How to make enjoyable educational games?

For my masters thesis, I tackled the problem of educational games. Why are educational games a problem? Because the mass image of them is simply “quiz+rewards” – what has been referred to as “chocolate coated broccoli”. This analogy is particularly touching to me, because even though I like broccoli normally, the idea of coating it with chocolate repulses me. Similarly, the idea of smothering learning with patronizing encouragement and “rewards” makes the joy of learning less palatable.

In my thesis, I try to put into words some principles for producing games for learning, games that are enjoyable yet impart knowledge that is valued in the real world. Roughly, this ends up with me suggesting that games should be built by simulating a subject area, tightly coupled with structures to support both game driven and free playing experiences. In detail, I provide a list of stuff you can do to up your educational game, with a wide range of examples from mainstream games that you’ve no doubt heard of, and likely have played – summarized in the graphic below.

A summary of my pragmatic thesis findings
Simulations, a system for goals and hints, coaching and enjoyable difficulty all contribute to enjoyable, educational games

Whether you’re curious or horrified, I encourage you to read the full thesis! I hope that it sparks topics for discussion, and leads to more awesome games with a serious experience at heart.

Quiet YouTube when steam “donks”?

I’ve been noticing steam messages seem to seriously reduce the audio of my music player and youtube videos and what not. It was a bit frustrating, so I searched for it and found a typical tech thread here. This didn’t help at all, so I carried on hunting and found the answer burief in steam’s forums, it’s a Windows setting which makes other things quiet when you’re “in a voice call” (which.. well, steam messages don’t really fall into that category). Anyway, file a bug report with steam if this irritates you, and find a workaround/fix here:

It fixes the issue, and I’m pretty happy to mute my music when I skype or whatnot…

How can we evaluate the quality of learning experiences?

Among other things, Bloom’s taxonomy allows us to categorize learning experiences. Bloom’s work was revised somewhat by Anderson a bit later, and it’s that revised edition I’ll describe here.

A taxonomy is a way of arranging things, and the revised Bloom’s taxonomy has two dimensions for categorization, the knowledge dimension and the cognitive dimension. Here they are in tables with examples.

Knowledge Dimension

Level Example
Factual knowledge Crude oil can be made into gasoline
Conceptual knowledge Crude oil is a mixture of many different hydrocarbons including gasoline.
Procedural knowledge Mixtures of chemicals in general can be separated through distillation, including gasoline from crude oil.
Metacognitive knowledge Determining if a chemical mixture can be separated with distillation is possible through internet searches or experimentation with different temperatures.

Cognitive Dimension

Level Example
Remember Crude oil can be made into gasoline
Understand Draw diagram showing how gasoline is extracted from gasoline
Apply Set up alcohol distillation in test tubes
Analyze Given a set of 20 liquids, determine which are mixtures separable by distillation
Evaluate Compare your methods to those of your classmates
Create Try to make brandy by distilling wine (not quite kid friendly.. :D)


International government spending on education

I was playing around with statistics from UNESCO to see if there were any trends in education spending over the past few years. Here’s a box plot showing the average international % of GDP spent on education in the last 14 or so years. The 2013 data seemed a bit sparse, so it might be wise to ignore it. Seems like there is a trend of decreasing spending in the past 4 years, but not a huge change over the past 10 years. Enjoy!

% of GDP spent on education

A map of Design Science Research

The images presented here are the focus of this article. I will summarize what I got from the images, and why I think they’re useful.

The ‘finished’ image roughly positions various Design Science Research techniques on two dimensions of continuous space.  The X-dimension approximates the levels of participation in the design process between experts (to the left) and users (to the right). The Y-dimension approximates whether the approach is led by research (to the bottom) or by solving problems (to the top).

A research question can be approached with techniques from anywhere on the map – indeed if we had infinite budgets, every research question could be approached with all of the techniques. With finite resources, how effectively a technique gets answers to a research question is important. I’d like to know if there is any research done on the heuristic effectiveness of techniques for solving various problems – for example, is it better to tackle a new problem with expert or participatory mindset. I imagine working closely with users will give an excellent feel for a new problem space, but that only experts will be capable of innovating in well-established problem spaces.

It’s interesting that the commentary on the article picks fault with the accuracy of the map. Researchers are a community, and at the moment the design research community seems pretty fragmented. There are clearly terms in circulation that are different, yet mean the same thing [design based research, design science research seem to be equivalent]. This map lays out one clear description of the field. It gives a concrete perception to discuss – rather than speculating, experts can ‘point’ say, “this looks wrong”. Perhaps it will eventually lead to a better standardization of terms, and a map that community experts all agree is correct.

The original article raises some interesting uses for the map, for me the most interesting one being to position your own research on the map, and then see if you can move your future research to a different area. Another use I see would be to repeat prior research with a technique from elsewhere on the map as a form of triangulation.

Based on article published in interactions – Designing games: why and how, Volume 15 Issue 6, November + December 2008 Pages 13-17

Design Science Research

This article will give a brief introduction to “design science research” and how it relates to other design methods in Educational Technology.

The hardest thing with discussing design is choice of words. For the purpose of this article, I will adopt the following strict definitions:

  • Science is the creation of knowledge
  • Design is the creation of artifacts

Design Science Research [DSR] prescribes creative design and development of solutions to real problems as a way to build knowledge. In DSR, the results must be reported, and the report must contain what the design aims to do, a documentation of the design process and an evaluation of the processes and artifact. All this can be done iteratively and combined into one report.

If a design instance does not build knowledge, it is not DSR. Likewise, if research does not create a useful artifact, it is not DSR. It requires both components.

Whether a design is DSR or not depends on what qualifies as “building knowledge”.  An educator may make a discovery while developing an online course that benefits all their future online courses. Their personal knowledge has certainly grown, but if they do not share that knowledge, can it be said they have contributed to overall knowledge?

In the same way, whether some research is DSR is difficult because “what is a useful artifact” must be answered. A research may develop an artifact, but if it is never used outside lab conditions, can it truly be considered useful?

Pasteur’s quadrant is a category defined by Donald Stokes (1997) where a research technique generated both useful artifacts and pure knowledge, as opposed to “Bohr’s quadrant” of pure basic research and “Edison’s quadrant” of pure applied research. All DSR techniques fall into Pasteur’s category of “Use-inspired research” as they both build knowledge and design a practical artifact.

[Corrected – originally stated that Pasteur’s quadrant was the way of determining researchiness/usableness]

DSR is a recognized methodology that can be adopted while doing EdTech research.  It recognizes the value of creative development of an actual artifact.

DSR does not contradict design methods – the choice of design method is still down to the researcher.

Matt Bond's stuff


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