Sunday, April 4, 2010

21st Century Assessment: The University of Farmville

Carnegie Mellon University Professor Jesse Schell's talk on the future of gaming is thought provoking. It gives some interesting insights into what educational assessment might look like by mid 21st Century.

 The core idea is that games will become pervasive in our society. In an environment where everything we buy, everything we read or watch, eat of drink can be easily logged and tracked, games will pervade life, as we seek to accumulate points - eating and exercising to get discount points from our health insurers, taking the bus to get tax credits and so forth. Watch the presentation, you'll get the idea.

In the talk Schell cites the examples of a Professor (in Game Design) who replaced the grade system in his course with an Experience Points (XP's) system, very familiar to anyone who has played any kind of non trivial game invented since about 1980. Points are accumulated for attendance, completion of exercises, contributions and so forth. It's easy to fast forward and imagine automated systems recording and tracking your efforts in a course. Did you actually read the text (eyeball tracking on your eBook), did you ask a question in class and so on. The idea would push strongly towards formative assessment, as students work to accumulate XP's over the course, and away from old fashioned summative assessment, which largely exists because it is (relatively) easy for humans to grade.

Humans love slow, incremental reward, it's a bug/feature in our psychology. Games like Farmville and Mafia wars, (check out the wonderful parody 'Progress Wars') offer steady accumulation of points, and the promise of 'levelling up' in just another few clicks exploit this bug and enjoy massive success, despite gameplay that would not challenge a pigeon. It's a whole lot more compelling that slogging away for a year and then rolling the dice in a big summative exam. It's not a radical or new discovery. Anyone who has tried to work their way up the Tennis or Chess ladder, earned martial arts belts, or gone to Weight Watchers knows the psychology of earning points and levels and getting ahead of someone else. Outfits like Scientology do very well out of the idea of levelling up. The Freemasons have done it since the 1700's (there's always another degree) although the levels in Farmville are smaller and better sized for the Attention Deficit Era. It just takes a few hundred years for new innovations to work their way over into education.

The idea of gathering points for an educational outcome isn't new. Continuous Professional Development programmes have done this for years, requiring a certain number of points to retain professional accreditation. Schnell points out that once professional game designers, well versed on what kind of behaviour and reward systems compell people, get their hands on systems like this, it will make them vastly more engaging and motivate the students. They'll be running down College Road on monday morning, keen to crack those Quantum Physics problems so they can level up before Johnny down the road. Two more levels and they open up the Quantum Cryptography level, and win a free pass into Gorbys. It's not the rewards though, it's the winning.

Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) is another area that technology driven monitoring and points accumulation will be a breakthrough tool for RPL. Imagine a world where everything you do at work is logged and captured in some way. Management systems map your progress towards outcomes, targets hit and goals achieved. Or perhaps it's more like a Twitter feed where your colleagues, customers, students authenticate your achievements and professional development, they can be tagged with discipline areas, points weightings and recommendations.

"I got that report finished"
Data Analysis: 270 points
Project Evaluation: 120 points
Technical Writing: 150 points
 View Details?
"I convinced Treasury to sign off on that Report."
Negotiation, 80 points,
Report Writing, 30 points, 
View details?

It's a hybrid mutant of peer assessment and social networking, the grandchild of the Recommendations feature in LinkedIn.

Pretty easy to imagine an App that mines this kind of data, and the details of the negotiation behind it and tell me I've got half the points I need for a MA in Public Sector Project Evaluation at The University of Z. Better talk to the boss about how best to fill in those blanks, except I'm only a hundred points in Statistics short for a H.Dip at University of Y, and I can do those online by playing 20 levels to Statsville. Decisions decisions...

Of course, the recruitment system will cut right through to the details anyway, regardless of whether the points add up to a Degree or not. Sure I can still earn points by turn up in old fashioned classes, but everybody knows professional experience is worth much more. After all, why pay a University good money or 'Recognise' my experience learning is in a big enough chunk of the right shape to be one of those Degree things like my Dad had.

Why indeed.

I referred above to a spurious Statsville as spurious future online statistics game. Alternatively, if you are stuck in 2010, there is, featured today in Inside Higher Ed

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