The core loop

One of the most interesting and useful ideas that has come out of my UX Design class is the concept of “the core loop,” which originates from the vocabulary of Game Design. What I have is probably a somewhat simplified version of it— but arguably that is what makes it so great: the essence of it compressed & inescapable. Its barebone guidance is sort of a crutch beacon when realities and frameworks clutter and conflict. 

The idea is dead simple— given any game, there are core activities that you do, which form a loop that plays over and over again. There can be complexities and additional features or gimmicks in between, but the core activities are straightforward. Like the illustration on the left for FishVille,the heart and soul of the game is no more than players buying fish, growing fish, then selling fish. Very simple activities that you can conceptualize and verbalize in a few words; the rest of the messiness in between and separate from the core drivers.

I’ve been thinking more about this in relation to online learning platforms (I should just call them for what they are–MOOC’s) and the high drop-out-rate which plagues not only them, but most forms of distance learning.  When you think about it in terms of the core loop concept, it always seems to me that the loop is not strong enough, that components of it are not very reinforced.

Take the basic concept of “Learning”, for example. Let’s say that the loop goes something like: Receive the material –> Digest/Practice the material –> Receive assessment/feedback on our learning. In most of the MOOC’s I have experienced, the loop breaks down on the last two steps. In my personal experience (and I am aware that it is not applicable to everyone), the assignments are often not adapted well enough to the format of the MOOC’s. Even though the massive scale of such yields interesting creative insights to professors and course participants, I feel that these insights are fundamentally serendipitous, and it’s hard to say if students consistently get a rigorous and systemic educational experience. The feedback part is usually troubling for me, in that I don’t always receive feedback that I trust the quality of. There are parts of this that give me metaphysical pause to my own thinking too, though, because I sense that it is modeled after an authoritarian paradigm of teaching & learning (entrusting a “teacher” or “expert” with the righteous voice of education), and I don’t want to give that idea too much credence either.

What I find even more fascinating is the core loop of social mechanisms within online learning communities. I have strong faith that the differentiating gem of online learning lies in harnessing the massive, horizontal communities embedded in each course. But when you apply the loop to “socializing” in online learning, it is even more frail than the learning loop (I suppose predictably so given that that’s not usually the first emphasis). Let’s say a (successful) social loop usually goes like this: Encounter new people –> Find common ground of interaction –> Deepen connection.  The loop breaks down quite easily in most MOOC’s, starting with it being pretty contrived and difficult to “meet” new people unless you make extra effort to keep up correspondence. There isn’t a really good way of “meeting” the classmates that are most relevant to you unless you stake out the forums or proactively rotate through people’s profile. Finding common ground of topic/experience is slightly easier in the context of a shared academic interest, but the “conversations” are usually stretched out monologues on each side rather than true conversing.

Of course, I know I may seem unfairly critical given the early days (& already many interesting insights emerging) of this new medium. But my intention is actually not to criticize or point out shortcomings for the mere sake of negating— it is more to understand which part of the loop breaks down and how we can begin to think about reinforcement through interface and learning design.

I always thought, for example, that it would be cool to have some sort of commenting mechanism that goes with each segment of the video. This already happens in Khan Academy videos and the “lecture chapters” of Zed Shaw’s Learn (Whatever) the Hard Way. But could it be even more interesting if we could further pinpoint finer segments of the video (lecture) and share insights or questions anchored to those moments— much like what Soundcloud is doing with audio files currently. My hunch is that this would make conversations easier, more spontaneous, and more contextual to discover common ground.

There are other important considerations in this idea of core loop. For one: what is the location/context that this loop is taking place in? The learning loop taking place in a physical space is much different from a learning loop taking place in front of your computer, at the solitude of your own home. In a physical space, there may be greater sense of social obligation to stay, to press on, or there may be encouragement from the subtle social dynamics between people. In an online situation, it may be easier to exit the loop without guilt. Another thing to consider is the duration cycle of the loop– is it frequent quick iterations, or does it stretch out to lengthy cycles? The social interaction between people in real life is instantaneous, but online social interaction often involves wait between replies via messaging or email.  How does this affect stickiness vs fatigue? If we want to help people persist through the loop, can we design for relief, anticipation, or patience when the loop iterates too fast or too slowly?

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