Pervasive Games as a Model for Pervasive Learning


This thing that I have become so passionate about goes by many names. Games-based learning, quest-based learning, gamification, etc. etc. etc. Some of these names have positive connotations and at least one of them has some very, very negative connotations. I tend to use games-based learning and gamification interchangeably and I often tag posts that focus on games-based learning with the gamification tag, even though I don’t consider what I am doing gamification. I suppose I do this because teachers who are interested in one are often also interested in the other and, like me, may use one or the other depending on the course and the students. I have found, though, that I am moving farther and farther away from gamification and closer and closer towards turning my courses into full-fledged games. Hence, I see what I am doing as games-based learning; while my students aren’t playing video games (which typically characterizes GBL), they are playing a game; the game just happens to be the class. Sometimes this game involves role playing face-to-face or via a virtual environment like Second Life;  sometimes it involves completing quests to unlock new quests; sometimes the role-play and the questing center around a shared narrative that the players create via their decisions and actions; and it always involves communicating and collaborating with other players via social media.  If you add all of those things up, I think that there’s a pretty good argument to be made that what I am really doing–and what I want to do better–is turning learning into a pervasive game.

In Pervasive Games: Theory and Design, Markus Montola defines a pervasive game as “a game that has one or more salient features that expand the contractual magic circle of play spatially, temporally, or socially.” In other words:

In pervasive games, the magic circle is expanded in one or more ways: The game no longer takes place in certain times or certain places, and the participants are no longer certain. Pervasive games pervade, bend, and blur the traditional boundaries of game, bleeding from the domain of the game to the domain of the ordinary.

There are some common characteristics of pervasive games that illustrate this expansion: the whole world becomes a playground (players’ everyday environments become the game space), there is no such thing as a temporally-defined play session (play can and does occur at any time), and playing with outsiders (people who happen to be present in the game space during game play can become inadvertent and unsuspecting NPC’s). To further illustrate what a pervasive game is, I’ll use the example of Google’s Ingress. In Ingress, the player takes on the role of the game token (a flesh avatar) and their phone takes on the role of a weapon within the game. The objective of the game is to use their phone’s GPS to locate and “hack” portals of energy that are leaking out into the surrounding environment. These portals are located in the player’s local community: historical landmarks, governmental buildings, art installations, etc. The player is competing to claim as many portals as possible for their faction (either the Enlightenment or the Resistance) before players aligned with the other faction can do so. There is also a narrative thread that provides meaning to the energy, the portals, and the player’s role in and motivation for capturing them that the player can discover by locating and solving puzzles via websites, social media, and the portals themselves. The game is much more complicated than my summary suggests and I think that this video documenting one particular world-wide Ingress “operation” can do a better job of illustrating the capacity for pervasive gaming to engage and motivate:

So, what does this have to do with learning? If we consider the rhetoric that surrounds education right now, we can clearly see the connection. The new mantra of education is “21st Century Skills.” What specifically characterizes 21st Century Skills is debatable and has not been exactly pinned down. But what is clear is that the majority of schools–both K12 and higher education institutions–are not doing a very good job of helping their students attain these skills. We know that at least some of these skills include abilities such as problem-solving, disciplinary flexibility, adaptability, networking, collaboration and cooperation, technological adeptness, creativity, critical and analytical reading and thinking, and the willingness to be a lifelong learner. These skills are essential to surviving and thriving in the new information-based economy–one characterized by frequent career changes, a technology-dependent infrastructure, and the need for innovation and creative problem-solving within a global context. The old-school (pardon the pun) method of education just does not teach these kinds of skills or prepare our students for this kind of economy. In order to develop this new kind of mindset, we need to encourage our students to recognize and embrace learning opportunities both inside and outside of the classroom; to make connections between disciplines and between those disciplines and their passions; to transfer their social networking and technology skills from Facebook, YouTube, and video games to the classroom and, eventually, their careers; and to apply what they’ve learned about collaboration and cooperation from MMORPG’s and ARG’s to problem-based learning scenarios and service learning projects. So, in many ways we really want learning to be like a pervasive game: always “on;” expanded beyond a single physical space or time frame; encouraging connections across multiple platforms and environments; triggering and integrating multiple ways of thinking, interpreting, learning, problem-solving, and acting; and requiring creative interactions with both other people and the local environment.

I don’t think that you necessarily have to turn your class into a pervasive game in order to achieve this kind of learning. But I think that by studying pervasive games and how they work to engage and motivate players, we can figure out how to better prepare our students to adopt pervasive learning attitudes and habits. Here are some techniques outlined in Pervasive Games: Theory and Design that I think teachers could co-opt and integrate in order to encourage pervasive learning:

  • integrate authentic physical space and physical artifacts as game content to encourage players to interact with their local community in new and exploratory ways; use the community’s ambience and history to make it part of the game; use the game to direct players to interesting locations at interesting times
  • make the player’s body a de facto game token
  • integrate virtual and augmented reality to mix the physical and virtual game content
  • spatial expansion is about discovery and changing perception–> expose the unseen and make the familiar strange
  • temporal expansion makes play available at all times–> the game is always “on”
  • the rules of the game can change over time to scaffold play and keep players’ interest
  • design tangible experiences–> the player is doing something incredible through their own efforts that they’ll want to talk about afterwards
  • surpass expectations–> establish expectations then squash them with an unexpected maneuver
  • escalate previous experiences
  • link task structures so that success in one challenge directly influences the chances of success in another
  • force collaboration through interdependence
  • make players do things for real (find a book, scale a wall, create a chemical reaction, navigate a landscape)
  • foster networking to ramp up collective knowledge
  • create the 360 degree illusion–> indexical environment (real space), indexical activity (real action), immersive role-play
  • this is not a game–> use ordinary reality as a sourcebook
  • sustain a responsive game world–> lots and lots of interactive feedback (between game master and players and players and players)
  • the goal is for a collective story to emerge; the players tell the story based on their communal experiences; you shouldn’t have to tell the story to them
  • foster arenas where the story can emerge–> discussion forums, debrief party, etc.
  • design for sensory immersion–> audiovisual, 3-D, stereophonic surroundings
  • design for challenge-based immersion–> create a satisfying balance of challenges and abilities
  • design for imaginative immersion–> becoming absorbed with the stories and worlds and feeling for or identifying with a game character
  • create alternate endings and allow the players to determine the true ending

I’ll leave how to apply these strategies to a learning context up to your imagination. But I believe that they provide some very fertile ground for transforming learning for our students in the same ways that pervasive games have transformed what it means to play a game.

Dave Szulborski said of Alternate Reality Games–a type of pervasive game–that “[i]n an ARG, the goal is not to immerse the player in the artificial world of the game; instead, a successful game immerses the world of the game into the everyday life of the player.” I believe that in education, the goal is not to immerse the learner in the artificial world of school, but instead to immerse learning into the everyday life of the learner. Pervasive games offer a set of guiding principles that could very well help us do just that.

Using Power Cards to Encourage Power Reading: Gamifying Required Texts


After a much needed summer hiatus and a rather hectic start to the Fall semester, I am finally carving out some blogging time. It’s been such a hectic start because, not only am I teaching an overload (for a total of 3 composition classes, one of which is 100% online), but I spent a good deal of my summer and start-of-term trying to gamify my FYC classes. As with all new methodologies, I am taking baby steps with this, but it was still a major undertaking. I’ll be writing a series of posts that deal with various aspects of how I gamified the course, including building a “game lore” and gamifying assessment. For this and the next post, I want to focus on one aspect of the class that I feel has been the most successful: gamifying the course readings.

The theme for my FYC classes this term is “How to Tell a True War Story.” The university’s freshman read this year is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, so I decided to use the book as a springboard to consider and explore the kinds of war stories we tell and how the lines between fact and fiction blur and often disintegrate in the process. In addition to the O’Brien book, we are also watching three war films: Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker, and Restrepo. After watching each, students can select from a list of related texts (articles, videos, photo essays, etc.) to read. While the films are extremely high-interest and I knew I would not have difficulty with students not being engaged with them, I wasn’t so confident about the O’Brien book and our other assigned nonfiction book, the graphic memoir War Is Boring, or the companion texts for each film. So, I decided to try to gamify the class readings.

I found inspiration from John Hardison’s “22 Power Cards to Revolutionize a Class,” in which he describes how he gamified literary analysis by pitting teams of students against each other in a Q & A showdown that involved power cards similar to those in popular role-playing card games like Magic the Gathering and Pokemon. I liked the idea of turning close reading of O’Brien’s book into a competition, but I wanted to develop a more simplistic set of game rules and power cards, since students would only have half of a class meeting to prepare for the battle. I decided to divide the class into two teams and allow the two students with the most XP to be team commanders and select the members of their units. Each student came to the battle preparation meeting with an open-ended question about the book and the units worked to select, refine, and finalize ten questions to bring into battle with them. For the battle itself, each unit had 30 seconds to select a question and a defender from the other unit to answer it; the defender then had two minutes to consult with their unit on the answer before answering. As judge, I awarded the defender points based on the quality of their answer. The unit with the most points at the end of the battle won and all members of the unit received 40 XP.

For the power cards, I decided to allow each unit to go into battle with five defensive and four offensive tactical weapons. The defensive weapons included:

  • Walkthrough: allows the unit 2 minutes to refer to the novel and use it when answering the question
  • Cheat code: each unit member is allowed to prepare a one-page set of crib notes; the cheat code allows the unit 2 minutes to refer to any or all unit members’ crib notes and use them when answering the question
  • Glitch: allows the unit to re-use one of their discarded defensive weapons, pass on a question, OR recall one of their previous defenders
  • Pause: allows the unit an extra 1 minute to formulate their answer

The offensive weapons included:

  • Grenade: the unit may select up to three members of the defending unit to be removed from the answer formulation process
  • Seige: forces the defender to formulate their answer without help from their unit
  • Blitzkreig: reduces the defending unit’s answer formulation time to 1 minute
  • Raid: if the attacking unit has received a score of 4 on three or more answers, they may take away any of the defending unit’s remaining tactical weapons and add it to their own arsenal

These power cards forced the units to act strategically both before and during the battle, from preparing crib notes to sizing up members of the opposing unit to decide who were the weakest and strongest members.

The battle was exciting, fun, and frustrating for students all at the same time. Those who had not read as closely were obvious hindrances to their unit and those who were more competitive in nature had to learn to cope and recover when their ill-prepared peers failed to earn a lot of points or when the opposing team used a power card to out-manoeuvre them. On the flip side, very few students seemed ill-prepared and, out of 40 plus students, only one student could not provide at least a partial answer to a question. Both the highly competitive and quieter students could excel in the game, as their unit could use all members to help formulate the answer (unless the opposing unit used a power card that prevented them from doing so). I was pleasantly surprised at the depth of reading and analysis required to answer the questions that the students posed during the game, but the majority of students did not have difficulty answering them and providing examples from the book to support their answer. And even though they were  allowed to use the book or their notes once each during the game, one team declined to do so, and while they lost, it was only by a margin of 2 points. The takeaway from this is that by forcing the students to both collaborate and compete, I saw evidence of closer reading and deeper analysis of the assigned text from every single student who played the game (only four students total out of both classes did not show up on the day of battle). And they seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves and have fun, even when losing.

I have decided to use the Q & A battle again with our other book, War Is Boring, and will post about the results at the end of the term. In my next post, I’ll describe how I’m using collaboration to gamify the companion texts that students are selecting and reading in conjunction with each of the movies we are watching this term.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your own ideas for and/or experiences with gamifying assigned readings and making analysis and discussion of those readings more effective and fun.


Rewarding the Brain through Purposeful Design: Reflections on Week 2 of the Games Based Learning MOOC

photo credit: Patrick Hoesly via photopin cc
photo credit: Patrick Hoesly via photopin cc

For me, the standout resource from the second week of the Games Based Learning MOOC was Tom Chatfield’s TED Talk “7 Ways Games Reward the Brain.”

Chatfield’s seven aspects of gaming align with many of the same aspects of gaming that were addressed during our discussion of fun, flow, and fiero during the first week, and I think that a consideration of his arguments regarding not only how but why games are so rewarding will help shed even more light on the issues I addressed in my last post regarding how games-based learning continues to trump classroom-based learning, despite how (poorly) gamified school already is (see my post on bad game design for a more thorough discussion of this). But understanding why/how something works is just half the battle; the most difficult part of design is putting that knowledge into action, so I’ve placed Chatfield’s talk alongside Greg Costikyan’s “I Have No Words and I Must Design” in order to highlight the practical ways in which game design elicits these rewards.

The Relationship between decisions and experience

Chatfield’s first reward is experience bars measuring progress. He argues that it’s important for players to be able to see how close they are to their long-term objective, as well as how far they’ve come since they started the game. While Chatfield qualifies explicit progress measurement as an experience bar, various games demonstrate progress in different ways, but the one thing that all games have in common is that progress is a result of decision-making on the part of the player: good decisions allow them to progress, bad decisions prevent them from progressing. In terms of design, Costikyan argues that  games make players’ choices meaningful by giving them resources to manage. Often these resources are experience points, which unlock new levels or other types of resources. If the game has more than one resource, then players’ decisions become even more complex: interesting decisions make for interesting games. But the resource(s) must have a function within the game; in other words, the resource(s) must allow the player to progress and play smarter/stronger.

This is where classroom design often falls horribly short. Often, the only resource students have any control over is their grade (the ultimate progress bar in the game of school). While educators may argue that decision-making plays a role in a student’s grade (don’t do the work or don’t do it well enough and you don’t make the grade), if a grade is the only resource a student has to manage, then the decisions they make regarding their learning are far less interesting. We could argue that students also have to manage their time, their textbooks, our instructions, etc., but often students don’t see how these resources are relevant to the game, or their grade, because we don’t make those relationships explicit the way games do. Also, students’ progress is not always made a central aspect of their learning; they may receive progress reports periodically or, worse yet, only twice during a term (as is the case in college courses), but we rarely provide them with an ever-present experience bar or cache of experience-related resources that they can constantly look at and to. I’ve argued before that we need to teach students how to be more meta, but we must give them the tools to do so and an explicit and constant visual reminder of their progress is one way to do that.


Chatfield’s next point is that games provide both short and long term goals so that players can choose between different tasks or complete tasks in parallel that all point them towards a larger, ultimate objective. Goals are, as Costikyan points out, one of the defining characteristics of games and they are what make games worthwhile, but achieving the goal must involve a struggle of some kind in order to trigger intrinsic motivation. It is the opposition that players face as they attempt to meet their short and long term goals that lies at the heart of the game. As others have pointed out, if the goal is too easy to attain, then both it and the game lose their value. Tension, Costikyan reminds us, makes for fun games:

Ideally, a game should be tense all the way through, but especially so at the end. The toughest problems, the greatest obstacles, should be saved for last.

In my last post, I addressed the need to match player with challenge and how classrooms fail to be as effective at this as games. There may be several reasons for this related to how we address short and long term goals and tension. While games establish the players’ objectives, they also allow a lot of wiggle room for player autonomy. Players usually have multiple short term goals they can choose between, often with varying degrees of difficulty. For example, in Minecraft, I can choose to gather more resources so that I don’t have to spend so much time and energy on short term survival, or I can fritter away the day spiffing up my digs. Each “day” I have to make complex decisions about how to spend my time and energy and balance my resources against my long term goals.

Minecraft Home Base
Some days are spent spiffing up my home base (despite my low health status)

As educators, we obviously have to establish learning objectives for the students. But how much wiggle room do we give them in terms of how to meet those objectives? And how often do we allow them the autonomy to decide which short term objectives to work on at any given time based on their own feelings of efficacy and motivation? And how often do we force them to make complex decisions about their own goals and those established for them? As I’ve argued before regarding game-based rules and goals:

While the rules of the game may be very rigidly defined, how the player chooses to interact with those rules is really what playing the game is all about. If games were standardized experiences for every player, no one would play them.

When we expect all students to meet standardized goals in standardized ways, we create standardized experiences. This is especially problematic when you consider how many of our students are gamers, used to autonomy and complex decision-making within ultra-responsive, randomness-filled environments that are constantly testing their individual thinking and responsiveness. The tension we are creating for our students is not a struggle to meet learning goals, but tension between what they’re capable of and what we ask/expect of them.

Effort determines destiny

Chatfield points out that, in games, all effort is rewarded. Failure is not punished. According to Costikyan, a player must feel a sense of control over their own destiny:

[I]t shouldn’t be ridiculously difficult to find what you need, nor should victory be impossible just because you made a wrong decision three hours and thirty-eight decision points ago. Nor should the solutions to puzzles be arbitrary or absurd.

How often do our students feel a sense of hopelessness because a series of failures have significantly reduced their chances of winning the game (i.e., making the grade)? How often do our students struggle with feelings of helplessness as they watch their more motivated and/or game-savvy peers maneuver through complex puzzles that seem arbitrary or irrelevant to them? How often do we make it harder on our students in order to teach them a lesson (about turning work in on time or attendance or following the rules or picking up hidden clues we drop to see how well they’re paying attention)? Too many educators confuse “rigor” or difficulty with the tension discussed above.

Timely connections

Chatfield’s fourth reward is rapid, frequent, clear feedback. He maintains that people learn by linking consequences to actions; the further away the consequence, the harder it is to link it to an action. This function is served by the resources that games provide players. In Minecraft, if I am not vigilant enough, night time will catch me unawares and I won’t have enough time to return home; if this happens and I don’t shelter in place, I’m likely to fall victim to creepers or zombies; if I die, I lose all of the resources in my inventory, but if I’ve planned ahead and stored some resources in my supply chest, then dying is not as detrimental. Eating replenishes my health. Planning ahead pays off. The best resource to have is a bed (so you can skip the dangers of night time). Games provide players with rewards based on how smart or hard they play. Get too lazy or become less engaged, and the game will motivate you to change your behavior via immediate and clear feedback.

How rapid and frequent is the feedback our students are receiving? As I mentioned above, often feedback is periodic or infrequent and students are receiving it so long after the actions to which the feedback applies, that they have lost the thread that connects the two. And, as mentioned above, students are often only receiving one type of feedback (grades), whereas game players often receive multiple forms of feedback for any given action. For example, completing a boss level may gain you XP as well as allow you to level up, which means survival and may also mean new powers and/or resources.

Even our providing various forms of feedback may not be helpful if that feedback is unclear. Again, timeliness is key here so that students can see the causal relationship, but clarity and relevance are essential, as well. If students receive feedback and then have no clue as to how to apply it to future goals, then you might as well not provide any feedback at all (unclear feedback may do more harm than good). In games, there’s always a clear connection between an action and a consequence and the game underscores that relationship with the type of resource it provides (use information correctly and you’re likely to get even more helpful information; learn from deadly mistakes and you’re more likely to survive the next time that situation arises; use weapons and armor effectively and you’ll probably unlock even better weapons and armor, etc.). And, by providing multiple forms of feedback, the relationship between smart/hard gameplay and more/better resources is intensified so that the more feedback a player receives, the more motivated they become. So, our work is not just providing immediate, clear feedback in multiple formats, but also making sure students know how to use that feedback to play smarter/harder.

The element of surprise

Chatfield’s next reward is randomness. He argues that uncertain or surprising awards are more enjoyable than those that we expect (ahem, grades, ahem). According to Costikyan, randomness provides variety of encounter. Some questions that game designers ask themselves that educators would do well to adopt are:

What things do the players encounter in this game? Are there enough things for them to explore and discover? What provides variety? How can we increase the variety of encounter? (Costikyan)

Variety of encounter provides emotional and/or intellectual stimulation. If our students walk into a scripted class meeting every day so that they know exactly what is going to happen and when and how, then there’s little to stimulate their sense of adventure. While there’s comfort in routine (the main argument used for such classrooms), our job should be pushing students outside of their intellectual comfort zones, not helping them to cocoon deeper within them. As mentioned in some of my previous posts, cognitive disfluency is a prime component of learning. How often do you surprise your students? During class, are they truly awake and alive, emotionally and intellectually, or are they no better than automatons, going through the motions of routinized behaviors that look like learning?

Gazing out of windows

Chatfield notes that, through billions of points of data, games have been able to zero in on a player’s window of enhanced engagement (what educators would call the zone of proximal development). The two elements Chatfield mentions as essential to this window are memory (give them information when they’re most primed to remember it) and confidence (game play and rewards make people braver and more willing to takes risks). What Chatfield means by the window of enhanced engagement is what  Costikyan refers to as a game’s interactive nature. A game, Costikyan argues, is truly interactive because it demands participation. A game player cannot be passive. They must interact with the game. They cannot sit and gaze out of the window, as our students often do, because without player input, there is no game. The game stops. It is a game no more. Just as, when our students tune out, there is no more learning. Learning, like games, is interactive. It requires learner input. Once the learner stops participating in the learning, learning stops.

Some questions that Costikyan prompts game designers to ask regarding player engagement are:

What can you do to make the player care about his position? Is there a single game token that’s more important than others to the player, and what can be done to strengthen identification with it? If not, what is the overall emotional appeal of the position, and what can be done to strengthen that appeal? Who “is” the player in the game? What is his point of view?

These are important questions to ask because, if the player does not care about their position, then they become less and less likely to interact with the game. The novelty of the struggle to attain the game’s goals, the immediate feedback provided during that struggle, and the variety of experiences the player encounters along the way will wane and become routine if the player does not, at some point, begin to truly care about what happens to them in-game. Variety alone is not enough to engage students because even variety must be meaningful. Do your students care about what happens to them as learners? Do they truly understand their position as learners? How are you helping them to both understand and care about who they are as learners?

The social fabric

According to Chatfield, social interaction and collaboration are the biggest drivers of motivation in game play. Jane McGonigal terms this the social fabric of games. Costikyan encourages game designers to allow opportunities for diplomacy during which players can assist each other, perhaps directly, by sharing resources, or  perhaps by combining forces against a common foe. He prompts designers to ask the following questions:

How can players help or hinder each other? What incentives do they have to do so? What resources can they trade?

How often do you consider ways to encourage students to build a social fabric? Do you integrate opportunities for diplomacy? Or even competition? For example, John Hardison gamifies class discussion of assigned readings by encouraging both diplomacy and competition. It’s not enough to throw students together in groups and expect them to collaborate. You have to create a narrative that encourages cooperation and the cooperation must serve a purpose within that narrative. In weighing the needs/requirements of the group against their own needs, students often opt for self-preservation. If self-preservation becomes inextricably intertwined with the needs/requirements of the group or if collaboration means being able to work smarter, then students are more likely to value building a social fabric.

We worked together to build a fort with an underground bunker
My son and I worked together to build a fort with an underground bunker

If there is one take-away for me from the second week of the GBL MOOC, it is the primacy of meaningful decision-making in both games and learning. According to Costikyan:

Decisions have to pose real, plausible alternatives, or they aren’t real decisions.

In considering how this relates to and connects with what I’ve learned about fun, flow, and fiero, I can’t help but pick out the common thread of autonomy. If we wish students to be engaged, (inter)active learners, then we must allow them the autonomy to make real decisions. Only in freedom to decide between plausible, relevant alternatives can we experience the fun, the flow, and the fiero that games–and meaningful learning–allow players to experience.

Fun, Flow, and Fiero: Reflections on Week 1 of the Games Based Learning MOOC

photo credit: 2create via photopin cc
photo credit: 2create via photopin cc

As mentioned in my last post, I am planning to gamify next Fall’s first-semester FYC course, using Interactive Fiction (IF) and the multiplayer classroom model. The decision to do so came completely independently of a new MOOC that started this past week that focuses on Games Based Learning (GBL). I had not intended to take this MOOC, since I had already signed up for another MOOC that would overlap with it. However, when I saw that the GBL MOOC would be covering IF, I decided to give it a try. The great thing about MOOCs is that they are voluntary and, therefore, you can dip in and out of them as you wish. While many have classified this aspect of MOOCs as one of their weaknesses, I see it as one of their strengths. Not only does it encourage learners like me to give something a try that they might otherwise not have, but it also forces those designing and guiding the MOOC to stay innovative and relevant. With so many other MOOCs to choose from, if you want people to stick with yours, you’ve got to make it worth their time and effort. So far, the GBL MOOC has been extremely enjoyable and relevant, not just in terms of learning how to gamify a class, but learning about concepts that are, in actuality, universal to all classrooms.

Case in point: the three concepts we covered during the first week are fun, flow, and fiero. Obviously, the first two concepts are not unique to games and, while the last is, it is also easily applicable to all classes, gamified or not. What makes the discussion of all three concepts uniquely interesting within the GBL MOOC is that we can consider each as it is designed for and experienced within a specific context (i.e., games) and theorize about how we as teachers and instructors can adopt and adapt the design principles that encourage each.


Learning doesn’t have to be fun. In fact, sometimes the best and most powerful learning is decidedly not fun. But fun isn’t always, well, fun. Not in the most basic sense of the word. This instant gratification kind of fun is, in game design, termed easy fun. It is often triggered by novelty and a desire to explore the novel situation and/or environment. As we all know, novelty can quickly wear off. As a child, I was always super excited about the first day of classes at the beginning of each new school year (and still am so as a teacher at the beginning of each new semester). I loved the excitement and busyness, the new school supplies and clothes, the new people and subjects. I’d rush home every day and immediately do my homework. But by the third week of school, the novelty had become routine. The supplies and clothes were used, the people and subjects were the status quo, the homework was work. Easy fun can only hold our attention for so long. So, it’s a mistake to think that throwing some games or game-like experiences into a course will make it more fun. For fun to work as a long-term design principle, the easy fun has to be balanced with some hard fun.

Having some easy fun in Second Life with my FYC II students.
Having some easy fun in Second Life with my FYC II students.

Hard fun doesn’t always feel like fun, though sometimes it can. Hard fun is that bit of fussy code you just can’t get right. Or that level in Lego Harry Potter where you just can’t find that last piece of the house crest. Despite the frustration, you keep at it because the payoff is, in the end, worth all of the time, effort, and frustration it took. Hard fun works because it challenges us to meet a specific goal, either one we establish for ourselves or one established for us, and it rewards us once we reach that goal (with a sense of personal worth, strength, or intelligence and/or with an extrinsic reward of some kind). The best courses will allow and encourage students to experience hard fun. I’ve blogged before about how we learn best when we are experiencing cognitive disfluency. But, in integrating hard fun into our courses, we have to teach our students to embrace the frustration. After all, they’re perfectly capable of struggling through five straight hours of  trying to level up in Halo. Our quest must become to make the rewards of struggling through the challenges we create for them in class as equally gratifying.


Flow is, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the secret to happiness. So, there’s that million year-old mystery solved. Now to solve the mystery of how to design a course that will make students happy (I mean flow-happy, not superficially happy because the class is easy or they make A’s or they don’t have to show up because you don’t take roll). Because flow is a tricky, sneaky, elusive experience. It’s much akin to C.S. Lewis’s joy, in that as soon as we sense it, it disappears. It can’t be predicted and it can’t be willed. But we can be open to it. In game design, flow is inextricably linked to fun. As Zac Hill points out in “Sculpting Flow and Fiero:”

It turns out that you can design “play” along something called an engagement curve, which basically means that (as a game designer) you present challenges to people in roughly the order they’re equipped to handle them. In the moments where the challenges we face match up almost exactly with our ability to overcome them, we can be said to be in flow.

If you’re an educator, then this game-designer language probably sounds very familiar. Our psychological theories of learning tell us much the same thing in terms of the importance of matching learner with learning goal. But each and every day, millions of educators struggle to do so and watch as our students become more and more disengaged. While each and every day, millions of gamers are being matched to the perfect challenge and experiencing flow. What do game designers know that we don’t? Csikszentmihalyi offers some enlightenment:

Csikszentmihalyi found that central to the flow experience were three factors: clear goals, rigidly defined rules of engagement, and the potential for measured improvement in the context of those goals and rules. The more straightforward and clearly defined each of these are, the more conducive to flow the overall experience becomes. Moreover, due to the engagement curve we talked about earlier, each of these variables needs to be robust; that is, as your investment into the game deepens, the challenges put forth to you should rise correspondingly in proportion to your burgeoning understanding. (Hill, “Sculpting Flow and Fiero”)

Again, pretty familiar concepts. We in education know all about clearly defined goals (we call them objectives or learning outcomes), rigidly defined rules of engagement (we’re nothing if not rigid), and measured improvement (we just love measuring things and, in fact, if it’s not measurable, we’re suspicious of it). But, here’s what game designers have put their finger on that we just keep overlooking: it’s called fiero, and it’s Italian for pride.


In delineating the components that must be present for a player to experience fiero, the authors of “Achieving Fiero Moments in Collegial Gaming & Gaming Communities” list several player behaviors that are often missing when educators create their clearly-defined objectives with rigid rules of engagement and measurable outcomes:

The People/Players:

Are actively engaged/enthralled in complex, job-embedded or game-embedded/immersed learning or work.

Are engaged in work that serves a greater purpose or greater good.

Are provided with specific and immediate feedback about the results of their efforts and actions.

Are intrinsically captivated by the mission and the work they are doing.

Realize that what they are doing is making a difference in helping them to achieve their personal or collective goals.

Like flow, fiero is elusive and cannot be planned for or predicated. But when players are experiencing the above aspects of hard fun, they are much more likely to experience flow and, consequently, are primed to also experience fiero. I’ve made what I consider the key words in the above list bold because I think they are the key difference between game-based learning and classroom-based learning.

In games, players are actively doing complex work in an immersive environment (not reading instructions or listening to lectures or completing worksheets or taking standardized exams). The work that they are doing is serving a greater purpose or greater good within the game environment (whereas much of the work they do in the classroom serves no purpose beyond the classroom and that purpose itself is temporary). They receive specific, immediate feedback via experience points (XP), leveling-up, or unlocking resources, all rewards (rather than punishments) that help them to work smarter in later parts of the game; even failure is a learning experience and forces the player to work harder and/or smarter. Players’ motivation is intrinsic (no amount of XP or resources could induce a player to continue playing a boring game) because they have a mission that they have bought into because at some level it is relevant to them. And, lastly, gamers have to become meta-gamers; in other words, they have to constantly self-assess their game play and change strategies as needed; they must and can do this because the game has awarded them autonomy. While the rules of the game may be very rigidly defined, how the player chooses to interact with those rules is really what playing the game is all about. If games were standardized experiences for every player, no one would play them. Games allow each game player to develop their own set of goals. Even more complex multiplayer games require that players adopt and work towards collective goals, building what Jane McGonigal terms a social fabric. But, whether striving towards personal or collective goals, the nature of games requires that there’s a constant reassessment of those goals within the context of ever-changing circumstances (new levels, new quests, new enemies, new resources, new collectives, etc.).

Gamers are good at thinking on their feet and critically assessing their environment, their information, and their strategies. They are intrinsically invested in important missions with goals that aren’t easy to achieve; in fact, the more complex the struggle to reach the goal, the more invested gamers become. Gamers are constantly self-assessing themselves based on the feedback they are receiving. And, when called upon to do so, they are willing to collaborate with others to achieve a common goal. They can manage resources, look failure in the eyes without flinching, withstand hours of frustration, and often become so immersed in their work that they lose track of time and feel at one with the universe. Who wouldn’t want a class full of gamers? What educator doesn’t dream of students with these skills and dispositions?

Guess what? More than likely, you’re dream has already come true because the majority of students sitting in your classroom are gamers. You don’t have to make your class a game in order to try to convince them to play it. But, just like those who design and guide MOOCs, you do have to offer something that’s worth their time and effort. If it’s fun (both the easy and the hard kind) and affords them opportunities to experience both flow and fiero, then you may just find that they’re willing to take you up on the challenge.

Embracing the Messiness: Lessons from a 21st Century Classroom

This past Friday, I had the pleasure of presenting at a workshop for regional 7-12th grade teachers. The workshop was sponsored by CoRE, which stands for Collaborative Regional Education, a program my university is developing that will create a partnership between it and regional P-12 schools, other universities, and national organizations and businesses (including Apple) with the goal of improving students’ college- and work-readiness. I was asked to share my experiences with integrating Challenge-Based Learning into my classes.

Because my audience was teachers from all disciplines, all secondary grades, and school systems that run the socioeconomic gamut, I chose to focus on some of the core (pardon the pun) lessons I learned from my experiences, rather than trying to preach or push any one particular method or technology. You can view the presentation slideshow with my notes at HaikuDeck.


It doesn’t do too much good to learn something if we then don’t apply it. Here’s a few ways I’m integrating the lessons I highlighted in my talk into my classes this semester:

Trust your students

This semester, my FYC I students have taken over the responsibility of providing both formative feedback and summative assessments for each others’ work. I’m also allowing them free reign when it comes to their blogs, both in terms of subject matter and genres/modes.

My FYC II students are currently busy roleplaying in Second Life (sometimes with me there, sometimes not) and writing the course’s secondary textbook–a guide to roleplaying the roles they are taking on.

My Survey of English Literature students are responsible for teaching each other (and me) about the texts and authors we’re studying this term. They’re also collaboratively writing the final exam.

I’ve pretty much made all of my classes student-centered and given them the responsibility to both guide the entire class’s learning and their own.

De-stigmatize failure

This term, all of my classes are using contract grading. The criteria for each potential grade are directly tied to how much the student wishes to participate and how hard they are willing to work. Want to go full tilt and then some? Contract for an A. Determined to do everything I ask? Contract for a B. Want to pick and choose between learning opportunities? Contract for a C. Both of my composition classes and my speech and debate classes are all using portfolios to demonstrate their work, rather than letter grades on individual performances. The only failure students experience is their failure to live up to the responsibilities and goals they decide to take on.

Peer models

I’m putting extra emphasis on having students identify peers whom they can use as models and indicate  exemplary work using social media (by giving the work a +1, liking it on Facebook, or sharing it with others via Twitter or other sm) and, more explicitly, through nominating them for an A in the course.

Students as co-teachers

As I mentioned, my English literature students are serving as experts on the texts and authors we’re studying this semester. The history major is doing an excellent job of filling us in on the political, cultural, and socioeconomic events that took place and how they might bear on what we’re reading. The women’s studies student is giving us insight into women’s issues of the times and how various texts were responding to them. Others have shared connections between our readings and current texts (such as music by Sublime and Regina Spektor) and issues (such as women in the military).

And it seems like every day a student or two will school me on technology or a new interpretation of a short story I’ve read a hundred times or what the world is like for them and how different their lives and college experiences are from my own. But rather than making me feel even more ignorant of or alienated from them, it brings me closer to understanding and sympathizing with them. And makes it easier to communicate with and guide them. And teach them.

Goodbye, Hello: In Which I Look Backwards Before Going Forwards

photo credit: Avard Woolaver via photopin cc
photo credit: Avard Woolaver via photopin cc

The Fall semester has come to an end and the Spring term is about to begin. Each new term brings with it heightened anticipation as we feverishly map journeys of discovery for our students and blueprint what we hope will be engaging and challenging learning environments. It is a strange season of flux as we look forward with one eye and backward with the other, reflecting on what worked and what failed before so that we know what to recycle, repurpose, and reconsider and what to chalk up to experience. We share much with gardeners, who spend the fallow season plotting and planning, first allowing space for the necessary and the reliable, then squeezing in some untried novelties, deciding what needs to be rotated to revitalize the soil, prepping the ground, sowing the seeds, then waiting patiently for the fruits to flower, tending, weeding, brooding, second-guessing, nurturing, assessing.

Before finalizing my Spring classes, I wanted to reflect, in writing, on some of my more experimental practices from the Fall, especially those about which I promised to post follow-ups.

In “Flips, Cartwheels, and 360’s? Oh my?” I posed the question: “What if I asked my hybrid FYC students to help design a 21st century university?” I wondered if they would be willing or able to accept my challenge. I’m happy to report that they accepted it wholeheartedly and did not disappoint me or the 21st Century Classroom Initiative Committee members who attended their presentations (more on those in a bit). I handed the class a real and intensely relevant problem to solve with no conditions or requirements attached (other than the fact that they had to be able to explain their work in 15 minutes or less). Some of the solutions that students developed were phenomenally outstanding. You can see a sampling of what they came up with at Storify.

In a subsequent post, “This Is What a Final Exam Should Look Like,” I shared my discovery of the research slam–part poster session, part poetry slam–and pondered the questions: “What if final exams looked more like [research slams]? What if students shared their learning with one another in the kind of interactive, experiential, small-group method encouraged by the research slam? . . . How powerful would that be?” Pretty powerful, I thought. And it was. Students arrived early and set up their presentations: a collage of tri-folds, laptops, brochures, and scale models. Small groups of students moved from display to display, as the presenters gave a 15 minutes or less overview of their project and answered questions from the audience. Members of the 21st Century Classroom Initiative were also in attendance, asking questions, jotting down student email addresses, asking for links to presentation materials. I wandered from station to station, filming snippets of presentations and conversations. The room was saturated with voices–discussing, questioning, responding, laughing, debating, critiquing. After such a heady experience, I don’t know that I could ever go back to the traditional final exam–those bent heads; those cramped fingers; those flat, stale pieces of paper; that deathly silence.

In “I’m Bringing Paper Back (‘Cause It’s Still Sexy),” I discussed my plans to strike a balance between the digital and the physical in my classes. I had students digitally and collaboratively annotate one of the texts we read, but I provided hardcopies of their annotations in class and had students use them to develop discussion questions. We also practiced blogging on paper first and students responded so favorably that I plan to have next semester’s classes perform peer review on paper versions of every blog post. I’m slowly falling back in love with paper, especially after reading Jody Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole (which I’ve blogged about a lot recently), and I think it will be making an even bigger comeback next term.

In “Hacking Assessment: Redesigning the Numbers Game,” I continued reflecting on my ongoing battle with assessment. I considered two kinds of assessment, in particular, this past term: peer assessment and contract grading. As I reported in a subsequent post, I ended up giving peer assessment a try in my Basic English Skills class with great success, so much so that it is the primary form of formative assessment in both of my FYC courses next term. Contract grading was less of a success, though that had more to do with my lack of clear communication than anything else. Despite providing exhaustive guidelines, on the end-of-term course assessments several students expressed discomfort with not knowing whether or not each criteria was being met as the semester progressed. On the plus side, I’ve only had two grade complaints so far. I plan to improve my communication with students regarding their progress on grade-level criteria and will provide them with assignment checklists so they can have a visual representation of what they have and have not completed.

In “Remediating Remedial Composition,” I expressed trepidation with some of the radical ideas I had for my Basic English Skills class. Overall, I think the class was a success. Quite a few students disappeared (as is unfortunately typical of remedial classes), but only 4 of the 18 students who finished the class did not receive credit for it. I had to drop the VoiceThread assignment (it was technically too overwhelming in an already tech-heavy class), but the blogs turned out to be very interesting (though not mechanically superior) and I discovered another awesomely invigorating collaborative writing method in the silent dialogues I had students complete in Google Docs (another novelty that will be added to my tried-and-true writing practices).

Overall, I would rate the Fall 2012 semester a success for me, but more so for my students. There were those stellar presentations in my FYC classes giving voice to college students facing a radically revolutionized socioeconomic future and needing a radically revolutionized learning environment to prepare them for it. My Basic English Skills students made great strides in pushing themselves beyond their comfort zones and relying on one another for writing support and nurturance. And my Oral Communication students went above and beyond my expectations as they created public service campaigns that not only raised awareness of important issues but provided a means to act on those issues in positive and impactful ways. I think I’m a little closer to a system of assessment that I believe to be both meaningful and fair. I’ve discovered some awesome techniques to integrate into my composition classes and am especially excited by those that foster collaborative writing practices. And from now on I’ll actually look forward to my final exams rather than dreading and rueing them.

And so it’s time to begin a new semester and a new adventure with a whole new set of experiments and discoveries to anticipate.

“Hoe while it is spring, and enjoy the best anticipations.” ~Charles Dudley Warner

All Together Now, Part 2: Crowdsourced Annotations with Google Docs

image by adesigna, on Flickr

In my last post, I outlined some ways that I am using Google Docs in my Basic English Skills course this semester. So far, I am very happy with the results. On Tuesdays, when students take part in a Silent Dialogue about the Lead Editor’s focus question and sources, I am able to work within each group’s Google Doc, providing feedback and guidance and monitoring the groups’ dialogues. On Thursdays, when each group works to collaboratively revise, edit, and design the Lead Editor’s blog post, the computer lab is buzzing as groups discuss and debate the changes that need to be made and the various possibilities for layouts, media, and the best way to cite and hyperlink sources. I am able to review each group’s work later that day, noting which members actively participated in the collaborative session and how effectively each group worked to improve the Lead Editor’s draft.

Aside from the word processing app, I’ve also found a good use for the Google Docs’ spreadsheet app in my First-Year Composition classes. Right now we’re reading and discussing Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. Since the course is designed around digital writing, specifically blogging, and students are learning how to conduct research on the internet to locate sources to integrate into their blog posts, we’re using the book both as a way to learn how to locate reliable content and curate what we find, and as an entrée into discussions about the students’ use of social media and other digital content outside of the class and how it applies to and impacts their education, future careers, and their place as global (digital) citizens. I have tried to integrate as many of the digital literacies and skills addressed by Rheingold in the text as possible into the course. One such skill/literacy is digital collaboration and the crowdsourcing of information and resources. Since the book is rather dense, especially for freshman who have little to no experience reading informative texts other than grade-level textbooks, I decided to ask students to practice the skill (and art) of crowdsourcing by having them collaboratively annotate the book as they read it.

There are several tools that can be used to create and share crowdsourced annotations of texts. In the second semester iteration of the FYC course, which focuses on literary analysis, I’ve had students work in groups to collaboratively annotate poems using the social bookmarking tool Diigo. Diigo allows groups to highlight and add sticky notes to digital texts and share and comment on each other’s annotations. But the problem that I faced with crowdsourcing annotations for Net Smart is that Diigo is limited to open-access digital texts. Since students were working with a print version of the text, I decided to experiment with using Google Docs’ spreadsheet app as a tool for collating and sharing students’ annotations.

Setting Up the Spreadsheet

I created a spreadsheet for the annotations and then subdivided it into sheets for each set of assigned chapters. I created four columns on each sheet: one for the student’s name (I didn’t want to risk a student contributing but not getting credit because they forgot to sign into their Google account before working in the spreadsheet), one for the passage the student found especially important/thought-provoking/problematic (I asked students to directly quote the passage and note the page number), one for the reason why the student selected the passage, and one for the student to share ideas for how the passage could be applied to the class. I reminded students that they should read their peers’ annotations before adding their own so that the annotations do not become repetitious. While I don’t grade or assign points to the students’ annotations, completing the annotations in a satisfactory manner is part of the criteria for an A or B in the course and completing at least 80% of the annotations is a requirement for a C.

Using the Spreadsheet in Class

Since my FYC classes are hybrid and students complete their annotations as part of their online work, I did not want to make the mistake of disassociating the annotations from our face-to-face time together and risk having students see the annotations as “busy work” or an add-on assignment. So, for each class meeting, I print hard copies of the spreadsheet for each student to have as a reference. I ask students to work in small groups to discuss the annotations and select 1-2 that they think are the most important or problematic. We then use the group’s selected annotations to focus our discussion of the book. In using this method, I have found that students are better able to make connections between the text and their own experiences, both in- and out-of-class. Also, as specific issues come up, I am able to integrate spontaneous mini-lectures that address skills or methodologies that students have not received instruction or practice in.

Some Results

I have been impressed with how effectively students have been able to both understand and interpret Rheingold’s text and to think of ways to use the information from it in and out of class. Here’s a snapshot of a few of the annotations that one group of students have contributed:


So far, the students’ annotations have provoked some very interesting discussions and class activities. After a debate regarding the effectiveness of meditation (triggered by one of the annotations above), students agreed that they would like to try starting our next class meeting off with a few moments of quiet in order to give everyone the opportunity to deal with physical and psychological noise that might prevent them from focusing on class; they can quickly deal with any emails, text messages, or other social media tasks or take a few minutes to try to clear their minds of anything that has them mentally distracted. The other class pointed out some comments that Rheingold makes about the link between breathing and attention, so I challenged them to learn how to do diaphragmatic breathing and we began our next class session with the lights dimmed, taking a minute to empty our minds and put away our digital gadgets, and then took a few deep breaths together.

On a more practical note, the annotations have also led to discussions about the students’ past digital behavior. One student revealed that she had googled herself and had been mortified at what she found. This led to a lively discussion about appropriate and inappropriate digital behavior and I challenged the rest of the class to google themselves so they can see themselves from other’s (including future potential employers’) perspective. My other class wanted to focus more on how to search effectively and how to perform deeper and more thorough searches, so I was able to share some internet search secrets; talk to them about what research was like when I was in college and how it really hasn’t changed that much because it’s still like an archaeological dig through multiple layers and sometimes in multiple locations (they just have more topsoil through which to dig); and diagram the source reliability pyramid to help them visualize the continuum of sources they have to choose from and where the internet and various types of domains fit in along that continuum.


Would these types of discussions have taken place had students not worked to collaboratively annotate the text? Perhaps. But I think that what the process of annotating the text together accomplishes is twofold. For one thing, it begins the process of teaching my freshman how to actively read for learning and retention. During the process of explaining what annotations were, I asked students how many of them highlighted parts of a text when they read (as a way of contrasting the passive nature of simply highlighting with the active nature of annotating) and, shockingly, no one raised their hand. It turns out that many of my freshman never really had to read their textbooks in high school and, even if they did, were not encouraged or, in some instances, allowed to highlight or take notes on what they were reading. So, by requiring students to publicly annotate our text, I can encourage more active reading and teach students how to engage with it critically. And because the students are working together to annotate the text, they can see examples of how their peers are actively engaging with it and learn from their examples. I am also hoping that the collaborative aspect of the annotations will reduce feelings of isolation that many students experience during the reading process. Secondly, by using the annotations as a springboard for the class discussions of the text, it encourages students to share their thoughts and responses and it helps me to focus on the ideas within the text that students find most relevant or problematic. This is an especially important result since the text is so dense and covers more issues and ideas than we could possibly address in our limited time together.

Other Potential Applications

Another obvious application of crowdsourced annotations is to have students in a literature course work to annotate literary texts (or even critical analyses of those texts), especially if you utilize literature circles, as it would allow members of a circle to collect their work in a central location. Crowdsourced annotations can also be used as study guides for the class if they are going to be tested on the texts they read. Additionally, students can be invited to use the annotations as a springboard for a piece of writing. Since I teach my FYC students Graff and Birkenstein’s “They say/I say/So what?” approach to academic writing, I could easily have students engage in a formal or informal written conversation with their peers based on their annotations.

As Rheingold points out regarding collaborative knowledge-building: “Those that know how it’s done, as always, gain an edge.” It’s time we stop isolating students in their learning and branding co-operation and collaboration as cheating. I’m not sure at what point teachers began to believe that in order to help students learn, we had to force them to learn alone and demonstrate their learning in isolation from others (the “do your own work” theory of learning). The 21st century, as Rheingold argues, will be increasingly focused on participation, collaboration, crowdsourcing, and social production. In asking my FYC students to participate in creating a resource that everyone can benefit from, I hope that I am helping them take one small step towards being more net smart and, by extension, more net powerful.