Monday, September 12, 2011

Too Distracting?

Photo provided by Homer Township Public Library
Mixed messages abound when it comes to using digital educational tools. The media and societal opinion would have you believe that technology is the savior of our education system. A meta-analysis of games is discussed in an article titled The Effectiveness of Games of Educational Purposes: A Review of Recent Research, by Josephine M. Randel. The article reports that out of 67 studies over a 28-year period, only 22 studies favor games. The rest show no difference between games and conventional teaching methods.

Today I read an article by Richard Clark titled Cognitive and Neuroscience Research on Learning and Instruction. He poses an interesting reason why we may not be seeing the results in games we are expecting. It boils down to distractions. Clark sites the following:

Another recent insight from extensive research on cognitive load theory (Mayer, 2004; Sweller, 2006) concerns the destructive power of common features of multi-media instruction . . . When instruction provides distractions such as music, animated agents who give us advice, tabs that allow us to get additional information, pages of text to read on the screen and key information embedded in irrelevant contextual information, we must spend effort ignoring the irrelevant to select and learn the relevant information (Clark & Choi, 2007).
It appears that the bells and whistles often thought to make digital learning more engaging cause more harm than good. Even help text can be distracting depending on how it is presented.

So what about games? The gamification drum is beating louder every day and is even being used in businesses to motivate and engage their employees. Games, even with their distracting elements, engage students, hook them, and make them WANT to learn...right?

A number of studies and reviews of studies that examined the benefits of games have been conducted (for example, Chen & O’Neil, 2005; O’Neil, Wainess, & Baker, 2005). All of the studies that have been published in reputable journals have reached a negative conclusion about learning from games. Apparently, people who play serious games often learn how to play the game and perhaps gain some factual knowledge related to the game – but there is no evidence in the existing studies that games teach anyone anything that could not be learned through some other, less expensive and more effective instructional methods. Even more surprising is that there is no compelling evidence that games lead
to greater motivation to learn than other instructional programs.

No greater motiviation... Wow! I feel like I have been sold a bill of goods from those who push the gaming trend. They make huge promises of motivation and engagement. They rarely promise educational gains, which I always thought was suspicious. But now...not even motivation.

This article by Clark had no good news for technology in its current state. He gave some recommendations for the design of digital learning tools (not games) that were proposed by Mayer in 2001. (You can read a summary of the design principles in this wiki article.) I can see these design elements in new learning tools, but I haven't found a learning tool that has followed the advice of eliminating distractions.

The best advice I can give for teachers and parents looking for that magic tool that will make it easier for your student to learn...buyer beware.While it is fine to use new technology that your students/children enjoy, don't expect it to take the place of conventional learning. As far as the research shows, we just aren't there yet.

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