[Technology 1076] A new vision for online learning

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David J. Rosen djrosen at comcast.net
Sat Jun 16 07:40:16 EDT 2007

Hello Nancy, Heidi, and others,

I have previously mentioned on this discussion list the book by James
Gee, _What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and
Literacy_. Gee invites us to look at what we can learn from the most
successful, and brilliantly designed, computer games about how to
create classroom learning experiences. I would like us to look at
what video games have to teach us about _online_ learning for adults.

[Caution: this message contains vision.]

1. When you begin to play a video game you know it will be
challenging, but it always begins at the easiest level and gradually,
level by level, gets more difficult. Is this always true of online
learning for adults?

2. Video games (Gee points out) usually have no written instruction
manuals. You are expected to learn how they work from playing them.
They are designed that way. You _can_ learn how they work from
playing them. Can students learn how an online course works just from
taking it?

3. In a video game you can take as little or as much time as you
need to go through any level. You can replay a level any time you
want -- to strengthen your skills for the difficult challenges that
you know lie ahead, or for fun. In an online course, even an
asynchronous one, you usually have to complete the assignment within
the week.

4. In a video game you are rewarded each time you learn something,
and at the end of each level.

Although Gee lists more principles I think you get the idea. Gee
learned these principles from studying video games. He describes them
in detail throughout the book and conveniently lists them in the
appendix. Examining typical classroom activities in light of these
learning design principles, you realize that many students are
disengaged with K-12 classes and drop out because the classes are so
poorly designed as learning environments, whereas video games engage
them. Most classes just cannot compete with video games, or many
other engaging life learning experiences. As Mark Twain put it, "My
whole life was an education, except of course for my years in school".

Of course, this kind of thinking may lead us back to the drawing
board, to reconsider whether we should be offering online "classes"
at all. The answer to the National Institute of Literacy's question
about how much literacy is needed for online learning might be "only
very basic literacy skills" or even "no literacy skills are required"
to participate in online learning if reading and writing could be
learned entirely through playing an online video game.

Some of you are chuckling at the very notion. Consider however Second
Life, the online environment where those with low-level reading
skills can even now learn how to do many things without reading.
Suppose users could have Second Life signs, notices, billboards,
letters, e-mail and other written documents -- or parts of these --
read out loud if they wished, for example when they got stuck on a
word. Suppose they could attend completely asynchronous reading
improvement groups when and if they wanted to in an online learning
center, reading groups which took advantage of computerized
assessment features. In a large-scale, online reading group
environment, people could be assigned to a reading group with those
who had their interests, and same reading level. There could, of
course, be scheduled real-time discussions for those who wanted them.

I learned recently that some people with physical disabilities (who
describe themselves as "differently abled") are active in Second
Life. Like everyone else there, they can choose who they want to be,
can pick or design their own avatar (a mobile, animated icon that is
"who you are" in Second Life) but also -- for the first time -- they
can walk, run, even fly. One physically disabled user said that this
mobility is liberating. Could Second Life be "liberating" for low-
literate adults?

Where am I going with this vision?

The National Institute for Literacy, and/or other public and private
funders should invest in creating an online environment -- perhaps
build a learning center island on Second Life -- where adults,
including young adults, -- can improve their reading, writing and
numeracy skills in an interactive, online environment. This would be
a bold step. There is nothing like this now -- although I understand
a new GED center has just opened on Second Life and there is a
massive center being built there for post-secondary education.

Suppose participants learned to improve their reading, writing and
numeracy skills as they were doing other things, and that the
"scaffolding" was there to support literacy improvement. Perhaps the
U.S. and Canada could co-invest in a Second Life adult learning
environment where adults could go to pursue some compelling learning
goals, and could -- at the same time -- get the assists they needed
to improve their reading, writing and numeracy skills, not
necessarily through online classes, but as they learned construction
skills, learned to maintain a computer, improved their bowling
skills, learned to fully use the features of a new mobile phone, or
some other personal goal or objective.

Such an environment, originally designed for English users or English
language learners, might be adapted for learning other languages as
well. It might become a world literacy learning environment.

David J. Rosen
djrosen at comcast.net