A Convincing Vision

Downes, S. (2010). New Technology Supporting Informal Learning. Journal of Emerging Technologies in Web Intelligence 2(1). pp. 27-33. Retrieved March 13, 2010 from

Downes considers the intersection of games and social networks and examines the implications for the design of future learning environments. His initial argument—that games and simulations represent episodic events—is based on an accurate view of games as rule-bound (see Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E. (2003). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. The MIT Press.) However, Downes’ contention that games are, “static” and “consequently, they represent a separation” (p. 27) between the game environment and real life ignores two crucial concepts:

  1. Multi-player games are indeed rule-based, but they can scarcely be called static. Every episode is completely different, depending on which players are involved in the episode.
  2. Games must be separated from real life. Otherwise, the games would be real life.

However, elaboration provides the context for his arguments: Downes is considering single-player games. For example,

  • he pleads for a gaming environment that includes conversation among friends: to see this in action, observe any teenager playing Halo 3 on Xbox Live.
  • he views situations and facts as fluid and wants this fluidity reflected in games; to see this in action, observe a Counter-Strike mod in which trout, for example, have replaced AK-47’s as the weapon of choice.

While Downes acknowledges a legitimate skepticism about the emergence of a “net generation,” he argues for the adoption of informal learning in which students, “make their own learning decisions” (p. 28). This approach has proven successful for self-directed learners, but ultimately, learners must participate in a CoP (faculty-directed or community-derived) which builds the curriculum, constructs the assessment, and determines expertise. Downes argues that interaction will address this requirement through the integration of social network systems. However, his depiction of an SNS as solely the capacity to create links between members ignores boyd’s definition that also includes an ego object (profile) and an articulated list of links. In addition, Downes’ argument that SNS’s represent a decentralization of content and contact ignores the Pew research that shows most SNS’s replicate real life interactions: your SNS friends are also your physical friends.

The exploration of current implementations of this intersection is sketchy. The single example provided, Downes’ own course, comes off as somewhat self-serving. While the course certainly offers an example of a self-directed course, the game-like aspect seems vague unless the creation of a PLE by each student serves as both the simulation and the assessment artifact. Missing from the exploration are at least two successful implementations of the same design:

  1. Adventure learning in which SNS activities (real-time chats and asynchronous interactions with the adventuring scientists) have engaged millions of Minnesota students is a prime example, In AL, the simulation is authentic, although experienced second-hand through conversations with the adventurers who serve as avatars for the students.
  2. Shaffer’s Journalism simulation (see Shaffer, D. (2006). How Computer Games Help Children Learn. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Chapter 4) involves students in a CoP where the simulation is authentic and physical rather than contrived and digital. Curiously, Shaffer’s work with epistemic games is not cited.

While the Connectivism course is touted as an exemplar of PLE creation, one set of numbers suggests otherwise: out of 2,200 students who signed up, 170 created blogs. Unless that number is a typographical error, 8% participation seems to suggest the opposite of active engagement. In addition, at times Downes seems to slip back into the academic mold he eschews. He writes that, “Students would be evaluated…on the basis of” (p. 30) while informal learning demands that the community itself determine the basis of assessment.

Downes’ future seems to offer greater insight into the use of PLE’s rather than the original proposition to integrate games and social networks. His recommendation to use blog posts as the course content is a specific and practical application, although in one sense, each post represents the episodic approach he disdains. This suggests a larger question: perhaps every learning event is an episode, a view which seems to echo Merrill’s component display theory of learning as a personal instructional event. This discrete view may be inherent in Downes’ depiction of a PLE as, “a node at the centre of (each individual’s) network” (p. 30). His original contention that games “support only episodic learning” (p. 29) thus recedes into the background of inconsequence. Downes proposes a model built on learning episodes that allow interactions to emerge around the episodes; these episodes adapt based on the conversations. Downes’ proposed implementation—a network of PLE’s creating a learning network—is one possible path: individual students are represented by their PLE’s and episodic content (in the form of course episodes represented by readings or games) are created and injected into the network by faculty. The course episodes provide an internal logic and structure to the instructional design, while the community provides the interaction and adaptation to create an organic learning network. With this metaphor, and despite the minor failures, Downes thus provides a convincing vision.


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