Murder, Madness, and Mayhem: A Role-Playing Game for First-Year Compostion

Headless-1

Murder. Madness. Mayhem. What new horrors lurk in the minds of men and women? Real life is scarier and stranger than any fiction. But an intrepid group of investigators are working to make the world a safer, saner place. No matter how old the crime, no matter how elusive the evidence, no matter how powerful those involved, they will leave no stone unturned in their search for the truth. They have no magical weapons with which to assault the dark things of the world. They simply have their wit, courage, and analytical skills to help them do battle with the horrors they face.

This past week I worked on summarizing the results of my attempt to integrate role-play writing into my second-semester FYC class in an article that I plan to submit for the Fall edition of Virtual Education Journal. For me, reflecting on past classes inevitably leads to a desire to begin planning a new (and hopefully better) iteration. Thankfully, I asked the students to provide me with both anonymous constructive feedback on the class and to talk openly with me about how they would redesign the class if they were taking it a second time. Their feedback had two major themes:

  • While they liked Second Life, many students felt it was too clunky and wasn’t integrated into the class in an effective way
  • Many students expressed a desire to have more f2f role-play

As I began to mull over how best to address the two issues, I decided to focus on finding an alternative to Second Life. I was looking for something with a less daunting learning curve that would allow for more challenge and exploration-based interaction. While nothing really presented itself, I did stumble upon a website that changed the direction of my thinking: Epic Words.

Epic Words functions as a portal for an RPG campaign (an ongoing storyline or set of adventures). A GM (game master) can create a campaign for any RPG and add any registered players to the campaign. The site offers several tools in one central location: character blogs, a campaign wiki, a discussion forum, quest logs, a calendar, a page for awarding and tracking XP, and the ability to create loot that can either be awarded by the GM or purchased by the players from merchants. Intrigued, I began to research the concept of campaigns and the various ways that players use tools and sites outside of the game to continue, reinvent, and hack the game.

As  I browsed through the various campaigns on the site, I began to see just how similar the RPG I had designed for my Spring 2013 FYC II class had been to one of the most popular tabletop RPG’s, Call of CthulhuTaking my cue from the game, I have started to sketch out what I hope will be an engaging and immersive RPG experience for next semester’s FYC II class, remixing and hacking the traditional tabletop RPG as needed.

Roles

In Call of Cthulhu, characters are called investigators. Players select the occupation of their character and establish their attributes via dice rolls. Like my class, the nature of the game naturally lends itself to selecting characters who would normally investigate unusual events, such as detectives, psychologists, scholars, etc. I’ll limit my students to occupations that will work with the texts we have in our literature anthology, but will allow them to suggest modifications if they wish. Students will spend some time developing their character’s backstory, creating an avatar for them, and creating a profile for them on Epic Words.

Guilds

While students really enjoyed working in role-based guilds last Spring, many suggested more inter-role interaction in order to consult with experts on other aspects of their “cases.” So, this time around students will have two guilds: a home guild that will be role-based and an expert guild that will be comprised of representatives from all of the roles who will consult with one another as needed.

Quests

The quests will remain the same: students will read assigned “cases” from the literature anthology, discuss and analyze them with their home guild, and select one case to focus on investigating for each quest. They will present their selected case via a blog post, determining what format their character might choose to write about the case in (case notes, interview transcripts, a newspaper/journal article, etc.), and also read and comment (in-character) on other characters’ blog posts.

Boss Level

Last Spring, students selected 1-2 partners to work with to create a penultimate project on one of the term’s cases. While the projects they created were creative, engaging, and demonstrated a deep level of analysis, next term I plan to push the envelope even further and ask students to work in a craft guild to develop and write a piece of interactive fiction about a selected case in which the player has to take on one of the roles from the class game.

Feedback

There will be no grades in the class. For some of my Spring students, this was frustrating and many of them expressed a need to be able to measure their progress and have an idea of just how successfully they were playing the game (aside from the formative feedback they received from me and their peers). Epic Words provides me with several tools that I can use to provide feedback and progress reports to students.

One form of feedback I’ll use to indicate successful completion of quest-related tasks and puzzles is XP (experience points). This has been very successful this term with my FYC I classes. While this term I’ve had to rely on Blackboard’s grade book  to record XP and provide students with a means of measuring their progress via a leader board (more on this in a subsequent post), next term I can use Epic Words, which will allow students to view their XP on the campaign’s XP page.

A second form of feedback Epic Words allows GM’s to create and award is loot, which has allowed a useful hack of Call of Cthulhu’s investigator attributes and skills. Rather than relying on dice roll to determine the attributes of an investigator, I can do so by awarding them loot for demonstrating mastery of various skills, such as research, analysis, creativity, etc. In addition to awarding them skills, I can also award them cash for participation and completing quests. The players can then use this cash to purchase investigative tools, such as flashlights, fingerprint kits, video recorders, and smartphones, from  a merchant (my merchant is called Doyle & Poe Investigative Merchants). Purchasing investigative tools will make their character more powerful. Again, all of a character’s loot can be tracked in Epic Words.

Endgame

How does completing quests and collecting XP and loot translate into a final grade in the course? In order to demonstrate the quality of their work and learning in the course, students will have to submit a portfolio of their game artifacts: their best blog posts; their XP; their skills, cash, and tools; and their forum and wiki contributions. They can then use this portfolio to advocate for the grade they feel they’ve earned in the course.

Design

Research has found that aesthetics can have a significant impact on motivation, immersion, and engagement among game players. I am planning to spend much more time on the visual design of the course than I did last term. Epic Words allows GM’s the add a background image and change the color scheme for campaign sites, as well as add images to pages. Being a fan of all (weird) things Victorian, including the neo-Victorian and steam punk movements, I think pulling design elements from these aesthetic styles will work well with the theme of the game.

Once I’ve finalized the components of the class and the campaign site, I’ll post updates here. I hope that this post inspires you to create your own RPG and/or try Epic Words as a tool for managing your games-based learning. I’d love to hear what you think of my ideas, how you’ve integrated RPG into your own classes, or how my post has inspired you to do so.

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.

Tension

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.

Fun

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

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.

Fiero

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.

Extreme Makeover: First-Year Composition Edition

 Some rights reserved by Pimthida
Some rights reserved by Pimthida

I have decided to do an extreme makeover of my First-Year Composition course. Some things are working quite well for the students–especially blogging as the main writing forum and the portfolio system for assessment–and I’ll keep those, though I’ll be tweaking them. But there are several things that I’ve been doing that are either failing to engage or substantively help the students or that I think I could be doing better–and that may even (gasp) be doing more harm than good.

There are three texts that have recently gotten under my skin and have influenced some of the changes I am thinking of making: “Roland Barthes, Reading, and Roleplay: Composition’s Misguided Rejection of Fragmentary Texts” by James Seitz, “Against Formulaic Writing” by Gabriele Lusser Rico, and Toward a Composition Made Whole by Jody Shipka. I really recommend that you read each them yourself, so I’m not going to spend time summarizing them here. Suffice it to say that each has inspired various aspects of what I plan/hope to do next term in FYC.

Here is an overview of how I’m thinking of structuring the course. Though I’ve outlined my ideas for the course in some detail, my main vision is one akin to free jazz–both in terms of what I do as a teacher and what I invite students to do as writers.

Students Be(com)ing Writers

Rather than having all students blog about a course theme, next term I plan to give students almost complete autonomy when it comes to their blogs. They’ll still have to have a theme for their blog, but that theme will be up to them. I will encourage them to select a theme directly related to their major or, alternatively, to a hobby/passion. They will still need to blog in a purposeful way, but what that purpose is and how they go about achieving that purpose will be something they will need to learn how to decide. Because experience has taught me that getting started is often the most difficult aspect of writing for students, I will encourage them to use their peers and myself as sounding-boards and we will spend quite a bit of class time discussing and practicing various invention techniques, as well as using the silent dialogue activity.

Rather than focusing primarily on formal, academic-style, strictly text-based expository and/or argumentative writing, I also plan to allow/encourage students to experiment with various mediums and genres, including alternative genres, such as comics, fiction, remixes/mashups, images, and videos, and multimodal pieces. I have found that, even when given the option of such non-traditional compositions, students are often reticent to try something so far outside their comfort zones or, in the case of a genre/medium they are familiar with and may already practice outside of the classroom, are uncertain of the appropriateness of such texts within the context of FYC. So next term, I plan to require students to select at least one alternative genre to use and to produce at least one multimodal composition. I plan to work closely with students to make sure these alternative texts are as purposeful as their more traditional compositions, maintaining a focus on exposition and/or persuasion.

Rather than the five reflective questions that I normally ask students to complete for each formal blog post, next term I plan to ask them to keep a writing journal, which will be more open-ended. I am hoping that the open-ended journal format will allow students to be more organically probative about their compositional practices.

Students Be(com)ing Readers

“Blogging is best learned by blogging…and by reading other bloggers.” –George Siemens

As part of the blogging workshop that I’ve started integrating during the first two weeks of class in order to orient students to what blogs are and what can be done with them, I have students locate several blogs on a topic of choice, subscribe to them, and add them to their blog’s blogroll. While I encourage students to read these and as many other blogs as they can/wish, I’m not sure that they ever take me up on the offer. Since next term they will be challenged to build and maintain a blog on a topic that they are either already an expert on or wish to become an expert on, they will need to locate and curate a network of topic experts that they can draw inspiration from and use as resources for their blog posts. So, next term I’ll have students read the blogs related to their own topics listed on the Academic Blogs wiki, subscribe to those they like, and regularly read posts from these and other blogs on their topic that they locate throughout the term. But they’ll also need to do something after they’ve read the posts. What they do will mostly be up to the student–post a response on their blog, add a comment to the post, share it with their social networks with an explanation of why they’re sharing it, etc.–but the point is that they are both frequently reading texts related to their own area of academic or personal interest and using them in some way beyond checking them off of a to-read list.

I usually require students to read and comment on their peers’ blog posts. This has been problematic with some groups because their commenting tends toward the formulaic and superficial, even after I have them study comments on blogs and create a list of good commenting criteria. I am trying to seriously re-think how I integrate comments on peers’ posts, but this has honestly got me stymied, so I may ask the students themselves for guidance on this aspect of the course.

Writing Work/Shop

I’ve never really integrated the workshop method, but this is something I plan to do next term. In addition to peer reviews for each formal blog post, every student will have at least one draft workshopped by the whole class. I want to shift the course’s focus away from outside texts (the reader and two nonfiction books my department requires me to assign) and towards the students’ own texts. Almost every interaction will be focused on what the students are composing and how they are composing/have composed it. We’ll tackle the risks, challenges, and exigencies of both traditionally academic and alternative texts head-on in both a supportive and critical mode.

I’ll also use the workshop to introduce various compositional techniques and tools, but only those that feel relevant and significant at the moment. Since they are the focus and facilitators of the workshops, the students will be encouraged to introduce issues, questions, and techniques to be addressed during the workshops, rather than passively relying on me to decide on what needs to be addressed. My hopes for the workshop method is that it will both aid students in developing and embracing a writing identity (situated within a community of other writers, both within and without their classroom) and help them to experience first-hand the multi-stranded, multi-directional, recursive nature of writing.

Collaborative Assessment

The assessment aspect of the course has been the most difficult to re-consider. While I think that the portfolio system is the best one available at the moment, I have been unhappy with the various methods that I have tried in terms of outlining my expectations and how the final grade will be determined.

I have been very happy with the results of the anonymous peer assessment that I piloted this term and plan to make that an integral part of the assessment process in FYC next term. Taking a cue from Alex Halavais, I’ve also decided to set some very abstract standards for an A in the course: the student must inspire, surprise, teach, or wow us. This reinforces the open-ended, organic nature of the course. And notice the language here: us. Since students will be responsible for assessing each others’ compositions, they will also be responsible for helping me identify those writers who meet this standard. Students can “nominate” a composition for this honor in several ways: sharing the post, commenting on the post, or liking the post via Facebook or Google+ (since the class will be using Google+ as our LMS, a +1 will be required in order to indicate a nomination). A composition will need to receive multiple nominations in order to “make the grade” and a writer will need to have at least two compositions that meet the standard in order to earn an A in the course.

This kind of abstract, open-ended assessment necessitates a new way of having students complete their writing portfolio reflections at the end of the term. Rather than self-selecting pieces for inclusion in the final portfolio, they will need to look to their peers’ responses to their pieces (their assessment form feedback, comments, shares, and likes) in order to select those compositions that made the most impact on their readers and reflect on what aspects of each piece elicited and merited their readers’ attention.

 

I’m not sure how close this comes to capturing the essence of my vision of the course–one that involves an organicity and improvisational openness that pushes against the expectations of FYC. My hope is that I can encourage my students to embrace this openness and use it as a steppingstone (for the reticent) or springboard (for the more adventurous) into a new identity as a writer and thinker.

These things rarely turn out exactly as you see/plan them, but that is part of the beauty of teaching.

I welcome your thoughts on my ideas and I’ll keep you posted . . .