Gaming it

“Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, “b”, “a”, start.
Just because we use cheats doesn’t mean we’re not smart.”
Anyone Else But YouThe Moldy Peaches

It’s 1983. We’re in North Oxfordshire. I’ve got a nasty basin haircut, and I’m playing Manic Miner on a little rubber keyed ZX Spectrum with less computing power than a modern microwave. I get about ten levels into the game, you know, onto the one with the walking toilets, and I manage to go through each and every one of my three lives, squashed by the Manic Miner boot of death. I have to start again, from the beginning. In despair, I give up and do something else. In fact, it was around this time my youthful self discovered epic fantasy novels via the Lord of the Rings, and so gave up on what was never a great computer gaming career.

It’s 1992. A taller, spottier, probably equally badly hairstyled, version of me is playing Super Mario Kart . On one of the levels my much more game savvy younger brother shows me that you can, in fact, cut across certain bits of certain levels in order to win. In fact I soon discover there are ways of missing out or getting past certain bits of all sorts of games using cheats. Briefly things are exciting in game land, but it’s around this time I discover alcohol and it all goes out the window. Beer or Mario, you choose.

Fast forward twelve years to 2014, and I’m doing an online training course on data protection. It’s moodle based, and consists of stages to work through before a moodle quiz, successful completion of which produces a certificate which ticks off that I have done my bit of training, and I am fully data protectioned up. I discover, through geekiness, that you don’t actually have to work through the stages, and can go straight to the quiz, which I open in another window, then complete using a combination of current knowledge and simply checking back through the power of skimming, scanning and the browser “find” function. Sorted. On the same day I do a more cannily designed piece of online training on equality and diversity which requires you to work through everything first, and find myself annoyed because I can’t work out the shortcuts. Indeed, I find myself not really engaging with the materials but rather trying to work out the shortcuts. In short, I am trying to game the system.

Not because I am not interested in equality and diversity or data protection, or see them as unimportant. Actually, trying to work out the cheats is, if anything, more interesting, more intellectually stimulating than the usual dull but well meaning worthiness of equality and diversity training. (I swear someone out there has worked out a way to make this interesting and is hiding it from us…)

So, given that the government, on the back of some occasionally bonkers recommendations from the FELTAG report, is pushing for at least 10% of online delivery for mainstream FE courses (occasionally teaching ESOL on the edge of this is a boon!) and working out ways of managing how this is funded, what does “gaming it” mean for course designers?

For one, just putting ten percent of your course materials online and bunging a forum and a couple of lazy quizzes at the end of it isn’t going to work. Or rather, it is, because the students will be producing excellent quiz scores at the end of about twenty minutes of study time, before spending the rest of their time chatting on Facebook. But then designing modules which have to be worked through isn’t going to work either, because they will spend the whole time working out how to cheat it. If nothing else, you can skim over a page and skip videos quite easily, and take nothing in at all.

Ok, I’m being a little unfair. There are students who will do this properly. Of course there are. But then these are probably the same students who would do any work properly, hand in assignments on time, that sort of thing, so in that regard these are not a major challenge. And I suspect there are probably students out there who are going to try to cheat regardless. However, in the middle, the majority, I suspect, lie a bunch of fairly able learners for whom your preciously designed course is interesting enough, but also a bit of a distraction from the more pressing business of Getting Off With Laila/Luke. For an adult the temptation to game it would be even more enormous. Do the work, get the chunk of qual, get back on with the really important stuff like families and jobs without having to leave the house. It is these latter groups of students who a course designer is going to have to catch.

A simple beginning would be to start, as I did, with the quiz. The quiz has to be well designed and pertinent to what is to be learned: this is really important. No dumbass questions about pointless factlets, please. In fact, I can’t emphasise this enough: for the technology to work, the content has to work. A bad question is a bad question, whether delivered face to face or via Socrative.

The failure to get critical questions right will then trigger the relevant units to be opened, and will require these, and only these, to be completed. The rest of the stuff can then be released once the whole thing is completed in order that learners who are interested can then go in and find out a bit more, and rewards can be put in place for this kind of thing. Once learners work this out, they may find themselves focussing more carefully on the questions, and maybe even doing their own bit of research, online, or, maybe, with books and stuff, gosh possibly even something wild and crazy like talking to a teacher or similar expert, all in order to find the answers. Again, this is where you have to design good questions so that if learners google it, it takes a bit of challenge to find the answer.

Essentially, gaming it is a skill in itself. If you set up punishment/reward systems, however complex these may be, people will try to work the system. There nothing especially mean or cheating about this. Lawyers will look for loopholes, consumers will look for bargains, people stooze credit cards in order to extend their 0% interest free period, a whole industry exists around switching utility, phone, broadband and insurance providers, all gaming the system. If online learning activities can channel and exploit this, then they are onto a winner.

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