I Give Up! I’m Finally Going to Gamify My FYC Class

And I’m kind of excited about it. Okay. I’m ecstatic. I’m like a hardcore gamer two minutes before the midnight release of the latest Call of Duty.

If you’re a regular reader, you know from one of my past posts that I’ve been avoiding the gamification bandwagon. So, what, you may ask, inspired the change of heart? The only way that I can describe it is as a perfect storm.

First, there is the phenomenal success of my current second-semester FYC course, which is utilizing immersive role play and Second Life as ways to engage in critical analysis of the texts in our literature reader. I plan to go into more detail in a future post about what exactly we’re doing, how, and how successful it has been in terms of engagement and improvement of critical thinking/writing skills. While immersive role play is a major aspect of many games, I’m using it more for its emphasis on taking on the viewpoint of a particular role than for the play component of doing so. The fun that students are having as they adopt their roles, though, cannot be ignored, especially now that the semester is coming to a close and students are finally comfortable with their personas and taking risks with their interpretations of our texts and how they choose to communicate those interpretations in material media.

Students roleplaying in Second Life.
Students roleplaying in Second Life.

Secondly, I’ve been playing more games myself lately. I’m not really a gamer (at least I wouldn’t describe myself as such, especially in comparison to some of my students and my son). I do occasionally play one of the Lego franchise games with my son and I’m game (pardon the pun) for anything that involves Harry Potter (we even have a wizard’s chess set). But I recently experienced a personal loss and I’ve found games to be a way to keep my mind occupied, relieve some of the stress, and escape from the real world for a little while. I personally prefer puzzles, and the hidden object games for the iPad are ideal for me because they combine puzzle solving with literary or historical settings (like my current favorite Blackwood and Bell, set in Victorian England). The more I play, the more I begin to personally experience the level of engagement, immersion, and motivation that I regularly observe in my son when he’s playing his favorite PS3 games. Blackwood and Bell keeps me engaged because I can earn “money” for solving puzzles and I use that money to purchase items to add to my little plot of Victorian London. I’ve found myself spending quite a bit of time rearranging my buildings, decorations, and exhibits and trying to work out strategies that will allow me to level up and expand my landholdings without compromising the design of my “yard” (I, personally, care more for authenticity in my design than leveling up and simply throwing everything on my yard, and some of the anachronistic designs of other players’ yards drives me nuts).

My yard in Blackwood and Bell. It's a work-in-progress.
My yard in Blackwood and Bell. It’s a work-in-progress.

Next, I’ve recently discovered and become intrigued by interactive fiction (IF). I always enjoyed reading “choose your own adventure” books as a child, but because I was not a gamer growing up, I had never heard of or played IF. I discovered it after reading several recent articles on some free tools that have recently been developed that make writing IF easier for those without coding experience (“Make Games in the Classroom with Inform 7,” “Choose Your Own Classroom Adventure with Inklewriter,” “Interactive Fiction Game Design,” “Creating Interactive Text with Twin,” and Kevin Hodgson’s series of blog posts on IF). The concept of IF caught my attention, not from a player’s perspective, but from a writer’s perspective and the potential that I immediately felt it held for teaching FYC students about viewpoint, authorial choice, and reader engagement. Because it makes the reader, or player, the central, active component of the text, it places direct focus on two writing concepts that I’ve always struggled with communicating to students effectively: the primacy of the audience and the need to have a purpose for everything you do as an author.

Lastly, all of these things solidified into a single idea when my university announced that next Fall’s freshman read would be Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I was familiar with a few of the stories from the book and especially liked “How to Tell a True War Story” because of the pressures it puts on viewpoint, the author as authority, the reader as passive/active agent, fiction/truth, space/time, and the linear nature of the traditional plot development. I immediately recognized that IF would be a perfect way for students to engage with the book, as it, too, places pressure on these same aspects of storytelling.

But IF is not an easy concept, either as a player or writer. I recognized that I could not just throw students in the deep end of IF and expect them to swim. Around the time I was considering how to couple O’Brien’s book with IF, I was reading Jane McGonigall’s Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World as a way to prepare for the second iteration of my immersive role play course this summer and, in the course of talking with a colleague in the computer science department about that class, was lent a copy of Lee Sheldon’s The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a GameThese books, along with some articles I had been reading on IF (which I’ll discuss and link to in my next post), helped the gears to slowly begin clicking into place. As I continued to sketch out ideas, I began to get more and more excited by the prospect of turning my FYC class into a game; but not just any game. An IF game.

I plan to post about the details and the steps I went through to develop them in subsequent posts, so this post will simply be a summary of my plans.

Where to start?

Since I plan to ask students to write a piece of IF as the capstone project for the class, it only seemed right that I try my hand at it first. In this sense, being unfamiliar with IF was an advantage, since my students are likely to be as well, so I am able to experience the process as they will and thus I will be taking detailed notes as I work my way through it. But I’m a busy person and don’t necessarily have time to write just for the fun of it (as much as I’d like to). So, I decided that the best way to make the time I spend writing my first piece of IF useful would be to make the IF my syllabus for the course, so that they will actually have to play the IF in order to navigate the course. This will kill two birds with one stone: not only will I be gaining experience with writing IF, but it will also immerse the students in IF as they play their way through the course, thus allowing them to see what IF can do and to experience it as a player, so they will be more mindful of the player’s needs as they write their own piece.

But turning the syllabus into IF that the students must “play” will only work if students buy into it. Again, immersion, engagement, and motivation are all vital to encouraging this buy-in. In The Multiplayer Classroom, Sheldon points out that the more we can incorporate the game into the course, the better our chances of encouraging students to become immersed in the game. So, I decided to make the entire course a game that students would navigate and play via IF.

Theme

One the central principles of game design is theme and theme consistency. Since our focus text is about the Vietnam War, the game’s theme became apparent early on. The hard work was deciding how to adapt that theme to the FYC class and the students’ IF project.

Scenario

With this in mind, I developed the following scenario:

It is the near-future. Instead of weapons, wars are fought with words. America is on the brink of a second Vietnam War. In order to prevent this, a small contingent of military leaders and diplomats have developed the idea of an elite new force of writers who will use IF to invoke empathy and, hopefully, avert the war. The students have been recruited into this elite special operatives force. As recruits, they will go through some basic training before embarking on a series of missions that are all part of Operation “War Story.”

The game

I’ll go into more detail about the game itself in a subsequent post. Basically, I’ve divided the term up into missions, with each mission containing several assignments culminating in a boss level, which will range from a diagnostic writing assignment (at the end of “basic training”) to an annotated bibliography (at the end of the research, or “gathering intel,” mission) to a review of a piece of IF (covert surveillance) to completing their own piece of IF (endgame). Players must complete the boss level before they can proceed to the next mission. As they complete assignments, they earn XP (experience points) and as they accumulate XP, they rank up from recruit to private to private first class, etc. Their rank at the end of the term will be converted into a special operative status, with those displaying distinctive service earning an A, veterans earning a B, rookies earning a C, and those who’ve gone MIA (equivalent to a D) or AWOL (equivalent to an F) earning an NC.

In developing the game via IF, I’ve been able to integrate puzzles (quizzes), if/then scenarios (if you score a certain percentage on the quiz, you unlock a useful object), and objects (such as keys, tactical upgrades, and supplies that will help them complete the missions). I’m using AXMA, a non-open source (but still free) version of Twine, and it also allows me to integrate images, hyperlinks, videos, music, and sound effects into the game. I’m trying to incorporate suspense (a security breach, a mysterious package left by a late-night stranger, a phone ringing insistently) at strategic moments, such as midterm, to keep the interest level up and change up the pace of the course.

A final (for now) word about IF

The aspect of IF that I did not really consider at first, but which is becoming more and more interesting to me, is the level of reading literacy it promotes and requires. Most FYC course objectives include reading skills, but there is often so much work to be done to get students’ writing skills up to par, that reading gets short shrift. I recognize that reading and writing skills go hand in hand, but rarely do I have enough time to address reading to the same depth and degree as I do writing. Integrating IF as the syllabus for the course and requiring that students read several examples of IF pieces and then write their own IF, and all of the emphasis that process places on the reader and the reading, will allow me to focus as much on the reading process as the writing.

As I mentioned, I’ll be posting more in-depth posts that will address my use of IF and how I’ve turned the course into a game. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from others who have integrated IF into classes or who have gamified their classes (or both).

And if you’d like to start reading some IF, I highly recommend Muggle Studies.

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Tomorrow Never Knows: Theory into Praxis in the Composition Class

photo credit: innoxiuss via photopin cc
photo credit: innoxiuss via photopin cc

In my last post I looked backward at some of the radical pedagogical practices that worked for my students and me this past term. In this post I look forward to the some of the radical pedagogical theories I’m putting into practice.

In my recent Hybrid Pedagogy post “Bring Your Own Disruption: Rhizomatic Learning in the Composition Class,” I outline a radical (for me and my department) new theory of First-Year Composition.

My recent post here, “Extreme Makeover: First-Year Composition Edition,” outlined how I initially planned to put that theory into praxis.

My most recent vision for the organic, rhizomatic FYC course can be found in the syllabus that I created for my FYC 1 class using
Thinglink.

I also recently blogged about my ideas regarding incorporating immersive role-play into the second-semester FYC course I’ll be teaching this term. Those initial questions and ideas coalesced into an experimental class that I hope will both engage the students and encourage them to adopt some of the practices and beliefs inherent in my new theory of the rhizomatic FYC class. As I point out to students:

In many ways, role-play gaming has a lot in common with writing. Just like dedicated gamers become immersed in the game, good writers become immersed in their writing and research. As Colby & Colby point out:

Immersion occurs because gamers learn as they play: solving puzzles, learning strategies, and meeting the challenges of the game while staying within the constraints of the game world.

Replace, if you will, the words “gamers” and “game” with “writers” and “writing” and you’ll have an accurate description of the act of writing. Gamers don’t listen to lectures on how to play the game; they learn to play the game by playing it, making mistakes, learning from their mistakes, trying again, and sharing tricks and cheats with fellow players. Similarly, as Joseph Epstein argues, “[W]riting cannot be taught, though it can be learned.” No writer ever learned to write by listening to someone lecture about how to write. Instead, they immerse themselves in the role of writer, learning how to listen, think, take notes, research, and write like a writer by trying, failing, learning from their failures, trying again, and studying other writers. Andrea Lunsford has argued that all writing is performance. If so, then writing is just another kind of role-playing game.

I am both alive with hope and plagued by doubt.

How will students respond to these classes? Will they revel in the open-endedness, the autonomy, the experimentation? Or will they balk and resist?

What risks am I taking by putting theory into praxis? It’s a scary prospect, considering how important many stakeholders (including myself) view the FYC class to be.

Drew Loewe recently tweeted:

Am I just tinkering with FYC and ignoring the underlying problems? What underlying problems does my theory ignore? How can my praxis address them?

A Crazy Thing Happened on the Way to the Globe Theatre: Some Initial Thoughts on Using Immersive Role-Play in the Composition Classroom

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I sometimes get the opportunity (let’s call it) to teach the second-semester iteration of my department’s two semester First-Year Composition course. This part of the course serves as an extension of the first, as well as an introduction to three literary genres–poetry, short fiction, and drama–with practice in reading, interpreting, and analyzing selected works from those genres. The course’s goal is to teach both close critical reading and analytical writing. It is a difficult class to teach, mainly because students tend to still need intense writing instruction and they generally have little to no background in close, analytical reading, so one of those two issues must become the focus of the course at the expense of the other (especially if you also try to include instruction in locating and identifying the various literary elements of the three genres and/or library research, which are both also listed as learning objectives for the course).

I often wish that there were more opportunities to incorporate creative reading and writing exercises into the class, one because the course can get a little dry (even with careful selection of more contemporary and highly-engaging texts) and secondly, because I believe that students can develop a better understanding of and appreciation for a poem, let’s say, if they actually have to write a poem themselves. Unfortunately, I’ve only ever taught the course in the summer short-term, which means I have even less time to teach several complex skills, so creative writing activities are never really an option.

Until now.

I now have thirteen glorious weeks of FYC II with which to play. And play is exactly what we are going to do!

Having a kid who’s a gamer, I know that gaming is a big part of many of my students’ lives. What I did not realize, until recently, was the extent to which role-playing is a part of both their gaming and non-gaming activities. For example, this semester I have a student who plays Magic the Gathering. In addition to this game, he also participates in creative role-play writing online. Another student is a furry. Several other students regularly interact virtually via games such as first-person shooters like Halo and MMORPGs. Hearing and reading about these students’ intense participation in highly immersive role play piqued my curiosity and I began to explore the role-play writing genre. I found that it is a genre that, like literary criticism and other forms of academic writing, is governed by strict community-imposed guidelines and practices, but also places a high premium on creativity, improvisation, and play (practices that are thought by many to be antithetical to academic writing), as well as cooperation and collaboration.

So I began to wonder: What if I could marry the critical and analytical aspects of literary criticism with the creative license of role-play writing? And what if I could do it in a highly immersive role-play environment? And how can I do it in a way that will still meet the learning objectives of the course (in other words, still introduce students to the literary genres and their respective elements; guide them towards close, analytical reading within those genres; teach them how to conduct and integrate research into their writing; and help them to continue to develop their formal writing skills)?

I’m still working out many of the answers to these questions, but I have too many ideas swimming around in my head right now to keep them all contained. I’ve got to do something with them (in order to do something with them). So here’s my initial (sketchy) thinking. There is some backstory to how some of these ideas led to each other and some research that initiated some of them, and I plan to detail those aspects of my development of the course (if it reaches fruition) later. This post simply serves as a brief overview of my thinking at this point in time.

Roles
If I want students to role-play, what roles would be available to them that will work for the poems, stories, and plays in our reader?

This has been the hardest question so far and I’m still developing ideas. I looked to the various theories of literary criticism to help get me started and immediately came up with a psychologist and a historian. Brainstorming from there, so far I’ve added cold-case detective, journalist, and celebrity gossip columnist (these are just off-the-cuff ideas).

How will the literature fit into the role-play?
Students will need to select a role to take on for the semester and, as we read selected texts, choose those that can be analyzed from their role’s perspective. So a cold-case detective might select Albee’s A Zoo Story to analyze with an eye towards solving the crime that takes place in the play or determining the motive behind it.

How can I make the roles as immersive as possible?
Obviously, students are going to need some help determining and developing the behaviors and habits of mind of their selected roles. I plan to flip the term, so to speak, by having them begin with their research project, which will be to figure out how to think like their persona. In addition to secondary research, I’m considering requiring that the students also interview someone in their role’s field (they have plenty of interviewees to select from on campus).

Secondly, I’ll have the students maintain a blog over the course of the semester as their persona. This will be where they post their writings about the texts they choose to work with (so their blog may be in the form of case files or newspaper articles or reports, etc.). They’ll also have to create a backstory for their persona, which they’ll post to the About page. In reading and commenting on their peers’ posts, I’ll ask that they maintain their role, so that they are responding as a cold-case detective, for example, even if they’re reading a journalistic piece or a psychological analysis.

Thirdly, I hope to be able to use Second Life to help reinforce the immersive experience. Students can create a physical manifestation of their persona via their SL avatar and can truly role-play with their peers in SL (they may be too self-conscious to do so IRL). In addition to giving their persona life, SL will also provide opportunities for virtual field-trips. I can, for instance, take the cold-case detectives on a field trip to the catacombs of Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” where we can virtually investigate the scene of the crime. Or I can take a group of psychologists for a walk though the forest where Young Goodman Brown strolled with the devil so that we can determine if his experience was a case of an over-wrought imagination under the influence of the sublime primitive New England landscape or if he did, indeed, face his demons. SL will also, I believe, afford us an opportunity to discuss writing issues without the fear and loathing that face-to-face in-class discussions of writing invariably engenders. I’m hoping that the virtual nature of SL will allow students to speak more openly about their struggles as writers (and readers).

This is a brief overview of how the course appears in my own over-wrought mind. It’s still fuzzy around the edges and details need to be refined and there’s still much research and planning to be done before it looks anything like a workable course. I plan to do a follow-up post soon that outlines the research behind my ideas with links to pertinent resources. Any ideas or resources that my readers can provide are much appreciated. And if you’ve integrated role-play writing (or participate in it yourself) or Second Life into your classes, I would love to hear about your experiences. And if I’m totally off my rocker, someone please let me know why and to what extent.

Avatars hanging out in Second Life
By John “Pathfinder” Lester

Hacking Assessment: Redesigning the Numbers Game

photo credit: davidfg via photo pin cc

In a recent post, I outlined some ideas that I have about integrating principles of game design into the FYC course. As I pointed out, I’m not all-out gung-ho about the idea of the gamification of education. It turns out that many of my reservations about this latest trend in reforming education are shared by game designers themselves. In her post “Everything Is Game Design,” game designer Elizabeth Sampat makes clear that the assumption that any group of practitioners can co-opt and apply the extremely complex and abstract principles at play in a successfully engaging (to some) game to any other domain is over-reaching:

Gamification” assumes all games share the same mechanics, which means everything that’s gamified is basically the same shitty game. Using badges and leaderboards and offering toothless points for clearly-commercial activities isn’t a magic formula that will engage anyone at any time. Demographics are different, behavior is different . . .

These are the same issues with gamifying the classroom that keep me from wholly embracing the concept. For one, the whole point of a game is that it is . . . well, a game. Games are voluntary. As soon as you force someone to join in a game, it stops being a game for them. It becomes a compulsory activity devoid of intrinsic value and all of the extrinsic rewards you can throw at them, while perhaps artificially increasing their motivation to play the game, cannot turn it back into a game, unless it’s in the negative sense. Even when we gamify a class, we’re still making the learning that takes place within that game compulsory and effectively negating any positive characteristics of gaming that we are attempting to channel. And, as Sampat points out, the characteristics that make any game engaging cannot be standardized. What works for one gamer doesn’t work for another. So, in many ways, game designers face the same kinds of issues and challenges that educators face.

Another point that I think has been largely overlooked in this debate is that, for the large majority of students (if not all), school is already a game. We have goals (behavioral or learning objectives), challenges (in-class activities, homework, exams, and standardized tests), and rewards (grades). We’ve got levels (grade levels based on age in K12 and hours-earned status in college) and leaderboards (A/B honor roll in K12 and President’s and Dean’s lists in college). And we have clearly defined roles (teacher as locus of power and expertise, student as powerless and largely silent novitiate). Some students figure out pretty early how to play the game. In college, these are the students whose identity is inextricably intertwined with their grades. “But I’m an ‘A student,'” they insist when faced with anything other than. Other students learn early on how to game the game. These are the students who know how to manipulate the system and those in charge of it and can often be just as successful at winning the game as their overachieving counterparts. But some students never learn how to play the game according to our rules. Others don’t want to play it because they see it for what it is.

Whether we realize it or not, we’re already playing games with our students. And it’s a numbers game. Play the game according to our rules and we’ll reward you with a high GPA and a diploma, with the promise that these things are the badges you need in order to level up to the American Dream. This kind of game is both irrelevant and counterproductive in a culture that is becoming increasingly participatory, rather than competitive, in nature (just read Share or Die: Voices of the Get Lost Generation in the Age of Crisis to get an idea of how important cooperation and collaboration is becoming for those graduating into the current economy). While many educators are fighting to reform the standardized, hierarchical forms of assessment that have been in place since the industrialization of education, until they are successful at effecting a wholesale paradigm shift and not just applying a false facade and calling it reform, we are forced (much like our students) to try to figure out ways to hack the game. As Sampet argues:

Finding the reward structures and the rules that are already in place, and figuring out how to make them more effective, is the key to making life better for everyone— not adding an additional layer of uninspiring mechanics that push us to engage with mechanics that already suck.

Just as games are not one-size-fits-all, assessment shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all, neither in terms of standardized criteria applied to all students nor evaluative formats used for all courses/disciplines. Just as each course has its own unique set of learning objectives, each course should have a different method for assessing how students go about achieving those objectives. I think it important to explore various assessment methods in an effort to find which is the most effective for a particular course. For example, I have found that a portfolio method is exceptionally well-suited for my composition courses, as it allows for the abstract nature of the writing process and the subjectiveness that characterizes the act of evaluating and valuing a piece of writing. But in trying to incorporate a portfolio system into my speech courses (both an introductory oral communication class and an advanced argumentation and debate class), I have had less success, though for different reasons (perhaps due to the differences among the students: freshman and upper level secondary-education majors, respectively). As much as the portfolio method places value on each student’s individual learning needs, goals, and achievements, within the current grades-based system, students in certain courses need to be able to visualize their learning at both a qualitative and quantitative level. So, what are the alternatives?

Peer Assessment
One option that is gaining ground is peer assessment. Cathy Davidson has successfully explored this method in her “This Is Your Brain on the Internet” class (read “How to Crowdsource Grading” for her description of the process and the thought-provoking debate that followed and “How to Crowdsource Grading: A Report Card” for an overview of her students’ responses to the method). Many MOOCs utilize peer assessment out of necessity. According to Debbie Morrison, within the MOOC environment, peer assessment results in an enhanced learning experience for the student, as grading their peers’ work requires a deeper engagement with course content.

I’ve utilized peer assessment in both of my speech classes to varying degrees and with varying levels of success. In my introductory speech class, the students work together at the beginning of the term to develop a checklist for an effective speech (I don’t use rubrics because, in my experience, they become just another hierarchical form of grading that allows students to retain many of the gaming habits they adopted in K12). They do this by watching several speeches on YouTube and creating individual lists of do’s and don’ts, which we then collate into a master list. For each speech, students are evaluated by five randomly selected anonymous peers, who use the checklist to assess the speech. The students are also filmed and they must use both the video and their peers’ checklists to compose an assessment of their speech that they post to an e-portfolio, along with all artifacts associated with the speech (outlines, bibliographies, slideshows, photos of visual aids, the video of the speech, etc.). For this particular class, I have found that a combination of self and peer assessment has been much more effective than a solely self-based assessment (which tended to be superficial) or even an instructor-based assessment (in which students received only one assessment, as opposed to five, and tended to focus more on improving their “grade” than becoming a more effective speaker). With the peer assessment method, students’ speeches are being evaluated by their audience and their focus becomes oriented towards improving their audience’s response to subsequent speeches.

I have tried this kind of peer assessment in my debate class with far less success. For one, the class is much smaller, and consists, for the most part, of a cohort of sophomore and junior-level secondary education majors. These students tend to be very cliquish and ironically conservative in terms of the practices they expect in the class; they tend to be “A-gamers” obsessed with acing the course and uncomfortable with the level of abstractness and improvisation involved in debate. As a result, they tend to assess their peers over-generously and resist critiquing one another (one class even admitted to giving each other positive assessments across the board because they didn’t want to “hurt someone’s grade”). They look to me as the expert, so their portfolio reflections tend to be focused on flattering me and the course and highlighting aspects of their performances from my point of view (“If I were the instructor, I would give this speech a [insert grade here]”). Despite my best efforts, these students are resistant to assessment formats that are not instructor-based. So what’s a disruptive pedagogue to do?

Contract Grading
While I was at first dismissive of contract grading based on the distaste I harbor for the artificially hierarchical nature of any type of grades-based assessment (and the name’s implications of a kind of capitalistic supply and demand relationship between student and teacher), I have become less dismissive of the method in terms of its ability to bridge the gap between my students’ need for a quantitative value to be placed on their learning and my own objective of encouraging them to recognize and become complicit in the qualitative value of that learning.

For one, I’m hoping that it will eliminate the specter of grades that haunts the course by directly addressing the students’ anxiety regarding their status in a course that has no exams or other easily quantifiable activities. Students will decide what grade they wish to work towards and will have a specific, objective set of criteria that they must achieve in order to earn that grade (yes, I know this sounds just like a syllabus with a traditional grading schema, but contract grading makes the implicit aspects of the traditional schema explicit and, in many ways, mimics the game design principle of starting at zero and gaining points as you go). Once the question of grades is out of the way, perhaps the students will be more willing to focus on learning and improving.

Secondly, contract grading requires student input in regards to the challenges that must be met in order to level-up (yes, I know I’m wading back into gaming territory, but, as I’ve argued, our goal should be figuring out what works for a particular course and cohort of students rather than a wholesale dismissal or acceptance of any one method or theory). Often, in order to earn an A or a B, students must complete additional learning tasks, sometimes choosing between several options, which they can be invited to develop. This aspect of contract grading is the one that I find most promising in terms of encouraging student investment in the learning environment. While I have long preached to students that, in the words of Lennon and McCartney, “in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make,” contract grading makes student-centered initiative an explicitly integral component of the course.

Thirdly, contract grading will allow me to both address the students’ insistence that I fulfill the role of expert assessor and my wish for them to fulfill the role of deliberate and reflective practitioner. Different grades require different levels of mastery, so students who contract for a certain grade must revise and/or re-attempt assignments that don’t demonstrate mastery. While my debate students can’t re-do a live debate, they can complete a video re-enactment that improves upon their live performance or record a play-by-play self-critique using Voice Thread or screencasting software. In addition, some of the optional assignments can require peer or self-assessment or other types of reflective learning practices.

While I’m not completely comfortable with contract grading (just as I am not completely comfortable with gamification), I also recognize that other assessment methods are not working for my upperclassman and, as a result, are interfering with my efforts to push them beyond a superficial engagement with their learning in the course. I believe firmly that we must recognize our students’ needs, values, and histories; but we can’t pick and choose which of those we take into consideration when designing their learning environments. Sampet makes a point that I think is important for us to keep in mind in the process:

The core principle to remember is that game design is everywhere. Instead of trying to stick a crappy, half-formed game onto real life, the real challenge— the one that’s tough, the one that will bring the greatest results— is to fix the bad game design that’s all around us.

Students won’t be open to assessment that values quality over quantity or process over product until we recognize that our current assessment paradigm is a badly designed game that needs to be torn down and redesigned. Sampet suggests two questions to ask when considering whether or not something is badly designed:

  • What’s supposed to be the goal here?
  • Is this experience set up to help or hinder my ability to reach that goal?
I’m game.
Resources on Contract Grading
These are the sources that I consulted to help me to better understand the possibilities afforded by contract grading:


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

Building a Better Blogging Assignment Redux

photo credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com via photo pin cc

One of the sessions at last week’s THATCamp dealt with the issue of designing a better model of student blogging. You can view my Storify of the session here.

I thought that I would add some of my own ideas and discuss how I address some of the issues raised during the session (since, unfortunately, I couldn’t be there).

As noted on the session’s Google Doc, a major problem with requiring students to blog is that the large majority of them are unfamiliar with blogs, so we need to identify effective methods for acculturating them to the genre. Since I’m an advocate of immersive learning, I’ve found that many students begin to “get” blogging by spending a good deal of time actually doing it. But I’ve developed a few orientation assignments that help them get off to a good start.

  • Require students to locate, deconstruct, assess, and subscribe to blogs on topics that interest them: As homework during the first week of class, I have students locate several blogs on a topic that they’re interested in. They pick the best three and subscribe to them. While exploring blogs on their topic, they create a list of criteria for an effective blog. We use a class meeting to collate their criteria into a master list that they can then use as a checklist for their own blogs. Next term I’m planning to expand this assignment by having students work together to deconstruct a blog.
  • Teach them how to comment: This is something that I still struggle with. I provide students with several resources on commenting, including those mentioned at the session; nonetheless, many of them provide largely superficial comments. Next term I plan to have students read and assess comments on the blogs they’ve subscribed to and add their own comments. Similarly to the assignment above, students will work together to establish criteria for effective commenting.

A second, and equally important issue, is the logistics of blog management, both for yourself and the students: controlling pacing (so that you don’t have to deal with an influx of posts and comments at the last minute), encouraging engagement with the blogs (both their own and their peers’), and assessing the blogs.

  • Establish submission guidelines (and stick to them): I establish strict deadlines for post submissions and stick to them from the very first post. I generally make the deadline the night before class in the case of totally face-to-face courses. For my hybrid courses, the deadline is on the day that we do not meet. Either way, I set the deadline for a time well before I and other students need to access the blogs.
  • Encourage engagement with peers’ blogs: I require that students subscribe to each others’ blogs and read and comment on a certain number of them each week. I’ve tried to encourage more depth to their comments by staggering the due dates for posts and comments (generally they have 12-24 hours after the blog post deadline to read and respond to peers’ posts). I’ve had even better success this past term with combining this with rotating students’ roles between posters and readers/commenters. This allows them to fully focus on and engage in their role. This method requires reducing the number and frequency of posts for each student, but I think that the pay-off will be worth it, especially by placing as much emphasis on their comments on others’ blogs as on their own blog posts (which means that I’ll have to invest more time into assessing their comments somehow).
  • Make the blogs an integral component of the course: I try to immerse students in their blogs as much as possible because I’ve found that the more they blog, the better bloggers they become. I now require that all of their writing be done on their blog and I ask them to blog and comment on blogs as frequently as possible (at least once a week). I think that it’s a major mistake to have students blog but then not integrate the blogs into the classroom interactions in some way; this encourages students to view the blogs as secondary to the other class work. In my literature courses, the students’ blogs become the fulcrum for the class discussions. I encourage students to pick the most thought-provoking for us to look at together in class. In my FYC courses, I pick one model post each week for us to critique as a class, asking students to assess the post in small groups, looking for reasons why I selected the post as being a good model. Since the class uses Google+ as a virtual learning space, I also “plus 1” those posts that are especially thought-provoking, well written, and/or visually appealing (I encourage students to do this, as well); this provides students with almost instantaneous feedback and encourages those who might not have read and/or commented on the posts to do so. This also results in a type of gamification of the blogs, as some students begin to work to earn “plus 1’s” from me and their peers. Next term, I plan to also encourage students to use other social media to promote and “like” their peers’ posts.
  • Involve students in the assessment of their blogs: In a previous post, I outlined how I require students to self-assess their writing. I have been happy with the way I’ve asked students to create a portfolio of their blog posts to submit to me at the end of term, rather than assigning a grade to each individual blog post (I’ve tried to eliminate traditional grades as much as possible in my classes). Normally, I have students do this via a final assessment form that they fill in and submit to me via email, hyperlinking to specific posts that they want to include in their assessment, and discussing in detail why they selected them and how they demonstrate what they’ve learned about writing. But I’m considering remixing Mark Sample’s idea of a blog audit; I think that making their reflections public on their blogs will encourage an even deeper consideration of who they are as writers and what they’ve done as bloggers over the course of the term, mirroring the way that many bloggers use their blogs as reflective spaces. I also like his idea of having students revisit and revise some of their old posts, which is something I used to encourage students to do with their writing before I switched to blogs, and would like to re-incorporate into their portfolio creation.
  • Utilize formative and peer assessment: This is still something that I’m tweaking. So far, I’ve found my method for providing formative assessment effective (and students have indicated the same). What I haven’t been able to integrate as effectively is peer assessment. I would love to use a badge system, like Mozilla’s Open Badges, but I haven’t had the time to figure out the best way to do so (or if it’s even possible, since I don’t know how to code or if it’s necessary to know how to do so to use the program, two issues I’m hoping to remedy soon). In the meantime, I’ll encourage the use of readily available social media feedback systems such as Facebook’s “like” and Google’s “plus 1” buttons.

A third issue that seems to have been prevalent during the session is that of how to allow for disruption and alternatives within the blogging domain.

  • Allow/encourage alternative uses for blogs: Since I require that students publish all of their writings for the class to their blog, this means that sometimes their blog posts contain nontraditional material (although I always try to help students understand that, with the advent of photoblogs, vlogs, and podcasting, there is no longer such a thing as traditional blog content). For example, this term I’m requiring my FYC students to use Storify to create their annotated bibliographies and then embed their stories into their blogs for comment by me and their peers. Last term, my students participated in DS 106, which meant that their blogs became populated with memes, mashups, animated gifs, and sound clouds.
  • Disrupt the digital environment: Interestingly enough, as participants were discussing Mills Kelly’s ideas about disruptive pedagogies and then subsequently considering ways to disrupt student blogging, I was blogging about Paul Fyfe’s theory of teaching naked and considering how to disrupt the digital environments within which I ask my students to work. One idea that I blogged about that serendipitously showed up on the blogging session Google Doc is that of requiring students to engage with and use their blog posts in non-digital ways. I think that this is an aspect of student blogging that needs more attention and I hope that a conversation can develop around it.

These are just a few of the blogging methods that I have found effective and, as indicated, I’m still working at improving some of them. I encourage those who require their students to blog or who are thinking of doing so to help continue the conversation here, on my Storify of the THATCamp session, on Mark Sample’s THATCamp blog post, or on Twitter (use the #thatcamp hashtag).