One of the paradoxes of serious academic research in the digital age is that as information becomes more readily and widely available, it becomes harder for untrained readers to find high-quality, trustworthy information, and to tell the difference between the good and bad. “The Internet” is not an undifferentiated mass of equally good information – you can read about a medical condition on Wikipedia or in the Lancet, but you wouldn’t want to go to a doctor who didn’t understand why one is a better source than the other.
What makes a source credible? What makes it scholarly? What’s the difference between citing an article in Sports Illustrated
and one in Sports medicine
? As some thoughtful teachers of undergraduates
are reporting, many students don’t come to college equipped with the ability to make these determinations.
A research team at the University of Michigan Institute of Museum and Library Studies has developed a new approach to teaching these skills: an online, social game called BiblioBouts.
The game is designed to be used in undergraduate courses where students are learning library and online research skills. In essence, it is an augmented reality experience (albeit a visually low-fi one) built on top of the real-world problem of finding, assessing, and citing sources for a research question. Players use whatever discipline-specific search engines are at their disposal to accumulate these sources, which they then contribute to a class bibliography using Zotero
, the open-source citation management plug-in to Firefox. In following rounds of the game, players assign values to each of the sources contributed by the group based on completeness and accuracy of citation and the credibility of the source. A player earns points both by contributing valuable sources and by ranking other players’ sources. By the end of the game, players have not only developed firsthand experience using the same discipline-specific search resources that will be useful to them in future research projects, but have an exportable, working bibliography for their real-world project.
Another reason I call this an augmented reality experience is that there are several decidedly un-game-like aspects to the game play. First, it is designed to take place in real time with the research experience, taking place over several days or even weeks. This means that the delay can be long between input and result, while you wait for your classmates to rate your contributions. Second, the entire scoring system, in fact, is rather unique – the game itself has no way of measuring the value of sources, so a player’s score, and the quality of feedback he or she gets, is determined entirely by the other players in their game. Since the game was designed to be used by classes led by a faculty expert, there is presumably some expectation of control or guidance built in.
Still, there are enough aspects of a game-like reward system to motivate students. Players are awarded badges as they progress through the game, for example, and a high-score leaderboard shows real-time updates of players’ standing. I think the social game design strikes an interesting balance between collaboration (all students, in the end, are working toward developing a shared bibliography which can be downloaded and used for their real-world research) and competition (students gain points for finding more, or better, sources than their classmates). In fact, I think the balance between these two aspects is a fair replication of the way this dynamic plays out in the real world of academic research.
Admittedly, the BiblioBouts experience could be far smoother and game-like. Users are currently required to register and log in to the game and to Zotero separately. While this does have the benefit of setting students up with Zotero accounts that they will hopefully continue to use during throughout their academic careers, I wonder if they couldn’t manage a single sign-on process. I also think that, to appeal to a generation of students who have grown up fluent in the genre of commercial video games, making the visual and audio interface more dynamic could bring real benefits. In fairness to the BiblioBouts team, the game is still in beta development and is clearly a project designed by (and for) academic researchers rather than game designers or casual gamers. Nonetheless, a successful educational game still has to have a successful game experience at its center. If the pilot BiblioBouts project proves successful, I’d love to see what this research team could do with the assistance of dedicated graphic, sound, and Flash developers to give this very innovative pedagogical design the game design treatment it deserves.
BiblioBouts logins for classes are currently available only by request. Contact the Bibliobouts team directly via e-mail [info (at) bilbiobouts (dot) org] or follow them on Twitter [@bibliobouts
] for updates about research findings and release schedule.