Back in March, an article was published in our UCalgary News describing a collaboration between one of our librarians and an instructor in SAPL (UCalgary’s School of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape). The project involved students designing possible future library spaces, and they came up with some really interesting ideas. I immediately thought “hey - that’d be cool to try with a focus on learning spaces!”

I reached out to folks in SAPL to see if they were interested, and got connected with Matthew Parker. We talked about this, and decided it was worth exploring further. He teaches ARCH 700 - a work-integrated learning course for senior architecture grad students to work with client organizations to research and design architectural solutions. We pitched using the Taylor Institute for Teaching & Learning as a “client”, with students working with us to design possible future learning spaces.

As we talked more, Matthew asked how we might frame the students’ work, to help them connect with some of the theory and practice around learning spaces specifically. I mentioned my recently-published dissertation and the framework that came out of it. Matthew lit up - this was the way to connect it. We’ll use the framework diagram to guide students through it, and have them work in a video game engine so they can share and “play-test” their speculative designs without the constraints involved with physical prototyping.

Figure 8.8 from my dissertation. A framework for integrating HCI and SoTL concepts to describe course designs. In this case, replace HCI with 'video games' and 'SOTL' with 'understanding teaching and learning' (Norman, 2023).

The Teaching Game Framework

Figure 8.8 from my dissertation. A framework for integrating HCI and SoTL concepts to describe course designs. In this case, replace HCI with 'video games' and 'SOTL' with 'understanding teaching and learning' (Norman, 2023). Image by D'Arcy Norman.

Why video games, and why build in a video game engine? Video games provide a useful means for integrating the environment, performance, narrative, players, and the systems that tie them all together. Designs are explicit - you have to build everything and make connections. Designs are iterative - you get to playtest, get immediate feedback, and refine and refine and refine until it works. You can share the output and get feedback from others.

Wait. I know a guy that recently wrote a few hundred pages on this. An excerpt:

We may also ask, why video games? There are other forms of games that could be useful in informing this work. Tabletop games have been developed and studied for much longer than video games, and include diversity in format, genre, and mechanics. Entire rule-systems have been developed, and these have been used as platforms to enable to creation of new games across genres. Keeping in mind the classical game model (Juul, 2011), the definition used throughout this dissertation, tabletop games could be considered as well. However, the video aspect of video games is an important distinction – especially as we look to make comparisons between games and our understanding of teaching and learning in a modern age where software-mediated environments make up much of our contemporary learning environment. Where tabletop games focus more on storytelling, video games focus on the actions and interactions that make up the performance of playing the game.

- Norman (2023, pp. 94-95)

I’ve met with the class 3 times now - the first, (briefly) in person to pitch the idea (along with about a dozen other potential clients for students to choose from). The second time was via Zoom1, giving an overview of what the semester will look like. There will be 3 projects:

  1. September: Read a bunch about learning spaces and teachy-learny topics, including skimming my dissertation to help with the process. Come up with a research question (something like “what would a learning space look like if it could be specifically designed to teach _____?” or “how might the design of a learning space foster students’ agency?” Write a brief paper to outline this.
  2. October - Early November: Come to main campus to observe some learning spaces in action. The ones in the Taylor Institute are pretty interesting. Look for the different dimensions described in my framework, and how do they inform your understanding of the interaction between the design of a space and the types of teaching and learning activities that take place within? Build the learning space in Unreal Engine and see if you can demonstrate some of your observations.
  3. Mid-November - Mid-December: Lean into your research question, building upon your reading, reflection, observations, and initial work in UE5. Design a new (or adapt an existing) learning space using the dimensions from the framework to guide your work. How are they represented in your designs?

As the students work through the first project, I’ll be joining their studio downtown2 as much as possible (although, having a full calendar of things on main campus is making that challenging, but we’re figuring it out). Thankfully, Matthew is leading the official architecture studio side of things, so there is consistency and the students are well supported.

In the third session I was able to join, students gave a brief overview of their initial project questions, and the approach they might take. There was lots of confusion - which is perfect for this stage. They’re working to explore a new topic and to integrate it into their own discipline using a new toolset. Confusion and cognitive dissonance are to be expected - if there was no confusion, there would be no point in doing this project.

Every single student had outstanding questions and project ideas, and we talked as a group for 2 and half hours (of a scheduled 1-hour session with me) and it flew by. Amazing. I can’t wait to see what they produce! I’ll get to join them next week for my fourth session with them, where they’ll present more complete versions of their questions and processes, and we’ll work to map them all out by making connections between the dozen projects.

In the meantime, I need to get myself further into the video game design tools space. My dissertation work was theoretical, with minor dabbling in actually building stuff so I could prototype (I did some work integrating 360º video into a video game environment built in Unity, and built some software tools to explore different ideas, but didn’t get to actually build things out in a video game engine).

Some of my own initial modelling work in video game engines - top left was a mockup of interacting with 360˚ video in Unity, the others are mockups of learning spaces built in Unreal Engine 5.

Initial 3D modelling in video game engines

Some of my own initial modelling work in video game engines - top left was a mockup of interacting with 360˚ video in Unity, the others are mockups of learning spaces built in Unreal Engine 5. Image by D'Arcy Norman.

I have my work cut out for me. The architecture students will be waaaaay beyond me in their technical ability, so my goal is to refresh my skills enough that I can at least provide relevant feedback when they start sharing their work in projects 2 and 3. I did a lot of 3D modelling in the late 90’s - in tools like Cinema4D3 and StrataVision3D4, rendering in Pixar Renderman5. This is a whole ’nother ball of wax. But it’s got insane potential to make this kind of work accessible and to help reduce the feedback loop between design and “play-testing” a learning space.

Also, and this is one of the cool things for me (the whole THING is cool, but…), is that my dissertation actually feels a) real, b) relevant, and c) useful. Cool. Who knew? (I mean. That was always the goal, but to actually see it in action so soon after publishing it? Cooooool.)

References

Norman, D. (2023). The teaching game: integrating HCI and SoTL by adapting video game research methods (Doctoral thesis, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada). Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/1880/115879

Juul, J. (2011). Half-real: Video games between real rules and fictional worlds. MIT press.


  1. which didn’t work out too well because of technical reasons at the downtown library location, but the Neat Board in the TI worked well. ↩︎

  2. SAPL’s graduate architecture program is currently housed in the old central library building, across from city hall. It’s surreal, seeing the UCalgary logo out front of the building. They’re going to need some time to fully move into the space and make it their own↩︎

  3. Cinema4D - It’s still going? 33 years later? Holy smokes. That’s longevity! ↩︎

  4. StrataVision3D - final release in 1998. Sad trombone sound. ↩︎

  5. Pixar Renderman - it did feel pretty cool to be using the same rendering engine as Pixar, at least briefly. It’s still going, at version 25! ↩︎