Problem-based learning and electronic games
- Stephen Ash
- Memorial University of Newfoundland
2 Problem-based learning
PBL is a learning approach grounded in the constructivist theory of learning (Savery & Duffy, 1995). Mills (n.d.) explains that learners develop skills in team-work, problem solving, and independent thinking through learning that is “active, task-oriented, and self-directed” (Background, para. 1). In PBL, the learner is the focus and knowledge is created rather than disseminated (Putnam, 2001; Savery & Duffy). Students collaborate with each other to form knowledge that can be used to solve problems (Ottenbreit-Leftwich, Ertmer, & Simons, 2006). According to Hmelo-Silver (2004), PBL “is well suited to helping students become active learners because it situates learning in real-world problems and makes students responsible for their learning” (p. 236). The teacher, as facilitator, provides relevant experiences that catch the interest of the learner and foster collaboration (Hmelo-Silver; Newman et al., 2003; Putnam, 2001).
In a historical analysis, Januszewski and Pearson (1999) reveal six key features of the PBL approach. They are as follows:
- the problem is introduced before any dissemination of knowledge
- knowledge should be developed on an as-needed basis
- intrinsic motivation in which the learner takes ownership is key
- there has to be a connection to the real world
- learning is promoted
- working as individuals or in groups
Through PBL, learners can identify knowledge deficiencies, reflect, and be flexible in their thinking (Hmelo-Silver, 2004).
3 Electronic games
Students of the 21st century have grown up in a world where use of computers, cell phones, and gaming consoles are second nature (Sancho, Moreno-Ger, Fuentes-Fernandez, and Fernandez-Manjon, 2009). Wikipedia defines electronic games as “a game that employs electronics to create an interactive system with which a player can play” and can include items such as computer games, handhelds, arcade-style standalone machines, and non-visual products (“Electronic games,” n.d.).
Electronic games have been in existence for over thirty years and have become very pervasive and influential. This pervasive influence has lead to an increased interest in their effect on learners and their learning (Squire, 2003). However, James Paul Gee clearly states that games are not meant to replace teachers and books (Stoerger, 2007). A good video game is challenging yet not too difficult and must guide the learner towards action (Stoerger). Kiili (2007) further clarifies the vision of an effective video game as one that has authenticity, collaboration, learning by doing, and time for reflection.
The challenge then presented to the designer is maintaining the entertainment value while providing an educational product (Royle, 2008). Game designers such as Smith and Mann (2002) often see the focus on facilitation of learning as a risk in that it may remove the idea of enjoyment and thus remove the notion of a game.
4 Electronic games and problem-based learning
Electronic games can be used effectively in the PBL approach and still maintain authenticity and relevance (Royle, 2008). This connection between video games and problem-based learning has been well established by researchers such as Barrows (1996) (as cited in Ma, Williams, Prejean, & Richard, 2006). Royle explains that “real learning does happen in games, and the learning engaged by gamers shares many attributes with the pedagogy of problem-based learning” (The Killer Application Section, para. 6). Prensky (2000) also indicates that a learner’s critical thinking and problem solving skills can be enhanced through the use of electronic games (as cited in Yoo & Zellner, 2006). According to Kiili (2007), “educational games may offer a viable strategy for developing students’ problem solving skills” (p. 394). These games force the learner to become an active participant in obtaining necessary knowledge in order to further their progress in the task. The Problem-Based Gaming model presented by Kiili demonstrates this idea of developing problem solving skills. Learners test hypotheses and reflect on results in a cyclical manner which leads to the development on knowledge and learning. The reflection stage is seen as the most important as this is where the learner critiques and internalizes the knowledge used to solve the presented problems (Kiili).
A key form of games known as adaptive role playing games can provide a source of learning from a problem-based approach. According to Sancho et al.(2009), role playing games “offer immersive and realistic scenarios with engaging narratives that challenge the user to solve problems embedded in the game” (Motivation, Narrative, and Role playing Games Section, para. 2). The challenges push the limit of the player, information is in context and on time, and collaboration is encouraged to allow for problem solving (Sancho et al.).
Chuang and Chen (2009) explored the effects of video games on children’s cognitive learning. The study involved 108 third-grade students from a middle/high socio-economic background. A control group was given instruction on a topic through computer-assisted instruction that was text-based. The experimental group received instruction on the same topic through a computer-based video game. In both cases, the presence of a teacher was removed. Based on that study, Chuang and Chen found that computer video games can promote problem solving by making the players recognize “multiple solutions for problems” (p. 7). These games can also improve “critical thinking”, “higher-level cognition”, and “higher-order thinking” (Chuang & Chen, p. 8). Likewise, Kiili (2007) found that learners test various strategies throughout the game to expand their knowledge base and develop “creative problem solving” skills (p.398).
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