MOOCs, Participatory Culture, and the Emergence of Knowledge

Knowledge is ubiquitous on the Internet.

It is open and shared: there is a forum for about any subject you can dream of –and within it, you’ll find narrower topics called “threads”; similarly, blogs such as the ones you find on this site are ideas woven together, fabric made with hyperlinks.

It is constantly recombined and organized: besides forums and blogs, social bookmarking, wikis and hashtags are a staple of the semantic web.


In the education sector, MOOCs are certainly exemplary in harnessing the capacity of the Web to share and organize knowledge.

Of course, from my own experience, I know that MOOCs are unevenly social: the Gamification course I took on Coursera a while back was… mildly social. The forum felt optional rather than central to the course, and I soon skipped it altogether.

On the other end, the multiple forums in EdX’s Introduction to Game Design felt very much part of the learning process. Taking part in the various forums was regularly “the assignment” in a section. Students used them as a way to discuss, present and test ideas. Since the whole course aimed at producing a game using rapid prototyping, forums were a blessed source of testers. Not just a place to hang out, they were part of the process we were learning, and much learning emerged from them.
Moreover, those forums were summarized and commented by the two hosts of the MOOC in their weekly intro video.

People have mixed feelings about forums in MOOCs: “Get to the point! What are we supposed to learn from these conversations? Do we need all this half-baked ideas produced by peers that don’t know more than we do?”

Because of its social, peer-to-peer nature, a forum is likely to start of by muddying things up.
So… should a MOOC encourage confusion in students? Is it not counter-productive?

In his PhD, Dereck Muller , creator of the physics channel Veritasium , shows that effectiveness and clarity are two different matters : especially when you tackle misconceptions in students, an effective explanation will be confusing to the receiver because it goes against their former belief. If it is not, it means that deep understanding isn’t taking place, thus no knowledge is acquired. You will need to experience a state of unbalance, and exert mental effort to reach a new and more accurate conception of the world.


In the case of misconceptions, we’re talking about “known knowledge”. But can forums help producing new knowledge?

Let’s start by understanding Stephen Dowes’ vision –after all, he is the co-founder of the MOOC movement, and of connectivism : “Online resources are not “content”; they are the words of a new language whose grammar is : “sharing, connecting, exchanging, giving and receiving feed back, debating”. It is the ongoing re-organization and re-combination of what we know which produces new knowledge. In the knowledge network, “Teachers are nodes, students are nodes. Both teaching and learning consists of sending and receiving communications to other nodes.” ( How to Organize a MOOC, slide 20)

So, simply put, a large number of students and teachers is feeding the knowledge network. Because those MOOC are so “Massively Open”, what we are witnessing in the knowledge network is Pierre Lévy ‘s“Collective intelligence”: “The knowledge of a thinking community is no longer a shared knowledge, for it is impossible for a single human being, or even a group of people, to master all knowledge, all skills. It is fundamentally collective knowledge, impossible to gather together into a single creature.”

With the current state of human knowledge, no one can call themselves a true polymath. Networks, both physical and virtual, allow learning to happen spontaneously, and new knowledge to emerge.


This concurs with findings from Education scientist Sugata Mitra: “Dr. Mitra’s team carved a “hole in the wall” that separated the NIIT premises from the adjoining slum in Kalkaji, New Delhi. Through this hole, a freely accessible computer was put up for use. This computer proved to be an instant hit among the slum dwellers, especially the children. With no prior experience, the children learnt to use the computer on their own.”

15 years on, the experiment is still running, and the children’s spectacular achievements led Mitra to speculate that in the age of the Internet, “Education is a self-organizing system where learning is an emergent phenomenon.”


How does all this impact the way we currently teach?

The bad news is, schools won’t stay relevant in the information age, if they don’t become much more deeply connected: use the networks for “sharing, connecting, exchanging, giving and receiving feed back, debating”, and not just as a one way encyclopedia.

The good news is, knowledge has never been so democratic.



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Serious games : Reaching the Parts Other Resources Cannot Reach (Part 3)

Recreating Reality in Serious Games: the Sensitive Question of Framing


There is one important distinction between a game and a video game: in the former, the rules are written on paper, and you need to read and understand them before you start playing. In a video game, rules are written within its code: even if you don’t know the rules of, say, Minecraft, you can just start playing and experiment.

In a video game, the rules are implicit. The player is immersed in a constructed reality – that is, constructed by the game’s creators.

Ian Bogost, game designer and Professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology dubs video games “persuasive games”: he advances “a theory of how videogames make arguments and influence players. Games represent how real and imagined systems work, and they invite players to interact with those systems and form judgments about them. Drawing on the history of rhetoric, the study of persuasive expression, [Bogost analyzes] rhetoric’s unique function in software in general and videogames in particular. (…) [He argues] that videogames, thanks to their basic representational mode of procedurality (rule-based representations and interactions), open a new domain for persuasion; they realize a new form of rhetoric.


Does this apply to serious games as well?

Let me illustrate that point with a concrete example: Emmanuel Duplàa, from University of Ottawa, developed a serious game called Eko. The game is aimed at teaching 12 graders how to make a business plan. When conceptualizing the game, he had to decide where to place the limit of the reality he wanted to recreate in the game: would he stick to the narrow goal of teaching how to make a business plan (rote mathematical learning)? Or would he widen the frame of the game in order to include the conditions for which one would decide to make a business plan?

That is ultimately where E. Duplàa chose to frame his game: the player is a settler on a new planet which only harbors a mine, a bank, and a general store. The player has to extract ore from the mine in order to sell it to the bank, and buy supply and food at the store. But as her family increases, the player has to extract more and more from the mine: comes the time when she can’t keep up (it is included in the game’s mechanics) and she has to borrow money to the bank in order to buy a digger.

Because the game’s aim is to train the player to make a business plan, its rhetoric understandably sets the frame for this to be the only way out of the situation.

However, in doing so, the game effectively steers the player away from thinking in terms of any alternative to the market economy.


Even if motivated by the educational content, the framing of a serious game may end up looking like an ideological choice.

A serious game which allows the player to “act out” the educational content through gameplay constitutes a unique tool in the learning landscape – not so much because of it being “more fun”, but because the player’s immersion in a made-to-measure environment enables deeper learning.

But by the same token, immersion in the game makes it all the more difficult for the player to perceive, and therefore assess, the limits of the frame imposed on him; it leaves him exposed to the game’s rhetoric.

This comment is not new to video games: it has often been evoked regarding violent games, and games marketing products to youth.

It certainly should be thoroughly considered in educational games too.



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Serious games : Reaching the Parts Other Resources Cannot Reach (Part 2)

Learning Through Gameplay: Zombie Division


Zombie Division  is a game designed by Dr Jacob Habgood as part of his PhD. It  The aim of the game is to teach division (by 2, 3, 4, …10)  to children. The gameplay consists in fighting zombies.

Three versions of the game were tested:

  • version 1 : the player “defeats (zombies) in combat by attacking each enemy with a specific weapon; the weapon bears a number, and so do the zombies. Each weapon acts a divisor; you have to choose the right weapon, in order to divide zombies into whole parts” = “intrinsic” version
  • version 2 : the player fights numberless zombies using numberless weapons, then has to make a divisions quiz to gain access to the next level = “extrinsic” version
  • version 3 : this is the “control” version ; the player simply fights zombies –no numbers are displayed ; there is no learning of division at all.

Results show that version 2 is far less effective in mastering the educational content than version 1. Version 2 is also less motivating for the player.Version 2 is extrinsic: motivation is kept going by “supplementing” dry educational content (division quiz) with ludic intermissions (zombie fights).
This type of game has been described as the “chocolate-covered broccoli approach”, where the chocolate-game hides the (supposedly unpleasant) taste of the educational content. Besides the fact that such games do a poor job of educating the player, they tell a lot about how their makers view the educational content…

On the other hand, version 1, the intrinsic version, is an example of gameplay designed to master the learning content: you have to choose the right weapon for each zombie you encounter. Either the zombie dies, or, if you chose the wrong dividend (the wrong weapon), the zombie keeps attacking you. The result of your choice is acted out: you are learning by doing.

In order for a serious game to constitute a truly original learning tool, the learning has to happen through gameplay –and the important word here is “through”.

By immersing the player in a learning experience, a serious game reaches parts other resources cannot reach. But there is a danger inherent to this outstanding quality, which one has to be aware of when assessing – or designing – a serious game: this is the sensitive question of framing…


(This question will be addressed in Part 3: Recreating Reality in Serious Games: the Sensitive Question of Framing)



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Serious games : Reaching the Parts Other Resources Cannot Reach (Part 1)

Not All Serious Games Are Made Equal

Serious games are educational tools which are increasingly included in blended and online learning. They can be costly to make, and being a new educational medium, they require the teacher to alter the traditional way of the classroom to accommodate them. So it is legitimate to wonder: does a serious game constitute a truly original tool to the learning environment, or is it just a new way of “dressing up” educational content? And does the idea of “more fun”, included in the term itself, equates to more –or deeper- learning?

Actually, those questions will have different answers depending on the game itself. The term “serious game” is used to describe such vastly different realities that it is simply useless to talk about “serious games” in general.

A great many serious games are no more than a fancy way of displaying information – gathering, remembering, understanding or applying it –basically, the first levels in Bloom’s taxonomy;  the “old school” version of school…
Why those games are produced at all, when school itself tends to steer away from rote learning, is a mystery.


However, some serious games aim higher: they are designed to foster deep understanding in the player – by having information inferred from the game’s environment, or by having the player analyze, evaluate, or create from that information (higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy).

This second type of  serious games is an unprecedented asset to the learning environment. A truly new way to learn.

Let me explain why, through a couple of academic examples.



Inferring from the game’s environment: Mécanika

The unschooled mind is not a blank slate.  A five-year-old entering school for the first time brings with her an array of conceptions on how the world works, based on five years of intuitive observations. However, there can be a disconnect between intuitive and scholarly understanding. In science related areas especially, there are a lot of misconceptions.

When a 6-month-old baby drops anything at hand from his high chair, he is creating his initial conception of gravity; but he will never be able to experiment in a place with no gravity, or no friction. There is therefore no way for him to infer Newton’s first law of gravity from his everyday environment – the law states that “an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”.

Enter Mécanika, a serious game created by François Boucher-Genesse as part of his master in Education.
The aim of the game is to “tidy up” space by displacing little pneumatic cubes. In order to move a cube, the player can use robots, which apply various movements to the cubes; and she also has the possibility to adjust gravity or friction.
The game enables the player to act upon an aspect of reality that is usually not observable – let alone adjustable.

What is the impact of the game on the player’s conceptions – and misconceptions – in physics?

The creator  has tested the game in different settings:

  • Mécanika only: one group had to play with Mécanika independently from the physics course.
  • Mécanika + teacher: one group played Mécanika, and the physics teacher made links to it during the physics course.
  • Teacher only: one group had the physics course without playing Mécanika.

All groups were given a before and after test showing where they were at regarding their conceptions in physics. The results show that the “Teacher only” group was way behind, showing no significant progress (+1.9 %); the two other groups had made much greater progress – more or less equal in their magnitude (Mécanika + teacher: 9.2 %; Mécanika only: 7.3 % ).
By making the invisible visible, and purposefully including counter-intuitive situations, Mécanika effectively takes on the player’s misconceptions in physics.

Declarative knowledge – citing Newton’s law, memorizing it, applying it – doesn’t do much to misconceptions; it leaves them untouched, intact.

But procedural knowledge – moving in a world designed to experience Newton’s law – leaves the players no choice but to confront their misconceptions, and to realign their intuitive understanding with scientific concepts.

The Mécanika experiment plainly shows that the students’ progress is first and foremost attributed to the game, not to the teacher: learning by doing is key.
In other words, a serious game is as good as its gameplay.


But will any gameplay do with any content? After all there are a number of “generic serious games” where you can apply any content of your own to, say, a Tetris or a Ludo mechanics. Is progress explained by the inherent “fun” involved in the gameplay, or is there more to it?


(This question will be answered in Part 2: Learning through gameplay: Zombie Division).

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