Friday, 22 November 2013

Meet the expert - An interview with Seann Dikkers

As MOOCs struggle with criticisms about completion rate, The Good MOOC gets a different perspective from gamification expert Seann Dikkers, who researches, writes, and shares the usefulness of digital media for teaching and learning as the founder and director of Gaming Matter.

  • Can you introduce yourself?

Sure, I'm currently faculty at Ohio University in Educational Technologies. Previously, I taught social studies to middle schoolers for ten years and served as an administrator for four years. My graduate work was at the University of Wisconsin - Madison with the Games + Learning + Society research group. To know who I am, I'd say I'm a lifetime gamer, woodworker, father of two, a husband of twenty years, and a believer - in reverse order of importance!  

Gaming Matter was initially an umbrella organization for myself and other researchers to house our research on games for learning, teacher professional development, and school policy. The feeds that we post there have gained a following that exceeds our own work and we are beginning to host resources, like the Teacher's Toolbox, TeachOn! videos, and are even working with Playful Learning to put together conferences for teachers. The interest in games for learning has driven the expansion of the research community.  

  • Where do see higher education going in the medium to long-term future?

I see a lot of experimentation coming in the next few years. Free tools still have to have a compelling benefit for those that make them. Either these 'free' courses are to sell the cooperating institution, bring instructors to prominence, or are in themselves studies of the participants.

On the other hand, I do see an altruistic drive to produce quality learning products by people that want to advance their fields too. Codecademy is a fine example that trains 'coders'. So, it is a product designed to expand the number of coders in the world. The benefit may be that there are more coders in the job base, but that is a win-win for those that want to code and those that want to hire.  

Kahn academy was initially an effort by an uncle to help his cousins learn math better - completely altruistic. Because it was well done, it grew. Where there is demand, there will be product even if it isn't corporately sponsored initially.  

The nature of a digital asset though is that once made, it endures. So I see that there will be many MOOCs that were built in hype that simply limp along. However, I also see a lot of products like Kahn academy, LearnStreet, 3DGameLab, and Codecademy that are increasingly impressive and ready to serve learning needs.

In the long term, I believe that we will see online learning will diverge into a variety of experiences. MOOC's have a tendency now to be delivered content + community. Online gaming starts with experience and content is sought out to amplify game play. I like to think that these two worlds will continue to come together. Later I'll mention Minecraft as an area I'm researching now where I think this is starting to happen.

Also, the Digital Media and Learning folks are exploring effective experiences that leverage award and quest design to encourage informal learning. As long as experience is at the center, many game design elements can be thoughtfully applied to organize learning - as games already do. So there are seeds of the future of online learning, but I'm still excited to see how they will flower.  

  • There's a fair bit of online learning skepticism out there (particularly when it comes to retention rates)... Do you have anything to say about that?

Whenever someone says they have a better way to create learning experiences, we should collectively be wary. Snake oil salesmen have always preyed on those that are desperate and high stakes testing has driven the need to improve - even if only by 1% - to the point that some educational leaders will buy anything with 'promise', 'potential', or enthusiasm around it. So embrace skepticism, but remain malleable to evidence.

Retention rates are very difficult to make claims about in any learning setting. So I'll also be skeptical of those that claim to know how well people retain learning in online settings. Consider Mizuko Ito's outstanding study of youth living and learning online, out of UC-Irvine. Her team observed youth for thousands of hours of online activity and found that youth progressively were "hanging out, messing around, and geeking out". Wonderful terms!  Most communities of practice have those that work in the inner circles, those that are active, and those that are outliers.  

If this is actual behavior, then we should expect that in free and open online learning environments, there will be a certain number of those that stop in and check things out, some that dabble, and some that invest in the full online experience. So, for example, 15,000 people sign up for a free MOOC, should we even expect retention?  I'm not sure that informal learning can be measured the same way as compulsory learning. Nor can we discount the number of people that do find value in these free settings. I'm interesting in future studies that take into account actual patterns of behavior (like Ito) and use it to measure online learning accurately.  

  • Which are you favorite online learning experience so far and why?

Constance Steinkuehler and Kurt Squire are doing an online MOOC right now that has impressed me. They combine Constance's past work on building community and Kurt's understanding of game design along with guest lecturers on the topic of games for learning. The production quality of their work has been stunning: site layout, curriculum design, animations, even the brick wall "studio" and conversational tone. Wonderful example of what MOOC's will look like as great designers get involved in the creation process.

And if you believe Tolkien is worthy literature, then Lord of the Rings Online stands out as an exemplary Massive Multiplayer Online game that connects great reading with great play experiences. Outstanding!

Finally, I'm in the process of playing Minecraft endlessly with my two kids. I've just finished spending a year interviewing teachers that have taken the 'blank slate' of Minecraft and used it as a classroom tool. It can be hosted locally and set up as a limited multiplayer game (keeping students learning private), and Minecraft is being adapted for a variety of topics, ages, and pedagogical styles in compelling ways. I'm writing up the study now and hope that the coming book will add to the conversation of what online learning can look like.

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