News

Active Learning Infographic ‘Retro’ spective

Having spent many hours in quarantine fighting enemies in online games, I sat down at my computer last Wednesday to do battle with my greatest nemesis – Adobe graphic design programs. A long time later, I emerged from my room, sweaty and tired, clutching a PDF of an infographic about bringing active learning into digital teaching. During the process, I reflected on the parallels between gaming and digital teaching, and whether it could help design more interesting and engaging online teaching content.

I chose to use the retro 8-bit pixel art style for the infographic for a few reasons. Firstly, I can’t draw. But, perhaps more importantly, also because I was thinking a lot about video games when I was doing my research and writing it up. Partially because they have been my main form of quarantine entertainment (I don’t mean to brag, but I have managed to take Bristol Rovers to the Champions League final in FIFA), but also because they are the ultimate combination of ‘digital’ and ‘active’. 

I’ll admit that there is a key element missing there (learning), but video games have managed to turn even the most mundane-seeming tasks into engaging experience. For example: Papers, Please – an engrossing interactive adventure about filling out immigration paperwork, or Death Stranding – where you can live out your wildest fantasies of being a post-apocalyptic postman, or even Euro Truck Simulator (I’ll let you figure that one out). And don’t get me started on the chore-simulator that is Animal Crossing. 

Given the time frame for turning teaching digital, developing and coding in depth video games to teach your students about lubricant thickness in rolling element bearings, or Victorian illustrations of Arthurian legend might be slightly out of reach. But there’s certainly things that can be learned, or borrowed from games to make digital teaching as active and engaging as possible. 

  1. Variety Is The Spice of Life

All games have their core gameplay loops, whether it be shooting hordes of aliens, jumping from platform to platform, or Euro-Trucking. But that doesn’t mean that’s the only single thing you do, and they will all throw in new mechanics, new puzzles, or something completely different to keep things interesting and exciting.

You’ll probably have a core online teaching method too, like a pre-recorded video, online lecture, or problem sheet. But it’s important not to rely too heavily on a single thing. Consistency is great for sure, and you don’t want to confuse students by constantly throwing different things at them, but it’s easy to make small changes that stop students from feeling like they are living in groundhog day. 

Adding quizzes, polls or Q&As during or after a block of teaching is one of the best ways to do this, and there are loads of tools out to design them and send them out to students. They allow students to use a different part of their brain, and consolidate the knowledge they have learned so far. You can also get students to teach each other. Ideally, students would work together in groups, but if this is difficult to arrange, you can split topics up into separate chunks, and have students work on them individually. Then, when they bring their work together, they have a complete overview of a topic. Even small changes, like using a mix of live and pre-recorded lectures goes a long way.

Timing is important too. With the notable exception of Euro Truck Simulator, it’s very rare for a game to make you do the same thing over and over for a large period of time. Games are split into levels, and have cutscenes and minigames to break things up. The same thing goes for teaching. 20-30 minutes is the gold standard for a single task or resource; if something is going to take longer than that, try to add breaks in, like active learning activities to cut content up into smaller chunks.

  1. Difficulty Settings

It might not seem like it, but all games have some level of challenge built in. You may think Euro Truck simulator is easy, but suddenly there’s congestion on the M4, and you’ve not even got enough fuel to make it to Leigh Delamere Services, let alone deliver the cargo to Swindon Depot. That’s what makes them satisfying. You feel like you’ve achieved something when you finish a section, or gain a level – you’ve overcome a challenge. 

Active learning should be challenging too. Sitting through a 50 minute pre-recorded powerpoint lecture is difficult, but I’ve never felt particularly proud of myself for finishing one. Learning should be challenging because it makes you use knowledge in new and creative ways to solve problems. Now there’s context behind what you are learning, and you get a sense of achievement for completing something. Quizzes are one of the easiest ways to add a small challenge to lecture-based content, but there’s loads of ways to do it, and now assessment is open book, it’s going to need to test those higher skills rather than just knowledge recall. Smaller tasks embedded into teaching will help prepare students for this. 

Challenges don’t just have to mean questions either. Setting work that gets students using creativity, like making posters, designing material for different audiences, making podcasts or revision videos all adds a different type of challenge and gives students a clear goal to work towards.

But, just like a video game, the same difficulty might not be right for everyone. Especially at the moment, with some students in very sub-optimal working environments. Optionality allows students to choose a level of challenge they are happy with, or if you want to set all students the same task, reassuring them that if they don’t do it, or can’t complete it fully, they won’t be penalised for it, and, wherever possible, offering them support.

  1. Co-op

Although being the greatest manager Bristol Rovers have ever seen is satisfying, so is beating your mate 5-0 with your new European Champions for the third time in a row. Part of the magic of games is getting to interact with your friends, or even total strangers. It’s why all of the most popular games are multiplayer. And it’s important now more than ever with all of us isolated from friends and family. 

Online video and voice calling tools can be used to re-create seminars and discussion groups, or facilitate group work even though students can’t be in the same room. But, it’s important to provide a way to interact without using voice or video, like a forum, for students who might not have somewhere quiet to go, or not have access to reliable WiFi. If discussions are going to take place at a specific time, try to capture, or get students to capture, the key points so that students who couldn’t participate don’t miss out.

If you aren’t comfortable organising online discussions, that’s okay too, students will still find their own ways to collaborate. What’s important is giving them a reason to – whether it’s interesting debates or discussions, challenging work that they will need to work together on, peer learning, or specific group work.

I don’t imagine anyone’s going to throw their PS4 away now it’s been made redundant by their exciting active digital teaching. But having the mindset of a gem designer when designing online teaching can help a lot. Even if it’s just asking questions like ‘how long will this take a student to complete’, ‘how much of my teaching is pre-recorded lectures’ or ‘how am I going to keep students engaged now they are sitting 4 feet away from their Xbox, and they’ve just bought Euro Truck Simulator 2?’.

And if that doesn’t work, maybe just parachute every student into Coombe Dingle and have them fight over a single exam paper in a battle royale, Fortnite-style?

Toby Roberts, BILT Student Fellow