The Future of Learning & Play

Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown released A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change in january, and boingboing has an essay from the two of them covering the notion that MMO’s give us a glance into a more efficient and enjoyable future for the learning process:

Finding an environment like that sounds difficult, but it isn’t. It already exists, in the form of massively multiplayer online games. These large-scale social communities provide a case study in how players absorb tacit knowledge, process it into a series of increasingly sophisticated questions, and engage collectives to make the experience personally meaningful. What they teach us about learning is not found in the game at all, but is instead embedded in these collectives, which form in, around, and through the game. In essence, the game provides the impetus for collectives to take root.

In our view, the cultures created around MMOs are almost perfect illustrations of a new learning environment. On one hand, online games produce massive information economies, composed of thousands of message forums, wikis, databases, player guilds, and communities. In that sense, they are paragons of an almost unlimited information network. On the other hand, they constitute a bounded environment within which players have near absolute agency, enjoying virtually unlimited experimentation and exploration—more of a petri dish.

They argue that this new environment gives rise to innovation through experimentation rather than rigorous rote recitals– and the player (or student) benefits from this:

Yet neither the first notion of the culture of learning (finding information) nor the second (practice, play, experience, and creating new knowledge constantly) accounts for the leap from complete failure to easy success. Something clicked for the guild, something that had not been there before—a key positioning or transition between stages of a fight, a well-timed spell casting, or perhaps a new series of moves that tipped the balance and cleared the path to victory. It’s fascinating that no one in the guild could articulate exactly what had happened. In massively multiplayer games this is a frequent occurrence. Oftentimes triumph seems to occur without reason; battles are won that, by all rights, should have been lost. Players find themselves wondering, “How on earth did we do that?” What’s more, once that shift happens, players find that it can happen again, and eventually it even becomes commonplace.

We believe that this provides a critical key to understanding what we mean by a sense of collective indwelling—the feeling and belief that group members share a tacit understanding of one another, their environment, and the practices necessary to complete their task. Collective indwelling evolves out of the fusion of the information network and petri dish cultures of learning, and it is almost entirely tacit. It both resides in and provokes the imagination. It is at once personal and collective. Though individual performance is vitally important—each and every player must execute the jobs flawlessly or the team doesn’t succeed—it is inherently tied to the group itself. There is no way for a single player (or even a small handful of players) to succeed alone. The team relies on everyone to understand that their success as individuals creates something that amounts to more than the sum of its parts.

Once players start to interact, they also develop a shared sense of imagination that is the means for, and the object of, collective indwelling. The multiplayer environment is made up of the acts of shared imagination among its inhabitants. And what makes that world particularly interesting and challenging is both constant change and the fact that the actions of the players in the world, as a collective, are driving that change. We look to gamers because they don’t just embrace change, they demand it. Their world is in a state of constant flux, and it must continually be reinvented and reimagined through acts of collective imagination. That’s what makes the game fun. But while players defeat bosses, kill monsters, coordinate raids, find new armor, and read blogs, wikis, and forums, learning happens, too.

Read the full post here.  is the future of learning one guided entirely by the students, collectively working towards a goal?  Or is this a pipedream of overly idealistic modes of learning?  Feel free to comment below.

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