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#PLSIG Autumn Meeting 2017


A Tiny Epic Battle between good and evil

The Playful Learning Special Interest Group, that I co-chair with Nic Whitton, holds meetings each year in Spring and Autumn at different institutions around the UK. This allows existing and new members to join a meeting close to them, and also allows us to build on our thinking and ideas each time.

Last week we were hosted by Rosie Jones at the Open University’s Betty Boothroyd Library in Milton Keynes. Rosie has been a member of the SIG since its inception, and she and her talented team were the perfect hosts, preparing clever escape room challenges within the library for us when we arrived (thanks Cathy!).

We had our highest number of attendees, with 20 members (a good mix of veteran and new) traveling from around the country. Together we play-tested and discussed several new games and approaches from individual members (Amanda Hardy’s flexible Moodle Deck of learning design cards; Andy Walsh presented the work around using playful challenge cards with teams, that myself and Rosie have also been working on; and Katie Piatt crowdsourced questions from us for an upcoming sector chat about playful learning).

Ellie Hannan took us through a full session of her very clever SOTL game (see blog post from an earlier playtest) which increased our knowledge of research methodologies and saw us funding TV reality show research with dodgy ethics. We also helped Nic Whitton develop her very useful work around typologies of play, by looking at hundreds of images of activities to decide if they were playful or not.


The SOTL Game

On the final morning we asked the group to identify barriers against play in HE institutions,  then set them up as small senior management teams (VC, Finance Director and VC Learning and Teaching) and tasked them with developing three institution-wide policies that would increase the capacity for play in staff and students.  Some very interesting ideas emerged, including:

  • Playful social spaces (including ballpools or other areas inviting free play)
  • Email free hours each day or week / freeing up time
  • Celebrating failure through institutional awards
  • Removing a focus on metrics
  • Creative and playful recruitment process to encourage innovative staff to embed playfulness
  • 2 days a quarter for all staff to work on independent projects
  • Playful elements in staff and student induction, to promote playful ways of working
  • Playful facilitators (‘institutional jesters’)

Thanks to everyone who came and joined in the thinking, creating and play! The next live PLSIG meeting will be in May 2018, in Leicester.

If you’re interested in joining the SIG, see the Playful Learning Special Interest Group.

Counterplay 17

Following my research and teaching trips, culminating at the harbour of the increasingly beautiful and cosmopolitan Aarhus, I arrived in plenty of time for the beginning of Counterplay 17. Not that I needed to worry, as the wonderful Mathias Poulsen (who almost single-handedly forms this playful bubble into existence each year) opened proceedings by telling us that playful people tend to be late.

This was followed by a blast of an opening by Anthea Moys, who herself arrived late on the stage – climbing and apologising to everyone she trampled over; and then proceeded to ask us to do the same, to find our actual seats. When we found them, we had to draw our neighbour’s faces without looking down at our paper. A great start that set the tone for the whole conference, this was just one of Anthea’s examples of her incredible playful art projects in Johannesburg.

Climbing and drawing

Anthea had us climbing, apologising and drawing

She mastered twelve different sports and then played, single-handedly, against twelve first teams. Her aim was to accept and stare failure in the face; and redefine success as the act of learning and playing, rather than failing to win. An approach that resonated with many, and created ripples of discussion about failure over the rest of the day. Gwen Gordon followed Anthea; a former Muppets puppeteer, who now uses play to improve lifestyles.

My session was next. I’m currently interested in the ‘invitation to play’; or what causes people to accept a playful activity, or reject it. I therefore had an idea about introducing elements of play into a non-playful scenario played out in every institution across the world: the board/committee meeting. We started with Apologies (apologising for something non-playful we do within our jobs), Introductions (giving each other fictitious names and roles) and the minutes of the last meeting – the 50 pages of which happened to be distributed across each attendees’ pack in random order. After that, things got very strange; as attendees tried to complete secret missions whilst creating their own playful approaches within the meeting room. It was really difficult to remain seated and straight-faced, as I decided the Chair should do.

Active session

After lunch, and meeting up with old and new friends from across Europe, I attended Luca Morini‘s session on playfully hacking serious systems. Luca had us exploring the fabulous venue of Dokk1 (the huge and open public library that Counterplay occupies, in amongst the daily life of thousands of local students and families) in order to find places that were closed to us, for some reason. He used this as a way to introduce his idea that formal systems are game-like: they follow rules and states – and therefore can be gamed themselves.

An energetic keynote next from Portia Tung, who shared her approach to introducing play into corporate boardrooms. And then it was time to launch the first Counterplay book, The Power of Play, including articles, games and activities from many attendees of last year’s conference (myself included). It’s a beautiful, thoughtful and creative book – which I’m still leafing through and finding new interesting things to do and think about.


In the evenings we all headed to the excellent new Aarhus Street Food area, with stalls selling food from around the world, and good local craft beer to match. It was here that much of the creative thinking and networking went on each evening.

Day two dawned, and two of the people I’d been talking to at length in the evening were speaking: Kirsten Anderson, who had us all blowing bubbles; and Dom Breadmore from Coventry University, who gave a great talk about the invitation to play, and the importance of designing playable experiences, rather than playful ones (more agency in the former, when they invite interaction). I spent the rest of the morning exploring all the activities around Dokk1 outside the formal programme, including catching up with Rikke and Claus from Coding Pirates, who were working with children on creating Viking-themed games.

CPtweet1After lunch we became future explorers, heading out into the city in small teams to help Eva (a fictional character we created based on the hashtag #finding4eva) create a map of future elements within the city. This was part of an ongoing project by Dan Barnard, and gave us a new way to explore the city’s hidden areas, as well as thinking about environmental issues and future planning. Also, our team won (yay!).

It was then time for the final keynotes. Lena Mech followed the theme from the earlier workshop by using examples of playful work in cities to suggest that the invitation to play is more complex than we might think: we shouldn’t, she suggests, be arrogant in thinking that everyone can play, and should instead use ludic markers to tempt them in: whether human activity, or physical attributes in the landscape. Finally, returning four years on after his first (excellent) keynote at the first Counterplay, Miguel Sicart was back to pace the stage again. Like a prowling tiger, Miguel added what – in my opinion – could have been the last chapter of his book: a call to arms. He used examples of playful/creative groups that have worked against dictatorships or regimes to show us that small personal or group actions can start to work against dominant negative forces. A fabulous finish to the formal programme.

As last year, there was a further day of creative play following the main conference – so about half of us returned on the Saturday to consolidate our thinking around this year’s emergent themes. My group was thinking about setting seeds and growing playful approaches outside of the conference; and we came up with the idea to connect different people together with a tangible artefact – a package that would be sent between us with something to apply to our own context, and then add something else before sending it on (see Marian’s explanatory post).

In amongst the thinking, I also attended a final session by Mikel Haul, who has been researching the origin and development of the Chase the Goose popular game from the Ancient Greeks. His plan is to create a physical version of the board game, including its iconic squares (such as death, or the well), at spaces in Middlesborough, Tokyo, and Aarhus: and so we helped him by mapping out the board over the circular levels of Dokk1.

And that was it, although many played on well into the night – and through the flights home. It was, yet again, an incredible experience: almost all due to the people who attend from across the world with a common ethos – I made many new friends and colleagues who I’ll be carrying on the thinking and conversations with as the year progresses. Huge thanks to everyone who was there and made it such an incredible experience – and in particular to Mathias and his team of helpers, without whom this wonderful event wouldn’t occur.






Playful Learning 2017

Playful Learning is returning to Manchester this July, following a very successful first year.

Designed as a playful alternative to the traditional conference, Playful Learning focuses on the application of play and games within adult learning, and we welcome anyone interested in this area – whether Higher and Further Education teachers, researchers, trainers and students;  library, museum and local government education officers; workplace trainers; educational designers; learning technologists; in fact anyone involved in adult learning who has an interest in engaging people through play.

We’re planning a range of activities that take place around the timetabled sessions, but are also still inviting session proposals for the main timetable.

The call closes on 17th February, but if you don’t think you’ll be able to meet the deadline and are interested in proposing a session, please contact me at alex.moseley at

Registration is also now open – see for details.


Lego® Serious Play®


Robert addressing the model

I’ve just emerged from four days in London, immersed in the official Lego® Serious Play® (LSP) Facilitator training. After almost 96 hours of Lego-based work and play (it was hard not to dream about Lego after the long days), I returned with stud-impressions in my fingers and a mind full of possibilities.

Joined by 12 wonderful participants from business and education, from across Europe and the US, the training was delivered by one of the original creators of LSP, Robert Rasmussen.

I can’t divulge too many trade secrets here, but can share a few of the highlights:

  • Watching Robert facilitate was a master class in itself: his experience and charismatic yet carefully crafted approach kept us all engaged throughout the whole training course.
  • LSP is based on two simple principles: everyone gets to share their thoughts, and everyone listens; and all thinking is done through model making.
  • We were, of course, surrounded by Lego throughout – and I was amazed how simply fiddling with the bricks, testing the ways they fitted together and making small meaningless creations, helped my concentration and thinking during our ‘reflective’ moments. Since returning to work, I now have a small pile of Lego permanently on my desktop.
  • LSP uses metaphor and storytelling: over the four days we created individual models representing our skills and approaches; shared models to build a sense of our collective abilities; and hugely rich landscapes where we could experiment with events and futures to see how our network would be affected. The power of the approach is incredible.

I’ve already thought of a number of strategic and team-based meetings I can apply the approach to within my own institution; and the rich network we developed between the participants is already bringing opportunities for shared approaches across Europe.

The LSP website can be found at:

I’m now a qualified facilitator, so get in touch if you’re interested in the LSP approach.

Hint Hunt

I’m just returning from a day in London with my games and learning colleagues – Katie Piatt, Simon Brookes and Nic Whitton. Katie had found out about an intriguing centre called Hint Hunt near Euston, which has two themed ‘puzzle’ rooms for 3-5 people to tackle. For those who can remember the Crystal Maze or Treasure Hunt, being locked in an area and having to solve puzzles to escape may re-awaken some memory cells and give you an idea of the challenge.

I don’t want to reveal any secrets about the room we entered (John Munroe’s room) but I’d like to share a few thoughts about the day.

We were given a brief intro from the very friendly organisers, and told about the aim: to escape the room within one hour. Then we were inside, the door locked, and a very plain looking study room in front of us. Plain, that is, until we started looking deeper: pictures, books, desks all started to reveal some intriguing information…

The successful team

The successful team

For the next hour we were completely immersed. Whilst Simon grappled with a wooden box, Katie was flicking through books with strange symbols, Nic writing down code words and numbers we were finding, as I scrabbled under furniture for hidden objects. Just when we felt we’d hit a brick wall or a red herring, a bell would sound, and a quick message appear from our omnipresent hosts – leading us gently to another corner of the room.

There were many surprises in the hour, which I can’t reveal here, and some truly outstanding puzzles which required all of our combined efforts. At times we overworked the problems – looking for deeper meaning in the effective, but slightly underused, narrative (and this was our only complaint, reflecting afterwards: the narrative could have been more embedded in the puzzles – whereas actually we didn’t need to engage with it too much to solve the room).

We managed to escape with 3 minutes and 2 seconds to spare – a little more than the record time of 7 minutes, but not too bad: and certainly felt extremely proud at our achievement.

Reflecting afterwards, we wondered about the use of such a situated puzzle in learning and teaching. The benefits for team/group work are obvious – we had to work extremely well as a team to solve the range of puzzles scattered across the room – but we also wondered about the strength of narrative for discipline areas (research methods, or chemistry/physics/history) for student and staff group training. In particular, we discussed the possibility of using a standard classroom or lecture theatre as a stage for a puzzle scenario (using standard objects in those rooms).

All in all, a fantastic experience. We’ll be back to try the second, slightly harder Zen room; but also thinking about ways to use such an approach in our own teaching. Wait a minute… just press on that drawer there…

Cambridge International DL Conference

Madingley Hall

Every two years since 1983, Cambridge has played host to 90 people from literally every corner of the world – roughly half from developing countries. Drawn together by deep interests in delivering open and distance learning (ODL) to all areas of society, the participants spend three and half very full days listening, reflecting and (75%) discussing and challenging issues shared across institutions and continents.

Started by Alan Tate (now Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the Open University) and Roger Mills (now Research Associate at the Von Hugel Insitute, University of Cambridge) after they returned from a large and impersonal distance learning conference, with a mission to create a small, social, discussion-based event; the conference has remained much the same for all fourteen events. I attended for the first time two years ago, and played a much larger part this year, but like all other 89 attendees was saddened to hear that this would be the final conference. Alan, Roger and Ann Gaskell (Assistant Director, Teaching and Learner Support at the Open University) have put huge chunks of their working lives into the conference, and deserve a well-deserved rest.

Madingley Hall

Madingley Hall; a fine setting

Home Groups

What sets it apart from other conferences? The small numbers, the deeply engaged participants from all levels of institutions around the world, and the long discussion time between papers and workshops I’ve already mentioned; but for me the best part is the use of ‘home groups’ to explore and reflect on topics in much more detail within a small group. Timetabled daily for an hour after the main keynotes, these allow deeper and more contextual discussion on key topics for the group members, and are certainly where I have had my most valuable reflections and ideas. This year, I was invited to facilitate one of the home groups, and was rewarded with a fabulous group of people and some fascinating discussions and debates – which you can read on our Cloudworks page. I also got to know all 17 members of my group extremely well, and have forged many friendships.


Croquet on the lawns (one of the many challenging contrasts!)

Social Justice

This final conference was based around the theme of social justice, which was covered at various levels of depth in the keynotes, papers and home groups. The conference has always been one demanding open minds and guaranteed to shift your core beliefs and moral outlook; but this year’s theme created an even more challenging lens with which to take in and absorb worldwide contexts. We heard about the mind-boggling numbers UNISA (South Africa) has to deal with – 140,000 students on one course; 7,000 students registering each day at the start of session; only 17% of students with any access to the internet – about continuing inequality in the education of women in Nigeria, and how ODL is being used with difficulty to provide some empowerment; and many problems and issues surrounding cross-border delivery of courses, due to political/cultural differences. Those of us working in institutions in the developed world were left questioning why we presume to know what the people of distant countries need in terms of education (and charge them a fortune for the ‘solution’) when we barely know what the needs of our own local area are. Alan Davis (Vice-Chancellor at Empire State College, SUNY) provided an interesting take on the latter problem in his keynote which described the make-up of SUNY’s state-wide market and how the College provide student-staff co-created curricula to meet individual needs.

There were other incredible examples of how ODL has been applied in highly contextual ways, with creativity and sheer belief in social needs: most notably Mohammed Rezwan (Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha)’s floating school – a boat which responds to the problems caused by the annual Bangladesh flooding which leaves a third of the country under water (and rising, thanks to global warming) by collecting children from several waterside villages, and then converting the boat into a school with mobile internet access. As a reward for attending, the children are given charged solar lamps to take home and use overnight, before returning them for charging the following day: a very well thought-out approach which considered the very specific local context.

Indeed, the topic of context was raised throughout the conference – the simple, unquestionable fact that before providing education services to a particular social group or individual, you should know something of their context and their needs. Historically, and continuing today, are examples where exactly the opposite takes place: western providers market ODL courses to individuals in developing countries who might spend their entire savings or wages on them in the belief of quality and status – but at the detriment to local institutions who might offer a far more contextualised course and would keep the money and expertise within the local economy.


Course design game workshopI had a hand in providing another source of contrast from the serious, belief-shaking matters in much of the conference: two workshops which used fun and playfulness to achieve some equally serious outcomes. The first, with Patrick Kelly (Open University) and Deanna Douglas (Athabasca University) was based around the professional links we’d made at the previous conference, which have continued through regular video-conferences around shared topics of interest to this day; the workshop used a ‘speed dating’ activity to match up couples who shared common interests, and hopefully generated quite a few new friendships and links which will pervade as richly as ours. The second was based around my course design boardgame, and along with my colleagues Clifford Fyle and Nichola Hayes we guided participants through the design and purpose of the game (which aims to set a local context for ODL design, as described above) and generated much interested discussion.

I arrived back from the four days with pages and pages of notes, and a head full of thoughts. I’ve also felt my outlook on ODL, and my own institution’s use of it, shift – with a stronger focus on the need to think carefully about who we design for, and why. The sort of reflection and conceptual shifts all conferences should lead to, but very few do nowadays. Heartfelt thanks therefore go to Alan, Roger, Ann, and all the participants who were there sharing, discussing and reflecting with me. It’s such a shame there won’t be another chance to further challenge ourselves in two years; but the 14 Cambridge International conferences have left a great legacy.

Conference organisers

Alan Tait, Ann Gaskell and Roger Mills; with participants


Rapid Course Games at ALTC2010

A quick nip along to neighbouring Nottingham last week for ALT-C 2010 provided a number of points of interest. Many have been blogged quicker and more succinctly than I could manage now (James Clay’s post sums up the two main discussion points well, both of which featured a strong twitter backchannel).

I’m going to focus on the games-based learning elements in this post. Well, element. After quite a number of games-based approaches last year, the sole item on the programme this year was a workshop I’d devised with Nic Whitton and Juliette Culver to demonstrate how the application of simple gaming approaches can be introduced into academic courses with a bit of creativity and (above all) fun.

Setting the scene (photo from

Juliet had to miss the workshop itself (being heavily pregnant with her own future bundle of fun!), and we suffered from one of a few timetabling errors which originally placed an ‘active group workshop’ in a formal lecture theatre. Undeterred, we took over the corner of the coffee/exhibitor area, and with our excellent session chair Sarah managed to pull in quite a few participants from the surrounding coffee tables.

The workshop was a game in itself, designed using the six game elements we asked participants to use in their own designs (after Whitton, 2009):

  • Community
  • Competition
  • Completion
  • Creativity
  • Narrative
  • Puzzle-solving

After a quick example of each element, the teams were set off on their challenge. Over three rounds, they had five minutes to create a games-based course solution to a randomly assigned context and constraint. For example:

CONTEXT: You teach Chemistry. Lab time is limited and most 
time is spent learning to use equipment or revising lectures  
How can you help your students better prepare?

CONSTRAINT: Many of the students on the course have low levels of IT literacy.

To increase the challenge, teams had to describe their solution – like our contexts –  in only 140 characters, and gained bonus points for including special attributes (such as: “answer alliterates” and “death is a possibility”).

Scoring was kept fairly simple (100 for completing the challenge, 50 for each attribute; 200 bonus for including all six elements), mainly to make it easy for us to add up. And there were, of course, prizes of the comestible variety. Despite the rather chaotic space, and the tight deadlines we set, we were thrilled by some of the results teams produced. Here are a few:

"Lost lab labels limit learning; sets of student scientists
save situation assembling appropriately anonymised apparatus
execute experiment" (Team: Friend or Foe)
"Online health/safety game students in teams design deadly
dangerous experiments from combinations similar to safe
ones learning by near miss" (Team: Groupies)
"Online lab sim mousetrap style puzzle using lab equipment
Goal: make named solution Loser drinks all May involve
death" (Team: Serious fun)

The workshop itself was interesting on a number of levels. Firstly, it proved that anyone can incorporate games-based approaches (and importantly, fun) into fairly tricky course scenarios with a bit of thought and creativity. Second, the success of the activity reinforced the importance of the six elements Nic had previously identified in bringing games into learning. And finally, the design of the workshop reinforced my own ideas of authentic contextual designs for training, teaching and learning (expanded in a paper I’m giving in Copenhagen in October, with more discussion on here soon).

I’ll leave you with the possibly profound, but certainly puzzling:

PM podcast puzzle practice promotes planning preventing
periodic poor performance. Presenter prof Penguin.

Why this, why now?

I’ve been working in higher education for 13 years, developing and delivering teaching in subject-based IT and research skills, amongst other things. About 7 years ago, I developed an interest in pedagogy and learning theory, which fuelled innovation. Two years ago, I stumbled across an Alternative Reality Game, and was amazed at the levels of engagement and community within it; further research opened up a whole new approach in my teaching practice and development, and today I find myself researching and innovating in this area.

I’ll be using this blog as an emitter for some of the innovative projects I’m involved with, but primarily as a place to explore my thoughts about this rapidly emerging area of gaming and problem solving in education.

In the meantime, take a peek at for an overview of the genre; or better still, pull out that dusty box of Cluedo, and give it a whirl.