Authentic Learning? Try an MMORPG.

Typical Quest NPC in WOWSo, last night I was enjoying a guest lecture in my Computer Based Instruction course delivered by Dr. Abdou Ndoye. Dr. Ddoye is Director of Assessment in the Watson School of Education at UNCW. His style of teaching through analogy made the concepts he was sharing with the class easy to understand.

One of ideas addressed was the difference between simple and authentic or complex assessment. Why is it, in our public schools, do we consider it a valid measure of learning to give students in a carpentry class a state-administered, multiple-choice exam to measure what they’ve learned? All to often, we fail to measure the higher-order thinking and simply test for rote memorization. Who would you prefer to hire to build your house: the student who can make an “A” on a multiple-choice carpentry exam or the one who can properly cut and nail together two-by-fours to frame a home?

My intent here isn’t to rant about the ills of excessive testing, rather to suggest that maybe we consider looking to MMORPG’s (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplay Games) for a model of how to not only place learners in a situation where they must deal with ill-structured problems, but where they might take any number of paths to achieve learning. For example, a player in a game such as World of Warcraft might be given a complex quest by an NPC (non-player character). The NPC might ask them to journey to a nearby dungeon, collect a rare item guarded by some nasty beast, and take it across the seas and up a mountain to some other NPC. That’s fairly complex and somewhat ill-structured, right?

Is there any one, correct way to achieve that mission? No. The player might band together with a group of players to defeat the beast guarding the treasure, they may raise the funds to purchase the item from another player who has the item, or they may try to sneak past the guardian beast to steal the item without engaging in combat. Again, here’s where an MMORPG could serve as a model for more complex, computer-based instruction.

What if we created an instructional environment that functioned the same way? We ask a player/learner to start with “A” and achieve “B” all while in an ever-changing, socially rich, virtual environment. There might be many paths to achieving the goal. We, as the game’s designers, could provide the just-in-time information that the learner might use as a resource, much like a well-designed MMORPG provides player support through in-game guides and maps.

Students might choose to work collaboratively to achieve the goal. Of course, we’d provide the necessary in-game tools to facilitate that: text chat and/or voice chat. We would establish game mechanics that played on the individual’s learning styles and the multiple intelligences. Thus, a well-rounded group of player/learners might achieve more as they rely on each other’s strengths.

Would there be transfer of learning to real world situations? I can’t say for certain, but surely it’s as least as good as a multiple-choice test.


Multiple Intelligences and Stat-Allocation in a Fantasy RPG… A Very Strange Analogy

Me and my analogies… Well, as I read Howard E. Gardner’s paper, “Multiple Approaches to Understandings” from Reigeluth’s Instructional Design: Theories and Models, I was struck by yet another strange analogy as I tried to make sense of the ideas. Now, let me warn you, if you have no experience playing a fantasy roleplay game (RPG) such as Dungeons and Dragons or an online RPG such as World of Warcraft, you may find this analogy a bit hard to follow, however, making this connection helped me grasp Gardner’s concept of Multiple Intelligences.

In most RPGs, you begin play by creating a character. The rules of the game require that your character have certain statistics that will affect how they interact with the virtual world. For example, in Dungeons and Dragons, I might choose to create a character who will play the role of a fighter. In D&D, fighters are known for their skill at wearing the toughest armor, wielding the largest of weapons, and for their ability to take physical damage in a fight. During the character creation process, I must allocate a number of points into my fighter’s base statistics. In D&D, there are six abilities (stats) that you can put points into that will affect what your character can do and how they are able to react to various situations presented them in the virtual world. The six abilities are: strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma. Now, since I’m creating a fighter, I would likely (though am not bound to) place my points into both strength and constitution. The points in strength would affect how hard I hit with my weapon and the points in constitution will affect the total amount of damage my fighter can take in battle. Intelligence wouldn’t have much affect on the fighter class, as it doesn’t take a great deal of brains to swing a sword at a charging troll. A bit of dexterity wouldn’t hurt, as it would make me slightly more skillful with my weapon or allow me to use a bow. Wisdom, according to the rules, won’t have any affect on my fighter, and charisma… well, who needs to be well-liked when you’re toting a massive broad sword?

So, now you’ve had a bit of introduction to the various characteristics that play into a typical RPG character’s attributes, so let’s talk Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. Gardner theorizes that there are roughly eight different “intelligences” or information processing systems. Each of us, as you can find by taking a simple assessment, have varying levels of each of the eight intelligences. Gardner’s eight intelligences are: linguistic intelligence, logical-mathematical intelligence, musical intelligence, spatial intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, naturalist intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, and intrapersonal intelligence. An individual with a high degree of spatial intelligence might be adept at navigation or wood-carving, whereas an individual with high linguistic intelligence might be a great speaker or writer. A certain individual may have high spatial and logical-mathematical intelligence but a low musical intelligence. Another may have a high interpersonal and bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. Still others, like myself, may be a sort of jack-of-all-trades type, approaching learning in any category with some level of comfort but not particularly excelling in any one area.

So, the analogy here lies in the similarities in an RPG character’s abilities or statistics and our own multiple intelligences. To take the analogy to the next level, an RPG character who is a fighter might experience a situation where they are required to fight a band of marauding goblins. The fighter’s approach to this situation would be to whip out his sword, charge into battle, and start swinging, achieving victory through brute strength. A character who is a wizard will approach the same encounter quite differently. The wizard would assess the field, and using his keen intellect, begin casting damaging spells at the goblin force while trying very hard to avoid physical contact with the invading force.

In a similar fashion, we as learners with varying intelligences will approach learning differently. When presented with a new concept to be learned, a logical-mathematical person may try to understand the material in a step-by-step approach, whereas a person with a great deal of spatial intelligence might try to visualize the concept in a three-dimensional way.

The final part of this analogy occurred to me mid-way through my writing and has implications in the arena of social constructivism I suppose. Roleplay games aren’t typically designed to be played alone. In fact, they’re social games. The fighter or wizard, mentioned above, wouldn’t likely survive the goblin onslaught if it were a large force, but together, using their combined skills, they would achieve a victory. That’s why most RPGs are designed for a group of players to work cooperatively to achieve some goal greater than any could achieve on their own. To give a brief scenario, the fighter might engage the first two goblins to charge the group, effectively keeping them away from the wizard. Not being engaged in melee combat would then allow the wizard to cast her powerful damage spells at the next wave of goblins charging their position. Meanwhile a third party member, a bard, perhaps, might engage in a song that mesmerizes a fifth and sixth goblin while the wizard and warrior deal with those they’re fighting. This group dynamic, with each party member bringing their unique set of skills to the fight allows them to achieve the desired goal.

Collaborative grouping during instruction, I would imagine, could have a similar benefit. Each member of the group would bring their own, unique approach to the learning at hand and collaboratively, the group could achieve a level of learning not capable with individual learners.

Well, as Gardner mentioned in his article, analogy can be a good or bad thing. I hope I’m avoiding any misconceptions with this analogy. If it’s a good analogy, it’s helped me conceptualize the idea of multiple intelligences. The next step, of course, is to answer the question, “How do I design instruction that appeals to a variety of intelligences?”