Gamifying a Short-Term Online First-Year Composition Course

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In an attempt to stem the outflow of students to universities with more extensive online programs, my university is piloting several core curriculum short-term online courses this summer at the regular tuition rate and I was asked to teach the 6-week online English 101 class. Needless to say, the thought of having to teach a first-semester FYC class completely online in just six weeks was fairly daunting. How to cover the basics of effective writing, the writing process, research methods, citation formatting, and critical reading in such a short period of time with the added hindrance of a clunky LMS (Blackboard) and no physical contact with the students (who would also not have access to the Writing Clinic, which is closed during the summer terms)? It felt like trying to coach 25 students through their first 50-meter dash. And ideally, an online class has lots of structured interactions via a discussion forum and/or blog posts in order to alleviate students’ sense of isolation, but the brevity of the term meant there was barely enough time for writing assignments, much less huge chunks of time dedicated to discussing stuff. So, I decided to turn what seemed like a huge disadvantage into an advantage and use the whole idea of a race to the finish line as inspiration for an Amazing Race-themed self-paced writing class.

Mechanics

I made the class more manageable by dividing it up into six “legs,” one for each skill set I needed to address: navigating and using Blackboard, the writing process, integrating and citing supporting quotations/summaries/paraphrases, research methods, annotating sources, and writing a research-based argumentative essay. Each leg consists of playlists that I created on Blendspace of resources on the skills needed to master the writing challenges for the leg and quizzes testing students’ ability to both recall tips and techniques addressed in the playlists and apply them to examples. Each leg culminates in a boss writing challenge that requires students to apply what they have learned throughout the leg.

I used Blackboard’s adaptive release feature to establish a mastery baseline of 60% for all quizzes and assignments and gave students unlimited attempts on each, so they must work at a quiz or writing assignment until they have earned at least 60% of the possible points before the next challenge is unlocked. Quizzes are auto-graded and I established a daily deadline for writing assignments so that any assignments completed by the daily deadline are graded the same day. Points earned on challenges are only indirectly related to a student’s final grade in the course, as that is determined by how many legs of the race they can finish before the last day. In this way, I effectively made the course self-paced: students can work on challenges as quickly as they like, as long as they have enough legs completed by the deadline to earn the final grade they desire.

I also decided to try out Blackboard’s new Achievements tool, which is basically a badging system tied to adaptive release. In order to encourage students to try to earn more than the bare minimum of points on challenges, I established an Achievement for earning at least 90% of the total possible points on each quiz and an Achievement (the Wordsmith badge) for earning at least 90% on any boss writing challenge. I also established an Experience Levels system and tied badges to leveling up, with each modeled after a “pass” from The Amazing Race: the Yield Pass allows students to preview a quiz of their choice, the Express Pass allows them to unlock the next challenge without earning the required 60% XP on their current challenge, and the Salvage Pass gives them 100 bonus XP to be applied to whichever challenges they wish (except for a boss challenge). And I created two other types of passes: the Fast Forward Pass allows a student to bypass a second draft of a writing assignment if they earn at least 80% of the total XP on their first draft, and the Detour Pass grants a student who earns at least 90% XP on their first research paper an alternative assignment that is more creative in nature during the boss leg of the race. I also threw in some easy-to-earn Achievements, like the Race Check-In badge, so that all students have a chance to earn at least a few badges.

I am also using a Blackboard tool developed by a colleague, Dr. David Thornton, called the Gamegogy Leaderboard, that displays a leaderboard based on selected columns from the Grade Book; this allows students a visual representation of where they stand in the class, points-wise, in comparison to everyone else. The student only sees their name and all other students are anonymous. You can add the Leaderboard block by selecting the “add course module” option on the course homepage and adding the Gamegogy Leaderboard. David also developed a Gamegogy Quest Path block that aligns with adaptive release rules to show a visual “map” of assignments, including which ones have been unlocked, which have been passed, and which remain locked. However, this tool is in beta testing and still has quite a few bugs that will hopefully be eliminated in the near future.

The Blackboard Gamegogy Leaderboard Tool
The Blackboard Gamegogy Leaderboard Tool

Dynamics

I still wanted to give students a sense of community, so I set up a discussion forum called the Water Cooler, which is an informal space for students to interact in whatever ways they wish/need to. There is only one required post: an introduction of themselves to the rest of the class that they have to complete as part of a Blackboard Scavenger Hunt that I use during the first leg to help them learn the ropes of Blackboard. I responded to each introduction in an effort to let students know that I am an active member of the class and genuinely interested in them and their success. I also created an Ask Mrs. Sasser a Question discussion board for questions that are not addressed on the syllabus or the FAQ page, with the promise that any question that receives a rating of at least three stars from peers will be added to the FAQ page. I am hoping that these small measures will give students a sense of empowerment within the class and alleviate any feelings of isolation or panic they might feel as the six weeks progress.

Aesthetics

I used media from The Amazing Race that I found on the show’s Wikimedia article throughout the course, including the imagery for the Experience Level and other passes and Route Info cards that I placed at the start of each leg that summarize the skills addressed in the leg and the learning outcomes for the boss challenge. As students complete each leg, they get a Pit Stop card that lets them know they have successfully completed the leg and can move on to the next one. I also created a custom banner for the course shell using PicMonkey and used the same tool to create a finish line image for students who complete all six legs. And to provide students a flashy, visual reminder of how much time is left in the term, I used Flash Countdown Clock Generator to create a countdown clock for the last day of class and added it to the header of the homepage.

I carried the theme of The Amazing Race throughout the course as much as possible, selecting the History theme, which has compasses and other travel imagery, for the course shell and giving badges names that suggest the kinds of tasks that contestants in the show are often forced to undertake, such as Deep Source Diver for displaying mastery of research methods. And I gave the Experience Levels names such as Tourist and Native to accentuate the global travel aesthetic. I even renamed the course homepage Base Camp. My hope is that by immersing students in an atmosphere rich in imagery and language aligned with the theme of The Amazing Race, I can make what might otherwise be a daunting set of challenges a little more fun and perhaps even convince some students to imagine themselves in a similar competition in which I am presenting them with challenges and their goal is to overcome each challenge and make it to the finish line before time is up and, thus, earn the grand prize (in this case, an A for their transcript).

100% online courses are, I have found, the most challenging, for multiple reasons that have all been addressed in the plethora of books and journal articles that have been published over the past few years as online courses are becoming more and more popular with (but not necessarily beloved by) students and universities alike. There are the issues related to the students themselves and those related to lack of training and support for the instructors. And there are the issues related to technology and the lack of a truly effective LMS (although, I think we are finally getting close with the likes of Canvas). And there are all kinds of “best practices” that we can try and I am trying some of those this term, but there are also many that I cannot because of the limits of a short-term course. My goal is to make students as confident as possible and to allow them the freedom, and the challenge, of working at their own pace within a mastery-based learning environment that also encourages them to (role) play and have a little fun. I will be keeping notes and monitoring statistics and I will also ask students to complete a feedback survey at the end of the term and will report back the results once the class is over in June.

The race is, for better or worse, on . . .

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