Fun and games in adult learning?

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited up to Dundee to present at Game To Learn 2. It was a good day, and I saw some excellent presentations, notably by Daniel Livingstone, Michelle Hoyle and Greg Hodgeson, who is doing some very interesting things to support learners as game creators.

I presented a talk entitled ‘Is there really a place for fun and games in adult learning?’ and, because my slides each contain only two or three words at most, wanted to use this post to share the main ideas rather than simply linking to the slides. I will necessarily be summarising my main points here so I apologise in advance for the impending crass over-generalisations.

  1. Games are good for learning because they a) support active learning; b) increase engagement; c) provide playful spaces to learn from failure.
  2. However: a) Education is an increasingly expensive and serious business, learners increasingly see themselves as ‘customers’ buying a ‘service’ who want ‘value for money; b)Adult learners expect lecturers and seminars, they a strategic learners who want to learning in the most efficient way possible. They don’t all play games and certainly don’t all want to use them for learning; and c) Computer games are expensive, difficult to use in practice, and we fight media hype about violence, sexism and addiction.
  3. Learners do want learning to be fun, although they are also prepared for some hard graft. Fun to them means: a) actually doing something; b) an enthusiastic teacher with a passion for the subject; c) social interaction; d) freedom from pressure. (Findings from a recent series of interviews I’ve undertaken that I am in the process of writing up formally).
  4. So games are good for learning and learners want fun (which isn’t necessarily about games, but certainly doesn’t exclude them) but they also want value for money and to learn in the most effective way. How can these be reconciled?
  • By not trying to push game-based learning as a mainstream activity for adult education. There will always be great examples of enthusiastic individuals or fantastic projects, but these are not replicable on a large scale, and it isn’t even appropriate to try until we have a much more established evidence base. We need to build on – and systematically evaluate – these examples of good practice.
  • We need to focus on learning from games, not learning with games, analysing what games do well – what makes them so powerful for learning, so compelling and enjoyable – and applying these techniques to adult education. This is not simply gamification, but about using game principles to transform how teaching and learning is carried out in our institutions.

    Recordings for all the keynote presentations are available online (somehow they managed to capture my best ‘sucking a lemon’ face for the still and I’m too scared to actually view the presentation myself).


    1. Thomas

      I think this depends on the way of applicating/using a game in an educational context. Games only work when they are played voluntarily. But as you explain: Adult students usually want to get the directest and most effective way to a defined learning target. And even if I would, they would not accept games as an effective way to learn. Something I can comprehend. But there are ways to make them leave ‘the most effective way’ that could be transferred to a game-based learning scenario:

      We maintain a further e-elearning course for a master in civil engineering. So all students have already worked practically. They know their job and the context. And because they study beside their job they want to learn as effectively as possible. Nevertheless we notice a difference of engagement in the different modules of the course: In courses that work mostly project-based or where we have practical parts the enthusiasm of doing more than expected is much more common. In my opinion that is because it is a much better bridge to their daily work.

      But we cannot set up any learning targets with a project- or problem-based approach. The tutoring and preparation efforts are much higher than in instructive courses. And it would take much more time to convey basic theories and algorithms. – Something the students would not accept. They accept it in special courses where the main focus is on a systemic perspective: The application of their previously constructed knowledge in a cross-linked, practical context.

      I think some kind of subject-specific virtual world would work because of two reasons: The first reason is: From their point of view it would not be a learning experience. It would be practicing their newly aquired knowledge in an environment similar to their work. The second reason is that I think it would foster communication and collaboration between students. They meet virtually when they have group work and face-to-face two or three times per semester. But altogether that is not enough. On the one hand there are not enough group works, on the other hand these are not really popular because of the temporal commitment to other learners (though group results are often better than individual results from the tutors point of view). A virtual world would offer the possibility to meet voluntarily, uncommitted and subject-related. There you can meet somebody voluntarily and by chance without the need (but the possibility) to coordinate or work on some exercise or in-game problem together.

      Both points in combination would lead in my opinion to a feeling of progression to the ‘oficial goal’ (finishing studies) and a better communication and social cohesion of the students. And no reason for a bad conscience because of having ‘just’ played.

    2. nicola (Post author)

      Hi Thomas

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I think a lot of the learner negativity around games is actually about how we present them, and it could be as simple as renaming them ‘experiential or problem-based learning activities’. You say that ‘games only work when used voluntarily’ but isn’t that true of all learning activities? Or at least that they are more effective when used voluntarily? I think the key is making learners voluntarily want to engage with a learning activity (whether or not it is a game) because they see it as meaningful for learning.

      As in your example of the virtual world, learners will engage when they perceive the need to do so, when the activity actually adds value.


    3. Thomas

      Yes, I agree, Nicola. There is negativity around games as learning tools. And this is somehow already rooted in our culture and language. ‘Work’ is the serious thing and ‘Games’ are a children’s domain (= not serious).

      Children you don’t have ‘to make voluntarily want to engage’ with games. You have to make them feel the need to know something. With adult education it is vice versa. They know – or think to know – what they need to know. They have to be made to voluntarily engage with a game to improve/develop their knowledge. In both cases it is as you said: They have to see the value.

      So in the end it is as always: A method works best if there is someone who implements it in a meaningful and engaging way, i.e. customized to the target group and learning target. And games cannot replace such a person, they only add an additional method.

    4. nicola (Post author)

      I agree, Thomas. Games have to be seen as simply another teaching tool, with drawbacks as well as benefits, rather than the panacea to all teaching ills that they are sometimes evangelically painted as!

    5. catharine

      As a person who has had part of her brain removed, learning games are an asset. Its kinda funny how I have toms of books with highlights, underlines and notes throughout yet. I never remember the smallest bit of content from any of ‘ em.
      With interactive programs..the content is more inclined to make it to my long term memory.

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