ESLTIS19 – My 2nd Keynote: Make and Release – Opening up through play

I was honored to be asked to provide a keynote presentation on the second day of this year’s Enhancing Student Learning Through Innovative Scholarship Conference (ESLTIS) conference.

Again, the talk wasn’t recorded and slides really only provide a hint towards content, so here’s a blog post covering the key content of my keynote.


 I work in the Open Education Resources service at The University of Edinburgh, and prior to working in open licensing my work had been focused in academic library learning services and technologies. What I’ve found is that most of my teaching and outreach work tends to be focused in the areas of what I like to call confidence building. 

Confidence building in using technologies provided by library and learning technology services. In creating, using, and sharing materials in digital spaces. In applying copyright and licensing knowledge into practice.

Thanks to my mother I grew up with an understanding of the importance of education and it’s alignment with playfulness. I’ve brought this with me all throughout my own education and now into how I approach the education and training of others. ​

I continue to use playful methods as I’ve seen time and again how they can help learners of all ages overcome one very specific problem. Fear. Fear of failure. Fear of not being taken seriously. Fear of your action or your work not being ‘good enough’ is something that I’ve seen again and again with the staff and students I interact with in higher education.

Activity Break 1: Turn to a neighbour and play ‘Paper, rock, scissors’. Now I’d like the winner to go first and to share an example (one that you feel safe sharing) of a time you failed at something, whether it was using a piece of technology, giving a presentation, baking a cake…and how you then solved the problem or learned from your experience.

When we play a game although we strive to achieve the win condition, it can also create a safe space where losing the game or forfeiting a prize can be experienced away from fear.  Games and playfulness are spaces where failing is part of the process, sometimes even encouraged. “Games give experiences meaning, they provide a set of boundaries within a ‘safe’ environment to explore, think and ‘try things out’.” (Kapp, 2012)​

This is what we call a Lusory attitude. A term coined by Bernard Suits in 1978.​. The psychological attitude required of a player entering into the play of a game. ​To adopt a lusory attitude is to accept the arbitrary rules of a game in order to facilitate the resulting experience of play.​

1: Safe spaces to experiment with failure. 2. Support to immerse in play - choice. 3. Autonomy - intrinsic/internal motivation to engage
Icons from Noun Project: Diversity by Nithinan Tatah, Self-motivation by Becris, & Choice by Millenials, CC BY

The ‘magic circle’ was originally coined by Huizinga (1955) as an example of  a space in which play happens, and later expanded by Salen and Zimmerman (2004) as a way of explaining how people construct relationships and realities during play.

Activity Break 2: Each of you have been provided with a sheet of paper and one coloured crayon. I’d like you to either a) use at least 3 different colours to draw or write your failure experience that was shared earlier, or b) write a short ditty/poem about it in a form of your choice.


We can create a game, we can invite others to join us in our lusory and playful spaces, but not everyone is going to be willing, able, or interested in playing our games. Variety, autonomy, and choice is key.  I prefer to create guided workshops and experiences where people are in control of how and what their playful experience is, and provide opportunities to experiment playfully with content and copyright applications through playful creation, making, and sharing.

One of my first approaches was to create an OER Board Game Jam. A Game Jam is an organised event where a group of people gather with the intention of creating a full game – from conception to completion – in a pre-determined, short period of time.  In the OER Board Game Jam I lead groups through the creation, licensing, and sharing of their very own board game as an open educational resource.

I’d received feedback from staff that their practices had changed since attending playful sessions, but I was concerned and wanted to have a clearer understanding as to whether the playful approach was enhancing the learning experience or distracting from it. What I wanted was some data on staff and student experiences of the OER Board Game Jam, their motivations to attend, and if and how they applied the learning afterwards.

I joined forces with Dr. Eva Murzyn from the University of Edinburgh’s School of Psychology and we undertook a series of focused interview groups between July and November 2017. We used semi-structured questions for each session, focusing on workshop experience and application of learning.

Overall, the session evaluations were very positive. Some participants expressed that their copyright practices had improved, but it was not a universal sentiment. What did come through strongly was an appreciation for the hands-on practical experience of applying copyright knowledge to practice within the session. Since then I’ve changed the structure of the session to include more discussion of copyright and licensing applications. I’ve expanded the format and now also run OER digital storytelling game creation using the open-source tool Twine.

This approach also applies in my other playful learning projects. 23 Things for Digital Knowledge combines self-paced guided experimentation with activities to apply new skills and knowledge with a reflective process to embed the learning. I run Gif It Up workshops, making use of an existing external competition run by to teach digital skills, copyright, licensing, and raise discussions on the morals and ethics of re-use. Each of these learning workshops and activities are designed to allow the learner to approach new skills and learning playfully and to embrace failures as steps towards something new.

Speaking of something new, as a result of all my playful activities I was tasked with a completely new challenge that I’d like to share with you. But before I do, here’s one more activity.

Activity Break 3:  This is an invitation to share. I’m encouraging you to turn your drawing, short story, poem, or ditty into an image or a simple tweet and share share it on the conference hashtag #ESLTIS19.

My turn. In 2017 I was asked by Melissa Highton, the Director of Learning Teaching and Web Services at the University of Edinburgh to create a strategy  on how we could incorporate playful engagement into the practices and approach of our Information Services Group. Whoa. I’d never taken on a project of work at this level before and I have to admit, it was incredibly intimidating at first and I made a bunch of mistakes bogging down in details and uncertainties. So I turned to my colleagues and friends, asked for help, and then I applied my own playfulness approach to the task. I facilitated sessions with colleagues right across our services and using playful methods including Lego Serious Play and the Ketso community communication, was able to create the strategy which was launched in January this year.

You can view the strategy and read more about our playful approach towards engagement, services and tools on the webpage here: Playful Engagement – Information Services, University of Edinburgh



A huge thanks to Dr Sam Nolan, Assistant Director, Durham Centre for Academic Development, Durham University and the ESLTIS conference committee for inviting me. This was a fantastic opportunity and I appreciated every moment. Thank you!


Huizinga, J. (1955), Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, Beacon Press, Boston, MA.

Kapp, K.M., (2012), The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education, John Wiley & Sons

Murzyn, E., Farley, S. (2018).,PTAS Research “Playful Learning – OER Board Games’ full report:

Salen, K., Zimmerman, E., (2003), Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, MIT Press

Salen, K. & Zimmerman, E. (2004), Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA

Whitton, N. (2018). Playful learning: tools, techniques, and tactics. Research in Learning Technology, 26.

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