Learning-by-Doing: GuitarBots

Yesterday, I wrote about how most “learning-by-doing” is really is actually “learning-by-doing-something-really-similar-to-what-you-ultimately-want-to-do.” This is the a post in a series where I explore games and online learning that incorporate authentic practice.

GuitarBots is an online game where you learn to play the guitar by playing the guitar. Unlike similar systems, you can use any guitar, including an acoustic one, since GuitarBots uses your computer microphone to detect which note you’re playing.

After watching my husband (Brian) play for months, I decided to sign up for my own account yesterday. Until I signed up for this account, I’d never played a guitar, so please excuse any accidental abuse of guitar terminology in this post.

start_practice

If this were traditional online learning, it would have started with an introductory module on the history of the guitar and perhaps some information about how guitars are constructed. Luckily, this wasn’t traditional online learning.

If this were more performance-focused online learning, I would have interacted with a web-based interface to tune a virtual guitar, by clicking the knobs to turn them and then clicking the strings to play the notes. This probably would have helped somewhat had I then immediately practiced this using an actual guitar. However, I certainly wouldn’t have had the visceral sense of knowing just how much to turn a knob, or how to juggle picking and knob adjusting without dropping the guitar. (I’ve never claimed to be particularly coordinated.)

Instead, in GuitarBots, my first lesson was learning to tune my guitar by tuning my real guitar.

tuning

GuitarBots stepped me through the basic tuning process of turning knobs and picking strings. I adjusted until the onscreen tuner indicated that I’d matched each note on my guitar.

Once I’d finished tuning the guitar, I immediately moved into learning to play a song by playing a song. (A very simple song.)

playing

After each song, I received a report on my timing and accuracy, as well as my history playing this particular song.

feedback

As I played, I unlocked additional songs.

levels

In addition to songs, GuitarBots guides you to practice related techniques.

techniques

I’m told that it’s possible to test out of early levels by demonstrating your competence on a song that very gradually increases in difficulty. With my limited guitar-playing skills, I didn’t bother. However, this seems like a great way to make a system that accommodates learners at a variety of competence levels.

At the moment, I’m not actively looking to learn to play the guitar. However, I’ve watched Brian’s path since buying a guitar two years ago. Since the purchase, Brian tried various books and practice exercises, but GuitarBots was the first time that he practiced consistently.

Some of the motivating and helpful features Brian mentioned:

  • Self-Directed Learning: GuitarBots lets him decide whether to push himself with new songs, or perfect a song he’s already learned.
  • Competition: GuitarBots shows how Brian is doing in comparison to his friends. 
  • Scaffolding: GuitarBots provides guidance for new techniques and feedback on areas where he is having difficulty. Additionally, if he’s having difficulty with a song, he can slow it down and then build it back up again until he is able to play at full speed.

These are all great for encouraging practice – and techniques that are often utilized in games and learning. In the end, though, what makes this game so strong in my eyes is that it creates an experience where learners are engaging in real world practice, versus something similar. Creating these types of authentic experiences – instead of “near authentic” experiences – is HARD, and understandably not yet done much on the computer. Here a key was utilizing the microphone as an input device, instead of depending on the usual mouse clicks, finger taps, key presses, or toy guitars.

The next post also features a game with a novel input device, this time a biofeedback sensor. More tomorrow!

This part of a multi-part post about games that require you to do exactly what you’re learning to do. Previous posts:

 

Games that require you to do exactly what you’re learning to do

Most “learning-by-doing” is actually “learning-by-doing-something-really-similar-to-what-you-ultimately-want-to-do.” This isn’t horrible, but it is different.

For example, I’ve designed and built many online modules that focus on interacting with people. Typically, the user clicks what they want to do/say and sees the results through immediate and/or delayed feedback.

Screenshot from loan officer simulation.

If the choices take into account best practices and tempting mistakes, these types of online interactions can help users practice some of the same sorts of decision-making used in real life. This is almost always more impactful than just passively reading or listening to information about these decisions.

However, the way the user acts and is evaluated certainly isn’t the same as real life. Not once in my interactions with real people in the real world have I been presented with three options for what to do next and asked to click one.

Receiving and judging user’s performance in novel ways is hard, especially with the limited options for input devices on computers and other electronics. On that note, my next few posts will feature games that I think are interesting BECAUSE of the way that they incorporate real (not just close to real) practice into the gameplay itself.

On that note, tomorrow’s post will explore GuitarBots!