Social Constructivism in Games Based Learning in The South African Context (ED-MEDIA 2008)

ED-MEDIA 2008 paper: Social Constructivism in Games Based Learning in The South African Context.

Abstract: This research investigates the use of computer video games in teaching and learning of learners from disadvantaged communities and is guided by the design experiment/development research paradigm, which calls for a pragmatic epistemology that regards learning theory as being collaboratively shaped by researchers and practitioners with the overall goal of solving real problems. Participating schools are Buhlebemfundo Secondary, Qhakaza High and University of Zululand. Vygotsky’s social constructivism which views learning as a social construct mediated by language grounds the study. Firstly, the study examines the effectiveness of an adventure game Zadarh to overcome misconceptions related to photosynthesis and respiration. Secondly, yKhozi, a 3D virtual world adventure game, is utilized to determine if games, when used as mediating artefacts in a social context, support the development of educational literacy and communication skills. Finally, the study concludes that computer games are effective learning tools if designed to inculcate social interactions and dialogue.

(Note: much of these notes are taken directly from the authors’ presentation.)

The context for the study:

  • In South Africa (SA) the high school curriculum does not prepare students to cope at tertiary level
  • The education policy has changed from one that is content-driven to a constructivist-based OBE
  • But, the use of ICTs is still limited to and associated with the previously advantaged

Learning games:

  • Computer video games could support contemporary learning activity designs and foster intellectual growth (Prensky 2001; Gee, 2003)
  • It is in provoking and harnessing emotions such as satisfaction, desire, anger, excitement and pride in achievement, within the player that games software can benefit education (BETA, 2004)
  • But implementation of these technologies could be challenging in impoverished teaching and learning situations


Image: Thato Foko presenting, with co-author Alan Amory on the left.

The aim of the research was to investigate the use of computer video games by learners from disadvantaged communities in teaching and learning, based on a social constructivist framework. Two games were used.

Iteration 1: Playing Zadarh individually:

  • Zadarh is an adventure game designed to provide learning resources that address specific misconceptions related to photosynthesis and respiration, evolution, Mendelian genetics and 2D/3D visualization
  • The study investigated the effectiveness of Zadarh to overcome these misconceptions
  • Three groups were set up: Qhakaza High School (Qhakaza), Buhlebemfundo Secondary School (Buhlebemfundo), First year Business Information Systems from the University of Zululand (UniZulu)
  • Qhakaza and Buhlebemfundo learners were unfamiliar with computers while all UniZulu students were computer literate
  • Learners played Zadarh  between 8-10 hours over a number of weeks
  • After play participants answered a multiple choice instrument on photosynthesis and respiration
  • Results:
    • Misconceptions appear not to be overcome by only playing educational games
    • Qhakaza, Buhlebemfundo and Tholokuhle learners did not improve after playing Zadarh for many hours over a number of weeks
    • Learners while playing memorised solutions to puzzles as explained by those who were able to solve them
    • Learners gave the correct answers, but not for the correct reasons
    • Learners enjoyed playing the game
  • As Adams (1998) found in the same study done previously, there is a need to change the learning strategy for improvement to be realised

Iteration 2: Playing Zadarh in groups:

  • Using Zadarh in groups to address the problem of rote learning
  • Only Qhakaza learners participated in this iteration (a new group of learners, though)
  • Learners were asked to work together during play and in answering the research instrument
  • A group of 13 learners from Qhakaza played Zadarh in pairs
  • During play learners navigated the game and decisions were negotiated and support sought from the researchers
  • A group of ten learners took a written test while another group of 3 did the oral test
  • The researchers gave learners taking the oral test some limited help by way of clarifying questions
  • Results:
    • The results were analysed using the non-parametric statistical test because of the small sample size
    • After playing Zadarh in groups learners overcame many of their misconceptions
    • 75% of those taking the written test gave correct answers and 42.5% of them provided the correct reasons
    • 90.5% of those taking oral test provided correct answers, 50% of them gave the right reasons
    • There is a big improvement from iteration 1 where Qhakaza learners working individually 57.9% gave correct answers and 29.4% provided the right reasons for their answers
    • Findings:
    • These results confirm the important assertions made by some scholars that working in groups improve student’s critical skills
    • When peers work together, modeling, cognitive disequilibrium, feedback and perspective emerge as students explain and receive explanations from their colleagues (Cooper & Robinson, 2002)
    • The argument that computer video games can act as a more knowing mentor and thus affect the Zone of Proximal Development (Gee, 2003) is only applicable when social interactions are included in the learning process
    • Results also indicate that computer video games, as mediating tools, support development of specific knowledge in students in disadvantaged learning environments
    • However, the unintended learning consequences of playing games by such students are not understood

Based on the learnings of the first two iterations, a new game was used that involved social interaction between students.

Iteration 3: Using yKhosi to improve literacy and communication skills:

  • yKhozi is used to determine if games, as mediating artefacts in a social context, support the development of educational literacy and communication skills (visualization, logic, numeracy, and language
  • yKhozi is a social constructivist microworld 3D virtual world adventure game
  • yKhozi includes a number of knowledge domains “each centred around an aspect of South African heritage or culture”
  • yKhozi is used to address: HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and cancer
  • 55 Buhlebemfundo Grade 12 learners [2005] played ?Khozi in groups and answered questions in groups
  • Literacy and communication skills results were compared to those of 2003 cohort [part of a baseline study]
  • To ensure that the two groups [2005 & 2003] were similar their Grade 11 overall and English final examinations results were compared and were found to be similar
  • Learners played ?Khozi for approximately 16 hours over a period of 4 weeks (they were bussed to the university on weekends to play the game)
  • Learners played and discussed both questions and answers in groups of three
  • Results:
  • Visualisation, numeracy and logic, and communication skills improved in 2005 when playing the game in groups, as compared with those skills in 2003 when learners operated individually


  • Results of this study reflect the poor functional skills that many young South Africans bring to tertiary institutions
  • Careful examination of Zadarh suggests that while participants appeared to advance through the game, they were not solving problems themselves but reverted to the predominant mode of learning (non-constructivist and based on memory recall)
  • However, the results suggest that learning is a social activity and it is through dialogue (Vygotsky, 1978) that misconceptions can be overcome
  • The yKhozi study revealed that this game was effective in enhancing student performance and in promoting learning skills when players were able to work in groups to solve problems presented during game-play
  • The success of yKhozi stems from its inclusion of social dialogue and interaction, cooperation and assistance from others, including the principle researcher
  • Computer games are effective learning tools if designed to promote and to inculcate social interactions and dialogue among learners and between learners and teachers. Peer-to-peer learning and teaching is the first level of social learning and, when stuck, the teacher enters the dialogue. In these studies the researcher, Thato, was the most knowledgeable agent that learners ultimately turned to. He moved them back into the Vygotskyan zone of proximal development.
  • Learners who might have struggled, had the opportunity to query other learners and verbalise their opinions
  • The inculcation of social dialogue in the classroom is fundamental to improved performance

An extremely interesting study. I asked Thato if the essential social dialogue has to happen face to face. “Absolutely not. In fact we originally wanted the groupwork to be virtual but were constrained by technical issues and poor bandwidth.”

As Alan Amory said, “We don’t learn from games, we learn through them.” So, in SA gaming can be used as a learning tool when it is conceived and designed as the vehicle that provides the opportunity for social dialogue in a learning activity. Using mobile games, and mobile instant messaging to enable the social dialogue between the players, is not only plausible but in fact the only way that digital game-based learning will benefit most South African learners today.


Authors: Thato Foko, Centre for Information Technology in Higher Education, South Africa; Alan Amory, University of Johannesburg, South Africa

One thought on “Social Constructivism in Games Based Learning in The South African Context (ED-MEDIA 2008)

  1. That’s a very interesting study – and definitely encourages the notion of co-operative learning via games. Interesting to say the least.

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