Thursday, March 31, 2011

Into the Machinarium

Teaching is an art, and often practised in a vacuum. Practitioners spend much of their day with students, and the opportunities to share technique can be few and far between. This is a gross generalisation I know, some schools are much better at ensuring that there is some cross pollination of experience than others. That isolation however can be a good thing too, teachers often have the freedom to experiment and explore new ways of engaging their students, as it should be.
Online there's a lot of hum drum instructional practice, but many working in education are leveraging new technologies and new approaches to engagement online to better enhance best practice. It's a bit of a mixed bag at present, and I think we are currently at a crossroads of sorts. As those of us that are keenly interested in online learning strive to explore new ways of teaching and learning online, as new technologies develop to feed an insatiable appetite, we will continue to make advances.
But lets shift focus for a moment, and reflect on gaming. It's relevant, I promise you!  Not so many years ago, Amanita developed their third title in a series of unique games, Machinarium. Haunting, beautiful music accompanies an engaging narrative that drives a point and click game for PC and Mac like no other.
As video game titles have risen to outstrip the biggest of block buster movies in returns, their production quality and content have been equally pushed to the limit over the last few years. Each new game that appears on the shelves pushes new boundaries in design, scope and involvement. Narrative has taken an equally large leap, with gaming taking story and engagement online to new heights ... and yet there is increasingly a certain sameness about so much of what is developed.
Unique approaches to world building are out there, certainly and Amanita is one company that have achieved something special in this field. Their games are pieces of living art, and though the stories are not complex, their characters draw us to them. Having played Machinarium recently with the kids,  I have once again been quietly impressed by the wonderful imaginations of these developers. Machinarium shows you don't have to push the boundaries in graphics displays, you just have to create something beautiful and engaging with a story that sustains you and characters you care about.
Anamita's products have caused me to rethink approaches to online learning lately too. We're currently making great advances, trying new things. Increasingly however, large swathes of schools are adopting very functional LMS systems of one kind or another, and it makes me wonder whether in the not so distant future, many teachers will be lumped with a one size fits all solution for online learning. Why can't teaching online have the same beauty, influence and daring as Amanita's products? Online learning experiences don't just have to be purely functional, they can be beautiful and moving experiences as well.
As long as there are teachers, online or offline, there will be unique and dynamic approaches to learning. My concern, is that when equal parts of teaching are guided by LMS systems that are functional in design and purpose, some of that teaching craft bleeds away. We are all guided by design, particularly online. Our actions and behaviours are  significantly shaped by the tools we use, and we need to be more aware of the influence of design in our teaching and learning.
At the moment, we're at a crossroads I feel, and before we find too many schools and teachers burdened by an obligation to fit within the limited scope of so many LMS systems, we need to show teachers and students that there are alternatives.