Friday, January 17, 2014

Cheating as Learning

Alone in the Dark (DOS, Mac System 7.5)
So I'm back to another cMOOC arena, yay!!! Just by chance I came across a Rhizomatic Learning  course offered by Dave Cormier (of MOOC fame), and the course is called Rhizomatic Learning - The Community is the curriculum. The course spans six weeks and this first week was simply an introduction, but as far as intros go, this has been quite a busy week!  It's nice to see fellow cMOOC participants from previous MOOCs like Dave, Jaap, Rebecca and Penny, but also fellow locals, from UMass Boston, Peter Taylor.

This first week we are tackling the topic of cheating as a weapon for learning. We were encouraged to think about how we can use the idea of cheating as a tool to take apart the structures that we work in; and to think about what this says about learning,  power and how we (the participants) see teaching.  There have been quite a few blogs up to this point, that I have not had an opportunity to read yet, but I thought I should commit my own thoughts onto digital paper before I go on and start branching off (no pun intended) onto other areas.

In thinking about cheating as learning, I  am reminded of an xMOOC I was part of last fall semester on coursera called Video Games and Learning, with Professors Steinkuehler and Squire of UW Wisconsin.  In one of the lectures, I think it was Steinkuehler that mentioned that she was working with a child, playing an MMORPG, and the kid was collecting stats from the game.  If I remember correctly the kid was collecting stats of various weapons and armors for his character, so that they could create the optimal build in order to beat some higher level boss.  When queried, the kid said that he wasn't playing the game, but rather cheating it to find the best possible combination. This was quite interesting to see this type of investigative effort activity, to beat a boss, as cheating from the part of the gamer.

This reminded me of my own gaming habits over the years.  Back when I was in high school, before I had access to the internet, I would play games that I could get on discount (usually as part of a 10-pack collection).  One of the games that stands out as an example is Alone in the Dark. I liked the game but the mansion that I was exploring seemed like a giant maze, and I didn't know exactly how to progress.  After lots of frustration at certain areas, I went to my public library, got onto the internet and found something called a walkthrough, which was essentially a guide to the game that was compiled by members of that game's community. These types of guides weren't new, game makers have made money in years past selling these companions to their games.  This just happened to be free and community-sources.  Armed with the walkthrough, and gaining higher levels of skill in the game I was able to complete the game without the frustration that was there before.

 In subsequent years I've used walkthroughs to see how long a particular stage is so I can make decisions like "should I save this game now, and go to bed? or am I close to the end of the stage, so I should just play-on for 10 more minutes?" and I've tried to use them to see how certain achievements (on the xbox) can be obtained.  Some achievements seem quite esoteric, and don't know if they add to the game-play, so having such walkthroughs satisfied the curiosity as to whether or not it's worthwhile to pursue a certain achievement.

Metal Gear Portable Ops
That said, I've also had some failed gaming experiences, even with walkthroughs, and the main one that sticks out to me is a game called Metal Gear Portable Ops for the PSP. Again, there were a few frustrating spots in the game that I tried to get through by using my powers of observation (see what pattern the enemies had in their patrolling of certain military bases, scope out their weapons, see if I could knock them out and stash them somewhere, or if I had to waste ammunition and kill them, and so on).  I got quite far without a walkthrough, until I came to a boss that I just couldn't eliminate.  The walkthrough did help me in showing the the boss's weakness, but then came the part that I couldn't work up to - the skill part!  No matter how much I practiced (and how frustrated I got), I just could not beat this boss (the jumping one from the image above).  I then had to make a decision: keep playing and gain the skill? Or just throw in the towel?  Why was I playing this game?  Well, the main reason was that I was interested in the story, and wanted to see how it ended. Since the PSP platform doesn't have achievements or trophies for beating certain games like the xbox 360 and the PS3, there was no external reward for continuing to play.  Furthermore, I could see all of the story of the game, for free, on YouTube (in pretty nice quality too!). So, I ended up throwing in the towel with this game because I could satisfy my goal by other means.

Now, I have seen walkthroughs with many more cheats to them that allow the player to get superhuman strength, unlimited lives, and so on. So, at the end of the day, a walkthrough could be a cheat where the player learns nothing about problem solving because they have superhuman strength.  However, by the same token, it could also be a job-aid, in a sense because it can allow a learner to get unstuck and move on in the learning process.

So, what does this have to do with teaching?  Well, quite a few things (even if you exclude the whole category of games in teaching). The first thing that this type of cheating reminds me is a term I learned when I took my first instructional design course.  This term is mastery learning. The form that this type of mastery learning took in our classroom was multiple drafts of a deliverable, going through a do, submit, receive comment, revise, resubmit cycle. Of course, in addition to this we had grading rubrics so that we knew what we were expected to do.  Oddly enough, even after completed a BA and two Master degrees, it wasn't until I started my 3rd master's degree that I had rubrics for assignments! This type of iterative assessment could be seen as cheating by some old school, "you have one try at the end" to prove you've learned things pedagogues, but I think it's a way to examine the system in which you're in, and the system you are assessed on, and have an opportunity to perform well by examining the inputs and outputs, and adjusting the inputs appropriately to get the output you need.

The second thing that to boils down to is the learner motivations for learning. This is something I've come across a lot lately, doing a literature review for an upcoming paper on MOOCs.  That said, the motivations of each and every learner in classroom, physical, virtual, traditional, non-traditional, are never all the same. Each learner is different, with different motivations. Since I was interested in the narrative of the game, more than the frustrating game-play, I was able to make a continue/discontinue decision as far as my game went.  Learners make the same decisions in class when it comes to aspects such as school work.  Some do the bare minimum for the grade they aim for, and some go above and beyond.  What is the learner's motivation to complete a module, a course, an assignment or assessment? This motivation (along with a few other things) will determine what level the learner strives to reach up to.

Finally, my video game experience, and cheating in video games connects with teaching and learning in that learners will attempt to find alternative paths through the learning materials. I know that it's generally not the practice to open up all learning modules right from the start (in online courses), but if you do open up a couple of modules at a time, learners may go sequentially or they may skip around, regardless of specific due dates for assignments. There is no one, critical, path for teaching and learning - that process is messy, but there is a start and a destination.  There may be check-points along the way (end of the learning module for instance), but how people traverse that space in the learning module will vary based on their goals, expectations, and ultimate needs from the course.

Your thoughts?
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