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Designing for Group Flow in Collaborative Cross-Platform Learning Experiences

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Technological resources have expanded the goal of education from individual knowledge acquisition to include the development of critical thinking, communication, and collaboration (Griffin, McCaw, Care, 2012; Van Roekel, 2014). This shift requires a reevaluation of what students learn (e.g. content versus skills) and how students learn in formal education settings (Saavedra & Opfer, 2012). Thus, there is a critical need to find ways to create environments that enable embodied, enactive, extended, and embedded learning and develop critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. MIT’s Education Arcade and the MIT Game Lab are exploring ways to meet this need by developing a cross-platform, collaborative educational game with a conceptual focus on cellular biology and a developmental focus on 21st century skills. To this end, we are creating learning environments that incorporate collaborative problem solving that are connected across different contexts.
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Designing for Group Flow in Collaborative Cross-Platform Learning
Experiences
Meredith Thompson, Laura Zhang, Mohamed Seyam, Jing Fan, Annie Wang, Dan Roy,
Judy Perry, Eric Klopfer
Abstract: Technological resources have expanded the goal of education from individual
knowledge acquisition to include the development of critical thinking, communication, and
collaboration (Griffin, McCaw, Care, 2012; Van Roekel, 2014). This shift requires a reevaluation
of what students learn (e.g. content versus skills) and how students learn in formal education
settings (Saavedra & Opfer, 2012). Thus, there is a critical need to find ways to create
environments that enable embodied, enactive, extended, and embedded learning and develop
critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. MIT’s Education Arcade and the MIT
Game Lab are exploring ways to meet this need by developing a cross-platform, collaborative
educational game with a conceptual focus on cellular biology and a developmental focus on 21st
century skills. To this end, we are creating learning environments that incorporate collaborative
problem solving that are connected across different contexts.
Intervention
Our first CLEVR project, Cellverse
, is designed to help high school students learn about cellular biology
and build collaborative skills by diagnosing and selecting a therapy for a diseased cell. Cellverse
is played
in pairs, the Explorer views the cell using a virtual reality head mounted; the Navigator view the cell
through a tablet. The Navigator has a less detailed “birds’ eye” view of the cell environment and access to
reference material available about possible diseases. By distributing information across two platforms (VR
and tablet), we intend to establish complementary resources to enable a deeper engagement than a
single player game. We also seek to understand how to build educational experiences where the choice
of modes (tablet or HMD) dovetails with the goals of learning (cultivating positive interdependence
through resource distribution). In this study, we have two main research questions: whether and how
players collaborate during the game, and how they reflect on that collaboration after the game is over.
Research Question
1.   How, if at all, do players’ interactions demonstrate the attributes of group flow: shared vision, equal
ownership and contribution, and effective communication?
2. How, if at all, does the game design establish and support an environment conducive to group flow?
Theoretical Background
Collaborative problem-solving skills are essential for the work of the future (Fiore, 2017). Research
provides theoretical frameworks for understanding and improving collaboration that can be useful
situations where teams work in virtual environments (Lee, 2009). Collaborative problem solving requires
interdependence, the thoughtful formation or groups, individual accountability, and attention to social skill
development (Cuseo, 1992). Positive interdependence is achieved when all members of the group need
to interact to achieve a common goal (Johnson & Johnson, 1994; Laal, 2013).
In order to educate students to be better collaborators, we also need a framework to understand optimal
interaction within groups. In his book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration
, Sawyer (2015)
builds on Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow (Csikszentmihalyi,1998; Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2012)
to describe “group flow”; an optimal state of collaboration when groups have a shared vision, equal
ownership and contribution, and effective communication (Sawyer, 2007; Duncan & West, 2018).
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Research suggests that digital simulations are promising tools for learning and practicing skills and create
a record of communication to be used for reflection (Kaufman & Ireland, 2016). We aim to give players a
chance to develop, rehearse, and self-assess their collaboration skills during the Cellverse
game. Thus,
this pilot study investigates how players interact with Cellverse
and whether there is evidence of moving
towards or achieving group flow.
Methodological approach
We are using a qualitative approach to explore interactions between the players and with the game
environment (Bengtsson, 2016). We approached the data with an etic
and an emic
viewpoint. Our etic
codes were based on Duncan & West’s (2017) interpretation of Sawyer’s (2003) Group Flow Theory:
shared vision, equal ownership and contribution, and effective communication. Shared vision is
established by having a shared specific goal in mind with the potential for failure. Ownership and
contribution hinge on a balance between the perception that each player has autonomy and control
over
their actions, and demonstrates flexibility
to listen and adapt to the ideas of the team. All members of the
group need to feel that they can participate and contribute
to the collective action for group flow.
Familiarity with group members
can assist group flow, as does familiarity with guiding principles
of
understanding processes and a common language among group members. Communication requires
close listening
when participants are attentive to the problem and open to ideas from the group. The
group should be focused on the task, exhibiting complete concentration
in the activity, and members need
to blend egos
by building on the contributions of their team. Close listening, complete concentration, and
blending egos can culminate in collective emergence, where the team is “not just coming up with a
solution, but trying it out following through with it, and continuing to expand on the innovation after it’s
done” (Duncan & West, 2017, p. 8) .
Group Flow Theory describes what we are looking for, our emic
codes documented how players
interacted in the game. These codes precipitated from weekly discussions of individual cases, noting
recurring themes in the discussions, and establishing new codes to reflect those themes. Themes
included events during game play such as orientation to the problem that leads to shared vision, the and
synthesis of memos written for the weekly discussion We noted recurring themes in the data, discussed
them during weekly research meetings, and created new codes to reflect the themes.
The sample
This pilot study is one of a set of exploratory studies about the Cellverse
game. The sample for this study
includes a convenience sample of 8 secondary STEM teachers (5 males and 3 females) from a weeklong
on-campus teacher summer workshop who volunteered to try the game. Although teachers are not our
targeted audience, their insights were important not only in the game experience, but also in how ther
students might receive the game and how the game connected to their curriculum. Teachers played the
game in the evening after the workshop and were given pizza. A summary of the teachers’ VR
experience, domain knowledge, and role during the game appear in Table 1.
Table 1.
Teachers’ background, domain knowledge, and role in game.
Pseudonym
VR experience
Domain Knowledge
Role in game
Case Study 1
Peter
Once or twice
Navigator/ Tablet
Denise
None
Biology Teacher
Explorer/ VR
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Case Study 2
Daniel
None
Navigator/ Tablet
Geoff
None
Physics Teacher
Explorer/ VR
Case Study 3
Chris
None
Biology Teacher
Navigator/ Tablet
Derek
~10 times
STEM Teacher
Explorer/ VR
Case Study 4
Nadine
None
Biology Teacher
Navigator/ Tablet
Tina
None
Biology Teacher
Explorer/ VR
Procedure
Participants decided on their own roles, and played the game side by side and were able to talk with one
another throughout the experience. At the beginning of each session, the partners were interviewed
separately at different corners of the same room. We shared the game objective of working together to
figure out what is wrong with the cell. After they were set up with their respective technology (headset or
tablet), each player completed an individual tutorial. After the tutorial, the players started the game. The
staff who were present asked a few questions of the participants while the participants played the game
(How does the headset feel? What do you think of the cell environment?). The staff also answered
questions from the participants during the game. The teams either played until they solved the game or
were stopped after 40 minutes of game play. They completed a post interview about their experience. A
screenshot of the explorer view, the navigator view, and a sample set up are included as Figures 1, 2,
and 3.
Figure 1
. Explorer’s view of the cell
Figure 2
. Navigator’s view of the cell
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Figure 3
: Navigator view on leftand Explorer view in VR on right
Analysis
We reviewed the transcripts, videos, interviews, and observational notes to identify similar themes that
emerge from all four case studies and to search for evidence of developing group flow during the
interaction. A summary of how the groups moved through these stages over time appears in Figure 4.
Figure 4:
Documenting aspects of group flow while playing the Cellverse game
Establishing a shared vision
Players started the game by selecting a role: either Explorer or Navigator, and doing a tutorial that
introduced the actions and environment specific to their role. The Explorer learned how to move around,
and select organelles, and view a clipboard with information about those organelles. The Navigator
learned how to rotate the whole cell view, how to place a beam like “beacon” in the cell, and was also
introduced to the reference information about the diseases. “Beacons” are lines that the Navigator could
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place in the cell to guide the Explorer to a specific spot. One participant described the beacons as a “light
saber”. The Explorers in this study each finished their tutorial quickly, and wandered around the cell waiting for
the Navigator to finish. The Navigator spent a lot more time doing the tutorial, learning how to manipulate
the cell, and reading the reference material about the diseases. In particular, the Navigators spent a lot of
time learning how to place “beacons” in the cell.
In Case study 2 Geoff (Explorer) had finished the tutorial and began to ask Daniel questions
about the game. Geoff asked “Can you see where I am?” (4:48 min) and “What information do you have?”
(6:25 min) and later, but Daniel was completely absorbed in learning how to use the beacons, so he did
not respond to Geoff’s initial questions. Twelve minutes into playing the game, Geoff asked Daniel “So,
what are you pointing me towards?” and Daniel responded “I’m not pointing you towards anywhere
because we’re going to start looking for a disease”. This response marked a shift from learning how to
use the tools into how to apply the tools to the game objective. In fact, each of the four pairs had a point
where one or both explicitly stated that they were ready to start the game.
Not surprisingly, the partners did not communicate much when they were acclimating to their
environment in the beginning of the game. As they became more familiar with their environment, they
began communicating with each other. Part of the communication was developing a shared language to
discuss the unusual environment using colors, shapes, location, and biology terminology to describe what
they saw in the cell. The communication in the beginning part of the game was primarily one way
communication - one person just stated what they saw and their partner did not connect the information
together. This happened in cases 2, 3, and 4, when the explorer narrated what they observed. Only one
pair (Nav1 and Exp1) engaged in joint orientation: Peter went step by step through the organelles and
used colors and shapes to compare his tablet view with her virtual view.
Negotiating contributions
Midway through the game, frustration set in. In all four cases, the explorer asked the navigator whether
they had additional information to share. Just as Geoff asked Daniel whether he had additional
information, about ten minutes into the game Derek asked Chris “OK, are there any other prompts you
have? I have no others” (10 min). Denise asked Peter “What shall I look for? You’re reading to yourself - I
can’t understand anything” (32 min). In case study 4, Nadine the Navigator asks Tina.
21 min Nadine (Nav) to Tina (Exp): So do you have any information on the two diseases?
Tina: Not that I can see, no. I don’t know if there’s a place that I have to go.
Nadine: So I think I have that information. So we’re looking for…
Note: N reads softly to herself. E is still looking around the cell.
This exchange reinforced the idea that they each had different information, and prompted Nadine to
explore her information more thoroughly.
Blending egos and collective emergence
The conflict of figuring out who had the information to solve the game prompted the Navigator to emerge
as the leader in the investigation. In Cellverse
, the Navigator has two tools that the Explorer does not
have: reference information about the disease symptoms and the ability to put a “beacon” in the
environment. The Navigators in Case study 2 (Daniel), 3 (Chris), and 4 (Nadine) used beacons to focus
the Explorer’s attention on the specific areas of the cell. As Chris and Derek zero in on the clues, Chris
talks about “beaconizing” the Golgi Apparatus so Derek could find it. Daniel tells Geoff “I am trying to
figure out where to put the beacons so you can go there. And you can investigate”. Daniel decides to
direct Geoff towards the centrosomes using two beacons. Once Geoff finds the selected spot, Geoff
focuses on finding the centrosome. Daniel asks about the color of the centrosome, which is a symptom of
the disease.
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Daniel: So it's green
Geoff: Can you explain what do you see? [on the tablet]
Daniel: I see you looking at the green thing.
Geoff: Yes. Geoff is looking directly at the blue centrosome.
Daniel: So I think because it's green it's good.
Geoff: Actually it's blue.
Daniel: It's blue?
Geoff: Yes it's blue and there are green filaments actually.
Daniel: It's blue?
Geoff: Yes, The centrosome is blue.
Daniel: Well I think we may have an unhealthy cell. Yeah they say it's most likely a shade of blue
or purple. Are you sure it's blue?
Geoff: Yes. It's blue.
Daniel: OK. Well, you are sitting right on it
This exchange reinforces the importance of communication, especially when the partners have different
information. Geoff almost missed the key clue when it was literally under his nose. Nadine also uses
beacons to guide Tina to view the centrosome.
Nadine: Okay, so should I shoot a beam to have you go check this out?
Tina: Yes
Note: Nadine takes a second to figure out how to shoot a beam on screen
Nadine: Do you see where those two beams cross?
Tina: Yes.
Nadine: What color is that thing?
Tina: The circle with the spidery thing? It’s blue and the things coming off are green.
Nadine: Oh great!
Tina: The centrosome is blue, and the microtubules are green.
Nadine to Staff: Great. So then, do I just tell you the disease? It’s the ______.
In responding to Nadine, Tina describes the shape of the centrosome as a “spidery thing”. Providing a
shape confirmed that Tina was looking at the correct object in the cell, and helped them come to a
conclusion about the game.
Post Game Reflection
The game is designed to create a positive interdependence between the players so that they need to
collaborate to achieve the goal. In each of the four cases, the respondents recognized that the different
types of information given to the Explorer and Navigator required them to work together. Peter (case 1)
enjoyed learning more about the cell from his partner Denise, who was a biology teacher. Denise
compared the experience to “an Easter Egg hunt” but also commented that having a partner made it
“more fun than going in by myself”. Geoff (case 2) explained that he was “relying on my partner to give
me context” about the game, and Daniel appreciated having a partner to discuss the information.
Chris and Derek (case 3) and Nadine and Tina (case 4) felt the balance of information was
weighted towards the Navigator, and suggested giving more information to the Explorer. Derek explained
that he relied on Chris for what to look for in the cell. Chris acknowledged that the different views of the
cell made it important to have both roles, but he thought that “it seemed like I was more helpful to him, like
I was a navigator, but I needed his information to to complete the goal. Because If i dont tell him my info
and where to go, then he’s going around aimlessly, and if he doesn’t tell me I can’t tell which disease it is
then I will never know.” At the conclusion of the game play, Tina was slightly disappointed that her role
was relatively small. During the debrief, she noted “All I did is get there and then describe the color to
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you.” Tina and Nadine recognized that the different views and information supported the collaboration,
and that collaboration is a good goal for their students. They did not recognize that they had different
views while they played the game. They both suggested making that clearer in the game that the views
and the information were different, and reminding the players that they have to communicate in order to
play effectively.
Conclusions
In this study, we viewed patterns of interaction that included establishing a shared vision, negotiating
contributions among team members, blending egos to establish a solution, and collective emergence in
acting on their ideas to finish the game (Sawyer, 2003; Duncan & West, 2018). Completing the tutorial
and acclimating to the environment was initially an individual activity. When partners realized they had
different information, they began to work together in earnest, suggesting that the game set up encourages
positive interdependence (Johnson & Johnson, 1994; Laal, 2013). They developed a shared language
around the unfamiliar environment of the cell, and recognized that communicating with their partner was
necessary - and challenging. The task was especially challenging because in splitting the views between
a virtual reality headset and a tablet created a good inequality (Spante, Axelsson & Schroeder, 2006), as
the partners were not able to see each other’s views, precise and effective discussion became essential.
The shared goal of finding out what is wrong with the cell prompted the partners to offer information so
they could understand their different views and roles, and develop a shared language about how to
communicate effectively about a complex problem in an unfamiliar environment. Through this research,
we are gaining insight into how to connect conceptual and skill building experiences and understand how
to optimize new technological tools such as virtual reality.
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Acknowledgments
The authors acknowledge the teachers who agreed to participate in this study, and the MIT
students who contributed to the design and programming of the study and helped run the study
sessions.
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