Monday, 8 October 2012

Games Based Situated Learning - A Contradiction?


Situated learning / cognition considers how knowledge is acquired in the context of authentic activity, defined as the common activity of experts or ‘community of practice’.  Situated cognition considers that "representations are not at the center of the mind, but rather emerge from the interaction of the mental processes with the environment’, Clancey (1991).  This notion overturned previous theories that explained the human mind as a biological computer.   Knowledge is not the sum of what is currently held inside a person’s head, but the real-time formulation of understanding combining what was previously known with new experiences.   Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989) state that ‘A concept will continually evolve with each new occasion of use, because new situations, negotiations, and activities inevitably recast it in a new, more densely textured form. So a concept, like the meaning of a word, is always under construction’


A critical aspect of the situated learning model is the notion of the apprentice observing the ‘community of practice’.   Over time, the inexperienced novice moves from the periphery of community to the centre where they participate as experts.  This process of enculturation occurs by means of involvement in authentic activity (real world / simulated as opposed to analogous activity) and interactions with experts.

The theory has moved away from the rigid apprentice model, and has been reconstituted as a classroom learning theory.  A situated learning experience has four major premises guiding the development of classroom activities (Anderson, Reder, and Simon 1996; Wilson 1993): (1) learning is grounded in the actions of everyday situations; (2) knowledge is acquired situationally and transfers only to similar situations; (3) learning is the result of a social process encompassing ways of thinking, perceiving, problem solving, and interacting in addition to declarative and procedural knowledge; and (4) learning is not separated from the world of action but exists in robust, complex, social environments made up of actors, actions, and situations.

These four premises differentiate situated learning from other experiential forms of acquiring knowledge. In situated learning, students learn content through activities rather than acquiring information in discrete packages organized by instructors. Content is inherent in the doing of the task and not separated from the noise, confusion, and group interactions prevalent in real work environments. Learning is dilemma driven rather than content driven. Situations are presented that challenge the intellectual and psychomotor skills learners will apply at home, in the community, or the workplace (Lankard 1995).

David Stein puts forward that “situated learning uses cooperative and participative teaching methods as the means of acquiring knowledge. Knowledge is created or negotiated through the interactions of the learner with others and the environment. Subject matter emerges from the cues provided by the environment and from the dialogue among the learning community. The structure of the learning is implicit in the experience rather than in the subject matter structured by the instructor.” For Stein, Situated Learning in the classroom integrates content, context, community, and participation.

To sum up, the main tenets of situated learning theory are:

  1. Information must be given in a relevant context or setting.
  2. Learning must take place within social interaction and collaboration.

On the surface, Computer Based Situated Learning seems a contradiction in terms. Hummel (1993) maintained that ‘instructional designers who apply situated learning theory by implementation in electronic media should realize that they take an important step away from this theory ... courseware becomes the learning environment and not the authentic situation’ (p. 15 Jan Herrington and Ron Oliver, 1995).  But, the consensus has moved in favour of the feasibility of using computer methods to simulate authentic activity (Herrington and Oliver).

In fact, in some situations it is only possible to simulate such as emergency situations.  In terms of authentic activity, simulation maybe as close as it is possible to get to the real thing.  It is not just emergency training where simulation provides the only option.  For example, it is only through simulation that young people are going to experience many scenarios that occur during adulthood. Logistical and cost barriers exist, but time is a key problem. Game can compress time and can simulate events in a different time period.

A well designed simulation that has been modelled on expert knowledge, which offers collaborative learning in the form of blended delivery provides a powerful experience that does not merely engage the learner, a benefit in its own right, but anchors the learning process by contextualising it with ‘real’ scenarios. Games based situated learning moves away from the pure “apprentice model” of learning but it still stays true to the key tenets with little modification, as shown below:

  1. Information must be given in authentic simulated context.
  2. Learning must take place within social interaction and collaboration.

Herrington and Oliver, who have written extensively on situated learning and multimedia, suggest that to marry up to the theory, programmes need to:

  • Provide authentic context.
  • Provide authentic activities.
  • Embed expert performances and model processes.
  • Provide multiple roles and perspectives.
  • Support collaborative construction of knowledge.
  • Provide coaching and scaffolding.
  • Promote reflection to enable abstractions to be formed.
  • Promote articulation to enable tacit knowledge to be made explicit.
  • Provide for integrated assessment.

These are the criteria by which we will judge our learning simulation Sustainaville (see next blog post: Introducing our Games).

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