The Complete Interview: Dr. Tom Benjamin

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To finish our series Adventures in Gamification, we had a special surprise for you – Dr. Tom Benjamin, who teaches the Gamification in Education course on OpenLearning,  had kindly agreed to participate in an interview with Accredible to discuss Gamification, MOOCs and his future plans.  By the time we were finished, we had so much great material that it was hard to pick and choose what to share! As a student of his course, I was fascinated by his answers.  I couldn’t put down the notes as they were sent back and forth!  As a writer, I had so much good information, I hardly knew where to begin!  After I finished the initial article, I felt compelled to share the entire interview with you.  Without further ado, here it is.

Accredible (A):  Thank you for taking the time to chat with us today.  Could you tell us a bit about yourself – your education, any interests or  anything fun you might like to share?

Tom Benjamin (TB): I graduated from University of Michigan in Psychology then did an MBA at Michigan State. I was a late starter in sport, playing water polo for MSU and Sydney U while in grad school. I moved to Australia where I’ve worked as a psychologist and researcher. Although I did some casual school teaching in Detroit I’ve mainly taught & researched at tertiary level across a number of disciplines including economics, IT, and demography.

Music is intrinsic to development of my game research. My Detroit music career was best described as a frat party and wedding singer. Although I went on to academia some of our old rock band members continued on in the entertainment sector. This article explains our early experiences with multimedia.  We were the first generation of kids with access to electronic gear. With our paper route money we bought stereo recorders and the same mics and amps as the Beatles!

Karaoke, campfire singing, and blues jamming have many properties of gamification. Our local Rising Star karaoke was #1 in Australia and they allowed me to test out my multitracks with a live audience. Often someone would hear one of my public domain songs and ask if it was “an 80s song”. I nodded without telling them that it was actually 1880s.

My MOOC participants will recognize in karaoke gamified elements of competition and unpredictability. Capability to change pitch of the song to fit a comfortable key is a huge leveller. You could sing anything from bass to soprano with a push of the button. And you get intermittent reinforcement as with a 10,000 song list you’re bound to kiss a few frogs before finding the songs that fit you like a glass slipper.

An old college buddy from Detroit emailed me to ask about a guitar system I had developed years before. I literally dusted it off from the shed (where it resided on an ancient Mac). I sent it to a Professor of Music in a bundle of educational resources I was developing. He spotted the guitar system and, in his role as Editor, asked me to publish it via the Australian Music Association. Some months later it went up as the ‘Instant Play’ system.

The music education system embodies many of the principles that I’ve applied to gamification such as reduction of cognitive load, intermittent reinforcement, controlled unpredictability, and heavy use of multimedia. I’ll probably run some online courses around this system. It’s pretty revolutionary as you can not only be playing useful music in 10 minutes by ear with 1 finger, it’s that easy that you could be teaching the next guy a few minutes later.

So the courses have allowed me to tie all of these interests together.

A: What was it about Gamification that captured your attention? When? How did you first use gamification in an educational setting?

TB: I was working in the hospitals as a psychologist in acute neurological and psychiatric wards. These folks had the same needs for recreation and exercize as before their accidents but it was a bit more difficult now that they were paralyzed or otherwise disabled. So I could see the potential for computer game-based interactive tools. These had advantages over human therapists as they were infinitely patient and there was never an ego problem. It is embarrassing to be waited on hand and foot in a hospital and have to say ‘thanks’ all day for the simplest acts you can no longer do for yourself. Most people welcome a chance to do something on their own and have a machine they can control, interact with, and yell at. So we developed some physical games like the hanging ball, described in my course.

I kept up music interest as ‘music therapy’ while working in the hospitals and these influenced my subsequent gamification principles, particularly the OrffSchulwerk approach, with its restricted set of notes that eliminated discords, hence fear of failure.

The digital era gave my music a new lease on life with multitracking allowing me to do the whole studio gig from a coffee table. For example, this version was done over a lunch hour with digital piano and myself multitracking with a podcast mic the backing choir vocals and lead. Colorize an old B&W public domain movie and presto.  I show students how to do this sort of thing in my courses.

From my clinical psychology masters’ thesis I published papers on the psychometric properties of games. Several careers later our state education department appointed me as the Senior Researcher for the Centre for Learning Innovation. They asked me to explore applications of video games. My early finding was that the multimedia may have accounted for as much of the engagement as the actual game properties (chance, competition etc) so I put my music background to good use in exploring the capabilities of multimedia, which was only just becoming affordable. I bought a studio.

A: Is Gamification a new fad or a new twist on something that has long been used in the classroom?

TB: Games in classrooms and rehabilitation centres had been traditional. However, the psychometric properties of games were somewhat new at the time and they remain controversial. How would parents feel if Johnny failed on a ‘game’ version of a test and didn’t get into med school? Duck and cover.
My early research in hospitals sought to bridge the psychometrics between ‘task’ and ‘game’. Were there principles by which any tasks could be transformed into games? Could drills be gamified so that patients would find them more fun? Could games, despite their chance element, replace psychometric and academic tests?

A: Why do you think we pay so much attention to the concept of gamification today? People seem to be embracing this idea, like it is a saviour for the classroom – is it? Or is it just another tool that should be used when the situation calls for it?

TB: What has changed since Grandma’s day is the price/capacity of computers and multimedia. No one had predicted that we would be able to run our own international radio, movie, TV networks from a coffee table. So while the psychological principles of games remain the same as ever, the costs of delivery have changed. So even if games can’t equal direct instruction methods they have some logistical advantages.

A: Any advice for teachers wanting to use elements of gamification in their classroom?

TB: Most are probably using elements of gamification in their classroom already. I still treasure my dictionary I won in the class Spelling Bee at Washington Elementary School. The Bee had plenty of game elements of unpredictability and competition.

My personal advice is not to feel guilty and not to get sucked into the black holes of multimedia and the latest techno-bandwagon fads. You can spend countless hours downloading and installing software, let alone learning it. I do. And teachers often end up doing this unpaid (and unthanked) at home. So I’ve always recommended setting up a multimedia club or lab rather than trying to do all this admin yourself.
And there is no proof that the latest whiz-bang software enhances student learning. The grey thing between the students’ ears is what we’re developing. So if you prefer or find it easier to do that with old-fashioned paper flash cards from grandma’s day, rest easy until someone shows an actual controlled study that proves you’re missing out. And don’t hold your breath waiting.

My courses only claim to show you how to do things ‘quicker, simpler and cheaper’, not ‘better’.

A: How about for parents who want to use gamification as a method of incentives for their children?

TB: We knew for centuries that a lot of learning takes place out of school. And the success of commercial games speaks for itself. Little kids would not likely spend hours reading off quiz questions to each other at home or doing mortgage & probability calculations. But toss in some rules and dice and call it Trivial Pursuit or Monopoly and they’ll spend hours.

So this is nothing new. Games are a traditional teaching & learning tool. Although direct instruction is the proven superior way of presenting information, there are only so many hours in a day and in a human concentration span, so games have long been a welcome alternative to drill and listening. The big error by some game enthusiasts has been to extrapolate Pentagon-level war games down to primary schools. The market failure of edu-games ought to have been a warning against this.

A: Do you think gamification works in the workplace?

TB: Workplace training is partly about politics. Adults can easily be insulted by having to do inane ‘professional development’ or ‘protection certification’ courses. Dressing up an inane hated exercize with a game version is like putting spice on rotten meat. That was my point about ‘eating your own dog food’.
However, there is a long tradition of using simulations for risky or expensive learning such as pilot training or surgery. Unleashing trainees on these things in the real world can kill people. A plane crash can wreck a suburb.

To the extent that a flight or surgical simulation has interaction and unpredictability it could be termed a ‘game’.

A: What drew you to MOOCs?

TB: I worked at University of NSW in Sydney where we had one of the largest distance education courses in Australia. We sent reams of paper materials to our international students. I introduced the use of digital technology, including CD and Web. There was initial resistance but it soon took over as the dominant format.
Later, at the Department of Education’s Centre for Learning Innovation, I had a number of internal departmental channels to promote my innovations to our 50,000 state system teachers but they are very busy bees and it was quite hard to get take-up on resources.

So I turned to external public avenues. For example I presented at international conferences and did video and podcasts for the International Year of Astronomy, online games through the Tournament of Minds, the music system through the Australian Music Association, gamification via Classroom Aid, forensic psychology through the Australian Psychological Society, maths and spreadsheets through an international Excel guru …etc. indeed, just like we’re doing now through Accredible.

I found OpenLearning which emanated from my University of NSW alma mater, contacted them, and they were very helpful in setting up my free MOOCs. I’m particularly grateful given that my current courses have no revenue I can pass on to them. So maybe one day we’ll do some commercial courses.

A: What role do you think MOOCs play in education? Are they the disruptor of education as they have been labelled?

TB: Disruptive Innovation is among the most-misquoted terms at the moment. The classical example was the motorcar which took a while to outperform the horse cart then improved exponentially, eventually making the horse obsolete. The same was projected for the impact of radio and TV in the classroom but the impact was more at home, where kids were exposed to the same news and material as our parents, often far in advance of what we were learning in the classroom.

The casualization of the academic workforce and cost-cuts probably contributed to the initial over-the-top enthusiasm leading to the online education and MOOC bubble bursts.

One of the huge looming issues is the descent to the low denominator of free courses. Kids are growing up expecting free software and education. But it isn’t really a ‘free lunch’. Many app-developers hope to get paid consulting work so it’s more advertising than charity.

I’ve been happy and able to offer my courses for free only because the government had paid me over many decades to do research, so some of it was my paid duty and I avoided conflict of interest. However, part of the cost was borne by my family life. My wife didn’t always appreciate trying to get my attention through my ever-present headphones. And I suspect many app-developers are in a similar situation.

Other big remaining issues revolve around administration and certification more than content. For example, I often purchase a CD rom education series that is as informative as any live university lecture I ever attended (and I’ve been to decades of them). And I don’t need interactivity as I’m not likely to challenge these professors on topics like Viking History or Black Holes so don’t need student interaction. This is pure learning.
But all changes when I need a piece of paper. I’m forced to spend hours biting my tongue and muttering through some dreary tome to get the dreaded ‘professional development’ points I need for certification. Whether I learn anything is irrelevant. Sometimes I know the ‘information’ to be dead wrong. But I need that damned piece of paper.

Indeed, I don’t at the moment mark assignments on my own MOOCs. Participants can say anything they like, even if I fall on the floor laughing so hard I bite the chair at the answers. I rely on the social media element. Hopefully, they will see others’ answers and think again. For me to mark & grade assignments and by implication fail some students opens up a huge number of issues. There is no way I would attempt such with a free course. My own costs and indemnity would rise exponentially and I would have to charge fees just like any conventional institution.

So the short answer is that the information element has already been disrupted. I couldn’t even dream of offering these courses without the massive heavy lifting subsidy from OpenLearning and YouTube. We can put up post-grad quality material limited now only by our time investment.

What may not be disrupted will be the administrative and social elements of tertiary education. Primary and high school levels will be even less susceptible to disruption as students there actually need to learn skills to a Piagetian timetable so they don’t fall behind. And direct instruction was essential to me as a kid. I would still welcome it as an adult so I didn’t waste countless hours ‘discovery learning’ software with no manuals.
As an adult, If I forget who Harold Bluetooth the Viking was or why it matters that black holes rotate, who cares? But it could matter if I were an academic in those fields.

So the learning per se is no longer the issue. It is the context.

A: Or are MOOCs a method of regaining public interest in education, a sense of community with like -minded individuals, an opportunity to share ideas in a safe environment that many adults find missing in their workplace?

TB: Some years ago my wife and I put our collective interests up as an e-Chautauqua in recognition of the early 20th Century’s pioneering forms of adult education. We realized that we were covering many of the topics that used to draw people in their Ford Model-Ts to tents around the USA: astronomy, music, reform, philosophy. The MOOCs seem to be tapping much the same general public interests.

What I had been trying to do in the Education department was to show teachers that they could now make their own international e-chautauqua’s with ‘educational documentaries’. The money and time investment was reaching affordable levels. For example, they say that Ken Burns took longer to make his Civil War series than it took my great granddad to fight it (hence the flag puzzle in the movie in my Gamification course), but I was able to make a Ken Burns style Civil War documentary with a podcast mike and netbook  and many more. Each year it gets cheaper and easier.

These sorts of educational resources can be as you say “an opportunity to share ideas in a safe environment”. Safety requires removal of threat. Courses you can’t ‘fail’ are one way. Social media with identified people, rather than anonymous trolls, is another safety mechanism.

A: Do you plan on offering any additional MOOCs in the future? If so, can you share a little hint about the future classes?

TB: I want to expand the MOOC offerings so they are better integrated. My next series will be Personal Branding. It will expand on the multimedia resources I’ve started to put together under the Neuropsychotherapy course, which is aimed at therapists. Branding is useful to job seekers, businesses, community groups with a ‘cause’, and anyone wanting a web presence.

I’ve called the whole venture the Multimedia Institute of Technology. The bulk of it will be free courses. However, if there is demand, I’ll develop commercial versions. For starters, if people want contemporary examples of audio-visual content instead of the ancient public domain material I rely on at present I will have to shell out $thousands up-front. Add marking and the paperwork of accreditation and we’re soon in the same expense league as conventional institutions.

So I’m investigating liaison with software vendors so I can offer my little niche better value for money than traditional institutions. For example, there are many upmarket ‘industry-standard’ tertiary multimedia courses where you pay $thousands and they let you play with their 56-channel mixing desks, TV studios, and other ‘state of the art’ gear. But when you leave the course, do you get to take the gear with you? Or just a piece of paper and a head full of skills? What I hope to do is make sure you walk away from my commercial courses with tangible software and simple methods you can implement immediately with low time and money budget.
The music system will be embedded in the larger multi-media context but could take on a life of its own as there are many people on this planet who probably wish they could have learned guitar in 10 minutes with 1 finger and I think the system will work particularly well with community groups. It needs a critical mass of people to try it and put up some videos so the viewers can say “Hey, I could do that even better”. So I’ll eventually make it a separate OpenLearning course.

I want to avoid the certificated-course route to large extent. Certification introduces massive overhead expenses and nightmares of how to accredit someone from another country. And I don’t want to teach ‘industry-standard’ software courses as there are plenty of these already and the gear costs a fortune. You don’t get ‘academic price’ on software when you step out into the real world. So I will focus on the prosumer level rather than industry level gear.

My courses will focus on skills that will be useful for those already in employment such as teachers and therapists. Job seekers and businesses may well find these skills a good investment when building their portfolios.

A: What was your biggest takeaway from offering Gamification in Education? Were you surprised by the interest and/or participation in your class? Why/why not?

TB: Gamification enrolments have far outstripped my psychology courses. This surprised me because of the interest in what people think forensic psychology is all about from their TV shows. And neuropsychotherapy is another buzz area. On the other hand, I purposely made the Forensic Psychology course comprehensive and long, even to the point of expecting high drop-out. I intended that as one message is that a lot of what passes as science in the courtrooms is highly questionable. So if people aren’t prepared to put in the hard yards it will remain that way.

On the other hand I realize that I have to fit the attention spans of online viewing. Hence one of my next instalments is going to be “Neuropsychology in 10 Minutes” as PD for our state branch of the College of Forensic Psychologists. Again, there is a political message – you don’t even get 10 minutes in the expert witness box to explain neuropsychology, more like a few seconds before you’re savaged by a rabid barrister trying to discredit you. So you need some quick answers rather than mumbled neuro-jargon.

Another message of this movie will be that you don’t need a Hollywood studio to produce a useful documentary, even on a complex controversial subject like neuroscience. A lot of such TV documentaries are padding, with flutes playing and talking heads waving their hands on long walks in the fields. Their credit rolls take longer than my entire movies! A short movie with a text version can pack in a lot because the viewer can save, re-wind, and re-play or just read the text the old-fashioned way. And with the OpenLearning platform the real work will be your own research to answer the quiz questions.

So the heart of education remains as always: reverse-engineering from what I hope you’ll learn back to what I have to deliver to help you do that.

If you are interested in the works of Dr. Tom Benjamin, check out these links below:

Thank you to Dr. Tom Benjamin for taking the time to speak with us at Accredible.  Also, thank you for joining us for this series.  We hope you’ve enjoyed your own Adventures In Gamification! If you’ve not yet had a chance to take Gamification in Education by Dr. Tom Benjamin via OpenLearning, there is good news – you can join in at any time!  Add it to your To Learn list today!  

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