Game-based learning has gained traction in recent years. I recently heard about one of my fellow educators’ new projects. Matt Walsh is an associate professor of Writing and Literature at MassBay Community College, and he is working to create new gaming options for English and other subjects. He is one of those dynamic educators who have enthusiastically embraced the idea that learning can take place in many formats, and has turned his attention to gaming. In answering my questions, his reasons for doing so are quite clear: he wants learning to be more student-centered, more fun, and more innovative.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your educational background and teaching experience. What is your teaching philosophy?
“I majored in English at Saint Michael’s College with as concentration in theater and journalism. I lucked into the small 16-member creative writing grad program at Hollins in Roanoke that really gave me a chance to write. Ah….what a luxury! I taught English in Niigata, Japan through the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program. I’ve always worked in writing centers–worked as a Reading & Writing Learning Specialist at MassBay before becoming faculty.”
“My teaching philosophy: I believe in empowering writers–that anyone who writes is a writer–that writing is a craft, not a gift. I see proficiency and creativity as equally important, and I try to design curriculum that is relevant to contemporary demands of readers, writers and thinkers–and also curriculum that is much more irrelevant on the surface, that is playful. I believe that learning happens best when we are producers, not consumers, of knowledge. I ask students to design their own learning resources, their own games, and artifacts of learning such as ePortfolios.”
Professor Walsh also wants to create room for more informal learning to occur outside of the traditional physical classroom. He hopes that this will enable students of shared interests to become active participants in social media projects geared toward learning.
Q: What do you see as the major challenges facing community college students in the classroom, based on your own teaching experiences?
“The gulf between the way students engage with the world inside the classroom and outside the classroom is widening. I think it’s tempting for many to implement technological solutions for what are often issues around relationship and communication dynamics. We’ve got to empower students to be activists, problem-solvers, and agents of change, to make higher education more collaborative.”
Q: Why did you become interested in developing interactive games for college-level courses?
“I think that learning needs to be playful. It should be hard, it should be challenging, but so is good play. The play that most of us find the most rewarding pushes us to the edge of our abilities, even beyond, and gives us immediate feedback that lets us improve. In games, failing is so natural that we don’t even view it as failing. It’s just part of playing. It happens in checkers, it happens in tennis, it happens in World of Warcraft. In higher education, we ask students to take risks, to challenge themselves in new ways, but the stakes are incredibly high. Within the academic experience, it’s challenging but imperative to cultivate a learning environment conducive to productive failure. I’ve recently turned my attention to the kind of learning principles at work in well-designed video games. If these games don’t teach a player how to play, the game doesn’t work and it doesn’t sell…it flops.”
“But good games don’t teach through tutorials or handbooks–learning to play is an inherent part of the game design. This isn’t a static dynamic either; games adapt to players’ abilities in order to find that sweet spot between boredom and anxiety. The trick for teachers is how to find that sweet spot for a classroom of diverse learners along different trajectories. Increasingly, I’m turning to the principles of game design, the principles of play, as a way to do this.”
Q: Can you give us an example of an activity you helped create and its educational goals?
“The Metagame, as its inventors Local No. 12 say, “is a game about aesthetics, and playing well requires cultural literacy, strategic thinking, and social negotiation skills”(Local No. 12, 2011, p. 6). In a nutshell, players are given a hand of cards from a thematic deck (I’ll be using the Culture edition, initially, and then a custom deck). The cards include content cards (i.e., Tupperware, Barney, and To Kill a Mockingbird) and comparison cards (i.e. “Which reminds us more of our humanity?,” “Which deserves more respect than it gets?” and “Which better explains a generation?”).”
“There are many variations, but essentially, players are asked a comparison question and then choose one of the content cards from their hand to make a pitch for, for example, why Tupperware better explains a generation than To Kill a Mockingbird. I intend to play the Metagame, initially, as is, as a way of exploring argument and values and fostering a collaborative learning environment. Then, I plan to introduce custom wild cards that will ask players, for example, to make their case through ethos, pathos or logos; to reach consensus through Rogerian argument; or to focus their argument to appeal to a 3rd grader.”
“Next, I’d like players to create their own custom cards (both content cards and comparison cards). The first round of designs could be group designs, adding culture cards to the existing deck. Another round of designs could ask students to identify cards that represent key aspects of their particular field of interest (semiotic domain, affinity space, etc.) and to work with small groups to develop meaningful questions and art. I’ll also invite students to design their own game mechanics that lend themselves to the content they’ve developed. Not only can this kind of activity be geared towards any discipline or topic, but the product of the design work results in a sharable, playable game that can further the exploration of diverse domains using argument, systems thinking, authentic rhetorical situations, public speaking, group work, etc.”
Q. Envision the college classroom of tomorrow. What do you hope to see in it?
“Communication and production tools that were mastered by few and unaffordable for most a decade ago are becoming increasingly user-friendly and accessible. I hope to see the college classroom of tomorrow a place where students are better empowered as producers of knowledge, as designers, and as problem-solvers equipped to work with faculty and college leaders to tackle the issues that directly affect students.”
Clearly, Professor Walsh is looking toward the future of education, a world in which students can access course content in multiple formats and enjoy learning in the process. Though many fear that gaming has to potential to “dumb down” education, the activities he describes involve significant analytical demands, and push students to engage in critical thinking in ways that may be more complex than traditional assignments such as papers. This makes Matt Walsh a true education game changer.
Do you know of faculty who are also working to expand options for learning? Tell us about them here!