Are Jesters Serious? Considering Play

Eric Mercer took up the Jester challenge with:

Personally, I think one of the best things you can do is not refer to people who work on MOOs as "jesters." It's a bit derogatory, and it might not be constructive to your person if you start by calling them fools and then try to convince administrators and teachers that you're serious. I'm not a jester and I don't generally associate with people who are, because they damage the fragile credibility that I've been working to promote for on-line VR-based teaching (Survey 10).
Although Eric makes a very important point, many have noted what attracted them to MOO in the first place was the play. We chose very deliberately to fiddle with the tension between the binary oppositions of work/play. That precise, particular intersection of understanding of what constitutes play, what constitutes work, is the crack we wanted to pry open for investigation. For many of us, play informs our underlying pedagogical stance -- the play of words, the play of the environment, the play of ideas. At the same time, we recognize the high wire act of convincing, persuading the academic community that we WORK our play, seriously. The serendipitous nature of play is gaining increasing recognition through numerous agencies: some academic, It's Fun to Have Fun But You Have to Know How! or, How Cavorting on the Net Will Save the Academy * by Rebecca Rickly and Eric Crump, some outside academia. The Rand Corporation evaluates games for serious issues such as drug enforcement policy making in Can Gaming of Social Policy Issues Help Translate Good Intentions into Change?

When the Rand Corporation gets involved, people listen. This "overview of RAND's mission in the area of education and information technology," A Vision and Research Agenda for Educational Technology, states "Our research agenda assumes that new computer- and network-based technology could dramatically improve education, by reducing costs, by increasing access to knowledge, and by transforming the processes as well as the products of learning."

We are very interested in what the Rand Corporation has to say about play and learning

Entertainment and school learning. Can video games and theme parks provide education and learning opportunities as well as entertainment? Several technology-intensive media giants are beginning to think so; and it is important to take the possibility very seriously -- collectively, they are now investing more on "edutainment" software development than the federal government spends on educational technology R&D. But what can students really learn with these systems? If the systems were designed with specific curriculum reforms in mind, could they both motivate students and help them learn important problem-solving skills? RAND

These are a few of the studies we can point to as professional, scholarly, and rigorous, which values play in the workplace, play in education, and play in the upper levels of governmental policy making. And as Eric notes, we need documented studies and stringent research to show that MOOs can be used seriously.

The two requirements for promoting the constructive use of on-line VR worlds (including MOOs) in educations are 1) use them constructively for education, and establish what approaches are effective or not, and 2) perform stringent research documenting their effectiveness relative to traditional educational techniques (Survey 10).

Again, Eric brings up the debate we would like to keep in play as we examine those very notions of what constitutes the educational arena as more and more move online. What qualifies as "stringent" or "rigorous" relative to "traditional educational techniques" becomes more and more the focus as well. That play is an important part of learning is not incompatible with serious research and documentation.

At this time, the vast majority of documentation available is anecdotal. However, there is a high percentage of such anecdotes written by teachers and educational researchers. The accumulation of this body of knowledge is important and necessary for properly designing the research studies that must follow. I believe we have reached a good understanding of what the appropriate educational techniques and evaluation methods for MOO-based teaching and learning are. It's time now to move beyond this level and provide the hard data comparing on-line learning to traditional forms (Survey 10).
As well as the studies that Eric calls for, we can also point to universities such as The DigiPen Applied Computer Graphics School, which provides a four year degree for people going out into the workforce.

DONKEY KONG U. TO OFFER DEGREES IN VIDEOGAME DESIGN The DigiPen Applied Computer Graphics School, nicknamed "Donkey Kong University" after the popular videogame, will open a four-year campus in Seattle next year, replacing the two-year program it's sponsored in Vancouver, B.C. for the last few years. DigiPen has already been approved as a nonprofit institution by the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board, and plans to admit the first class of 100 students, each paying $12,000 a year in tuition, next fall. The school says it's the first institution to offer a four-year degree in videogame design. Its only competitors are a few programs in Japan, all of which are two-year. (Chronicle of Higher Education 31 Jan 97) (Edupage)

Perhaps "Donkey Kong U." is an example of how some institutions can and will "tailor" their programs to their students needs as RAND suggests below.

Information technologies have led to disappointingly marginal improvements in educational productivity. Part of the reason for this failure is that most early educational software and hardware simply was not up to the task of helping students learn more effectively. Drill-and-practice systems, for example, cannot tailor learning to students' needs nearly as well as teachers armed only with textbooks. RAND CITE
And once again we are back to the teacher who must implement her own pedagogy in the classroom. In Teach Us How To Play ...The Role of Play in Technology Education Gail Matthews-DeNatale speaks to the issue of the importance of play, not just for students but teachers as well.
Teachers, as an occupational group, face many workplace obstacles that interfere with their professional development in the area of computer-mediated learning, including but not limited to: budget restraints, resource politics, and inadequate unstructured time to keep current with recent advances in technology. Considering these workplace realities, I began with the assumption that the teachers in my classes needed time to discover cyberspace as a "place to play."
Matthews-DeNatale notes there are a handful of "early adopters" of technology (quite often those who tinker and play with new "toys"); these students are not a concern, but led her to think about why some people are early adopters and others are resistant to technology. Carefully observing her classes, Matthews-DeNatale found four types of resistant interaction as students attempted to learn to use technology: However Matthews-DeNatale did not want to "pigeonhole" her students, so she sought ways to set up a playful framework which would allow a more productive interaction between student and the computer environment.
My first inclination was to design a Web-based scavenger hunt, but this seemed superficial and too directed. A scavenger hunt would have reinforced the "obedient" relationship that some of my students exhibited toward the Web, the idea that there is a specific set of "right" answers. I wanted their learning experience to be constructivist. What I needed to do is establish a frame for play, to create a context, setting, or environment in which a network of 'cues' signified the affective relationship that I hoped would develop between the user and the technology.
Matthews-DeNatale instigated a "CyberRescue; "a Web-based adventure game designed to involve students in online interactions with the fictional persona of faculty members who were willing to let us use their identities for the activity." What DeNatale found is many of her more "circumspect" or resistant students opened up to the possibilities of technology through the playful interactions of her Cyber-Rescue. She reflects:
In the months that have intervened since Cyber-Rescue, I have thought about the day often, working my own way through the experiential cycle of action, reflection, generalization, and transfer in hopes of deriving a set of general principles for teachers who want to engage skeptical students in computer-mediated play learning. My thoughts are still inconclusive, but it seems that all of the following concepts were operational in Cyber-Rescue:
As DeNatale notes, "Learning to learn goes hand-in-hand with learning to play."

While we agree that there is a need for quantitative studies to convince some about the value of MOO, we suggest without these "play" experiences there will simply be too many people afraid of MOO to ever constitute a large enough group of people for such qualitative studies to be valid. And we fear that MOOs will go the way of programmed skills and drills exercises, used by those who cannot begin to imagine the richness of playful learning online as well as offline.

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Janet Cross

Kristian Fuglevik