Tag Archives: higher education

ALT-GLSIG July 2014: Manchester

For this latest gathering of ALT-GLSIG (the Games and Learning Special Interest Group, hosted by the Association for Learning Technology and chaired by myself and Nicola Whitton), we returned to Manchester. This time, a little further down the road at the University of Manchester’s excellent Alan Gilbert Learning Commons building: an extremely well thought-out and provisioned study/learning space for students next to the main library.

A small corner of the Learning Commons

A small corner of the Learning Commons

These regular SIG meetings are a chance for members to meet and share practice, play games, share ideas and collaborate on projects and writing; but we also like to include the local context: incorporating themes or groups from the host university. Rosie Jones, Commons Manager and long-term SIG member, was our accommodating host, and had invited colleagues from the university along to present and join in with the meeting, which added value to an already packed programme.

Curate-a-fact in full flowWe kicked off on Thursday lunchtime, with 14 members new and old: to get everyone straight into the spirit we played a quick game of Curate-a-fact (the winning group coming up with the intriguing history of ‘Llama Nut Ball’), and ‘people bingo’ (where we each had a list of traits, and had to find people with matches for each): two great ways to get everyone to find out random facts about each other, and start the proceedings in a playful way.

Our first session proper was a discussion about conference games: using games to help attendees network, and engage with the conference themes. This contributed to planning for the FOTE 2014 conference, which members of the SIG were invited to create a game for within the atmospheric surroundings of Senate House. More of this in a later post.

The first of our guest speakers, David Jackson (Manchester Metropolitan University) introduced us to Storyjacker in both digital and paper versions: a fun group writing activity which helps people to collaborate together on a narrative. We had great fun, and generated some impressive prose; with the paper and digital versions offering different experiences. Our second guest speakers were Jonathan Slater and Glenn Painter (NHS Nottingham) who wheeled in an intriguing set of giant boards. Ten minutes later, we were walking through a journey into the minds of recovering therapy patients, played out through a giant game board. It was a great example of how playful experiences can help to bring people together, and open them up to ideas and discussions they might otherwise find difficult.

Picture of painted boards

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy through a board game

Continuing the discussion and games into the evening, we finished by playing the brash but hilarious/cringeworthy Cards against Humanity over a meal in a local hostelry. The Friday began with Katie Piatt asking us to solve the STEM quiz she had devised for a Sussex childrens’ science fair, which was great fun and resulted in puzzle designs for future events. Rosie and her Learning Commons colleague Jade Kelsall then provided us with a challenge: we had to design games to help students engage with eLearning resources. To add further competition, good designs were awarded cubes of plasticine – which were added to growing tall sculptures (the highest structure at the end was awarded a highly detailed plasticine dinosaur: the perfect prize?). It was an excellent, fast and creative way to generate ideas – resulting in some great approaches.

A conference planning session was next up: there is a dearth of conferences covering adult learning games and play (or, indeed, any learning games) for both researchers and practitioners in Europe, and so we brainstormed the possibility of a focussed conference in 2015. A working party, and plenty of playful ideas for structure, themes and other events emerged. Watch this space.

The event finished with a round up of SIG news, and we headed off around midday, to arrive home in time for tea.

All attendees, both existing SIG members and new / invited guests, said how much they had gained from the event – and as ever we were bowled over by everyone’s enthusiasm, creativity and examples of their own, local work. Our next meeting is in November at the University of Hull, where we expect something completely different, yet just as playful.

If you are interested in the work of the ALT-GLSIG, sign up to our group at: http://gamesandlearningsig.ning.com




International Reflections: HETL 2014

Alaskan mountains reflected in lake

It’s not often one gets a chance to visit far-flung parts of the world for work when you’re in higher education;  so as part of the development funds I received for my National Teaching Fellowship, I decided to earmark a couple of international conferences. The Higher Education Teaching and Learning conference was the first of these: organised by the US-based HETL Portal, this year’s conference was taking place in Anchorage, Alaska.

Bear statue on shopfront, AnchorageTwo things were immediately attractive: the location (I’d never visited Alaska but am a big fan of mountains, snow and lakes – and Northern Exposure*), but more importantly, that very location meant that it was attracting participants from every continent: access being easy for Asia and Australasia as much as North and South America. What better chance to get an overview of current issues in higher education across the world?

And so it proved. The attendees were a fascinating mix of senior learning and teaching staff (pro-VCs and equivalent) with innovative and highly engaged ‘regular’ teachers: so whilst one of the spacious, discursive sessions might present 3-4 fascinating case studies of innovative teaching; the next would feature a prolonged discussion around organisational strategy: a perfect professional development experience, on all levels.

Highlights were many, and aided by the edict that there could be no powerpoint (or digital) materials: it was voice and handouts only. This shifted many sessions into very thoughtful narratives or interactive events; with a handful spoiling this by discovering a rogue projector and reverting to reading off their slides. Those who thought about this ‘limitation’, though, delivered. Colin Potts (Georgia Tech., USA) started the conference with a bang by calling HE a ‘blip’ on the lifelong learning landscape: noting that this is the first generation who can’t say “I don’t know” (Google being constantly to hand), and that students are forced by HE to study a narrow subject path, when they are naturally more widely interested. John Doherty and Walter Nolan (Northern Arizona, USA) then guided us in a lively and discursive workshop around engaging colleagues in creative curriculum  design: a conversation from which led to a more relaxed discussion of institution-level curriculum planning with Frank Coton (Vice-Principle Learning & Teaching at Glasgow) over a beer and looking out at the Alaskan mountains from the venue’s 15th-floor “chart room”.

Anchorage street with mountains in distance

A view of snowy mountains in every direction

The following day saw a number of examples of the use of video to engage and support students – in ‘flipped classroom’ approaches and as co-created artefacts for peer support. I presented as part of a session focussed on games-based learning, which drew a large group and resulted in an excellent discussion after the four different, but all interesting, papers (aided, perhaps, by my imported Cadbury’s prizes). iPad use featured heavily in other sessions: my research colleague Claire Hamshire (Manchester Metropolitan) describing her use of iPads for medical teaching; Carrie Moore and Vicki Stieha (Boise State, USA) assigning group roles to students using iPads in a research exercise – and finding that students, when given a clear role, self-policed the group much more effectively; and Kriya Dunlap (Alaska Fairbanks) gave out iPads to his students with initial guidance, but then left them to work out the most effective use for their studies – they ended up co-publishing a paper together on the processes. This latter example is a similar approach to that we’re using with our Medicine first years, to similar positive effect.

A session on institutional change for learning technologies featured some fabulous methods and approaches, such as providing video booths for students to drop in and voice their needs and frustrations (e.g.. “I want my timetable on my smartphone”): which the senior management were so affected by that they implemented a major overhaul of all institutional systems – and staff development plans – to focus on student needs (Brian Webster, Edinburgh Napier). Frederic Fovet (McGill, Canada) described his institution’s application of Universal Design for Learning (UDF) which designs curricula from an inclusive base (so that the whole curriculum is naturally accessible to all). Another fascinating paper came from Jeffrey Schnepp (Bowling Green State, USA) and Christian Rogers (Indiana/Purdue, USA) who used a Professor Layton style method of trading hints for points in end of year exams: students could opt to trade a percentage of the available mark for a hint about the question, on a question by question basis. Their trial is ongoing, but initial results showed a small increase in the average grade, with around 70% of students opting for at least one hint.

There were too many other interesting sessions, discussions and informal chats to mention: in many ways it was a never-ending wave of engaging topics. Conversations went on long into the night, too, courtesy of the midnight sun (the sky looked as if it was noon, around 11pm) and some very good Anchorage restaurants: and even after the conference finished we were still discussing the topics over coffee (finishing with a fascinating chat to David Giles – Flinders, Australia – about focussing on playfulness and the ability to fail, in learning design).

To get the best flights, I was left with a day and half after the conference to explore some of the fantastic scenery around Alaska, and joined Claire and others on a jaw-droppingly-beautiful train journey down to the port at Seward, where we boarded a boat to view whales and other sea life. The following day, we hiked up one of Anchorages smaller mountains, Flattop Mountain, which was still quite a serious climb, rewarded with snow to trample at the top.

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Altogether, HETL 2014 and Alaska made for an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience: a fabulous conference, fascinating people, and stunning place. I feel both privileged and humbled to have been part of it.

*Northern Exposure, it turns out, was actually filmed in New York state; and contrary to the strap line, I saw no moose on any corner.

Storyville – the HEA A&H Conference 2013

Image by musical photo man, http://www.flickr.com/photos/7622958@N04/6659134537/

I’d been looking forward to  Storyville 2013, the Higher Education Academy’s 2013 Arts and Humanities conference, for two reasons: firstly, the excellent title/theme of narratives and storytelling; secondly, the fact that the first combined HEA Arts & Humanities conference in 2012 had been one of the most rewarding I’d attended.

The theme ensured that many of the presenters had thought much harder about what they were proposing – and the range of flexible session types with an emphasis on interaction (short and long workshops, ‘wildcard’ sessions,  panels) meant that the usual sit-and-listen stance of an academic conference was very definitely not in evidence. This, combined with a very convivial setting in the large open plan ground floor of the Thistle Hotel in Brighton, ensured that there were always interesting stories, thoughts and chatter to be found.

I’d been invited to begin the conference by attending one of the HEA’s policy breakfasts – this particular one on the multitude of pertinent issues changing the face of Higher Education currently. From a range of discipline bases we discussed the effect of fees, shifting socioeconomic student makeup, and the role of academic and transferrable skills. I was impressed by the level of discussion and range of responses offered, and it is pleasing to see the HEA taking a proactive yet communal role in considering such key issues.

The opening keynote, from Vicky Gunn (Director of the Learning and Teaching Centre, University of Glasgow), drew on her own subject base of early medieval philosophy, to question the “tall tales we tell about teaching”: which stories we inherit from our own experience as students or apprentices, and which ones we choose to pervade or reject when faced with new and changing narratives as lecturers. There was to be no soft anodyne start to this remarkable conference: Vicky both commanded and rewarded thoughtful attention, as she introduced her ideas through some engaging personal stories.

Photograph by Katie Piatt: http://www.flickr.com/photos/katiepiatt/8880808116/in/set-72157633789726964It was straight into my own session then, taking a room of participants through an energetic, mildly competitive game design workshop (using the model I developed with Nic Whitton, but this time ably delivered with Katie Piatt, who popped in from her local University of Brighton and also captured the session beautifully in photographs). A number of compelling stories, and very workable games, emerged 90 minutes later.

Sadly, I was only able to stay for the first of the two days, due to a conflicting invitation to another excellent event (report to follow); but even the one day was full to the brim of interesting and challenging sessions. Before a good lunch,  short papers covered the use of the Hunger Games as a metaphor for teacher training (in particular, equipping oneself effectively and creatively for particular challenges); and the use of abstracts as a peer discussion/reflection tool for students submitting essays – this latter paper gave rise to a really interesting discussion of the use of shorter summaries (abstracts, précis, even one line and 140 character forms) to encourage reflection on the main structure and arguments in an essay; and to provide peers with an easy way to compare approaches in a tutorial or seminar setting.

In the afternoon, I chose two longer workshops for their challenging natures. The first presented Keith Turvey’s narrative ecology heuristic as a way to make sense of professional (and personal) identities. Working with a colleague who runs the HE programmes at Circus Space (in itself an interesting challenge in mapping contexts) we struggled at first with the approach, thinking it to be over-dependent on technical determinism; but working with Keith we found it quite rewarding to use his ‘arch’ structure as a way to think about dependencies: aspects of persona which need other aspects to cement or grow them. By the end of the session we could see some use in using this with students to reflect on their own academic and professional development. The second workshop was way out of my comfort zone – the use of dance to investigate the state of ‘flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi) as a measure of connectedness/engagement with a learning activity. Although my own attempts stopped fairly early and I retired to the sides to watch (and no, there is no video evidence), our observation/participation was used to great effect in the prolonged discussion afterwards (a good half an hour after the workshop was due to finish), covering a range of methods one might use to observe/measure flow in more traditional learning sessions – and why one might want to.

The day finished with the conference dinner, where more stories were shared over an excellent meal. By the end of a long day (8am to midnight), my head was spinning with the range of different tales I’d been part of. Although my own narrative shifted to Belfast the next day, I kept a close eye on the busy Twitter stream (collected here) which gave glimpses of further fascinating narratives.

As we discussed over dinner, it is hard to see how the Arts & Humanities team can top this next year: but with two excellent, thoroughly interesting/stimulating events to their belt, I’m sure they’ll have a good go.

Pervasive Learning Activities – Workshop July 11th

UPDATE: Date change to July 11th 2013

Pervasive Learning Activities (PLAs) are deeply embedded games-based approaches to learning which draw from key features of alternate reality games, and play on the idea of suspension of disbelief amongst participants: students become part of a developing scenario, learning skills and approaches in context, and gradually blur the line between the scenario and real life.

This approach has been used successfully to teach Enterprise in the Universities of Portsmouth and Leeds, and has potential for any other discipline.

As part of our ongoing research and practice in this area, Simon Brookes, Sarah Underwood and I are holding a workshop to outline the concept of PLAs, give participants experience of a real PLA, and then cover the skills needed to develop one in any discipline. It will be no surprise to hear that the day will be action-packed, fun and (we hope) rewarding.

The PLA Workshop is being arranged in conjunction with the Higher Education Academy, and will take place on Thursday 11th July at the University of Leicester.

Info / Sign up here

Of Course! course design board game

The Of Course! board game boxAn educational board game I’ve been working on for over a year has finally gone into ‘production’.

Of Course! was designed to solve a problem I have with new course teams designing a new programme (especially for online courses). Normally it would take 3-4 meetings to get all staff to forget their normal teaching/admin processes, and focus on the new market/student base/subject needs. I designed a simple board game which matches materials, pedagogic, assessment and administrative elements to the learner and market context, adding in competition, scoring and a small ‘vindictive’ element. The game, although the rules needed streamlining, worked wonders in that it generated huge levels of discussion within the course team, and helped focus the team together within an hour – rather than those 3-4 meetings.

After several prototypes and playtests with other course teams, instructional designers and games designers (thanks to my ALT-GLSIG colleagues) I looked for ways to produce the final version. I came across the rather wonderful gamecrafter.com – which allows you to create professional finished board games in single or small numbers as well as large. The downside proved to be the postage (both cost and time, as the package spent a long time in UK customs) but the finished product is rather wonderful and well worth the wait.

You can find out more about the game, and download or purchase it on the Of Course! page; you can also read more about the design process, contextual games, and playtesting of this game in the following paper:

Moseley, A. (2010) “Back two spaces, and roll again: the use of games-based activities to quickly set authentic contexts”. Proceedings of ECGBL 2010, the 4th European Conference on Games Based Learning, Copenhagen, Denmark, 20-21 October 2010, pp. 270-279. Available: http://hdl.handle.net/2381/9103 [Accessed 29/8/2012].

HEA Arts & Humanities conference 2012: Pedagogies of Hope

The closure of the HEA Subject Centres last year left a yawning gap in discipline-level support for teachers in Higher Education, although the HEA have been working hard to rebuild support in a different way to match the new funding model they now work to. One positive piece of news which emerged earlier this year, though, was their plan to hold a number of larger conferences to cover the broad discipline bases. For Arts and Humanities, this was to take place in Glasgow over the (very sensible, as it allows easier transport there and back) 24-hour lunchtime to lunchtime model.

Central Station, Glasgow
It’s the third time I’ve been to Glasgow, and I’m always impressed by its dark brooding grandieur and cultural buzz: the central train station embodying this in its massive newly-cleaned roofspace, dark-wood booths and cultural melieau. The conference took place in the equally impressive (in a new shiny way) Radisson Blu hotel, mere steps from the Central Station: which provided a comfortable, well-catered home for us over the 24 hours.

The conference was topped and tailed by two keynote speeches – with a number of parallel sessions and workshops in between. There were some discipline-focussed strands (eg. all papers dealing with English, or Psychology) and some interdisciplinary, but in practice all sessions had relevence for everyone, as they featured broad themes resonant to us all, regardless of discipline: employability, research skills, assessment, course design, the Key Information Set, and others. More useful still, throughout all the sessions I attended – and in the coffee and lunch breaks – there was a genuine collegiate feel across questions, discussions and conversations: regardless of discipline base, we were all keen to help each other come to terms with key issues and collectively arrive at possible solutions and models.

The two keynotes were each interesting in their own way. Opening, Giovanni Schiuma brought a colourful Italian flair to the proceedings, and made the case for creative arts within business. He exposed the current MBA programmes as focussing on neat systems and processes, which businesses need in calm times, but in turbulent times as now, creativity and humanistic aspects are required. Slightly disappointingly, Schiuma focussed on the creative arts almost exclusively, sidestepping the benefits of Humanities skill bases and approaches. As I asked in a question, many of the problems could be solved by returning to the case where students of any discipline could enter business and be trained on the job, rather than the MBA route taking precedence. As Schiuma answered wryly, sadly we have (powerful) business schools…
The second keynote was a beautifully presented history of art and design education by Linda Drew. Whilst also focussing on creative arts (it would have been nice to have one keynote on the literary or historical humanities), Linda provided a fascinating narrative, and urged us to focus on the needs of the future, where students should be allowed to think for themselves, teachers should become learners, and we all move forward together.

No right answers

This message carried on a fascinating theme from one of the parallel sessions earlier in the conference: allowing students to create work which cannot be wrong, or alternatively: freeing them from the pressure of wanting to be right. Lesley Coote, from the University of Hull, had asked her medieval literature students to create top trumps cards for the main characters in Chaucer: giving them numerical ratings on various ‘skills’, and then justifying them with a paragraph or two. Elizabeth English and Robert Eaglestone (Royal Holloway), with their literary theory students, had asked them to create journals – encouraging them to link their experiences on the (difficult) course topics to real life elements such as films or television. The journals were not marked, but encouraging or interested comments were added by the tutors. In a creative workshop on the final day with Nicholas Monk (University of Warwick) we were asked in teams to organise a set of images, quotes and statistics around capitol punishment in any way we felt meaningful: all three of the groups produced very different narratives within their layouts from the same materials.
In all of these cases, students were provided with an activity which had no right or wrong answers – each was allowed to choose and develop their own take on the activity. And in each case, the students were highly engaged, and appreciative, of the courses.

Employability and Effective Group Work

A number of sessions focussed on integrating employability skills within humanities disciplines, which produced a lengthy and interesting discussion around the benefits and difficulties of arranging large-scale placements (sparked by Jo Robinson’s ambitious work at the University of Nottingham). Rachel Carroll (Teeside University) provided an extremely well thought alternative to the problem however: asking her English Literature students both to create a proposal for a literary event, and to form the panel of judges awarding funding to the same events. She used some very clever devices to encourage effective (and highly transferrable) group work, avoiding many of the problems students usually complain about:

  • all group-produced material was assessed formatively, by peers; only individual (reflective) material was assessed summatively – thus removing the usual complaints that some group members weren’t pulling their weight;
  • students were given project development workshops, where key group working (and professional) skills were taught
  • each group created their own group work contracts, which bound each member to particular requirements and avoided individuals letting down a team.

Julie Raby (York St. John) presented some very useful data on patterns of online and offline ‘attendence’ (/access). Contrary to the usual accepted belief, Julie found that exactly the same students who attended and engaged in face to face sessions were those who also engaged with the online materials/activities; conversely those who failed to attend face-to-face sessions also ignored the online resources. She also found that her students much preferred a flat, linear structure to the online materials on the institution’s VLE: organised by session, and including clearly labelled lists of readings, resources and activities in order of importance. Any use of folders or alternative organisation was rejected as more confusing.

For my own part, I enjoyed a thoroughly responsive and engaged audience for my workshop on the use of puzzles to set authentic contexts and teach research and other core skills/concepts.

Overall, this was an excellent first combined conference. Any disciplinary differences were laid aside for 24 hours of collegiate, engaged discussion and shared problem-solving. Helped by the vibrant Glasgow surroundings, we all went our separate ways at the end buzzing with new approaches and a sense of hope in an increasingly challenging environment.

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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ECGBL 2011: Athens

The remains of a burned rubbish pile lie infront of a picturesque church

In the weeks leading up to the fifth European Conference for Games Based Learning, participants from around the globe were checking the news sites for updates on the situation in Athens. The organisers (Sue and Elaine from ACI) did a wonderful job keeping everyone up to date as the days approached, and set up a travel discussion for those wishing to share lifts from the airport on strike days.

I slowly watched many of the authors in my own mini-track on Games on  a Budget pull out due to cancelled flights (including Nic Whitton, the co-chair, although more due to safety/mobility issues given the imminent arrival of Little Whitton #2); but as I met up for conference drinks at the hotel reception on Wednesday eve, it was good to see that around 80 attendees had managed to avoid any strikes and help contribute to the local economy. Before that I’d spent the day with German experiential education expert Jule Hildmann and her partner, avoiding the police barricades and explosions from the central square; touring around the (closed) ancient sites before climbing a hill to hit a layer of tear gas and splutter back down again.

Konkkaronkka - the board game


The first day of the conference had been compressed to cover missing sessions, but I was pleased to chair a near-full mini-track. The focus was on low-cost or traditional-influenced games, and the track opened with a paper by Nic Whitton on the possibilities and affordances such games present to education, and the call for more studies into this timely area (given shrinking budgets across education and heightened by the local economic crisis). I presented my work on Of Course! – the course design board game and its ability to set up a detailed context using simple games-based tricks. A beautiful, cute board game for nursery-age children in Finland with learning difficulties, Konkkaronkka, was presented by Päivi Marjanen who described how the game encouraged peer learning amongst playtesting sessions. The key to this very successful game was the close work between tutors/carers and the game designers at the start; and the extensive playtesting with the target audience; a digital version was created, but in testing it was found that the children talked to the computer and not to each other, so this development was stopped.

The horse and fountain game

The horse & fountain game

In the wider conference, other low cost/simple games were in evidence too: a fascinating activity presented by Ivar Männamaa (University of Tartu, Estonia) which distilled the complex and difficult issue of cultural integration into a metaphor of horses and watering holes. Using home-made, brightly coloured hexagons (fountains) and half-hexagons (horses) students have to position their horses to occupy a portion of the fountains; another team’s horses can then  choose to share or overtake some or all of the fountains. A simple but clever scoring system and rules mimic aspects of cultural integration, and initial tests have proved very effective in generating discussion around the issue which spirals out from the activity. A good example of the generation of complex contexts and ideas with simple game elements.

Other papers of interest included Io Iacovides (PhD student with the Open University) who presented her initial study of breakdowns and contradictions during gameplay: a breakdown being a short term problem or issue, with contradictions being wider problems which go against the context of the game or the needs of the player. Using special study rooms which could track player reactions, Io looked at eight game players and non-game-players in detail. In her paper and the ensuing discussion, the usefulness of these concepts in looking at engagement were considered: breakdowns (if accompanied with breakthroughs) might in fact be more engaging over time, whereas contradictions might cause a dramatic loss in engagement. Eleni Timplalexi (Athens University) described a live action roleplay for high school chemistry students, where groups ‘time travelled’ between two rooms: one a Renaissance alchemy lab where the source and properties of materials could be investigated; and the other a modern chemistry lab where the knowledge of materials could be put into practice to make useful compounds and products. Nikolaos Avouris gave an accomplished keynote on Friday morning overviewing the use of games within Museum education: highlighting the overuse of ‘games overlaid on a weak subject link’, but focussing on the growing use of pervasive games and games with a social connection such as Pheon and Ghost of a Chance at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

A church nestled between dense housingAs usual for this conference, the long discussion time in and between papers, and the willingness to talk (and eat, and drink) long into the night, meant that I returned with many more ideas, links and new contacts than I could cope with. Athens itself provided contrasting memories: from the sublime remains on the Acropolis and surprising us whenever we turned a corner from tourist tat to stunning remains; to the hair-raising run through narrow streets to avoid protestors and police bombarding each other with water, gas and masonry. But the abiding memory will be of a set of wonderful international friends who took it all on board in a playful way, and ensured we all learned from the experience.

The Parthenon

Gratuitous shot of the Parthenon

iGBL 2011, Waterford

I was invited to speak at the inaugural Irish Symposium on Game-Based Learning by a colleague who has long shared my interest of games use in education, Patrick Felicia. Held in Waterford, Ireland, by the Institute of Technology’s Game-based Learning research group, the symposium aimed to generate discussion and forward planning around existing research and practice in the area.

Waterford street, by akahodag

Waterford street, by akahodag

Getting to Waterford was an interesting game in itself, myself and fellow speaker Nicola Whitton travelling the opposite way out to the eastern coast of Essex, for the daily flight from London Southend to Waterford. However, safely arriving in the Viking hotel (complete with Asgard bar) after a rather beautiful flight over lamp-lit coastal villages, we were prepared for the following action-packed day.

An opening keynote from Michael Hallissy of Dublin’s Digital Hub set the tone  of the event, with tales of ambitious games-design projects for young adults which led to further questions about the roles of technology, pedagogic design, and the benefits and pitfalls of games-based approaches. The symposium then split into two streams, allowing participants to cross streams after each paper via changeover periods (a good model which many other conferences could take note of).

The range of papers in the two streams was impressive in both breadth and depth. In the space of an hour, I heard a fascinating and detailed physiological discussion of the use of ‘sonic spaces’ to enhance student immersion and engagement from performer and researcher Flaithri Neff of Limerick Institute of Technology; and a case study in the use of a simple board game to introduce key concepts in genetics teaching to students and younger learners. The board game, presented by Eoin Gill of Waterford IoT, was produced as part of a European 2Ways funded project with the GENIE CETL centre at the University of Leicester (and, embarrassingly, was the first I’d heard of it, but I shall be off to see them this week!); and it was an excellent example of the use of a simple game to quickly set a complex context, through the use of simple targetted elements: players receive an alien body and a pen, and move around the board adding random mutations to their body whilst watching their population grow and shrink.

Eoin Gill and the genetics boardgame

Eoin Gill and the genetics boardgame

The board game formed an excellent case study for my own paper, which centred around the use of simple games or game-based elements to set up authentic contexts – following up my earlier work (see Moseley, 2010 in publications) and focussing on their use in course design and delivery.

A few research postgraduates presented their work, which added some fresh and detailed studies to the mix – Karen Orr, graduating from Queen’s University Belfast, provided one of the most interesting with her psychometric tests and scale to determine people’s attitude to games use in education. She determined three factors: benefits (perceived usefulness), self-efficacy (not wanting to look stupid), and boastfulness/confidence (in own ability to play and learn from games). It will be interesting to see papers which result from this thesis in due course.

Patrick Felicia followed this with his own initial analysis of data gathered from a survey of Irish educators in Higher Education, on the use and attitudes to games-based learning in the classroom. There were some interesting early outcomes, including a lack of difference by gender, and a dip in effectiveness if games-based approaches are over-used.

Ryan Flynn, lecturer in games design at the University of Greenwich, presented a fascinating paper on the development of a ‘realistic’ simulation for Social Work training, and the decisions taken about levels of realism and immersion appropriate to the project. Ryan is developing a R.E.A.L. framework which considers the various factors influencing the level of realism required for any application – one to keep tabs on as it develops.

The day finished with an extremely positive round-table discussion about consolidating expertise and moving the games-based-learning agenda forward in Ireland. Some real strides were made through discussion in the room, and we could certainly do with these levels of energy and positive action in England.

Packed around these highlights were some interesting discussions over coffee and home-made cakes, demonstrations of games-based applications by IoT Masters students, and (to finish off the day perfectly) a fabulous meal in a cosy restaurant in Waterford centre. All in all, a fascinating, friendly and energising symposium – congratulations to Patrick and Waterford.

Thriving in Difficult Times

Thus was the title of the 13th annual Teaching and Learning in History conference – poignant, as this will be the last arranged and funded by the History Subject Centre (one of the more proactive centres, run effectively for many years at Warwick by Sarah Richardson and team) after the news that the HEA will close the regional centres and provide subject support from a reduced central team in York.

The future of Higher Education? Oxford's Dodo contemplates its former self.

The conference focuses on teaching and learning issues within History teaching, and (based on my previous visit in 2009) is a fabulous, discursive conference with student needs and a passion for teaching History at its heart. This one proved to be no different, with the added feel of impending loss and yet a collective belief that these issues, and the community surrounding them, should continue and grow.

Lady Margaret Hall, OxfordHeld in the beautifully situated Lady Margaret Hall at the University of Oxford, the conference opened with a discussion and workshop in which we proactively discussed the key activities of the subject centre, and how these might continue within – and in addition to – the new, cut-down, structure. The four key features were support for new teachers (the Centre’s most impressive work to date, with plans to link together a number of disparate schemes into a UK-wide network of training and support for new lecturers and postgraduates), community (a proposal to take this online and augment a continuing annual conference), publication (the proposal for a new journal to fill the current gap in T&L for History) and regional support (opinion was split on whether the new stringent times will allow for regional support to continue, or whether the three areas above should provide national support with local search/theme options).

The rest of the two-day conference covered some fascinating themes, all surrounded by lengthy post-presentation discussion. Highlights included:

  • The use of the Big Society as a theme to frame historical discussions around, by George Campbell Gosling (Oxford Brookes) – this was paired with my session on the Great History Conundrum and contextual training, and led to an interesting discussion around the use of modern/familiar contexts as a basis to work in related historical aspects and skills, with equal thinking around ways to counter the negative reception political hot potatoes (in George’s case) and games (in mine) get within higher education.
  • A heated discussion around the use of final essays for testing learning outcomes,  and rubrics around these. This merged into discussion around effective feedback (the It’s Good to Talk project based at DeMontfort University and presented by Sam McGinty – and one which an upcoming project on audio feedback at the University of Leicester will link in to) and work-based learning (Harvey Woolf and Richard Hawkins from Wolverhampton) – all of which opened up debate around the alignment of assessment and feedback to real activity, and useful outcomes for the student. A case study in personalised, peer-assisted feedback was given by Chris Szejnmann (Loughborough) who described his use of simple Flip cameras to provide reflection and feedback on student presentations.
  • A fascinating study around international and regional effects on student work and transition in first year undergraduate courses (Melodee Beals, from the report International Students in History)

Augmented by lengthy coffee-breaks and a chance to reflect on each topic with colleagues, all of the participants took something away which would impact on their own practice in one way or another. For me, five days on, my head is still buzzing with some of the ideas around assessment and feedback – but also, reflecting on the way that communities of practice can form and flourish around issues invoking such a keen interest as student learning in a subject close to one’s heart. I doubt very much if this will be the last time these participants will be gathered together and discussing the latest issues affecting students of History in higher education. Thank goodness.