Thursday, 1 September 2011

EARLI 2011: Exeter

Hmm, can't believe it's been two years since the last EARLI! This time it was held at the University of Exeter, so a little easier to get to, but I only went for a couple of days as I have another two conferences lined up over the next couple of months and I really do have lots of PhD work to be getting on with if I'm going to finish it anytime soon... The conference is still running at the  moment but I wanted to get my thoughts down while they are still fresh. 

EARLI seemed bigger than ever this year with over 20 parallel sessions during each slot. But with so much of an emphasis on formal education and assessment there wasn't actually too much that I had to decide between. Obviously EARLI is an education conference so that's bound to be the focus and I suppose another reason why I didn't spend too long there was because I knew there wasn't a lot I would find especially relevant. I think there might have been even fewer presentations relating to games than last time but I am glad I got a chance to present at the main conference and that I had the opportunity to meet up with other people there. Plus I'm sure it's a good thing to be exposed to work in different areas and be reminded of what else is going on in the field of education.

So I found myself going along to presentations about multimedia learning, motivational, social and affective processes, and comprehension of texts and graphics. Highlights include Steffi Heidig presenting the Interact model (during her second presentation in the session, since her colleagues were stuck in the US because of hurricane Irene), which tries to consider both cognitive and emotional effects in relation to learning environments; contributing to a roundtable discussion about maths in relation to critical thinking skills and then CSCL environments (which I don't really know much about but quite enjoyed talking about anyway!); Daniela Raccanello discussing achievement emotions with respect to different subjects (also presenting the rather depressing finding that as class level increases, students experience less positive emotions and more negative ones); Lucia Lumbelli presenting work on self-explaining and the Simpsons; and Jan van der Meij discussing different learning diagram designs in relation to eye-tracking data.

The main session of interest to me though was one which included four game-related sessions. The first presentation was by John Quick, a PhD student from Arizona State University who is looking at how game design features relate to personality traits. He presented six design characteristics (fantasy, exploration, realism, challenge, companionship, and competition) and a number of player characteristics that relate to them in the form of player types e.g. imaginative realist explorer. I'm still not 100% sure how the "meeting new people" item ended up in the competition (rather than the companionship) category but I did like the idea of mapping design aspects to different personalities. I do reckon mood also has influence on the choices player's make (and external factors such as time available and social context) but it's hard not to agree that players still have underlying, longer-term preferences that affect the games they tend to play. I look forward to reading more about how the categories were developed and how they might be applied in terms of design.

Next there was P.G.Schrader talking about expert and novice behaviour in World of Warcraft, with a focus on examining spatial and social behaviour within immersive environment (they were more interested in the fact WoW is a virtual world than a game). I quite like the way this was set up and the use of observation protocols to track behaviours, though I should probably look into what the behavioural assessment matrix (BAM) actually is. However, given the small sample size and the increasing the p value (0.1 rather than the usual 0.05) I couldn't help but think they were over claiming a little. I know it's exploratory work, and they cited precedent for doing so, but I'd like to see further results especially in relation to the claim that novices require more than an hour before engaging in social interactions within immersive environments. Though the difference was quite large in this case, I think it reflects that (1) it's unlikely players have to engage with other people straight away in order progress with play (2) players probably don't want to join others and engage in collaborative activity before they have acquired a certain level of competence in the first place. Again, it'll be good to get hold of the longer paper as it'll be interesting to go through what they did in a bit more detail.

Then we had Vigdis Vangsnes talking about games as multi-modal performances and adopting a hermeneutic phenomenological model to consider quality in serious games. I quite like the idea of thinking of game-play as a performance but I have to confess that I wasn't quite sure how the framework was going to be applied in practice. It all seemed quite theoretical at this stage, as admittedly it's a work in progress, but a couple of examples might have been helpful to illustrate how this approach offers a unique insight into assessing game quality. The session then concluded with Sylke Vandercruysse presenting a review of different studies on game-based learning. Including papers about "(quasi-) experimental research that made use of a computer-based-game in an educational setting", they only found about 20 or so that fit their criteria. One of their aims was to investigate the claim that the increased motivation produced by games increases  learning and it didn't look like they found strong evidence to support it. Again, it would be useful to get hold of the longer reference (I think there is an article in press) to see exactly all the criteria were but it did seem clear that the area would benefit from better designed studies and consistent definitions of learning, engagement and motivation.
The other game-related session I went to was roundtable discussion with Jantina Huizenga (who I met at JURE/EARLI last time). Jantina carried out a similar review (though this time finding 46 studies) - where we had a really interesting discussion about the different claims being made about games in education in terms of motivation (with learning content), engagement (with the game) and learning (in terms of factual knowledge, cognitive skills, and meta-cognitive skills). I think we concluded that the area would benefit from better designed studies that actually describe the games and interventions in more detail and make sure to back up their claims with empirical evidence. Oh and studies should actually define key words such as game, engagement and motivation. I know the field of game-based learning is relatively new but I'm really hoping the area will see an improvement in terms of quality soon as it's makes it harder for the field to be taken seriously.

My session wasn't till the next day, and while I would have preferred to have been included in the previous day's session with all the other games presentations, it did seem to go relatively well. (Note: if going to present on games at EARLI don't pick Multimedia and Hypermedia as a research strand, try Learning and Technology instead). I was presenting the learning categories I developed from my first email interview study - so not only qualitative research but focusing on informal learning, hopefully the audience appreciated a bit of break! I guess this is old news in terms of my PhD but the submission date was back in October so I didn't have much else to present at that point. It all seemed to go down ok with people quite interested in the quotes I was presenting to back up the creation of different categories. I did get a question about how you might test for learning beyond the game, which I kind of expected, though to be fair I don't think I was being asked why I hadn't included these tests in my own research. I also got quite an interesting question about when people look up information they encounter during play in terms of how do they know when references are factual or not. I'm not sure that's something I've thought about before but I guess you would have to at least some prior knowledge to be able to distinguish between the made up stuff and real world references. I'd like to think most people would be able to tell the difference, though perhaps there's a study in there where you could see whether the majority actually can.

Finally, I also have to say I really enjoyed Shaaron Ainsworth's keynote on "Understanding and transforming multi-representational learning" (which I think you will be able to watch later from here). Ok, so I'm slightly biased as I know Shaaron and because I actually got cited in the keynote (!) for a paper she presented at EARLI 2005 based on my undergraduate project but it was clear the rest of the audience felt the same way. Some of the content was familiar (due to studying at Nottingham but also with respect to Shaaron's work with Jake Habgood on the game Zombie Division) and some wasn't - in particular I was quite interested in the more recent focus on learning through drawing i.e. getting students to create representations. The gist of it was along the lines that learning is increasingly involve the use of multiple representations and we really should be thinking beyond general design principles about what actually works in practice and under what circumstances. And yes, that applies to games too!

All in all, I did appreciate going to EARLI. I'll admit I'm more excited about DiGRA in a couple of weeks since it's more games focused, but I did have the chance to present my work to a different audience, get more up to date about what's going on in educational research and I definitely enjoyed catching up with researchers I'd met before and meeting some new ones. Oh, and special thanks to my supervisor James Aczel and his family for putting me up in Exeter :-)

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