At SXSWedu I went to a lot of sessions. A lot of panels. A lot of meetups. I heard a bunch of great ideas and learned a ton of new things, which I’ve come to accept as par for the course at an education conference. But there was one session I wasn’t prepared for: an immersive role-playing game run by the Reacting Consortium. The Consortium is an alliance of colleges, universities, and educators working to change the way history is taught. In our role-playing game we set out to learn about the Spartan attack on Athens in the days of Ancient Greece. Upon arrival, we were each given character sheets with a simple set of instructions, some background information, and our main goals. We dispersed into our relevant factions, and proceeded to role-play Athenians trying to decide what to do about the impending Spartan invasion. We planned, we debated, and we fought bitterly. My ‘Save Democracy’ faction even went so far as to attempt the assassination of one of our rivals, and my ‘son’ was exiled in the process. It was an extremely engaging and affecting experience and even now, months later, it is the part of the conference I remember best.
After the session I spoke with Dan LaSota, a fellow democracy supporter from the University of Alaska Fairbanks about our experience. The first thing that stood out to him was the contrast with a traditional classroom. He imagined himself as a typical student in a typical lecture learning the same material. “You just hear someone tell you this story and maybe there’s some dates or a PowerPoint slide. And I think of my mind just shriveling up and drying away.” In comparison, he says, “The motivation in this experience is off the charts.” We had characters and goals. We had the threat of starvation and being hacked to pieces to try to avoid. We had motivation to learn about the characters around us. Who were our enemies? Who were our allies? What did the citizens of Athens want? In a school environment, students would read about the historical context and prepare for weeks in advance and get an even richer experience than we did.
But history isn’t the only subject that could benefit from these immersive exercises. Some people wanted to surrender, some wanted to fight, and others wanted to wait it out. The discussion that followed was a lesson on debate, philosophy, and politics in addition to the lesson on history. Dan also suggested adapting the activity for studying literature like Shakespeare. The added immersion could allow students to understand the motivations of the characters on a deeper level.
The use of immersive exercises even has applications to current events. The University of Alaska Fairbanks developed an immersive exercise for salmon fishery management by assigning students to research and prepare for roles like state fishery representatives that deal with regulations, commercial fishermen, or recreational fishers. The activity saw huge improvement in student engagement and increased understanding of the conflicting perspectives on the issue. Having a win-loss scenario in their mind, rather than reading about the issues or hearing about the issues, encouraged students to draw on all the bits of information they’ve taken from a class and their research in order to ‘win’ the exercise. When I looked around the room during the exercise at SXSWedu, the impact of the format was immediately apparent. Everyone was completely engaged in the moment. Not a single person was on their phone! In an age where technology is often heralded as the answer to every education problem, where conference delegates are constantly checking email or twitter, this session showed us another way to go. The Reacting Consortium effectively demonstrated the viability for a completely analog approach to education.
Dan did notice one drawback to this approach: “We can’t fit 300 people into a game like this; it’s not scalable.” But he also had an easy solution: “We need to train more instructors.” With an increasing number of practitioners adopting this approach, we can help the next generation learn without reaching for their iPads.
By Kate Salmon
Kate Salmon (@CSCKate) is a Communications Specialist and general word nerd from Ottawa, Ontario. With a BA in Rhetoric and Professional Writing from the University of Waterloo, she continues her learning journey at Learnography with a great team of former educators who are dedicated to creating transformative learning experiences. She lives in Toronto with her very fat cat.