Practice Makes Perfect

I am not yet done reflecting on #UoELTConf18. (Was that a groan I heard at the back?)

There was a great presentation by @Nicolvision & @philshe about their use of Minecraft in the MSc in Digital Education. They showed some beautiful examples of building from their students, of people taking a digital space and making it their own.

I was reminded of two things. First, I have recently gone through a phase of watching the Sim Supply on YouTube. I love watching how he builds these beautiful and complex creations through trial and error. Compare James’ behaviour in the 3×3 house-build and the ‘no mistakes’ house-build and you’ll see how he relies on experimentation and development. Basically, I’m a little in love with James as a learner, because he learns through play, and creates some fabulous things because of it.

In turn, this reminded me of a story I’ve seen passed around Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and other blue-themed social media of your choice. Here’s my rendition.

Once upon a time, in the land of apocrypha, there was a Professor of Pottery. Because TEF was coming in, and she worked at a Russell Group university that was expected to do poorly, she wondered what the best way was to teach her students. As everyone knows, these sort of things can only be discovered through controlled trials, and so at the start of the academic year, she split her class in two. She told Class A that their final grade would be based on a single pot, but it was the only pot they’d be allowed to produce. Their exam was one of quality. She told Class 1 (because she didn’t want to bias them into thinking they were the ‘b-group’) that their final grade would be based on quantity. The more pots they produced, the higher their grade. Quality was not important. At the end of the academic year, she looked over her class’s work, and found that Class A had spent hours, days, weeks, researching and studying and had produced some very nice pots. But the best pots were found in Class 1’s batch. Though they had started misshapen and lumpy, by the end of the year no amount of reading could make up for their experience throwing clay.

The Professor intended to write this up, but was informed that pedagogical papers were rarely REFable, and anyway some noisy bint at a conference pointed out she’d never gotten ethical clearance, so the paper was never published, and the story moved into legend and myth.

Despite my retelling, I actually really enjoy this story, and I think the message is a good one.

I work a lot with fellow academics and with students, and I would say the majority of them subscribe to Yoda’s philosophy of ‘do or do not, there is no try’. Give academics three sheets of A3 and a handful of coloured markers to work with and they will hastily scribble one page just before you send someone round to gather their work. I could not tell you why.

I think these digital spaces – particularly spaces like Minecraft – can be brilliant places to practice making a thousand pots. Because you can also destroy a thousand pots.

At the presentation there were two examples where a student had pushed Minecraft to its limits, and I recognise those experiences from being a gamer. Exploring what cannot be done, and understanding why those limits exist (and where, conversely, they don’t exist), is an oft-neglected part of learning in HE. Thinking just over the last month, I’ve steered at least two undergraduates away from research methodologies that have limits unknown to the students. That’s the right thing to do, because the research project is not the place to ‘break’ something, but I still think there’s great value to finding out how to ‘break’ things. And looking at what can still be done when something doesn’t work. 

Virtual worlds are a great way to play with the boundaries of rules. The very first Halo game had a glitch in the level Assault on the Control Room (here). By exploiting the geometry of the game, you can bypass a trigger to spawn enemies later in the level. The rest of the expansive level is then accessible, devoid of enemies to shoot. Whenever I build e-learning resources, and stack triggers on the user’s interactions, I think about the hours I spent exploring this empty level.

Good learning should create something new, but I think it also incorporates some level of destruction too. Even if only at a conceptual level, you need to break down what you used to know in order to construct your new knowledge. Trial and error doesn’t mean making a thousand pots, but trying to make a pot out of straw, and felt, and all sorts of other materials. I think learning will always be at its best at the boundaries, and virtual worlds are great places to push at those boundaries. 

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