February 21, 2007

Project explores what and how players learn - Computer games may help with class work

by K.C. Jaehnig

gaming shot

Caption follows story

(Herrin, Rockford editors, note local names. PRONOUNCER: "Loh" is pronounced "low."

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Some day, in the not-so-distant future in a school not far away, students may claim that a dragon ate their homework.

A teaching environment based on today's multi-player, computer-game worlds could engage students as never before, according to Christian S. Loh, an assistant professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

But before teachers can bring that environment into the classroom, game designers and educators must work together to figure out and assess just what it is their student players are learning.

"We all know that games teach, but how do you measure that?" Loh said.

"We want to know (how to measure teaching effectiveness) in order to convince the skeptics that the students are really learning when they are playing games."

In the past, researchers have tried to answer the assessment question by analyzing what the players say about their play experience and by analyzing hours and hours of filmed play sessions.

"Analyzing films is a very slow and tedious process," Loh said.

"Many hours are required to analyze the huge amount of data collected."

Loh takes a different tack, which he discusses in the newly published book "Games and Simulations in Online Learning," edited by David Gibson, Clark Aldrich and Marc Prensky.

"If you can track what a gamer has done in the game, then you can rebuild the gameplay experience from the data and analyze just that," he said.

The technology to do this already exists. Major Web sites such as Amazon, Yahoo and Google already track users' activities to provide them with a personalized online experience.

"Online retailers make successful use of sophisticated online tracking mechanisms to profile their customers in order to understand their buying habits," Loh wrote in his chapter's introduction.

"Online multiplayer games make use of similar technologies to keep track of gamers' activities, for better management of in-game resources and to settle disputes."

Educators could harness that same technology for learning assessment, Loh maintains. By following the "footprints" laid down by the players' characters — "avatars" in gamespeak — teachers could then see how often the students played the game and for how long; get an idea of how well they mastered the material by how well they played; determine their individual learning styles; spot — and, it is to be hoped, fix — any student weaknesses noticed during play; and even reward good students with valuable trophies, medals, special armor and such.

To make an instructional game as useful as possible, teachers must be in on the design process, helping to ensure that it tracks only learning goals, Loh said. No point in collecting information just for the sake of data gathering — it just slows down play.

But the key to successful educational design lies in one simple fact: It has to be fun.

"A game that is not fun to play is doomed to fail," Loh said.

With an SIUC "seed grant," Loh and students Arnond Anantachai of Herrin, Jaehwan Byun of South Korea and Joseph D. Lenox of Rockford have begun work on software that would pull data from a gaming session and compile it for learning assessment. They plan to make the software easy enough to use that even teachers with no coding or programming skills could call up the information and understand it.

Because the software would make quantifiable analysis of gaming possible for the first time, Loh believes it would have a market advantage.

"If we come up with patentable technology, then we could invite investors to come in," he said.

Apart from his regular teaching, Loh conducts a summer course in game modification, or "modding." He also serves as one of two coordinators of the Collaboratory for Interactive Learning Research, where he focuses on researching problems related to computer and video game learning.


“Mod” squad — Meeting in the office of Southern Illinois University Carbondale assistant professor Christian S. Loh (seated), students (from left) Joseph D. Lenox, Arnond Anantachai and Jaehwan Byun discuss the computer game they’re modifying — “modding,” in gamespeak — to make it a useful educational tool.

Photo by Steve Buhman