Engagement | Eric Klopfer

Eric Klopfer is Professor and Director of the Scheller Teacher Education Program and The Education Arcade at MIT whose work uses a Design Based Research methodology to span the educational technology ecosystem, from design and development of new technologies to professional development and implementation. Much of Klopfer’s research has focused on computer games and simulations for building understanding of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. You can watch this short video, download the full transcript, and get highlights from the interview below.

“Engagement is this voluntary, sustained participation in whatever activity we’re designing. It is voluntary, the person has to be able to leave if they want to leave, and it has to be sustained.”
– Eric Klopfer, Professor and Director of the Scheller Teacher Education Program and The Education Arcade at MIT

2018 Interview Highlights:

How do you conceptualize engagement in your work?
I think about engagement as voluntary, sustained participation in whatever kind of activity we’ve designed. It is voluntary; the person has to be able to leave if they want to leave, and it has to be sustained. Sustained means the person can do it in one big dose: they’re doing an activity and they just don’t want to leave it for 45 minutes. But it could also refer to sustained interaction over days or weeks or months, when the person might come back again and again. So we have to think about multiple time scales for things like engagement.

How do you think engagement differs from interest?
In the case of engagement, at least the way I think about it, a student or a participant doesn’t necessarily need to have defined the activity as a prior area of interest. But they’re ultimately engaged with that experience, even though they may say “Well, it wasn’t an interest of mine that I identified beforehand or maybe even now.” 

How do you measure engagement, and do you see tradeoffs regarding your approach?
We do measure engagement in various ways, some of which we think are more reliable than others. They each are probably measuring some aspect of engagement that matters, and ultimately we triangulate meaning out of those things. I’ll start with things we don’t do. We don’t do biometrics or pupil dilation or anything like that. I think there’s some value in that approach, particularly as it becomes less invasive as you can do things with cameras. But even cameras can make people feel like someone’s invading their activity and can affect their personality. We do the most obvious approach, which is also probably the least reliable: surveys. We do surveys with the people who participate in our activities, and we do interviews and ask them about ways in which they’ve engaged. We ask them about their choices that they made along the way. That’s somewhat more reliable, but obviously it’s hard to scale those things, so more and more we do rely on metrics from the digital technologies that we use. We look at how frequently someone will come back to an activity, how long each session is, and how those factors relate to the activities that they were doing in that space. Are they coming back simply because they had success, or are they coming back in spite of failure? Time and frequency are some measures of engagement, but I think actually the more complex way to measure engagement has to do with the specific activities that someone’s doing within that space. Those become more interesting measures of their sustained engagement. Are they going back to places that ultimately challenge them? Are they spending time in that zone of proximal development where we, as researchers and designers, think that they would be most engaged, or are they doing things in other places?

How would you advise practitioners to apply what you’ve learned through your research to their work?
One thing I would note is that we do a lot of work using games, and we try to make it fun. What fun looks like is people smiling and giggling, like they’re watching a silly cartoon. And that’s not necessarily what engagement looks like. Engagement often looks like people being frustrated. Some people call it “pleasant frustration”; my late colleague Seymour Papert called it “hard fun.” The idea is that when you’re being challenged, you’re in that zone of proximal development, and you fail sometimes, but you ultimately get the feeling of fun. It comes from succeeding after a series of failures. So my advice would be not to necessarily look for people smiling and giggling, but to think about situations in which people don’t want to give up on a task and persist in spite of failure. You want to find the activities that they persist with through challenging situations—and again, that persistence doesn’t necessarily need to be continuous, they can revisit something. 

So how do you design an activity that provides that experience?
You have to design challenges that you think are just out of people’s reach and think about experiences that progress so that each subsequent task is built on the previous task. It’s something that game designers and level designers do really well. It’s not a trivial task. 

Is there anything that you’d like to add to the conversation around engagement?
I want to note that you can’t necessarily engineer engagement. There is a science to it, and we should be using data and informing our design space based on that.

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