Follow up…

A few days ago I wrote a bit about PBL and writing. Shelton Brett followed up with a very good question. He asks, “What about Jonassen’s problem types and the effort of designing instructional games? Is there any cross-over between alignment of game activity and instructional goals in PBL? If so, how does this work?”

That is a very good question. One in which I had to think about for quite some time (over the weekend, no less, when my brain is supposed to be shut down).

I thought I should probably define what I mean when I say PBL, and then look at how Jonassen breaks problems into types. Then throw out what I think might be some cross-over points with games.

Barrows, the granddaddy of problem-based learning, defined PBL as having four key parts (note, these are pulled from a journal called Distance Education, Vol. 23, No. 1, 2002):

* Problems are presented to learners in the way they would be presented in the real world (i.e. messy, ill-structured, etc.)
* Learners assume responsibility for their own learning (i.e. the instructor is no there to give them all the answers, the learners have to do their own work.)
* The teacher’s role is that of a guide or facilitator of learning.
* The problems presented to students are the ones that the students are likely to confront in the real world during their career.

So, PBL in a nutshell can be described as real world problems that are given to the students, who then decide for themselves how to solve them. The teacher only guides the process. You can also read a good definition of PBL over on wikipedia.

So turning to Jonassen, he describes 11 types of problems:

* logical problems
* algorithmic problems
* story problems
* rule-using problems
* decision making problems
* troubleshooting problems
* diagnosis-solution problems
* case analysis problems
* design problems
* dilemmas

Problems don’t fit into these types as nicely as we might like, and maybe it’s more of a spectrum than a classification, but at least it’s a nice measuring point with which to start.

So, how does all that relate to games? It is always difficult to talk about video games because the spectrum of video games is so broad. How does PBL relate to a game like Tetris? Grand Theft Auto? The Sims? Solitaire? One could argue that when those games are compared to each other, they have more differences than they do similarities.

That being said, I would argue that just about all of the games have one thing in problem, and that is they are centered around some ‘problem’. The problem is the core of the game. In Space Invaders the problem is the aliens keep coming down, faster and faster. In Myst the problem is you don’t know what is going on. In the Sims, you have problems like your sims must eat, get rest, and find love. Solving the problem is the point of the game. Because of this, games do a particularly good job at presenting problems in a way that engages the learner and is fun. After all, they are selling these ‘problems’. The purpose of presenting the problem is they would like to make money.

So what kind of problems are they? I think you could argue that games present nearly every problem type that Jonassen describes. Some of the simple puzzle games present logical and story problems. Strategy games, particularly the real time strategy games, do a good job at teaching decision making, troubleshooting, diagnosis, and strategic performance problems. There are even games that have design and dilemma problems built into them.

Of course the crucial question comes when we return to Barrows. If we look closely, it can be argued that 3 of Barrow’s criteria for PBL are met. The problems in video games are often ‘messy’. If they weren’t the games would be solved in a few minutes, or half an hour. A good game not only take days to ‘solve’, but often the problem is interesting enough that the person playing the game will try different ways to solve the problem.

The learner (or the video game player) is also the one calling the shots. When you pick up the controller, you are the one in charge of the game (Barrow’s second criteria). And the game often does an excellent job of being a tutor, rather than a lecturer. My experience with games, and with observing others play games, is that the first thing you do with a game is not read the instruction manual, rather you just start playing. There are often in-game hints, tutors, or quick start guides that help get you started, in the right direction.

Where the games don’t quite live up to Barrows, is the last criteria, that of presenting problems that learners are likely to confront in real life. Although I’m quite adept at saving the princess in Super Mario Brothers, in real life I’ve never had to stomp on any killer mushrooms, or turtles throwing hammers.

However, since I’m a bit partial to video games and their learning potential, I would state that while the video games do not present real world problems, there is the real possibility that transfer can and does happen. I attended a recent talk given by John Seeley Brown where he mentioned a young man who played a lot of online games. This young man started many guilds, and became quite good at managing these people at a great distance. In the case of this video game player, the skills he learned in this online game transferred quite well to the real world. Dr. Brown mentioned that the skills he honed in the game have landed him a very good job with a large company’.

So, to summarize for everybody who just skipped to the end (I don’t blame you, I didn’t mean to blather on this long), I think video games are intricately tied to problems, and therefore would fit nicely into Jonassen’s problem types. I also think that video games (at least the better ones) meet most of the criteria that Barrows outlines as good PBL. And despite the fact that games don’t present ‘real world’ problems, there is still a good chance that concepts learned in video games might be transferred to the ‘real world’.

And there you have it.

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One Response to Follow up…

  1. Shelton Brett says:

    Thanks M., for outlining these ideas together! I think there might be an important distinction here between “computer games designed for learning” and the more commercially successful “video games” you mention in the way PBL relates to the approach of using them. Personally, I’m interested in the design considerations that PBL has (prescribes?) for instructional activity, that may be within or around computer games. It would be similar to your generic “instructional simulation” but with all the motivational components that go along with game activity. There’s where the “real-world” application comes in. Anyway, I appeciate your thoughts.

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