Gaming the First-Year Composition Course

In my last post, I addressed the idea of disrupting the First-Year Composition course. One of those disruptive pedagogies that I’ve been monitoring for some time is gamification. I don’t like jumping on any pedagogical bandwagon until I’ve had some time to observe it from afar for a while and reflect on how it fits within my own teaching philosophy and practices. I’ve been doing so with the concept of gamification for almost two years now and up until recently was still uncertain about how I felt about it and how it would benefit my FYC students, if at all. This post is my attempt to clarify some of my initial conclusions on how game theory might be used to help make the FYC experience more engaging for students.

[Disclaimer: This post will not seek to debate gamification’s merits and/or deficiencies. I have mixed feelings about the application of gaming to teaching, some of which I will address in this post. It’s also important to differentiate gamification from game-based learning–the direct use of games and game creation within the classroom. I’m more concerned with how we can use the philosophy of game design to guide our pedagogical practices.]

For me, my own ideas about how gaming philosophy can be integrated into the FYC course were solidified as I watched this TEDx Talk by Paul Anderson, in which he outlines why and how he gamified his science classes:

Recently, this same video was the focus of a post by Adam Renfro on the Getting Smart blog. The post does an excellent job of breaking down and explaining the elements of gamification and how they can be applied to any class. As I read the post, I became increasingly aware of how much I am already applying the principles of gamification to my FYC classes. But the post and video inspired me to consider other aspects of my course that could be gamified to create a more immersive and disruptive experience, so I sat down with pen and paper and, using the outline Renfro provides in his post, did some brainstorming. Here’s what I came up with:

The Story
For me, the story is always supplied by a course theme. One semester it was how education is used as political currency and the lengths that people will go to to get an education; another semester it was the freshman year experience; next semester it will be the purposes, strengths, and shortcomings of universities in the 21st century. I use the course theme to help me select the nonfiction books that we read together as a class and to provide a focus for the students’ self-selected reading, but the students write the “story” themselves, choosing which of the infinite plot lines within our theme they wish to pick up and develop in their writing (in much the same way that “choose your own adventure” books work).

Clear Goals
As Renfro points out, in gaming, goals are concise, specific, and clear (no behavioral objective jargon or Bloom’s taxonomy verbs to muddy up what needs to be done or why). While I’ll still have to use the course objectives provided by my department as written (for some esoteric and, more than likely, bureaucratic reason), I’ll spend some time explaining those goals in plainer language on the course website and I’ll certainly begin to utilize the kinds of clear goals used in gaming when designing the assignments and tasks for the course. [As a rather disturbing anecdote, one semester I asked my students to re-write the course objectives from the syllabus in their own words and explain what the objectives meant in terms of what they needed to learn to do; not a single student could do so, even after looking up all of the unfamiliar words in a dictionary.]

Challenges
The most obvious challenges to establish in an FYC course are the writing assignments. For my students that means creating and maintaining a blog where they publish all of their writing for the class (the “story” they choose to tell about our theme) and reading and commenting on their peers’ blog posts. It will also mean using the skills they develop over the course of the term to solve a relevant problem for our university and its goal to become a 21st century learning environment (I’ve addressed this in a previous post).

Reading, as Anderson acknowledges in his TEDx Talk, is also a challenge for many students. Next term, my students will crowdsource the reading of our class book by collectively annotating it using Google Docs. This challenge works in tandem with two other challenges that I will establish: improving their digital literacy skills (they’ll be annotating Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart) and building a Collaborative Learning Network. Part of the students’ objective in annotating the book is to create their own challenges for integrating the skills discussed in the book into the class. This type of self-authored challenge opportunity is one aspect of gaming that is becoming more popular (my 9 year-old son, who is an avid Lego architect and gamer, revels in games that require him to build his own gaming environments).

Image courtesy of Technorati

Competition
For me, this is one of more problematic aspects of game theory in terms of its pedagogical applications. I recognize that competition can be healthy, I’m just not convinced that the classroom is a context within which that is the case. If students decide, on their own, to compete with their peers to achieve a certain number of “likes,” “+1’s,” or shares, then that is fine, but I’m not comfortable creating forced competition.

Defining the Roles
Since my FYC classes are hybrid, I require that students create an avatar to use in all of our virtual learning environments. I’ve streamlined this as much as possible by using all Google apps for our virtual class work. Students create a Google account during the first week of class and complete a Google profile page with an image of their choosing. They use Blogger for their blogs, Google+ for virtual interaction, and Google Docs for collaborative writing, so their interactions are automatically associated with their avatar. For their first blog post they select a skill or passion to share with their peers as way of introduction. This assignment usually reveals some gurus and go-to’s for various aspects of the course (this term, for instance, I had a tech geek, a journalism major, and a cheerleader, all skills highly valued in an FYC course for various reasons). I encourage students to seek out peers who posses the domain skills that they are in need of if I’m not available or skilled enough to help them, and I encourage students to use their individual skills and personality traits to build and support a collaborative community in both the physical and virtual learning environments.

Equipment
Rather than relying solely on a writing handbook, I’ve begun compiling videos, handouts, and web pages that I can direct students to when they need additional guidance. Last term I experimented with not using a handbook at all and, instead, created a wiki of writing resources. For each writing concept, I tried to provide as many different varieties of resources as possible: at least one video; a concise overview or outline of the concept; a longer, more detailed web page; at least one source that provided examples; and a PDF handout or graphic that they could print out and keep handy. Many students responded enthusiastically to this method and the resources themselves and I received overwhelmingly positive feedback regarding the wiki when I polled students on the most effective aspects of the course. This term, I plan to organize these materials into different lessons on Mentor Mob and invite students to add to them (as Renfro points out, the challenge is increased for the students when you allow them to create and use their own equipment).

Scaffolding
Renfro warns that giving all course materials out at once is confusing for some students. This, of course, runs counter to what many consider “best practice” in hybrid and online teaching, which holds that everything should be front-loaded so that your expectations and the course requirements are clear and students have access to the materials so that they can work ahead if they wish. In my experience this has had two results: for weaker students, it is overwhelming and they tend to take an “if I ignore it, it will go away” approach to accessing and reading materials; for stronger students with type-A personalities, this creates anxiety as they constantly try to stay ahead of the game and often miss out on what’s happening in the moment. Next term, rather than uploading all of the writing assignments to a static page on the class’s WordPress site, I plan to post assignments to the blog as I feel they need to be on students’ radars; this has the added advantage of providing a central location for students to post questions and comments on the assignment and for me to answer them.

Badges
Right now, I’m still observing and reflecting on the badge system. Students are already familiar with social media’s voting systems, so I will encourage them to use the existing systems to promote and reward each others’ work.

Level Up
I already provide a kind of leveling up system via students’ self-assessments of their work and the formative feedback that I provide on these assessments (see my post on deliberate practice). I ask students to identify the weaknesses in a piece of writing and to work on improving those areas in their subsequent pieces. Once the student feels that they have developed those areas sufficiently, then they must identify new areas to address, essentially leveling up to a new set of criteria. At this point I haven’t established a hierarchy of levels because I am mainly concerned with getting students engaged with the act of writing and I don’t want to discourage their own assessment of their writing by imposing my own rules about which weaknesses to tackle first. While I might value sentence construction more than paragraph organization, for example, the student might find it less daunting to better their paragraph organization than their sentence constructions. (I’ve found that students generally know their weaknesses and have a good sense of which ones can easily be corrected with some resources and a little more effort and which ones will require intensive, and likely frustratingly difficult, work). I’m not sure if I want to enforce a hierarchy of levels or continue allowing the student to determine at what level they wish to work at any given time. The ability to select different levels of difficulty may be a more important gaming principle to apply to the FYC course than scaffolding of skills.

Leader-boards
Because this aspect of gaming is directly tied to competition, it’s problematic for me and I’m not willing to advocate it.

Flipping for Individualization
Like gamification, flipping the classroom is a hotly debated pedagogical disruption right now. I’m not so much interested in debating it here as thinking about what aspects of it make sense and can be used effectively. English teachers have basically been flipping our classes since time began, so it’s a moot point for FYC, as far as I’m concerned. The aspects of the flipped class that I think teachers of writing need to pay attention to is how it allows students to work at their own pace and how it allows us to individualize their instructional needs. I’ve already discussed how I encourage students to work at self-selected levels by assessing their writing, setting goals for improvement, then monitoring their progress with the help of my formative feedback. When this type of self-paced goal-setting is combined with access to a variety of resources that you have gathered or created and made available using a wiki or a tool like Mentor Mob, this gives the student the power to shape the course to meet their individual learning needs. Students don’t waste time on skills they already posses, they don’t have to spend a week on a skill if they only need a day, and they can spend two weeks (or three or four) on a skill that they couldn’t master in one.

Failing
I’ve already addressed failure in a previous post. I truly believe that one of the most effective ways to eliminate students’ fear of failure is by doing away with grades. Until then, the portfolio system is the next best thing in terms of removing both anxieties surrounding individual assignments and the overarching stigma of failure. For each piece of formal writing, my students receive formative feedback from me but no grade. I encourage them to view each piece of writing as deliberate writing practice, the same kind of practice that gamers are free to enjoy without anxiety or stigma if they fail to level up. At the end of the term, the students select which pieces of writing they want me to use to determine their grade for the course and provide me with detailed input on why they selected each piece and what they think it demonstrates about their writing abilities. If at any point a student is uncertain of where they stand in terms of their progress in the course, I will discuss their concerns, but try to steer clear of situating the discussion within the context of grades or points.

Walkthroughs and Cheat Codes
Two aspects of gaming not mentioned by Renfro are walkthroughs and cheat codes. Walkthroughs demonstrate step-by-step instructions for navigating a game environment, while cheat codes are glitches that allow players to cheat the game by accessing hidden objects, shortcuts, or locked characters. Both are deployed to make the game easier or to give the player an advantage over the game. One way that I’ve been experimenting with walkthroughs this term is by using one of the students’ pieces as a model for effective writing, then conducting a paragraph-by-paragraph walkthrough of the piece with me recording our discussion and marking up the text using the Show Me iPad app; once I post the link to the video of our walkthrough, students can revisit and watch it if they feel the need to do so. Another possible way of encouraging the use of walkthroughs and cheat codes in the FYC course is the use of peer instruction. As outlined in the Harvard Magazine article “Twilight of the Lecture” and demonstrated in this video, peer instruction harnesses the collective brainpower of small groups:

By identifying muddy points and misconceptions, then allowing students to discuss and work them out in small groups, peer instruction applies the same methods used by gamers as they crowdsource to share tactics and problem-solve how to game the game.

These are some ways that I think gamification can be applied to the FYC course. Below are a few resources that have helped me to better understand gamification and the pedagogical implications it holds. I’ve tried to provide a balance between the pros and cons of gamification; however, this is by no means an exhaustive list and I welcome any additions you can make to it or any thoughts/experiences that you wish to share about how the principles of game design should or should not be applied to the FYC classroom.

“What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning” by Jessie Chuang

“How to Hack into the Joy of Gaming” by Susan Lucille Davis

“Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother?” by Joey J. Lee & Jessica Hammer

“Jury Out on Zamzee, Other Forms of ‘Gamification'” by James Temple

“Kathy Sierra on Gamification in Education” by Larry Ferlazzo

“My Practical Criticism of Gamification: Why Not Do Better?” by Ishai Barnoy

“Gamification: Bring Game Mechanics into Non-Gaming Environments” by Adam Renfro

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Flips, Cartwheels, and 360’s? Oh My!

photo credit: ЯL via photo pin cc

My last post really got me thinking about what kind of learning environment I’d like to design for my next hybrid First-Year Composition course, especially after one of my former students responded to the question that I posed at the end of the post:

…do we want to challenge our students or do we want them to challenge themselves?

The answer to this question, according to my student, is that what we should try to achieve is a balance between the two. Sometimes you need someone else pushing and challenging you to challenge yourself and to meet those challenges. I think it’s a valid point. But how do we find that balance? And how do we know at what level we can safely challenge students without overwhelming, frustrating, and alienating them?

These are the questions that I’m grappling with as I begin designing my upcoming Hybrid FYC class.

Yesterday, I happened to read the article “Why Flip the Classroom When We Can Make It Do Cartwheels?” by Cathy Davidson. The article focuses on Duke’s Haiti Lab, an interdisciplinary experience that places students in a global research and learning laboratory in which their work has an impact beyond the classroom. This is exactly the type of challenge that I would like to present to my students. But how do I do so with very limited resources, just myself to make it happen, and a group of freshly-minted high school students, many of whom haven’t decided on a major and have no clue what they are good at or passionate about?

The central focus of the Haiti Lab is a problem. All of the students focus on this problem, just in different ways, using different methods, and while viewing the problem through different disciplinary lenses. So, the Haiti Lab presents the same kind of immersion and autonomy that I managed to establish in my first hybrid FYC class, just on a grander scale and in a way that flattens the classroom walls and makes the world the classroom. I’m not sure that I want to tackle the world just yet, especially on my own. So, I’ve decided to settle for making the university my students’ classroom for now.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m a member of the 21st Century Classroom Initiative committee. We meet once a month and, in between meetings, individual members and specialized groups research issues related to the 21st century classroom and visit other campuses to look at models of 21st century classrooms. We post our research findings to a database and discuss the results and our own university’s progress each month during our face-to-face meetings. It’s an exciting committee to be on and it really has become an interdisciplinary effort. There are representatives from each college, various departments, and administrators and staff who are all focused on turning our university into a 21st century learning environment. The only group not represented on the committee is the students themselves. So, I’ve decided that maybe I should change that.

What if I asked my hybrid FYC students to help design a 21st century university? What if I allowed them to decide, with no financial restrictions, what their ideal university would look and sound like? How would classrooms look? How would classes be taught? What would be going on in the classrooms? What would be going on in other spaces? What other spaces would there be? What would they look like?

What if I asked my students to use their own passions and interests to research and create solutions for an outdated mode of education? Solutions that would impact their own education? What if I asked them to present their findings to the committee that is in charge of deciding which solutions to consider and adopt?

Would my freshman be ready to meet such a challenge? Would they be willing to do it?

At this point, I don’t have any answers to these questions. But I wonder how many questions the designers of the Haiti Lab had when they first began to think about creating an immersive, interdisciplinary, real-world learning experience? And I wonder if they waited until they had answers to all of those questions before they decided to go ahead with their vision?