Learning events and learning networks


My advisor recently shared with me the idea of a “learning event,” and I’ve become interested in the idea. Learning events are an interesting way of bounding all the things that go into teaching and learning: the people, places, content, actions and so on. Learning events seem to cover a lot of ground in terms of describing the complexity of teaching and learning. Here I want to focus less on the various specific elements but how those elements work together, and how those events span across time and other learning events to form a network of learning. It is worth returning to these specific elements in the future; for now, I’ll simply recognize that there is a lot happening in a single learning event.

Learning is not isolated, but is part of previous experiences, grounded in prior beliefs, and depends greatly on who is doing the learning and when it occurs. To steal a phrase from Gombrich, there is no such thing as an “innocent” mind. All of the learning we do occurs in relation to all other learning we’ve encountered previously; even novel ideas or processes or concepts are filtered through the metaphors we have already created to make the world meaningful (i.e. what we’ve learned about the world). So bounding learning to a single event might be problematic. However, understanding that learning is a network of other connections and relationships might help make both the boundaries of the learning event more apparent and more useful.

Learning events and learning networks in a game

For example, in the very early part of Batman: Arkham Asylum (the tutorial) I am tasked with fighting a few thugs. The game tells me to press “X” to punch. I do, and beat up the thugs, then move on to another instruction (“B” to block or whatever). The “’X’-to- punch” is a learning event: I had a specific task (press the “X” button) and a goal (press the button successfully a few times to beat up the enemies). There is an optimal outcome (also a win/lose state ) of beating up the thugs, one which I must complete before progressing. I am assessed on my performance (I cannot progress without completing the task), and my play depends on me completing this action. If I do so, I move on to the next section; I have successfully “learned” how to punch. I will (for now) willfully ignore the fact that I can “mushfake” through this (that is, I can just haphazardly hit buttons and chance upon a successful solution). Games might allow this to an extent; this example is a pretty simple task and I could easily fake my way through it. I will likely be punished later, however, when I must successfully perform the task in a meaningful, intentional way.

This action (press “X” to defeat thugs successfully) might be quantified as a learning event. But it is part of something more—indeed, several other things. First, it calls upon my knowledge of pressing buttons on the Xbox controller. This in turn calls into my ability to decode the instruction (both game literacy and textual literacy). It calls into play my physical dexterity and capacity to time my punches correctly. It calls on my foreknowledge of various systems and knowledges. It also calls on my knowledge of Batman (or at least what I might be able to infer about Batman) so that I know that he’s “supposed” to be punching people and why (I understand the context for my actions). The game does cue me into this, of course, but it makes more sense if I can call on this previous knowledge.

It also is a part of a larger learning network based around the game. Punching some enemy is a core mechanic for the game (combat). I will need to call on it—in conjunction with other mechanics—at future points in the game to succeed. To get to the larger learning event of the game (the story?), I’ll need to first learn this thing.  For example, later in the game I face a “boss” enemy, Poison Ivy. The fight uses several different techniques/strategies throughout the encounter. First, I must dodge fireballs from Poison Ivy. I must also dodge her ground attack. She spawns groups of thugs that I need to eliminate (while simultaneously dodging her attacks). I must also damage her with my Batarang. I need to repeat this process several times. There are other elements at play as well, but for now I will stick with this rough outline. Diagraming the fight might look something like this:


Poison Ivy fight = [Fighting (punching + Batarang) + dodging (rolling + strategic placement)] x 5 repetitions


This is a rather complicated fight, but I’ve had lots of practice with these various tactics leading up to the boss. I’ve practiced them in isolation (like in the tutorial); I’ve learned new skills and abilities as I’ve progressed (I unlock new weapons and techniques), and I’ve gotten into the “flow” of combat. The fight calls on all of this various learning (learning how to punch, how to dodge, how to string them together for a specific strategy etc.) in order to get to the “larger” goal/learning event (i.e. the game proper).

These learning events might be considered a tiered structure: punching someone (micro level); combat in general (semi-micro level?); game itself (macro level); combat games/games in general (meta level?), and on likely much further (games < digital media < human artefact etc.). It is part of a larger network of “learnings” that make up successfully playing the game. It calls on outside knowledge, it prepares me for future action, and it helps me understand the current goals and actions I am about to undertake.

Learning networks call on my outside knowledge, prepares me for future action, and help me understand the current goals and actions I am about to undertake.

Now, games (mostly) do a good job of “filling in the gaps” in prior knowledges. I don’t necessarily need to know about Batman to play the game—it makes it pretty clear that I am this character, I have people attacking me, I have the ability to fight etc. I can learn enough about Batman (more or less) to act successfully. Similarly, I don’t “need” to know about button pushing in general—the game gives me prompts to get me to make that connection (to learn it). There is some benefit to knowing it already; for speed’s sake, I don’t need to decode, think and align the sign with the intended action. I can be more efficient with access to my prior knowledge. But the game gives a clear enough sign for those unfamiliar with the “meaning” that they can succeed.  Games do this pretty well; being familiar with the convention simply helps do it more readily.

Not just learning but teaching networks

What does this have to do with teaching? Well, it certainly demonstrates the importance of understanding prior knowledge when designing any teaching activities. Teachers must account for what learners bring to the event. It also shows that they need to account for things that learners need but may not already have (in terms of enthymematic features—things they might be assumed to know but don’t). They must design in a way which provides opportunities for both kinds of learners (those “primed” for the event and those who have less context) to be successful without alienating them. At least, this holds true for “mass” teaching kinds of materials (games, books, lessons, etc.). Individualized learning elements might be tailored specifically to the learner (though a teacher must still take into account that specific learner’s prior knowledge in order to tailor it successfully).

It also means that teachers themselves are part of the network of learning events; they are “shapers” of the event in some sense since they provide the specific frames of in-network and extra-network learning elements. They might determine (or at least emphasize) what is important, what the learning goals and context is. Maybe not, though—what say do learners have in shaping this content or structure? Is this the heart of the formal/informal relationship? Control over the course of the learning?

It also shows that there is some need for an organizing metaphor for this. I’ve used the term “learning network” to describe it. That term is a bit over-used or under-specific, but I intend “network” to mean the relationships between elements at the micro- and macro-level. I also think there is a relationship between degree or strength of connection. Ties to elements that are important, possibly outside of the specific event, or prior knowledge might be “thin” or “weak” connections (following Judith Donath’s and danah boyd’s work, among others). Specific elements within the context of the learning event might be “thick” or “strong” connections.

In the example of Batman: Arkham Asylum I described previously, I need to press “X” to punch the thug in order to get to the next part of the game. The “learning” of the goal and the process to get there is a core part of the game; I cannot pass this point without successfully completing the task at hand. Thus, my learning of the correct use of the button (the mechanic) and the act of beating up the thug (the concept) is a thick/strong connection to the “learning” of the game. I need to know it. Now, since I have played lots of other games, I am familiar with the conventions of button-pressing to complete an action. That connection (for me) is a thin/weak connection; I can call on it but prior knowledge isn’t absolutely necessary (the game will “teach” it to me).

How does this relate to the designers/teachers as actors in the network? I suppose they are thick/strong connections (they create most of the elements, they organize it, assign some intended outcome, control how they pass/fail test is registered etc.). They are certainly crucial. I don’t necessarily interact with them directly—the game is the medium for our interactions. I don’t really know where I’m going with this, though. More to work on…

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