A hot topic at work right now is Just In Time Learning. Applications and training materials that can be used by clients to learn about a topic on their own time, right before needing it. Putting an application online isn’t enough, because clients don’t want to require an internet connection to access it. The topic got me thinking about a report I did in college on video games. In it, I discussed the benefits video games have on human development, learning and briefly touched on whether or not I believe they cause violent behavior in users. (Which I don’t)
If you are not an avid gamer, or perhaps even if you are, you may not realize the amount of learning that one does while interacting with the game. Games have come a long way since pong. The mere fact that instruction manuals and game guides can be hundreds of pages long is evidence that the user will need to learn a great deal to complete the game. This begs the question, why is it so a player will pick up and continue through a challenging and often frustrating game despite the excessive amounts of learning it may take to complete? What makes this type of learning so different from the learning we experience in other areas of life?
The difference isn’t simply that games are fun, its that games give the player information when the player needs it… just in time. In James Paul Gee’s book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, he uses the game System Shock 2 to describe how it guides the player through learning what tools he or she can use to solve problems within the game environment.
Lets take a look at a more recent game such as, 3d Realms’ Prey. Prey is a first person shooter (fps), in that you assume the perspective a young man and battle the forces of evil through his eyes. Your screen consists of little more than a weapon, a life bar and an ammo count. Ammo is limited, and the player must learn how to conserve ammo and defeat enemies without necessarily using guns. To teach this, Prey starts the player out with a simple plummers wrench. Guns don’t become avialable until about a half hour into the game. Had the game designers given the player a gun from the get go, the user may waste valuable ammo on easy enemies, then be near empty when a tough opponent comes along. Forcing the user to learn how to properly wield the wrench before giving them the gun directs the learners skills in a logical flow and the user gets to apply the knoweldge of the wrench immediately upon learning it.
I think Michael Allen says it best in his Guide to e-Learning, “The smaller the seperation in time between the learning episode and the application of the learning, the greater likelihood that the learner will transfer skills to that situation.”
I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the best mathematician on the planet. Perhaps I would be better if the math teachers in my life had better described actual applications of the many formulas, algorithms and equations they were trying to cram into my head. Even if I did learn it in the end, the practical application of the learning didn’t occur years later. I can specifically remember sitting in trigonmotry class, argueing with the teacher that I will “never, ever, ever, use this crap. Well, I was wrong. Within the first week of my job that I was trying to calculate the geomotry of two points on screen and compare their angle to that of the mouse… I wish I could say that all those formulas came racing back, like riding a bike, unfortunately I found myself desperately searching for the proper fomulas.
The problem wasn’t that I hadn’t learned trigonomotry (I did get a B- after-all), but that the real-world application of it was never made apparent. This is where video games have it right, and traditional learning falls behind! You get the learning just-in-time.