WebCT at MMU: progress and possibilities
Developing Links Using Online Learning
Of Mice and Pen
Developments in Lecture Theatre Technology
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John Pal and Mark Stubbs, The Business School
Of Mice and Pen
Faced with increasing student numbers and the need to provide flexible modes of delivery in a cost-efficient manner there has been a move towards testing out the Internet as a means of reconciling these pressures. This article reports on the processes and outcomes of the development of a web-driven game (theRetailGame) as part of the assessment package to be used on a number of retail courses run in the Business School.
The article is in three main parts. The first part by John Pal reflects on the ideas behind the game, and the actions and experiences of trying to develop the game on his own. This is a non-technical section. The second part of the article outlines some of the technicalities associated with the development of the various interactions that were developed, and is reported upon by Mark Stubbs. The third part of the article by both authors outlines the key learning points from the development of the game and the associated collaborative work.
Designing theRetailGame (the non-technical bits) [John]
Watching my children over a number of years using SimCity, Civilisation and Topsy and Tim Go Shopping it became quite clear that there was much more to their playing of these PC games than just a bit of light entertainment. Indeed, the term edutainment has been one that has been banded around quite frequently in the last few years, and this is what I was seeing before my very eyes. And does the title of 'game' present any problems because of its potentially childish connotations? Well, given the recent publication in one of the world's leading business journals extolling the virtues of playing board games (Orbanes, 2002) there can be no better justification for testing out this approach. So taken together perhaps there was something more here and this is what spurred me on to consider the use of computer games in enhancing learning opportunities.
This part of the article reports on some of my experiences in designing theRetailGame to be delivered over the Internet which has been developed as part of a one year Teaching and Learning Fellowship (T&LF). At the time of writing the game had not been fully launched and was in the final phases of testing. This part of the article provides a chronological account of the development of the game.
Prior to applying for a T&LF I had been searching for material on operations management and had been allowed use of the Strathclyde Business School's Distillery simulation. It appears that since my trial of their game they have developed a whole range of other products (see www.simul8.com). Whilst this simulation focused on production management I sensed that there could be something in the way that the team at Strathclyde had designed their game that could benefit students of retailing. Likewise, viewing freely accessible material from both Edinburgh (http://www.aiai.ed.ac.uk/~oplan/web-demo/gpdt.cgi) and Huddersfield Universities (http://www.hud.ac.uk/schools/comp+maths/servicewatch/swhome.htm) also provided further food for thought. Contacting the respective games developers to establish what platforms they used for writing their programmes and asking for any advice for a pure novice in the area provided a useful list of do's and don'ts:
DOs and DON'Ts OF DEVELOPING A WEB-BASED GAME
Somewhat closer to home, participation on a one day taster of a MMU-run WebCT course, attendance at an E-Learning Trade Fair hosted by the SMILE Project in the Geoffrey Manton Building and talking to Mark Stubbs, (a colleague in the same building as me!), all provided me with confirmation that what I wanted to do was both do-able and useful. Most impressively one of the presentations at the E-Learning Trade Fair in April 2001 showcased a presentation from a Stockport-based company. This small organisation was developing a SimHospital-type application for the University of Mexico's Medical Faculty using a number of Macromedia authoring packages with a database running in the background. Also presenting at this two-day event was Matthew Southern of Liverpool John Moores who reported on the use of video games as a learning aid. I subsequently found some useful ideas of his (Southern, 2001).
Gaining support from the 'Towards a Healthy High Street II Project' (a European Social Fund-supported initiative run from the Department of Retailing & Marketing) enabled me to attend the annual conference for the Society for the Advancement of Games and Simulations in Education and Training (SAGSET) held at Leeds University over the summer of 2001. Here, I witnessed some pretty impressive games ranging from the simple card game (a no cost process) to the full singing and dancing of Nottingham University's concurrent engineering game. The difference here is that Nottingham University commissioned programmers to write the game and had a budget in the region of €1 million! Placed somewhere in between were a computer-driven product promotion package demonstrated by an independent training consultant, and a Hull University Chemistry lecturer outlining a forensic science case study. What became clear was that whilst there were certain basic rules in creating games that are not unfamiliar to educators the technologies were many and varied. It was time to make the choice, take the plunge and get on with it.
After the initial casting around as to the best way to develop my idea for use on our retailing programmes I decided to use a database-driven web-based approach. The ESF Project paid for the purchase of the appropriate software as the game would also be used on the Towards a Healthy High Street programme aimed at small independent retailers. The next steps were the painful ones of having (or at least trying) to learn how to develop web pages and how to link a database to the site. Macromedia's UltraDev with a Microsoft Access database working in the background were the applications chosen.
The summer period was spent working through self-instruction manuals such as the 750 page Dreamweaver UltraDev in 21 days (some joke that!) and after much frustration I switched to Dreamweaver UltraDev for Dummies (Harris, 2001) which proved much more useful. However, no matter how I much I tried using the books, working through the tutorials, going to UltraDev help pages or the technical pages on Macromedia's web site, I still found that a bit of hands-on explanation from Mark to be a clinching factor in my ability to start developing a usable product.
Having mastered some of the basics, and more importantly learning about the capabilities of the programmes, I was able to start developing the web pages. Being a member of the Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education provided me with access to their fortnightly article service that alerted me by e-mail about potential sources of information in just the area I was working in. Armed with this information I was able to sketch out how the web site should function, and also what steps a putative designer such as me should take. I trialled a non-interactive web site with students on the BA Retail Marketing degree and soon saw the benefits of the technology, such as being able to update material quickly. Appreciating the need to ensure that the pages would work in both Netscape and Internet Explorer soon became apparent, so too did the need to think quite carefully about issues such as font size, colours and ensuring that all the links in the site made sense and actually worked I used some 'how to' type books and articles to provide me with a list of things to do in designing the web site (e.g. Joliffe, 2001; Tearle and Dillon, 2000). I was on my way.
Clambering up some pretty steep learning curves meant that I was able to start developing my interactive retail game in bursts rather than in a neatly planned manner. Using the layout steps suggested by Joliffe (2001) I sketched out the various stages I envisaged for the game (see Figure 1). The three main components of the web site are the provision of an overview of the learning event, providing information about the fictional store proposal and a series of interactive task pages.
Figure 1: Simplified view of theRetailGame web site
Once I'd done this I started collecting, synthesising and presenting raw data in a useable manner so that I could then progress to the interactive elements of the game. One useful product of the collaborative work with Mark Stubbs (a non-retailer) meant that I had to explain in layman's terms how a retail operation functioned. I had to be clear about the learning objectives, the presentation of appropriate data and ensure that there was a balance between reading pages of material, pointing and clicking, and carrying out tasks. Further reading around the topic of web design alerted me to the need for a common template for each page including having a link on every page to a help file, and the start of the whole web site (Joliffe, 2001). Incorporating these was easily done and I also added in an 'e-mail the tutor' button on each page. It is envisaged that with the development of the Business School intranet that Mark Stubbs has developed that students may engage in discussions with each other. The intranet could also provide an additional and alternative means of communicating with students working on the game.
Put simply theRetailGame involves students undertaking a series of linked tasks based around a framework I devised as part of my 'normal' teaching programme: 'The 5 Ss of Retail Operations'. Students are required to put themselves in the position of a retail manager for a new store opening in a small town. Having searched the web site database they are faced with developing a strategy for the products to be offered and the service level to be provided. These strategic decisions are sent to, and stored on, a results page for printing at the end of all the computer-based tasks. But rather than just let the student move from one task to the next Mark informed me that it was possible to store students' qualitative reasons for choice of decision too. It was therefore decided to build this into the design of the game and store their input on a final report page. This would avoid the pitfalls regarding point and click that I had read about that was becoming prevalent in much computer-based teaching material (Stanton et al., 2001).
Additional tasks for the students to tackle are that they have to decide which specific product lines to stock and what space to allocate to each within specified minimum and maximum parameters. This is where a robust database design came in useful, and something I had to learn about by working through a series of self-paced tutorials. Providing rudimentary data on key performance indicators for each of the products enables (and indeed requires) students to make an informed choice and again they have to justify their decisions at the time. Other issues to be addressed are the customer service policy, and the proportion of permanent and temporary staff to employ which together then drives a series of screens related to staff rostering. Decisions on a stockloss prevention plan also have to be made. (see screenshots at end.)
On completion of the tasks the student prints off their results page, which contains their decisions, and justifications they made at the time, together with a blank store plan. The print out includes their planned store performance in terms of net operating profit. The students can then compare this key performance indicator data to 'real', easily accessible, data in the public domain for similar companies.
The assessment of the exercise is a written report that justifies their decisions and accompanies their computer printouts. This allows them to review their initial decisions and either further corroborate their choices or indeed point out any weaknesses. Furthermore it also requires students to show the location of products, fitting rooms, display points and cash desks on a blank store plan.
In order for the students to engage fully in the game there is an expectation that they will work outside the confines of the web site. Providing them with links to articles and web sites, and a basic reading list will equip them with further resources. These are all in addition to the formal teaching that underpins the game. Taken together these activities should help students to make informed decisions when they undertake the various tasks in the game. It is on this that the students will demonstrate their learning through a reflective essay that also asks them to show the links between theory and practice. Naturally enough the tutor feedback will also play an important part of the learning process. Furthermore, the time freed up in the seminar programme, where many of the tasks have been used in a paper-based format, will allow me the space for students to do a short presentation and be questioned on their proposals. Not only that but the flexibility afforded by the game will allow students to work independently on it at their own pace and have as many attempts at it as they want. I am also considering allowing students to work on it collaboratively. In addition I expect some healthy competition as students attempt to maximise profit and turnover from their proposals.
With our commercial clients, who undertake a series of short intensive residentials, the game could be used in a slightly different manner. Having the participants working in small groups and putting them under the type of pressure more akin to their working environment tends to go down well. Due to their higher level learning needs a process of cross-examination by their peers has also proved successful when teaching these groups and this could still be applied in the context of the game. Subsequent reflection will, however, still be a key part of the learning process and this would, as with other students, be the main assessment vehicle. In addition, and here's the beauty of the whole game design where Mark developed a series of very clever actions in the site, the product choice can be changed, made more complex and the product types altered from fashion to food to any other product simply by my manipulation of the database without having to alter any of the web pages
Developing the interactions [Mark]
Our project adds something extra to that magical union of top-down commitment and bottom-up enthusiasm so often cited (e.g. Hall and White, 2002) as the genesis of e-learning development: a chance meeting of paths that created the requisite blend of knowledge, ability and energy. The story of my involvement takes in a back injury; a regular train journey that I do not take; a desperate need for coffee after a particularly tortuous meeting of undergraduate course leaders; and a broken video camera! The detail is less important than the point that developing e-learning materials requires a range of knowledge, skills and abilities that are unlikely to be found in a single individual. People with complementary skills can come together by chance; conferences, workshops and seminars might increase the odds of discovery; but shared enthusiasm is vital if partnerships are to be productive. In this we were particularly fortunate.
At our first meeting, John showed me a paper version of the game he had developed over several years with his retail students. The game format made it a promising candidate for e-learning as the key interactions were between students and a distant expert. Each student was directed towards useful reading then given the chance to make some initial decisions about retail strategy. The consequences of those were fed back. The game progressed with more reading, more decisions, more consequences, and so on. The drawback of the paper game was the manual calculation of decision consequences, and the inevitable delay in feeding them back. Varied and inter-related decision factors with complex consequences put the application outside the range of simple multiple choice or hypertext ICT environments (such as WebCT). A spreadsheet application was viable, but to maximise opportunity for student participation a web-based solution was preferred. Also, whilst the rules used for calculating consequences were reasonably static, the actual values (staffing costs, product prices, overheads, profit margins, etc) were more dynamic, and needed to be maintained by a retail expert (John), rather than an ICT developer. A database-driven website was emerging as the preferred platform.
An IT background, teaching, research and consultancy interests in e-Commerce, and a commitment to building a dynamic, personalised intranet for over 5000 members of the Manchester Metropolitan University Business School for next academic year (more of this in a later issue), ensured that I had the technical skills to transfer John's paper game to the web. The challenge was to do so in a way that maximised the potential of the medium to support the student learning experience, and to ensure that all John's desired learning outcomes could be met. To provide a focus for our discussions I followed a RAPID PROTOTYPING approach as web pages allow possible screen layouts to be mocked up quickly and easily. Our regular e-mail exchanges were supported by infrequent but important face-to-face meetings, in which my lack of retail knowledge prompted John to make explicit his tacit experience.
At this stage, it is worth summarising those aspects of our approach we would commend to others contemplating similar projects. For us, rapid prototyping provided a concrete focus for discussion about project development possibilities, and we would use it again. Our balance of domain and technical expertise made for genuinely creative dialogue, with the experience of using the paper-based game ensuring our efforts were blessed with a sense of audience. We imagine that both would be critical success factors for running e-learning projects. For technical design, we would advise explicit consideration of data, rules, controls, and the overall structure and flow of interactions. Our underlying pedagogical model emphasises discovery through iterative practice and reflection - a learning style that appears to fit well with e-learning. The quality of our design decision will inevitably be tested as theRetailGame is used more widely, and we look forward to the feedback.
By the time this article goes to press we will have presented the game to three different audiences: to our ESF Partners, in a Retailing & Marketing departmental seminar and at the Business School's Learning and Teaching Day. Our next steps include writing about the experience in suitable retail and educational journals. The latter area of publication is new to us both and so we have been browsing a useful site that lists all the relevant journals in the area (http://www.leeds.ac.uk/bei/journals.htm). In addition we will undertake some structured evaluation of students' use of theRetailGame with a view to reporting on that in appropriate journals.
Being realistic in setting out the aims of the project has meant that we have managed to get together a clear output that will be of benefit to undergraduates and also will be used for participants on one of our ESF small retailer projects. Scaling the project up for our postgraduate retail clients such as Sainsbury and B&Q will prove easy given the flexibility of the technology and the relatively painless way of adapting the database that drives the game. Use of the Kolb experiential learning approach has underpinned the design of the game, with the need for students to justify their choices, reflect on their decisions and support these from the academic and trade literature. It is envisaged that these activities will all provide a valuable and complementary learning experience to those undertaken on other parts of the retail education programmes students undertake with us.
Atkinson (2001) "Creating online virtual environments for inquiry-based learning," http://www.educause.edu/ep/ep_item_detail.asp?ITEM_ID=73 (date accessed 31 October 2001)
Hall, W. and White, S. (2002) Strategic implementation of computer-based learning at Southampton (ILT members only web site)
Harris, S (2001) Dreamweaver UltraDev4 for Dummies Foster City CA: IDG Books Worldwide
Joliffe, A (2001) The online learning handbook: developing and using web-based learning London: Kogan Page
Orbanes, P. (2002) Everything I know about business I learned from Monopoly Harvard Business Review, March, pp. 51-57
Southern, M. (2001) The cultural study of games: more than just games (http://www.igda.org/Endeavors/Articles/msouthern_printable.htm) date accessed 6 December 2001
Stanton, N., Porter, L. and Stroud, R. (2001) Bored with point and click? Theoretical perspectives on designing learning environments Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 38 (2) 175-182
Tearle, P. and Dillon, P. (2000) The development and evaluation of a multimedia resource to support ICT training: design issues, training processes and user experiences Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 38 (1) 8-18
Examples of web-based games/simulations
First decision page
First part of the results page