Context-Embedded Learning (In A Nutshell)

This is yet another “one page” overview of a topic that will appear in my literature review. The final version will be fleshed out with supporting citations. Each paragraph will be supported by references to seminal constructivist theorists, educational technologists, and video game scholars. At this point my challenge is whittling down 20 pages of quotes into about five pages of concise text. I’ll post the longer version when I’ve finished it, but for now I plan to continue drafting these overviews… it’s giving me a sense of momentum. :)

As always, any feedback is appreciated.

Perhaps the most fundamental property of a constructivist learning environment is that it offers a context for student learning.

Context-embedded learning has been a cornerstone of the constructivist movement since the early 1900’s. Now, nearly a century later, video games and simulations can offer new contexts for student learning that would not have been available to students in the past.

While traditional teaching and learning tends to be a passive experience for the student who receives knowledge from the teacher, constructivist pedagogy emphases learning by doing, learning from experience, and problem solving. In order to learn by doing, a student must not simply read from a textbook or listen to a lecture. Rather, the student must engage authentic (or real-world) problems in their authentic context. Ideally, the student will be challenged without being frustrated, and thus remain in a state of flow, an ideal state of learning (or performance).

In order to support student’s early efforts, the learning context can be a microworld, or simplified version, of the real-world context in which similar skills might be used – and to which students’ new skills will eventually be expected to transfer. Microworlds model only the elements of the experience that are important to a student’s developmental level, while limiting other distractions.

Learning that happens within a microworld (or other authentic context) is what constructivists consider situated learning, and allows students to develop a situated understanding of the skills they are developing and problems they are solving.

Similarly, many microworlds (and other authentic contexts) offer opportunities for students to developed a distributed understanding of skills and problems. Unlike in traditional testing situations, students do not need to memorize all of the answers to their problems and information required in the learning context. They can call upon tools and other individuals within the context to aid them in their efforts.

As students develop situated and distributed understanding within a learning context, they are essentially exploring an identity within that context – a way of acting and thinking that is specific to the context and problems at hand. Constructivist educators purposefully and explicitly support the development of educationally beneficial identities by their students. Some modern constructivists strive to help students develop professional identities that may be useful in their adult future, particularly professional identities that emphasize sophisticated or innovative ways of thinking, doing, and problem solving.

One particularly powerful strategy for supporting this sort of identity development is to facilitate true role-playing experiences for students, in which each student takes on a specific role within a cognitively immersive environment. Story telling, especially in conjunction with student role-playing, can also be a powerful tool.

Many learning contexts include a goal or problem that may engage and motivate students thus inherently creating a sense of relevance. However, it is best if the learning is also relevant or significant in students’ lives outside of the learning context. Only if the learning problem or learning context is in someway connected to things the student cares about and is familiar with will the learning experience be most effective.

Video games, particularly massively multiplayer online role-playing games, have the potential to offer students such a context for learning.