The power of role-based e-learning: selected content, tables and figures
Chapter 7 Platforms for online role play
- History of Online Role Play and Platforms
- Considerations When Selecting a Platform
- Exploring How Platforms Assist the Role Play Process
- Release of Scenario
- Technology Underpinning Online Role Play Platforms
As a collaborative activity, online role play depends on the use of a software platform to manage players’ actions and communications. While a simple design will run perfectly well via use of email messages, in a Virtual Learning Environment or Learning Management System, more complex designs need the efficiency, safety and security of a role play platform. Different platforms each have their special features. Possessing a good general understanding of how different platforms work, and what they might offer in regard to supporting specific role play concepts, helps the underpinning knowledge of educators moving into more experientially based learning processes.
This chapter introduces these various modes of support and explores how the presence – or absence – of various features may influence the design, moderation, administration and assessment of role-based e-learning. Scarlet Letter (Example 7.1), an online role play with a history of repeated usage, is the example used in this chapter.
History of Online Role Play and Platforms
Early online role play was inspired by the face-to-face social simulation, SimSoc, developed by William A. Gamson (1966) which was used to teach various aspects of sociology, political science and communication skills. SimSoc used a “human messenger” form of communication, with participant teams working in different rooms and messengers moving among the rooms. In this format it is still in use today.
In the early 1990s, Andrew Vincent was also using this method for his Middle East Politics Course at the University of Melbourne. A chance meeting with computer scientist John Shepherd led to recognition that email servers could replace the messengers. Their resulting collaboration lasted twenty years, until Vincent’s death in 2008. Today, a number of universities around the world are using Shepherd’s system for teaching political science.
In this email-based format participants were given an alias in the form of their role name (Vincent & Shepherd, 1998). Interactions occurred by emails going to a “control” who subsequently forwarded them to appropriate recipient(s). When Vincent left the University of Melbourne in 1993, his format was sustained by Roni Linser who continued to use email until incorporating web technologies in 1996. In 1998, Linser and Ip created the Fablusi role play simulation platform as an integrated online role play simulation platform. Learning Management Systems were in their infancy and – at that time – were not conducive to the demands of online role plays so custom-built role play engines were necessary and quickly emerged. Similar platforms have been developed at the University of Western Australia – see Simulation Builder (Kinder et al., 1999), in the USA – see ICONSnet in Maryland, US (Asal & Blake, 2006 and Lay & Smarick, 2006), and in the UK – see SIMPLE (Barton et al., 2007).
Since online role play involves ongoing communication, basic Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) will include e-mail or a bulletin board on a network, a Local Area Network or access to the Internet. Choices of technology and the format of the online role play are mainly dependent on the physical location of participants and the current status of available technologies. Some may use a synchronous chat facility in addition to an asynchronous e-mail facility. However, online role play would not work well if run entirely as chat sessions since they provide little opportunity for reflection and refinement of proposals. An effective self-contained integrated web-based role play environment enables the designer, administrator and moderator to provide:
• convenient online access to resources
• more appealing visual metaphors for stakeholders’ meeting places
• more control of the rights of accesses of different players
• the potential to reuse the role play including sharing the same role play with other educators
• monitoring of the activities, assessment assistant and
• integration of various different technical aspects of role play.
There is an important distinction to note between the form of role play being discussed here and other forms of online role play. In those forms – often known as MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Play Games) the computer application used is an integral part of the action. In contrast, for the online role play referred to here, the applications are merely passive platforms which do not participate in the action. The role of the technology is limited to facilitating the role play, creating a form of simulation environment. Compared with computer-generated simulation games, a role play does not include “natural disasters” or events randomly generated by the computer. All disasters, and other events, are included by design controlled by the moderator and pre-determined to fit within the story underlying the action.
Russell and Shepherd (2010), in their analysis of online role play platforms, summarized the environments as shown in Table 7.1. Additional criteria are: Flexibility, Anonymity, Censorship of postings, Scalability, Administration and moderation support, Reuse.
Table 7.1 Summary of criteria for online role play environments (from Russell & Shepherd, 2010)
Table 7.2 Platforms and roles
Table 7.3 Platforms and task support
Table 7.4 Platforms and role resources
Table 7.5 Platforms and social structure
Table 7.6 Platforms and meeting places
Table 7.7 Platforms and moderation support
Table 7.8 Platforms and administration support
Table 7.9 Platforms and support for re-use