and multi-channel text chat and VOIP systems in-game both to organize and to socialize.
This paper is based on data collected over a period of six months from an ongoing ethnographic study comprising self-reflexive observation and semi-structured interviews conducted in World of Warcraft and face-to-face with guild members. This extends into a study of the social software used out-of-game by community members that acts as a communication base for the guilds.
The data is evaluated using Wenger’s notion of communities of practice, which highlights the interweaving of goal-orientated learning and the immersion of those participating in trusted social networks. This has the effect of generating and communicating what Bourdieu calls cultural capital, the lack of which often makes online learning a poor second to traditional face-to-face learning.
The challenge here is how to abstract underpinning principles and practice that will be of value to e-learning away from the immediate goals or ideology of a particular MMO. This is not to suggest that killing dragons in collaborative groups is the future of e-learning. Instead it proposes that much can be gained from reflecting on the success of MMOs in motivating the formation of vibrant online communities and the ways in which these communities interweave socializing and learning.
You may be interested in my report on Web2.0 take-up and usage which I submitted to JISC a few weeks ago. It’s analysis of some data that blogged back in March. I included the responses to the data in the report. It was all very ‘participatory’. The report can be downloaded from here: www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/programmes/digitalrepositories/spiresurvey.pdf
As part of the JISC funded ‘SPIRE’ project we ran a survey to try to discover which online services people were using and in what manner. We were interested to find out which services were popular and if they were being used for work, for study or socially / for fun. The SPIRE project was originally looking into the possibility of using peer-to-peer technologies in UK HE and FE for informal sharing but switched to a more Web 2.0 focus as it became clear that these types of services were already having an impact on the tertiary education sector. They also appear to be where most of the informal sharing and collaboration is currently taking place online.
The survey was advertised to the Department for Continuing Education’s online students and on the online courses marketing pages. We received circa 1400 responses which left us with a lot of data to analyse. I have processed this data in to a number of colorful charts which are in the PDF below.
I have already drawn a number of conclusions from these charts but have not included these thoughts in the PDF as I would be interested to know what others think the data might mean.
Results of the survey undertaken by the JISC funded SPIRE project (PDF)
For the full analysis of this data please download the final report here: