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Edutainer or not

For a long time now I have been grappling with the expectation that I have to entertain my learners. I am being inundated with messages that I must make learning fun and if I don’t do this I have failed as an educator – even worse the message is that I am old-school and not considering the needs of my learners.

When I did my teacher training I remember a module I had to complete on ‘Teaching as performance’. I learnt many valuable skills about looking after my voice, being present, working the room, engaging with my audience and so on. This made sense to me when I was teaching in a contact situation. Yet I never once thought of this ‘teaching performance’ as being entertainment. I wanted my teaching to be authentic and real. I wanted my learners to be excited by learning and I knew I could influence this by the experience I created for them.

Making lessons as interactive as possible, using constructivist pedagogy doesn’t in my mind equate to entertainment. The focus is always on learning and how best we can enable this to happen for each learner. I accept that sometimes this can be reinforced through a game of some kind. Not all learners learn best in this way and so we always need to be mindful of this and provide options within the learning experience.

Things are very different when you work at distance with your learners. Traditionally it has involved sending out all the materials a learner needs to undertake their course of study. Direct interactions with learners tend to be fairly minimal and are generally very individually focused. The ‘performance’ aspect of teaching is completely irrelevant in this context unless I may have produced an audio, video or some other kind of mixed media product in which I actually feature. A distance educator is faced with inordinate challenges in relation to engaging with their learners and keeping them motivated to complete their studies because there are many other competing influences on their time and energy.

Online learning has brought a whole new range of possibilities to the distance learning experience. Collaborative learning and the ability to be able to engage socially are key aspects of this. Interactions between the learners and the ‘teacher’ are different here as well. Being able to create interesting online activities and the development of interactive games do play a role, yet I still believe the focus should always be on the learning experience and not on entertaining the learner. Each learning experience needs to be thought of in context and as part of the instructional design process all the possibilities need to be considered to create the best possible learning experience for the learner which includes having fun but this should not be the driving force behind the design nor the delivery.

I am all for provoking passion in my learners. I want to use all the latest technology tools to be able to create learning experiences which meet all the required learning objectives and more. I want my learners to have fun but most importantly I want them to go away asking questions, wanting to know more, excited about the possibilities and wanting to push the boundaries so that new knowledge is continued to be unearthed and shared.

But – yes, there is a but – I do not believe in using tools just for the sake of using them to create an entertaining experience or to just experiment with them. Everything needs to have a purpose and needs to be thought through carefully.

Learning is not about staying within our comfort zones. It is about pushing boundaries and looking at things with new eyes and in new ways. It is about being challenged. The aim is for us to be somehow different as a result of our experience. We want our minds and beings to have expanded through this process. We want to see development and growth occurring. As educators we share this journey and also change in the process.

Kathy Sierra writes about the need to be provocative:

“The secret is to be more provocative and interesting than anything else in their environment.”

If we want our users (members, guests, students, potential customers, kids, co-workers, etc.) to pay attention, we have to be provocative. We can moan all we want about how the responsible person should pay attention to what’s important rather than what’s compelling. But it’s not about responsibility or maturity. It’s not even about interest. It’s about the brain.

Remember, the brain and the conscious mind don’t always see neuron-to-neuron. The brain pays attention to survival of the species. No matter what the mind wants! If you want the mind’s attention, you can’t ignore the brain. In other words, you can’t assume that users will pay attention to what you say even when they’re genuinely interested. Unless, that is, you throw a bone to the brain as well. Or trick it.

Kathy suggests a number of ways that one can be provocative:

  • Be visual
  • Be different – Break patterns and expectations
  • Be daring
  • Change things regularly
  • Inspire curiosity
  • Pose a challenge
  • Be controversial and committed
  • Be fun
  • Be stimulating. Be exciting. Be seductive
  • Help them have Hi-Res Experiences

I thought about my role as an educator. Do I do these things? Do I need to do more of this? I wondered about how provocative I actually am as an educator. Exactly how provocative can I be as a distance educator working within the confines of an institution which requires me to do things in certain ways?

When I read this post by George Siemens I wanted to jump for joy.

I’m of mixed mind on the whole “who’s job is it to make sure the experience is engaging” in the learning experience. I appreciate the work and ideas of Kathy Sierra – her enthusiasm reflects in her writing. As an instructor, I provide only part of the motivation for learners – I am not an entertainer. While the onus is on me to be aware of how people learn (and how the human brain works), entertainment and education are different experiences, arising from different needs (and intentions). Despite all of the game-based hype…and talk of edutainmnet, I think we sometimes mistake that attributes don’t apply cleanly across different domains. A video game designer has different priorities (and objectives) than an instructional designer. Needs and intentions, not only an understanding of the mechanics of a situation, influence implementation. For example, we may know how combustion works for creating power in moving a car forward (the mechanics of the situation). Someone designing a sports car will put this knowledge to different use than someone designing a mini-van. The objectives influence how mechanics of a concept are implemented. A marketing director will use knowledge of the human brain differently than an instructor in a classroom.

It is great to know that someone out there thinks like I do. I am passionate about learning and I love the opportunities afforded to the learning process by technology. I want to be involved in changing the face of learning and creating experiences which are real and which impact on the lives of learners. However, in my wildest imagination I do not see my role as one of entertainer – I’ll leave that to others who are far more expert at this than I could ever be. At the same time I also believe learners need to have fun as they learn, but this is not totally my responsibility.

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