Tag Archives: context

Pervasive Learning Activities workshop

PLA Academy11:30am, Thursday 11th July: a Registrar instructs the Head of the Press Office to send an urgent press release out, whilst the PVC (Students) phones a worried parent about their daughter, who has just had her money stolen in a distant airport. This might be a scenario which has played out during a high profile student fieldtrip in another institution, but in this case all of the above persons and events are fictional. Not that you could tell, looking in.

The PVC, Registrar etc. were in fact participants in a workshop I ran with Simon Brookes (University of Portsmouth) and Sarah Underwood (University of Leeds), in conjunction with the Higher Education Academy, at the University of Leicester. The day-long event focussed on Pervasive Learning Activities (PLAs) – an authentic/experiential approach to learning which we developed from the educational benefits of Alternate Reality Games (Brookes & Moseley, 2012; Moseley, 2012) and which Simon and Sarah have implemented in whole module designs for undergraduate Business students.

Arrivals Board

One of the artefacts we created: an arrivals board showing the flight arriving

We structured the workshop around the ‘why, what and how’ of PLAs. Simon opened the day with an excellent introduction to ‘why’ we recommend PLAs for effective teaching of domain knowledge and ‘professional competencies’ together. And then, because PLAs are focussed around creating authentic contexts – with the actions, events, roles and artefacts used in those contexts – at 11am prompt we asked our participants to open their name badges, and fold them over to reveal their new identities. On the screen, a plane touched down in a dusty landscape and an arrivals board showed Kenyan Airways flight RO354 touching down in Juba International Airport. One half of the group (the University Geography department) went to their office, whilst the Senior Management team gathered in their Operations Room.

For the next hour, each team had to quickly familiarise themselves with the Geography department fieldtrip they were overseeing (see the Geography Student Society blog), and cope with a variety of problems ranging from lost passports to an outbreak of rioting at their intended destination. Whilst the Geography dept were liaising by phone with the group leader on the ground (superbly played by our colleague Katie Piatt in Brighton by prior arrangement), the Senior Management Team could be found checking student Twitter feeds as they contacted the South Sudesia Embassy for latest travel advice (staffed by  bored jobsworth receptionist, ably delivered by Nic Whitton in Manchester).

Notes on PLA materials

Notes scribbled over the PLA materials during the live activity.

By the end of the hour, the teams had quickly dropped into their learning context, and successfully negotiated a number of events in (pretty much) the way a real University department and SMT team might have done.

After lunch, we revealed the preparation which had gone into their experience: the planning stages, the preprepared artefacts (including documents which had been posted out to participants in advance of the workshop, to set the scene), the scripts which Katie and Nic had been working to, and the live updates/responses we had been making during the hour. There was much fascinating discussion as participants considered their own discipline contexts and how a PLA, and the design process, might work for them. The design process, with worked examples, is available on our dedicated web site:

We would like to thank everyone who participated in the workshop, hope that it provided you with plenty to consider for your own context, and thank the HEA for their support and partnership in hosting and promoting the event.


Brookes, S. & Moseley, A. (2012) “Authentic Contextual Games for Learning”. In Whitton, N. & Moseley, A. (eds) Using Games to Enhance Learning and Teaching: A Beginner’s Guide. Routledge: New York, pp91-107.

Moseley, A. (2012) “An Alternate Reality for Education?: Lessons to be Learned from Online Immersive Games”, International Journal of Games Based Learning, Vol 2, No. 3, pp32-50.

Experiential Education, Augsburg 2012

As part of an interesting collaborative research theme I’ve been exploring with experiential educator Jule Hildmann (Train the Trainer) around the links between ‘initiative games’ in experiential education, and the development of deep context in games for education, we co-authored a paper for the Internationaler Kongress für erleben und lernen (International conference for experiential learning), Augsburg, Germany, 28-29 September 2012.

Jule has developed an idea called ‘Simple Things’ which gives trainers simple tools to develop, structure, run and reflect on initiative games, in order to achieve learning objectives. Initiative games are often used in experiential education, and might be as simple as building the tallest tower with blocks – through to complex team challenges such as getting everyone safely across a fast-moving stream. Jule’s approach, and one which chimes with my own research, is to use metaphor around such activities, structuring them so that they reflect real situations, surroundings and challenges from participants’ own contexts. So crossing the river is not simply a group challenge: the river might be a strong weakness which the team are keen to overcome in real life, and the opposite shore the new direction they want to take.

A card-sorting initiative gameWe ran a 3-hour workshop around the exploration of these themes in Augsburg, in both German and English. By asking the participants to play a couple of short initiative games, and then apply metaphor to the games for their own context (which they visualised in some impressive plasticine and pipecleaner models), we encouraged participants to develop activities with the learning context in mind, rather than applying outcomes to preset activities.

A metaphor-modelThe workshop was a great success, and encouraged us to continue our conjoined research in this area: look out for more work in the future. The remainder of the conference was interesting to me as something of an outsider to the field, and allowed space for a lot of reflection on how approaches and features might move from the predominantly outdoor/active space of experiential education, to the more formal classroom or online spaces in HE.

Augsburg, one of South Germany’s oldest towns

Puzzles, problems and STEMs

Colin Thomas, Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Birmingham, organised an open HEA workshop on the use of puzzles in STEM (Science, Technology, Maths and Engineering) teaching this week. Colin has been using puzzles in his teaching to engage students in some of the core maths skills they need as chemists; and has joined up with colleagues in Mathematics to produce a booklet which collects popular maths puzzles throughout history into a single handy resource.

The workshop, attended by 40 lecturers from across the UK in STEM subjects (and two ‘outsiders’ – myself and a lecturer in Education representing a humanities perspective), was centred around the question of whether maths puzzles could be adapted to other subjects by altering their language and setting. In other words, would adding a relevant context improve students’ engagement with the puzzles and underlying skills?

Firstly, though, we spent the first part of the day trying to solve some of the puzzles Thomas and his colleagues had compiled. This tested my rusty A-level maths skills to their limit, but I managed quite a few to my great satisfaction. It was interesting to note that, although introduced as a solo exercise, very soon all participants were deep in discussion, sharing problems or solutions with each other: puzzle solving can be a highly communal, as well as individual, activity (as I found in my own work with puzzles in History).

Example maths puzzle

An example puzzle from Badger, Sangwin, Ventura-Medina & Thomas (2012)

Thomas defined ‘puzzles’ as distinct from problem solving and games-based learning (although essentially puzzles can be constituent, though not exclusive, parts of both of these), and drew on the work of Michalewicz and Michalewicz (2008) in their own study of mathematical puzzles, defining educational puzzles with four criteria:

  1. having generality (ie. applicability of the principle is wider than the puzzle itself)
  2. having simplicity (although I would argue strongly against this: puzzles might be at any level, and most usefully are set just above the current level of the student)
  3. having a ‘Eureka’ factor (equivalent to fiero in game design: that moment of pure joy on finding the solution)
  4. being entertaining in some way.

There was some discussion of whether puzzles are best used as ‘extra’ activities (outside the curriculum) or embedded within the curriculum itself and linked to assessment and progression. Whilst Thomas had embedded puzzles as additional elements within larger teaching sessions (with greater success than he had found when offering puzzles as an extra option previously), Chris Sangwin described a whole module he had designed in Mathematics, where students were given puzzles to solve in each session, and would then have to present and defend their solution in front of the class. Interestingly, Sangwin found an interesting effect on engagement with the puzzles over the module’s ten-week period: excitement in week 1, frustration in week 3, despondent in week 5, rebuilt confidence in week 7, and confident and collegiate by week 11. Sangwin found that a group size of 10-20 was ideal, and found that some students failed to engage – although with the presentation side rather than the puzzles.

In the afternoon, we worked in small mixed-discipline groups on designing subject contexts around the standard maths puzzles. On my table, this led to some very interesting discussion: would adding subject context overcome the difficulty non-maths students have with mathematics? Whilst some felt that this would simply be superficial and of no benefit, I argued with my own experiences that adding subject context can have a dramatic effect on engagement; but that the context must be carefully thought-out to reflect the character of the subject (so, taking the fields example above, it’s not enough to swap fields for – say – building floor space for Engineering students; students need to feel that they are doing meaningful work towards their future profession – and so the puzzle must reflect a real problem engineers face in their work). The use of narrative though, whilst generally liked within humanities subjects, is – of course – less common/accepted in STEM subjects, and hence many of the participants found this approach quite alien (as, presumably, would their students) and tended to keep returning to the stripped-down source puzzles.

In conclusion, this was a thoroughly interesting workshop, delivering some fascinating discussions which transcended STEM subjects and yet provided an interesting contrast with humanities approaches. As is so often the way, context was agreed to be of great importance, but the character of students and lecturers in particular subjects was brought into the equation. Overarching all of this, however, we all decided that a good puzzle can indeed be highly engaging regardless of your background.

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Back to basics

I’ve been following the tweets of a good friend of mine, Kris Rockwell (of Hybrid Learning) recently, as he’s been hinting at an intriguing little card-based game he’s been working on with Alicia Sanchez (Czarina Games) called Game of Phones.

Finally, Kris and Alicia revealed all at the mLearnCon recently in San Jose. Details of the (clever, and discussion-inducing – much like my Course Design Boardgame) game are described well here, but the most interesting thing for me was their design process, as shown in the slides linked below.

As they went through repeated playtests, Kris and Alicia made the game elements simpler and simpler – removing, at one stage, every trace of technology and focussing purely on the cards, gameplay and discussion. This idea of simplifying things down so that the initial aim/context is diluted to simple, but powerfully raw, parts, is one fascinating me at the moment.

Oh, and Kris, I’d like a pack please 😉

Why is this *here*?! Context in games and education.

I’ve been thinking (and talking) about context a lot over the last year – specifically around its relevance to anything other than pure subject-based teaching and learning within a course. Induction, research skills, key skills, work-based learning, assessment, activities… use any of these within a course without designing them with the subject/course context in mind, and you’re setting yourself up for unengaged, poor performing and complaining students.

A nice example of why context is so important has come into my consciousness recently, from two games my household has been playing. To be more precise, my daughter has been playing Professor Layton and the Curious Village on her Nintendo DS, and I’ve been spending longer and longer snippets of free time with Broken Sword on my iPhone.

Both are narrative-based mystery games, and both contain a number of puzzles of varying difficulty (I’ve helped my daughter with some, she’s helped me with some of mine). Both, indeed, are pretty enjoyable to play. But Broken Sword is an excellent experience, whereas Professor Layton is only good. And it all comes down to the way the puzzles are integrated into the games.

Professor Layton screenshot

Nice puzzle, but what's it got to do with a secret village?

In Professor Layton (a mega-popular series amongst 10-30yolds) whilst some puzzles are part of the game narrative (looking for clues in a study indicating the escape route of a villain, for example), others are linked to the narrative but a little contrived (such as the railway porter trying to fill the carriage with a minimal number of scented roses which have set rules around the coverage of their scent), and several others eschew any pretence of being part of the narrative: a man on the street will stop you and say “I have this puzzle which has been foxing me – help me out!” – leading to a puzzle about colours or shapes. My daughter finds these annoying, wanting to get on with the story.

In Broken Sword, a beautiful port of an older game series, the puzzles are so cleverly woven into the engaging narrative, that you would be hard placed to list them out as individual puzzle instances on reflection. You might, for example, extract pieces of a torn photograph from a safe, place them on a table nearby and then start fitting them back together – all a very natural progression of narrative, but executed as a clever puzzle; in another case a heavily secured door has a series of sliding locks which need to be negotiated to be able to pull back the bolt; and there are countless other smaller problems to solve as you negotiate a particular location or mission (gathering water in a bar towel to be able to carry it out to a cavern and mix it with plaster of paris found elsewhere to take a cast of an impression made by pressing a key into sand, was one of my particular favourites).

Piecing together some evidence within the narrative

None of the above puzzles or approaches are ground-breaking or new of course (much like many methods used in teaching and learning), however, the way they are integrated into the narrative or context of the game varies dramatically, and the resulting game experience is far more engaging where the context is constant throughout. It’s no wonder that so many students complain of ‘wanting to get on with the subject’ when faced with another out-of-context skills session.