Context-Embedded Learning Part VII: Situated and Distributed Understanding

This is part of the Context-Embedded Learning section of my dissertation lit review:

Situated and Distributed Understanding

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. Bruner (1996) believed that all knowledge is “always ‘situated,’ dependent upon materials, task, and how the learner [understands] things” (p. 132). Duffy and Jonassen (1992) also explained that constructivists “emphasize ‘situating’ cognitive experiences in authentic activities” (p. 4). Phrased another way, they believed that “we must aid the individual in working with the concept in the complex environment, thus helping him or her to see the complex interrelationships and dependencies” (p. 8). It is significant, especially in terms of microworlds and educational technologies, that they point out “the context need not be the real world of work in order for it to be authentic… rather, the authenticity arises from engaging in the kinds of tasks using the kids of tools that are authentic to that domain” (p. 9).

In the constructivist tradition, Gee (2003) argued that learning involves situating (or building) meanings in context, and that “video games are particularly good places where people can learn to situate meanings through embodied experiences” (p. 26). He highlighted examples in which “the player (learner) is immersed in a world of action and learns through experience, though this experience is guided or scaffolded by information the player is given and the very design of the game itself” (Gee, 2005, p. 59). Gee (2003) understood that “meaning and knowledge are built up through various modalities (images, text, symbols, interactions, abstract design, sound, etc.)” (p. 111), which video games can provide in spades.

Many scholars believe that video games and simulations can provide environments in which such situated learning can occur. Shaffer, Squire, Halverson, and Gee (2005), for example, stated that “the virtual worlds of games are powerful because they make it possible to develop situated understanding” (p. 106) and that “video games take advantage of situated learning environments” (p. 108). When discussing the new ways in which a student engaged with her world after playing the epistemic game Madison 2200, the authors wrote that “this is situated learning at its most profound – a transfer of ideas from one context to another that is elusive, rare, and powerful” (p. 109). Later Shaffer (2006) wrote about a journalism class (J-828) that inspired the epistemic game; “As the situated view of learning suggests, novice journalists in J-828 learned by becoming members of a community, and they came to see themselves as members of the community by learning to do things that members of the community do” (p. 148). Dede (2005), too, found that learning situated in virtual environments and augmented realities was important because of the capacity for transfer of learning to real problems. Steinkuehler, who studied MMORPGs specifically, was also interested in “the situated meanings individuals construct, the definitive role of communities in that meaning, and the inherently ideological nature of both” (p. 17).

Just as they may provide students an opportunity for situated learning, 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 Bruner (1996) expressed it, intelligence is “not simply ‘in the head’ but [is] ‘distributed’ in the person’s world – including the toolkit of reckoning devices and heuristics and accessible friends that the person could call upon… intelligence, in a word, reflects a micro-culture of praxis” (p. 132). Gee (2003) considered this one of the principles of good learning that many good video games do well; in good games “thinking, problem solving, and knowledge are ‘stored’ in material objects and the environment” (p. 111).

I’m seeking feedback on this writing, so please let me know what you think in the comments.