The best way to define "active learning" is to compare it with passive learning, which has been the traditional mode of teaching for thousands of years. Passive learning is loosely defined as students being the targets of lectures and reading assignments, without, for the most part, taking any direct role in their own learning. Active learning requires the student to engage in dynamic endeavors such as role-playing, debate, and give-and-take discussion with peers. Its purpose is to compel the student to become part of the learning process -- not just the object of lectures or reading material. Games, by their very nature, encourage active learning, as the student becomes the driver of the learning activity itself, instead of being a mere passenger.
Experiential learning is sometimes described as "learning by doing." Long understood as one of the best modes of learning, until recently, it has also been one of the most expensive, and possibly most dangerous, as on the job training can sometimes have disastrous results. The military and civilian flight schools In particular, but not exclusively) have long know that experiential learning through games or simulators can convey genuine, practical skills to raw students, and gradually, this concept has been taking root in the corporate world and in conventional schools. Computer games, when well-crafted, can give a student the look, feel, and decision-making challenges of the real world, and in doing so, can help them be better-prepared for the real-world arenas in which they have been trained.
Problem-based learning, an academic cousin to active learning, encourages progress in students by presenting them with a series of problems which must be solved, prior to the student advancing to the next step of his or her learning or training. In games, such problems are typically known as "scenarios," "missions," or "levels," but the process is very similar, even in a commercial game, to the entire concept of problem-based learning.
One important fundamental of modern education is the concept of immediate feedback. Immediate feedback is a self-defining term -- its premise is that the student will not have to wait through a day, a weekend, or weeks, to learn the results of a test or experiment from his or her teacher, but will instead (in this case via the agent of the computer game) receive this feedback immediately. A game can also offer, more quickly than most human teachers, pre-scripted hints, suggestions, and even critiques to students, which feedback can inspire them to renew their efforts to solve the learning problem at which they might have failed on the first attempt.
Learner-centered learning mandates that the student be the focus of the learning process. With the typical computer game permitting one student to sit at one workstation, playing a game that responds to just his or her decisions, a student can progress, or fail to do so, at a rate compatible with his or her learning speed. Even games that combine multiple users in one endeavor still include this centricity of learning, as each student is still interacting with a machine, and a game front end, that is devoted entirely to him or her.
Gaming Environments include:
Problem-solving in Complex Systems
Complex systems are systems, organizations, groups, organisms, etc., that exhibit characteristics which cannot be found among any one of their component parts. Computer games are ideal tools to both present complex systems, and then to introduce problems that can only be solved with a true understanding of the system itself. One FAS game that already displays the concept of problem solving in a complex system is Immune Attack. Here the player has to understand the workings of the body's immune system, as well as some aspects of the circulatory system, in order to combat organisms that have the potential to do damage to the entire body.
Creative expression is very closely tied to play, and computer games are very sophisticated tools for creative expression. Through the device of a game, learning can be a product of the player's observation, analysis, and action, and often the players, even of the most narrowly defined learning games, will devise winning (i.e., learning) strategies and methods that are not intended by the original designer -- yet are still the result of a profound understanding, on the part of the player, of whatever science, skills, or area of expertise the designer intended to highlight.
One of the hallmarks of a typical computer game is this: there is one computer, one monitor, one chair, and (almost always) one user of these three things. So how might a computer game enhance social relationships? First, there is the oft-forgotten relationship between the user (in this case, a game player) and the designer. Even though not physically present, the designer, months or even years before, was obliged to create challenges for the player, and to attempt to guess at every conceivable decision and action that player would choose. The best games, no matter what the subject, are those in which the player feels that he or she is interacting with human characters, not with rigidly scripted avatars whose actions can always be predicted in advance. The longer this fantasy endures, the better the game design, and the more successful the game's ultimate purpose.
Computer games do, however, allow for far more realistic social relationships than this. Virtual worlds; massively multiplayer games, and even games which include just two players, all require the development of social skills to one degree or another, in order for the player to succeed in whatever goals have been set for the game. And because a player can literally interact with scores, or hundreds, of other real players without ever going outside his or her home, classroom, or office, in some ways it might even be argued that computer games can provide the ability to interact with others to a degree that might not otherwise always be possible.
Challenges to the Player to Prioritize among Competing Objectives
Computer games give the designer -- and therefore the teacher, and through the teacher, the student -- the ability to to set multiple objectives. The player, faced with more than one possible path through a game, is then obliged to choose that which seems most likely to lead to success. The designer can make these choices as obvious, or as obscure, as desired. One additional bonus that computer games can offer is the potential for objectives, and their relative priorities, to be changed on the fly, during a game session, or at the beginning of a new session. Choices that might have seemed easy, or obvious, in a previous game session can now be entirely different, do to the addition of new game objectives, or changes to other variables in the game's scenario.
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