Jennifer Groff and the power of game-based learning, in an interview for the Observatory

Playful learning is much more about inspiring and inciting in a learner innate curiosity that we have about something that makes them want to explore their own understanding of it, rather than chasing external rewards.
— Jennifer Groff.

Jennifer Groff, research assistant and Ph.D. candidate at the MIT Media Lab and the MIT Education Arcade, answered some questions about the effectiveness of game-based learning environments.

Read the full transcript:

Observatory:  How could you define instructional design to someone who is not familiar with the term?

Groff: At least from our lab's perspective, I would say it's about constructing experiences for a learner. How do you think about an experience they're going to have around a content or construct or area that you want them to play with? Sometimes instructional design, the approach always comes down to a theory of learning. Sometimes it's direct instruction, you're telling the person what this thing is, what they need to know, and sometimes, you think they construct their own knowledge and so you create a space in which they can play, and I'd say that's more the way our lab designs.

We create game-based learning environments. And they allow learners to play in a concept area, play with the ideas of it, we call it “Preparation for Future Learning,” so that when they may experience more formal instruction and later about a topic, they can have some mental frame or experience to attach that learning onto and say, "Ah, yes, it's just like that thing I played with, or the gears or the blocks represent multiplication tables." These types of things.

Observatory: Can you tell us about the Playful Learning Initiative? Why it is important to learn to play and play to learn?

Groff: Playful Learning Initiative was established a few years ago now, I guess it was 2014. And it was funded by the Gates Foundation to support teachers across the US becoming more familiar with how to use Game-based Learning in the classroom. How do you use digital games like the ones we make in our lab, the Education Arcade, in the classroom, which isn't always clear for teachers about how to use tools like that. So that was the main focus. But at the heart of it, it is about helping teachers understand the nature of playful learning. And what I mean by that is ways in which playing with content and ideas the way I just described about, how to play in a concept before you might get formal training or instruction about it.

We see many teachers who are really passionate about things like paper and board games because they see the power of game-based learning. And it doesn't have to be digital. But using digital games in the classroom can typically be a bit of a step up in challenge and how to actually facilitate that well. So, the goal of the project was to help more teachers understand how to use games in the classroom, to give them more confidence in getting started. Playful learning is really intended to support and connect educators who find value in playful learning, in game-based learning, and using playful environments and tools to help learners explore a concept, so that more teachers can get familiar with that type of what we call pedagogy or teaching and learning method, and connect them to one another so they can support one another in using these innovative tools.

Observatory: What is the difference between Playful Learning Initiative and gamification?

Groff: What we intend by the difference is that gamification can be the application of game mechanics and incentives on anything. You can gamify a classroom by making a point structure for getting points every time you turn in your homework or getting points for when you do well on a test. We see that as largely extrinsically motivated. It can be effective at times. People can do things because you put extrinsic rewards available to them. But it's not the approach we advocate for because we think learning is inherently intrinsic, that we want to find the motivation internally in the learner to want to play with an idea, a concept, to direct their own learning in a direction that inspires them and that won't come from chasing an external reward.

Playful learning is much more about inspiring and inciting in a learner innate curiosity that we have about something that makes them want to explore their own understanding of it, rather than chasing external rewards.

Observatory: What is one of the biggest challenge teachers faces when trying to implement game-based learning in the classrooms?

Groff: There's a few challenges they might face. One might be that games are more accepted now than they have been in the past. But still - we call it the G-word - it's still a game. And sometimes people can look at that in the classroom and think good learning isn't happening and, of course, that can often be the direct opposite sometimes. In a game-based experience, more deep learning is happening than would be in a traditional, direct-instruction lesson where a teacher's just explaining something to learners. So that can be one of the challenges.

Another challenge just might be unfamiliarity with how to support game-based learning. It's not linear and it's not direct instruction, so how do you support learners in understanding and taking away things from this game-based experience? And that comes really down to them understanding how to support constructivist learning, how to support learners in questioning what they're seeing, and asking them to construct their own answer to what's happening rather than telling them the answer. And that's really the power of games, is that they invite that type of pedagogy that isn't just using games but it's a better way of it better aligns with how we know how people learn.

Observatory: Do you use any specific instructional design method to develop games as learning objectives?

Groff: We use very iterative practices that combine learning objectives or goals of what you want someone to learn about and then marrying that with game mechanics. Broadly, we essentially pick a topic that we think learners should be learning about, and then we look at what are the inherent mechanics in that topic. For example, in multiplication tables, blocks work really well. That's what makes LEGOs great, is actually they represent multiplication tables. So we look at the inherent mechanics around the topic and look for the playfulness that we can find and kind of build off of in that.

The second answer, a deeper answer I would give to that, is we actually have a white paper on our website that offers a design framework called XCD or Balanced Design. And it's built off a larger assessment design framework but essentially invites game designers - but anyone, any instructional designer, any teacher - to design learning experiences in a balanced way. What are the objectives or the outcomes you want the learner to be tackling, what's the concept all about, what are tasks you're going to give them to explore that concept, and to produce evidence that you can then look at the evidence and say, "What does that evidence mean? Where is this learner?" And it's this triangle that you just keep balancing. And when we design games now, we try and just keep rebalancing those things all the time. We define the game mechanics, the game task. We define what the evidence is going to be, and then we make judgments about how we'll interpret that evidence to decide what does this mean for the learner and what level or task might they go to next in the game based on what they're doing.

Observatory: What will be the role of the teacher in the future?

Groff: That's a great question. I don't have an answer in part because of my beliefs about how we're going to define the future of education. None of us have the answer. I hope that we keep innovating and trying things in different models of working and looking at what works for which learners where and when. And that's part of the challenge. There's no cookie-cutter recipe for how to build "the best new school." Different learners in different contexts and regions need different things. But we have a general sense of how people learn, and so I think we do need to rethink that role.

And the example I gave in my talk about Lumiar schools where they've broken the role of the teacher into two parts, where masters from the community or content experts come in and run projects with the learners, frees up the teacher to be, play a tutor role where they just they focus on the overall development, the holistic development of the learner, is really inspiring to me and, again, aligns really well with what we know about how people learn. I hope we keep playing with and rethinking how teachers can best do their job, which is to scaffold and support the overall growth of the learner so they can go off and do their own self-directed learning eventually without the teacher.

Observatory: What will higher education look like in 2049?

Groff: I don't know. I was so glad he asked it, which is, I'm all about calling out the elephants in the room. And in higher education, the elephants in the room is that many employers complain that graduates are graduating and not being able to take on the jobs immediately, and they have to spend about six months being retrained at the employer's location or in their context. And that equation just doesn't add up when students are spending that much money for a degree and employers have to spend that much money then to retrain. And I hope that just lights a fire under all of us to rethink the whole ecosystem and how we need to better work together to solve this challenge.

Observatory: Would you be interested on doing research with TecLabs of Tec de Monterrey?

Groff: Of course! You guys are fantastic. I've been really inspired by the work you're doing here, and it feels a bit like coming home to my tribe. You're doing work in the same space, sometimes work that I've had a hard time finding a home for at MIT. So, it's been really fun being here.