Creating Engagement in Computer-based

Learning Environments

Marshall G. Jones
The University of Memphis


First of all, let's be informal. I know that you are as busy as I am at this time of the year. The purpose of this paper is to discuss how to build engaging computer-based learning environments (CBLE). The paper will move from Flow Theory to computer games and back again. In order for you to better understand my perspective, I believe that the following things are true:

Defining engagement

Defining engagement is difficult because it is often relative to a given task. There are various types of engagement. In a CBLE we are referring to the notion that the program makes the learner want to be there. There may be many reason why the learner chooses to be there.

One reason learners choose to work in a learning environment may be that they are simply interested in the content. Interest in the content, or having a well defined question, provides the learner with intrinsic motivation to be working within the environment. Learners with intrinsic motivation may also be said to be exhibiting epistemic curiosity (Gagné, 1985). Epistemic curiosity may be caused by incongruous ideas, beliefs or attitudes about a subject, which is to say, curiosity based on lack of knowledge about a particular problem. A learner who is internally motivated may find that something as generic as a multi-media encyclopedia could serve as a learning environment. The motivation comes from within the learner, and the environment itself does not necessarily need to be engaging beyond its ability to present the content in a factual manner. If, however, the learner is not intrinsically motivated, then the environment may need to offer greater motivational features to keep the learner interested. It is not unrealistic to imagine that every learner may exhibit intrinsic motivation, and require extrinsic motivational features during the life span of the learning process, or while they are working within the learning environment. Therefore, I am defining engagement here as the nexus of intrinsic knowledge and or interest and external stimuli that promote the initial interest in, and continued use of a computer-based learning environment. It is any designer's hope that the learner will be completely and totally connected (intrinsically motivated) to the problem at hand. If they are not, then we may need to provide some features within the environment (extrinsic motivational features) to help them become engaged.

Flow Theory

Complete and total involvement in a given task is defined and described by Csikszentmihalyi's Flow Theory and its eight components (see Table 1) (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Flow theory is described as the feeling of optimal experience. It is felt when "...instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our own fate. ...we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment" (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, page 3). In order to reach this state of optimal experience: "There must be a goal in a symbolic domain; there have to be rules, a goal, and a way of obtaining feedback. One must be able to concentrate and interact with the opportunities at a level commensurate with one's skills" (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, page 118). Flow is often experienced during physical activities because of the ability to realize the manifestations of the requirements of a flow experience. For many people finding a moment of flow can be when they are doing things that they enjoy and excel at, although flow can be experienced by nearly anyone when they are competing in an environment that is appropriate to their skills.

Basketball players, even poor ones like myself, report games when everything you throw up goes in. It is when it is your day, when you are so totally engrossed in your activity that you lose yourself for the duration of the activity. You are in the zone. Though I might experience that zone on the playground with people at my own skill level, I am not likely to experience flow in a pick up game with NBA All Stars. The reason for this is that despite the fact that my level of play might rise to the occasion, it would never rise far enough for me to feel comfortable. The zone can be explained through flow theory. While flow is often experienced during physical activities, it occurs for different people during different activities, and has been documented to occur during the learning process. Most often flow in learning occurs at times when outside forces do not dictate what is to be learned (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). When people are intrinsically motivated, they find themselves able to "read for hours" or "pull an all-nighter" to master the content. But what happens during environments where there is no intrinsic motivation? What happens in environments that are not naturally occurring? Is it possible to provide learners in a contrived environment with the necessary tools to reach a state of flow in order to optimize the learning experience? I argue that it is possible, and that it can be observed in computer games. I also maintain that by studying how people use computer games, we can gain a greater understanding of how people use CBLE's. This greater understanding of how people use truly engaging computer-based environments, even though they are not educational, can help us build better CBLE's.

Video Arcades and Learning

As an undergraduate in 1983 I watched my college friends get in the zone with computer games. People standing in front of a video game console would flex their hands, stretch their shoulders to loosen up to play a video game. Once in the game, they could be in a Zen-like state of complete attachment to the task at hand. Never mind that the task was silly. Never mind that they themselves would likely never pilot a space ship and face legions of attacking aliens. Never mind the fact that all of the rules were arbitrary and contrived by someone else--they played these games. They learned every subtle nuance of the games. They often knew more about the games than they ever knew about the classes they were taking. Despite the fact that there was no authentic problem for them to solve, they found themselves completely engrossed in the task.

During studies of games Jones (1997) reported that certain games engrossed people so totally that they could not stop playing. Herz (1997) describes well the intense fascination people find in computer games. It is not just the ability to play, to face danger, death, and ultimate mayhem and still come out alive. It is not solely about competition. It is about the intense feelings of engagement that a "good" game can instill in the player. In previous and ongoing studies of computer games and gamers, I have heard stories of people who played Myst for an entire weekend, ignoring the need to sleep in order to solve the puzzles. I have spoken with people who can tell within the first few minutes of starting a game whether or not they will play a particular game well. "I don't have the feeling today," was the comment of one gamer. There exists among many people who play games an ability to become completely in touch with one's self and one's abilities. This is due in part to one's ability, and in part due to the fact that there exists within people strong, tangible feelings of attachment to the games they play. These games engender deep feelings. One of the key reasons that a game can foster this kind of devotion is that good games tend to the total package. It is not just the graphics, sounds, and other multi media assets they use. It is about how those assets help define, support, and give life to a domain that has no counterpart in the physical world. They draw you in and make you believe. Doom and Doom II were so frightening to some players that they refused to go into the labyrinth (i.e., play the game) again (Herz, 1997). That is a powerful statement. These are truly immersive environments that may both support and manifest the eight major components of the flow experience. This is demonstrated in Table 1.

Table 1.

Components of flow as manifested in computer games.

Enjoyment and Pleasure

Within Flow Theory, Csikszentmihalyi (1990) defines the difference between enjoyment and pleasure. Enjoyment is characterized by the feeling of forward movement, or a sense of accomplishment. Pleasure can give enjoyment and can even contribute to enjoyment. However, pleasure is defined as being passive in nature, while enjoyment requires direct participation by an individual. An optimal experience is more of a manifestation of enjoyment than pleasure. Being active in the experience tends to promote enjoyment. It is analogous to the difference of watching somebody playing basketball and playing yourself. The former is nice to watch, but the latter gives you a greater feeling of accomplishment, or enjoyment.

In computer games, certain features provide pleasure: good graphics, nice music, visual effects, and interesting animations are aesthetically pleasing, but do not necessarily contribute to creating a good game. What makes a game "good" is a good problem that is manifested appropriately. It does not matter if it is rendered realistically, but that it is rendered in a manner consistent with the problem. Herz (1997) presents convincing arguments that graphically minimal games of the late 1970's and early 1980's (such as Tempest and Pac Man) were actually more engaging than more recent games that provide a much greater level of graphic detail. Much of this has to do with the problem facing the user and how it is manifested. Problems that have meaning, that stretch one's abilities to the limits are more likely to provide feelings of flow than easy problems: we like to be challenged. If we are to relate this notion to the development of learning environments, it might suggest a couple of things. One is that while the quality of the image is important, that quality need not necessarily be photo realistic. It does need to be representational, and support the theme or idea at hand. It also suggests, at a deeper level, that we need to help the learner define a problem within the environment, or that perhaps the environment itself could represent a manifestation of a problem. This might be accomplished by building tools into the learning environment that help learners solve a problem. Even the often maligned drill and practice activity can help maintain a level of involvement on the part of the learners by providing much needed appropriate action or activity within an environment.

Cognition and Flow

It might be argued that one could make a relationship between cognition and flow as it relates to CBLE's. Norman (1993) speaks of two kinds of cognition: experiential and reflective. Experiential cognition is one where one may react to events efficiently and effortlessly. An example of this would be the way people who play action games such as Doom II exhibit this type of cognition. It is a combination of skill, reflexes, and knowledge that comes together after many hours of practice. Reflective cognition is that of comparison and contrast of thought, of decision making. It is the type of cognition that leads to new ideas and novel responses. Strategy games, such as Warcraft II, or puzzle games such as Myst, require the use of this type of cognition. In working with complex tasks, it is usually necessary to combine both reflective and experiential cognition to solve problems. It is likely that in order to reach flow that one must use both types of cognition. One would need efficient, seemingly effortless skills related to one's ability level (experiential cognition) and the ability to assimilate and accommodate new information (reflective cognition) in order to do most activities well enough to reach a state of flow.

Relating these ideas to the design of a CBLE may mean that lack of attention to aesthetics may make a program less likely to be used, but mere inclusion of aesthetically pleasing elements does not guarantee that the elements will promote learning, or add to the enjoyment of the program. Pleasure can be had or developed through seductive bells and whistles that are added on to a program. Enjoyment might occur because the bells and whistles were used as intentional pieces of the environment. The bells and whistles, or multi-media assets, employed in an environment should be used to promote the workings of the environment. Music that is used in games can help underscore emotions. The fast, hard pounding music in Doom II causes one's adrenaline to increase in an action game, where as the ephemeral background music in Myst helps enrich the feeling of mystery. Beyond the ability of the multi-media assets to support enjoyment by helping to support or carry forth a consistent tone, enjoyment can only be had when there is some conflict between what you know, and what you want to know, which is the essential component of cognitive conflict (Piagét, 1980; Gagné, 1985). Cognitive conflict stretches our desire to know and do more. It is a confrontation between the learners' current knowledge and the learners' expectations or ambitions. It is the challenge needed to begin flow experience. A possible way to build this conflict into a CBLE is through the use of environmental juxtaposition.

Building an environment

When thinking of a learning environment, I like Rieber's (1996) description of an endogenous learning environment. In these environments, the content and its structure are so closely related that "one cannot tell where the content stops and the game begins" (Rieber, 1996, page 50). One place where this notion of endogenous environments is most notable is in the area of commercial computer games. The games themselves are motivating, and weave a fabric of content and fantasy so seamlessly that one can become lost in the game for hours.

Environmental Juxtaposition

Much of the content of a computer-based learning environment is presented visually, and surrounded or supported by some type of theme. Visually, an endogenous environment strives for seamless integration of the program's theme, content, and the patterns of interaction used in the game or other type of environment. The original pattern of interaction in a computer game was that of slide and shoot. Your agent in the game resided on a horizontal plain, and moved left to right while attacking agents moved on a vertical plain. This was begun in Space Invaders, and can still be seen, though more elegantly rendered, in current games such as Mortal Kombat. This interaction pattern has grown into a roam and shoot pattern of interaction. No longer must you wait for the enemy to come to you: now you can go out and hunt them down. Myst defined a new pattern of interaction. You search for clues within an environment. These clues help not only to solve the puzzle, but to figure out how the world works as well. Typically, when moving within a game, the game's controls work in concert with the game's content to provide a seamless integration of content and control. This is a good thing. However, it is sometimes desirable to impose some type of juxtaposition on the environment, and ultimately the learner.

Occasional juxtaposition or conflict within the user interface can keep people moving and engaged. The Monty Python games are excellent examples of this. In Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail, unexpected surprises keep the users engaged. However, one might argue that Monty Python products would not be complete without significant juxtaposition between the environment you are in and the surprises they throw at you.

Juxtaposition integrated between content and control might suggest that stimulus and response is not all that bad of an idea in a computer-based learning environment. Early computer-based instructional programs were often criticized as being electronic page turners. They did not engage the learner at a level beyond passive viewing. Learners need to be engaged in the educational process, and actively engaged in the content and the business of learning. Learners should be doing things in the software. Clicking on timelines, accessing pop-up text or graphics, clicking and dragging objects are all examples of active techniques used in CBLE's. Additionally building tools within the learning environment extend the notion of educational software to the arena of application software. Instead of being simply a reference tool, the software becomes a tool for calculating, comparing, and generally working on a problem. Investigating Lake Iluca, a multi-media learning environment created at the University of Wollongong, Wollongong , Australia, was one of the first pieces of software I saw that did this (See Figure 1).

Figure 1.

Tools from Investigating Lake Iluca.

Tools were there for testing soil and water, notebooks were there for learners to write down notes and store information to study later. These tools take away from the visual consistency of the program. In a two dimensional environment that is displayed on a computer screen, it is necessary to treat different locations through the functionality of multiple windows. The tools work on the lake, but the tool palette can cover other areas of the screen. However, the juxtaposition they provide is pedagogically significant, relatively seamless, and ultimately helpful and not distracting (See Figure 1).

In contrast, a Doom-like simulation of a banking computer-based training program is juxtaposition that fails. Filipczak (1997) describes a Doom-like environment where the main character must catch "clients" running around on the screen and shoot monsters (which represent clients' problems) (see figure 2).

Figure 2.

Rendering of the Doom-like game from Training Magazine.

When you catch a client, you are then taken to a multiple choice question screen where you must answer a policy question. If you get the question correct, you can continue playing. If you don't, then you must return to a "traditional CBT tutorial" to study the fact. I must confess that I have not seen this, and have only read its description. But if I understand this correctly, then the game is not part of the training, and the training is not part of the game. The game, as stated in this on-line article "...rides along with the course serving two functions: It relieves boredom by letting students take a break from the self-paced instruction; and it serves as a motivator/refresher, giving students an immediate reason to study and recall the information, and a reward when they do." From this description, it sounds like a decent example of something not to do. It sounds to me like "gamus interuptus." An environment such as this could likely never engender flow because the learner may not be able to concentrate on the task. Time in the environment would be constantly interrupted by switching between instruction, game, and test. It is not that it is impossible to do, but it may be that Doom is simply an inappropriate model to follow for the training. An integrated environment could engender flow. In order to have an integrated environment, one must consider carefully an integration of the content, the controls, and the patterns of interaction. In the Doom-like simulation described, there are in fact three patterns of interaction. One is the traditional CBT, the second is the game, and the third is the multiple choice questions. While some juxtaposition might keep users on task and alert, this is simply far too much juxtaposition of content and patterns of interaction.

Building an Environment to Engender Flow

Attention to detail

One thing seems to be abundantly clear in planning and building these types of environments: neatness counts. The quality of the multi-media assets such as images, sounds, and animations, are a key factor in getting people interested in the game, and interested in playing the game. This is an important issue to be considered in the design and development of educational software. Rather than "settling" for assets, we should be working to find appropriate, quality images and sounds to make learning environments richer, and ultimately more meaningful and enjoyable experiences. However, it is important to note that while attention to detail is important, they should have a purpose to them. As one participant in a previous study stated, "I don't know why they put those (video clips) in there. Probably because they could." Some features were included in games that while technically impressive, had no real relationship to the environment created. This is true in many pieces of educational software as well. Pushing the envelope is a noble ambition (Jones, Farquhar, & Surry, 1995), but pushing the envelope should be done relative to the environment itself, and not simply because it is possible. Figure 3 shows an example of a Main Menu within a learning environment on the saxophone. The environment itself is striving for a "cool" tone. In order to draw the users into the program, it plays upon the learners knowledge of the saxophone as a jazz instrument. The program seeks to establish a tone similar to that of a Jazz Club. The main menu then becomes a "set list," and many of the other controls and features of the program take on the tone of "cool jazz." From background graphics and music to buttons, having this supportive theme helps carry forward the theme. Additionally, it creates an environment where control and content work together.

Figure 3.

Use of multiple assets to create an environment.
Jazz music runs in the background.

Applying Experiential and Reflective Cognition

Strategy games are ones in which the user must employ higher order thinking skills and problem solving skills to continue playing and win the game. This supports the notion of reflective cognition set forth by Norman (1993). Twitch games, also called Thumb Candy (Herz, 1997), are games in which the user must react quickly to circumstances, usually by killing someone, to continue playing and win the game. SimCity and War Craft II are good examples of strategy games, while games like Doom or Blood Bath are consummate twitch games. The advantage to a twitch game is that the movement is quick, and the feedback immediate. This works to keep the user actively engaged. Quick reactions like this can help engender a flow experience. However the level of this engagement can also be superficial. It may not engage one beyond the most basic level of seeing, pointing, and clicking. Strategy games require the user to look at the larger problem, and plan a strategy to solve the problem. In some games, such as SimCity, the results of your decisions are not immediately recognized. You must have a fair amount of internal motivation to stay with the game to realize the fruits of your labor. While twitch games offer immediate results of your work, strategy games appear to offer a greater feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. One participant who was playing War Craft praised the combination of "twitch and strategy." While they ultimately liked working on complex problems in an environment, they also appreciated the sheer visceral rush of immediate feedback. One manifestation of this in a CBLE might be seen in Figure 4. In a program dealing with primary colors for pre-readers, users interact with the content by clicking and dragging, one of the most common methods of interaction on the computer. They are given paint brushes to drag on to a picture. If the correct brushes are used to create the correct color combination, then the paintbrushes change color, and the learner "paints" the picture the correct color. The controls in this exercise are indistinguishable from the content of the program, and the method of interaction, though common, serves to engage the learner both physically and intellectually.

Figure 4.

Use of tools to engage the learner in a CBLE.

From Games to Flow

I believe that a careful study of the patterns of use in computer games can have a significant impact in helping us learn how to design better learning environments. I also hold that a study of Flow Theory can help us to better understand what goes on within both patterns of interaction in software, and within certain types of learning environments. It is necessary to meet the learner where they are, or where they need to be. Simply putting information on a screen is not enough for many learners, though the WWW is encouraging more and more of this.

In teaching design and development of educational software, I have found the one term that even novice designers and casual users of educational software seem conversant with is bells and whistles. This term is often used pejoratively to refer to elements within the environment that sing, dance, or otherwise seemingly entertain the user of the program. It is the assumption by many that bells and whistles are fine for younger learners, but inappropriate for adult, or more serious learners. It is my contention that this is a faulty assumption. When used appropriately bells and whistles, more commonly referred to as multimedia assets, can help keep the learner engaged in the problem. Multimedia assets may be used not as mere visual or auditory enhancements, but as true tools within the environment that are inseparable from the content. That, I believe, is the goal. In order for somebody to learn, they must attend to the learning environment. If they are going to attend, then they must have a reason to attend. If the learner brings that reason with them, then that is great. However, if they don't, or if they are required to attend for more than the reason they bring with them, then they need help in attending. Because what we are asking our learners to do is to suspend their belief systems for awhile while they work in the environment. We want them to believe that the environment they are in can be trusted, and that it makes sense relative to itself. This is important.

I am not suggesting that we make all of our learning environments into games, although I can imagine some that might work well that way. I am suggesting that we consider the need for learners to have a reason to be engaged in the environment, and to help them when they need the help.

Returning to the table that relates elements of flow to manifestations in a computer game, what follows is an effort to show possible manifestations of flow activities in a CBLE.

Table 2.

Relationship between Flow, games, and design of CBLE's.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Filipczak, B. (1997) Training gets doomed. [On-line] Available, September 9, 1997.

Gagné, E. D. (1985). The cognitive psychology of school learning. Boston, MA: Little Brown and Company.

Gery, G. (1991). Electronic performance support systems. Boston, MA: Weingarten.

Hannafin, M. J. (1992). Emerging technologies, ISD, and learning environments: Critical perspectives. Educational Technology Research & Development. 40(1), 49-63.

Herz, J. C. (1997). Joystick Nation: How video games ate our quarters, won our hearts, and rewired our minds. New York, NY: Little Brown and Company.

Jones, M. G., & Okey, J. R. (1995). Interface design for computer-based learning environments. [On-line] February 21, 1995.

Jones, M. G. (1997) Learning to play; playing to learn: Lessons learned from computer games. [On-line] Available, March 7, 1997.

Jones, M. G., Farquhar, J. D., & Surry, D. W. (1995). Using metacognitive theories to design user interfaces for computer-based learning. Educational Technology, 35(4) pp. 12-22.

Norman, D. A. (1993). Things that make us smart: Defending human attributes in the age of the machine. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley Publishing Company.

Piagét, J. (1980). Adaptation and intelligence: Organic selection and phenocopy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published in 1974).

Rieber, L. P. (1996). Seriously considering play: Designing interactive learning environments based on the blending of microworlds, simulations, and games. Educational Technology Research and Development, 44(2) pp. 43-58.


The author gratefully acknowledges Mr. Kevin Himmel and Ms. Jennifer Carney for the use of screen shots from their computer-based learning environments. These environments were developed during the author's class at Northern Illinois University. The screen shots from Investigating Lake Iluca come from an early beta version of this software. While it illustrates the concepts nicely, the faculty at the University of Wollongong continue to serve as bellwethers for good educational software design.

Dr. Marshall G. Jones, Assistant Professor
Instructional Design & Technology
Department of Instruction & Curriculum Leadership
Ball Education Building
The University of Memphis
Memphis, TN 38152

Phone: 901.678.5258
Fax: 901.678.4778

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