3rd Spaces, Games and Online Learning Community

This afternoon I attended the third (or possibly forth) ENGAGE lunch this semester. At these lunches we gather the faculty that have received grants to build games with our group as well as all the ENGAGE support staff. Demos are done, design challenges are discussed and sometimes small talks are done by one of our staff or an outside voice. Today the main speaker was Constance Steinkuehler.

There were a couple of interesting topics that came up in her presentation about social learning spaces that are manifested in video games. The thing that most inspired me was the discussion about 3rd Spaces.

3rd Spaces are informal social gathering grounds that are not work or home (1st and 2nd spaces). A number of years back, the catacombs coffee shop on Library mall was a place like this to me. I would drop in between classes and chat with people I knew as well as have chit chat with people I didn’t know at all. These days, I’m not quite sure if I frequent a place that falls in this category.

Constance’s stance was that MMOGs are a third space in our contemporary culture. In games like WoW, players gather together and meet one another. They play, chat, learn and teach in a space outside of home, school or work. Meaningful dialog and relationships occur here, identity is formed here, people find community here, all despite the fact that it is taking place on a computer monitor.

One of the things I have been picking up on throughout my academic work is that a growing amount of people believe that the university as we know it is a pretty lousy place to learn. For many, a class is simply a means to an end, a way to fulfill some requirement for a degree. Is it even possible to learn something you don’t care about? In addition, students are often put in relational silos in each of their classes, working alone except for rarely utilized office hours. Collaboration is often minimal, while individual reading, listening and homework dominate the time spent for a class. Content is decontextualized from meaningful practice or a community. Courses are the ruling organizational unit above all else and then they dissolve every 16 weeks. One thing I’m sure of: Things learned outside of practice, interest or community fade away at a blistering pace.

I for one have been fascinated by the concept of an online learning community. A community of this sort, say a group of users from all over the world that participate in fandom or political discourse, organizes itself around an interesting common trait, exchanging dialog and relationship in a technology mediated format. What I see today is that whether it be video gaming, digg, or your friend list on facebook, these 3rd spaces play a large part in our education. We may even learn more about what we really think the universe is like in these informal environments than anywhere else.

I do.

In these separate spaces, the rules change. The awkward become leaders and the powerful become noobs. It doesn’t matter that you have a PhD or make a lot of money. The effects of this equalizing are likely impossible to measure and I’m sure the effects are not always positive. However, the interactions that take place give us things to consider as we think about the teaching and learning processes that we do facilitate in our traditional courses.

That all said, I feel like I have one more reason to explore the development of games in context of the class. While the university structure is too mammoth to change from the top down, I can at least allow the benefits of informal learning, 3rd spaces, fun and community to make their way into the individual courses I work with. We might even succeed in changing our own view of education along the way and have a good time doing it together.

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