War of the Words: How to Gamify Online Discussions

photo credit: mrsdkrebs via photopin cc
photo credit: mrsdkrebs via photopin cc

Ask anyone who teaches online and they’re 99.9% certain to say that encouraging engaging and consistent discussion is the biggest challenge of teaching online. That percentage probably goes down in upper-level discipline-focused courses, but for those of us who teach freshman- and sophomore-level core curriculum courses, this percentage is pretty accurate no matter what the class or the students’  level of online learning experience. Why are (quality) online discussions so difficult to initiate and sustain? This is especially perplexing when you consider how much social media has revolutionized our ability to engage in virtual discussions. Such discussions are a ubiquitous, daily component of almost every millennial’s life. Of course, some would question the quality of those discussions, but I tend to favor some, however questionable in quality, discussion over no discussion at all when it comes to preparing students for online learning. If they come to us already in the habit of using Facebook and Twitter to engage with peers on a regular basis, then shouldn’t transitioning this kind of virtual verbal give-and-take to a course-focused setting, whether it’s Blackboard or a private group on Facebook or Google+, be easy? And once engaging in those discussions we can help them develop the quality of their contributions, right?

Right. But we have to get them there first and that’s the biggest challenge. This is not a case of “build it and they will come.” We’ve tried that. Some of us, recognizing the clunkiness and walled garden atmosphere of most LMS discussion forums, moved to trendier forums, meeting students where they were on Facebook and Twitter. This helped some; maybe we overcame the learning curves inherent in LMS discussion boards and we saw a spike in discussion activity initially as students’ curiosity got the best of them, but this either didn’t work (because students didn’t follow the rules regarding appropriate posts or never learned how to use hashtags to signal course-related tweets) or it didn’t last (as the novelty wore off and students realized it was just the same boring kind of class discussion relocated to their social spaces). [As a reminder, I am focusing here specifically on 100% online courses, as I know several teachers have had success with using social media in face-to-face and hybrid classes to spark discussion and participation.] The problem, of course, is multifaceted. Some of it has to do with students’ perceptions about the value of deep, meaningful discussion about academic texts and issues and their lack of experience with such discussion, triggering fears about how others will view them if they say something “dumb.” Part of it is our inability to transcend the artificiality of such discussions; even relocating a teacher-constructed, forced discussion to an organic forum like Twitter cannot disguise/mitigate the true nature of the interchange. And we’ve only added artificial sweetener to an already artificial ingredient by superimposing rubrics onto the discussion, requiring a certain number of posts and comments, and assigning point values to each post and comment, further de-motivating students who fear they’ll be penalized for inept posts/comments and imprisoning students within an inorganic, regimented system of forced, mimicked responses. So, what’s an online teacher to do?

That is the question I was faced with as I began to design my first 100% online first-semester First-Year Composition class for the upcoming Fall term. So, I began to think about what kinds of activities triggered the most engagement and meaningful discussions in the classroom. I ended up isolating two specific kinds of activity: debate and cooperative competition games like the one I designed to gamify required readings. So, my next question became how I could translate those kinds of activities to a virtual space rather than a physical classroom. This question proved to be much more problematic, as both of these activities are based upon physical proximity and the ability to receive and give immediate feedback. And while both involve an artificial construction, the context and rules imposed on the students force them to be creative and to deeply engage with the questions/issues at hand if they want to “win.” So, artificiality is the whole point: these are both games and a game is an artificial construct that embraces its artificiality and uses it to encourage deep player engagement. It just so happened that I was also re-reading Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken at the same time as I was pondering the dilemma of how to redesign these two activities as virtual games. In particular, her chapter on “Stronger Social Connectivity,” which outlined social network games like FarmVille and Lexulous, seemed to hold the answer. While I was not familiar with Lexulous, it immediately reminded me of Words with Friends. As McGonigal points out, these kinds of social network games are typically asynchronous (as are online discussion forums), but are designed to encourage checking in on a regular basis to keep up with and respond to “friends'” activities (something online discussion forums can’t quite seem to accomplish).  This seemed to be the blueprint that I needed for the kind of discussion game I was contemplating.

I ended up using Words with Friends as a model and designed three different types of discussion games. The games will be played in a Google+ Community. Each game has a start date/time and an end date/time; during the interval the game is “on” and students can post whenever they wish. In some cases, I imposed a limit to posts in order to discourage students from monopolizing the game and farming points. I decided to make all points earned during the games bonus points; each student’s bonus points will be tallied and recorded on a scoreboard and added to their final course grade at the end of the term (because this is a dual enrollment course, I have to use a traditional grading structure and have not gamified the class beyond the discussion games). The points earned by the highest-achieving student will determine the baseline grade; so, if they end up earning 15,000 bonus points, then all students’ bonus points will be recorded as X/15,000 (again, because this is an online dual enrollment course, I have to use Blackboard’s grade book, which requires a maximum point value for all grades entered). Some games are team-based, so students earn points for themselves and their team and the team with the most points scored earns even more bonus points. I did design rubrics outlining criteria for the kinds of posts expected for each game, but because of the gameful nature of the activities, students can have posts of varying degrees of quality and still earn points and, in the case of team-based discussion games, help their team.

The first game I developed is an online version of my power card reading game. It basically works the same as the in-class version of the game, only without the cards (I’m still working on how to use the cards virtually). Each student will be responsible for posting questions and answers at any time during the period in which the game is “on.” Here’s a breakdown of the guidelines and rules:

  • The questions must be open-ended, meaning there is no right/wrong answer, and they must require supporting evidence from the book as part of the answer.
  • Each team member may ask no more than three questions.
  • Each team member may answer no more than three questions.
  • Repeated questions or answers will not earn points, but still count towards a player’s maximum question/answer allowance.
  • Players should tag their question posts with their team name so that other players know which team posted the question.
  • Players may only answer questions posted by members of the opposing team.
  • Players who wish to answer a question must post their answer as a reply to the opposing team’s post.
  • A question may be answered by more than one player but be careful of repeating answers.
  • Each question and answer will be assigned a point value by me, based on the following scale:

4 = excellent
3 = good
2 = fair
1 = poor

  • Points for both questions asked and answered with be tallied and the team with the most cumulative points earns an additional150 bonus points.

The second discussion game that I designed is a version of the in-class debates that I often require students to participate in. Again, this one is team-based and the winning team earns an additional 150 bonus points. I will randomly divide the class into two teams and post the debate topic at the game start time. Here are the guidelines/rules:

  1. The debate begins as soon as the debate topic is posted.
  2. I will create two posts based on the two sides of the debate and tag each with the appropriate side.
  3. You may only argue for the side that you’ve been assigned to.
  4. Each response must be posted as a reply to the appropriate post and must include both a claim (your reasoning) and grounds (the facts supporting your reasoning). You may have more than one piece of supporting evidence for each claim; in fact, the more grounds you have to support your claim, the better. You can find out more about developing a well-structured and well-supported argument on pages 194-200 of your writer’s handbook.
  5. Each claim will earn a player 10 points and each piece of supporting evidence will earn them 10 points.
  6. A player may also respond to a claim by the opposing team with a counterargument, which must also include a counterclaim and grounds. A counterclaim will earn a player 20 points and each piece of evidence used to support the counterclaim will earn them 20 points. Counterarguments should be posted as a reply to the argument being rebutted.
  7. A player may post no more than three arguments and three counterarguments for full points. After this limit is reached, the points earned will be reduced by half. A player may post no more than six total arguments and six total counterarguments. 
  8. Repeated claims and counterclaims will not earn points but will still count against a player’s maximum number of claims/counterclaims. Grounds, however, may be used to support multiple claims and counterclaims.

Last, I designed a discussion game that requires the students to take turns creating and posting questions about the topic/issue under study that the rest of the class has to answer, using specific kinds of answers. This will the first game that I have students play (with me asking the first question) in order to orient them to the discussion game format and begin helping them develop meaningful discussion posts. The students must restrict their responses to the questions to the following four answer types (which can be combined in any way), with each answer type assigned a different point value:

  • Explanation (+10 pts.): this type of post is focused on explaining how something works; what happened and how it happened; what something is or how something is done; etc. (fact-based)
  • Argument (+20 pts.): this type of post is focused on presenting an argument with the purpose of persuading others to agree with you (opinion-based)
  • Evidence (+30 pts.): this type of post is focused on presenting supporting reasons why an argument is valid, using either primary or secondary sources or your personal experiences/observations (source-based)
  • Challenge (+40 pts.): this type of post presents a counterargument or rebuttal to a classmate’s explanation, argument, or evidence (opinion-based)

In this game, I also encourage students to +1 peers’ posts that they think are especially thought-provoking, persuasive, and/or insightful. Each post will earn 1 extra bonus point for each +1 it receives; however, each student is limited to 3 +1’s, so they must be selective with their bonus points (again, to discourage teaming up for point farming). 

My hope is that by framing the discussions as games, which acknowledges and embraces their artificiality and encourages both individual and cooperative competition, and making all points earned as part of the games bonus points, which are additive rather than subtractive and encourage experimentation and risk-taking, I can help students overcome their antipathy/animosity towards and fear of online discussion forums and inject a little fun into them in the process. I do not have false hopes that these games will completely alleviate all of the challenges inherent in online discussions, but I hope that it will be one step towards getting students involved and engaged in the process so that those challenges can begin to be addressed.

I know that some teachers have probably been able to effectively address the challenge of online student interactions in other ways. If so, please share your ideas, as I would love to incorporate them into my own design.

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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 . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practicing What I Preach: Digital Writing Month

Some rights reserved by Pink Sherbet Photography

For a while now I’ve been preaching to my students about the importance of learning how to create and develop a digital presence and the essential role that writing plays in doing so. I was one of the first in my department to adopt blogs as the main form of writing in my classes. Once my First-Year Composition classes became hybrid, I also began to require students to use Google+ to create digital profiles and communicate, network, curate, and share information. To be honest, I wasn’t exactly practicing what I was preaching. Oh, I was building my digital presence on Twitter, but that was about it. I didn’t blog (didn’t have time, I argued) and I didn’t actively and consistently participate in other kinds of digital writing (didn’t want to juggle too many social networks, I demurred). This past summer, I saw the error of my ways and began this blog. It has been a life- and career- altering experience in several ways that I won’t go into here and now. Suffice it to say that it has been the single best professional decision I have ever made and it has also provided me with much first-hand experience that I can now pass along to my students without feelings of hypocrisy.

But I’m a firm believer that complacency leads to stagnation. As teachers, as soon as we become too comfortable with what we’re doing, we’re in danger of becoming irrelevant. Just as we encourage our students to do more than the minimum requirements and to push themselves beyond what’s easily attainable, we should resist feelings of confidence and certainty. It’s only when we’re pushing the envelope and testing the waters that we’re resisting the temptations of “good enough.”

When I was first invited to participate in Digital Writing Month, my immediate instinct was to pass. I’m in the middle of a hectic semester: I’m teaching five classes (three of which are composition classes and all of which are in the throes of Challenge-Based Learning projects), maintaining my blog, serving on a very active committee (under whose auspices I am spearheading a summer technology camp for local K12 students), keeping ten hours of office hours each week, and helping my nine year-old to adjust to fourth grade. The last thing I need is one more thing to do. Yes, the project sounded exciting. But 50,000 words in one month? Bananas!

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized what an important project Digital Writing Month is. Many of the reasons why I think it is so important will become evident in the article that I’ve submitted as a featured contributor to the project. My reasoning has much to do with the political and artistic power that I see digital writing embodying. But some of my reasoning is more personal. Right now, I’m feeling a little too digitally complacent for my own good. I’m happy with a blog post every other week or so and an occasional smattering of tweets. I’m comfortable with what I can do digitally. I haven’t tried anything new in a while and I’m not sure that I’m feeding my networks as well as I should be in terms of promoting pedagogical disruption. It’s time I made myself a little uncomfortable.

Some of the things that I’m planning to do as part of the project are:

  • Blog at least once each week (potential post topics include: designing a blogging workshop for students, unplugging the classroom, teaching bento-style, hashtags as exquisite corpse, using Google+ as an LMS, using Stephen King’s On Writing to teach FYC, Challenge-Based learning in the introductory speech class, screen casting feedback on students’ blog writing)
  • Live-tweet my notes/thoughts on pedagogically-relevant books and articles that I read during the month
  • Create a webcomic (I’ll be giving students in my upcoming graphic novel class the option of doing this, so in the spirit of never asking students to do something that I haven’t tried to do myself, I’ll be giving it a go; however, I don’t expect a contract offer to come my way as a result of my efforts)
  • Comment on all of my students’ blog posts (normally, I only provide feedback to students privately via Word or screencast, but for the month of November I’ve decided to switch to only providing comments publicly on each of the students’ blog posts, shifting my focus from teacher-centered comments on organization, style, and grammar to reader-centered comments on content and ideas; I already require students to read and publicly respond to each others’ posts, so again, I’ll be walking the walk)

Since project participants are encouraged to curate their digital writing for the month in one place, I’ll be publishing, Storifying, and linking to my work here.

I’m hoping that if there are others who are feeling that the project is just not easily attainable for them right now, you’ll reconsider. If you’re not sure why you should, then I hope that you’ll at least follow the project on Twitter (@digiwrimo) and consider adding your voice when and as you can. You may end up inspired to push yourself beyond what’s comfortable.

It’s going to be a wild, unpredictable, organic, collaboratively-driven ride!

Loitering in the Witch’s House: My MOOC Experience

photo credit: perpetualplum via photo pin cc

Whether you love Google or hate it, there’s no denying the fact that the company is at the leading edge of open source apps and educational resources. And whether we like it or not, the majority of students are using Google as their primary research tool (and, according to a study summarized by Sarah Kessler, they’re not using it very effectively). I use Google apps extensively in my hybrid courses and, recognizing a need on my students’ part to learn how to use the internet more effectively and critically, I’ve begun to integrate the Google search engine into my research workshops. So when Google recently offered a MOOC entitled “Power Searching with Google,” I immediately signed up, hoping in the process to kill two birds with one stone: 1) to learn some Google search strategies that I could pass along to my students, and 2) to get a taste for the MOOC experience. It was a mixed bag.

Set-up
In terms of set-up, the course was very straightforward. Lessons consisted of video demonstrations followed by activities designed to test your ability to apply the skills addressed in each video. Assessment consisted of a pre-course assessment (meant to gauge existing knowledge of Google search features), a mid-course assessment, and a final assessment. The scores for the mid-course and final assessments were averaged together to determine your “grade” for the course and a passing grade resulted in a certificate of completion. There was also a discussion forum that you could voluntarily participate in.

Pros
1) Individualized pace: While there were deadlines for the mid-course and final assessments, you could work through the course materials at your own pace as long as you were ready to meet those deadlines. This worked great for me because I could complete individual lessons or entire units as it suited me. Considering the hectic schedule I have this summer, this was by far the most effective aspect of the course for me.

2) Paced release of materials: While I could work at my own pace on the materials available to me, I was limited by the fact that the units were released at a graduated rate. This actually turned out to be a positive for me because, since I couldn’t see the entirety of the course materials at the beginning, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the amount of material I would need to cover and I remained focused on each set of materials I had access to.

3) Do-overs: Both practice activities and assessments were set up to allow multiple attempts at answering questions correctly. You could check your answers before submitting your assessments and wrong answers to practice activities usually triggered some feedback in terms of what to review in order to better understand the skill addressed in the activity. I found this to be a very effective method for learning because I didn’t have a fear of failure hanging over me that a single-attempt set-up would have created.

4) Leveling up or down: While I didn’t actually make use of it, there was the option to change the difficulty level of practice activities to either an easier activity or a harder activity. Again, I see this as being an effective method for individualizing assessment. There was also an option to skip activities and see the correct answers. This was effective for those search functions that I was already familiar with and didn’t necessarily want to waste my time trying out; being able to see the answers allowed me to self-assess my prior knowledge and move forward quickly if I wanted to.

Cons
1) Boring videos: I don’t expect lecture and demonstrations to be entertaining, but I do expect them to be somewhat engaging on an intellectual level. The videos were not long (the longest was a little over eight minutes), and this brevity was their only saving grace. It wasn’t just the fact that the instructor sat on a couch the whole time (I suppose in an effort to make the instruction feel more personal), but the content itself dragged in several lessons. Some lessons were far too simplistic and some were overly repetitive. A boring presenter is boring, whether IRL or on video.

2) Google Chrome required: All demonstrations were done in Chrome, so I could not replicate some of the tasks, such as the Search by Image function, as demonstrated. There was no discussion by the instructor of the different ways to complete these tasks in other browsers, though I did eventually receive help via the forum (after I had completed the final assessment). This often led to frustration on my part. If I had taken this course IRL, I would have been able to ask for clarification from the instructor.

3) Difficult tasks given short shrift: There were a few lessons that contained difficult concepts, such as using and interpreting results on WHOIS databases. There was little time spent discussing and demonstrating how to use these databases (although the instructor acknowledged the difficulties of using them), yet being able to do so was part of the final assessment. As a student, this was extremely frustrating and I quickly gave up trying to figure it out by myself (my frustration is demonstrated with some rather derogatory doodles next to my notes on this lesson and a final assessment of the lesson as “useless”). Again, IRL instruction would have afforded me the opportunity to seek clarification on these muddy points and perhaps encourage the instructor to extend the time spent on the databases.

4) Chug and plug assessment: While the practice activities required direct application of skills, the assessments were multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank problems that, for the most part, simply required regurgitating information from the instructor’s demonstrations. At this point, I’m not really certain of how much of the course I have really learned and internalized and how much I’ve simply managed to maintain in my short-term memory.

5) Forum confusingly organized and asynchronous: The few times that I did try to use the forum, I had difficulty navigating it. It was supposedly organized by lesson, but I could never find a direct link to the discussion threads for a specific lesson and it seems that most people just posted wherever they felt like it. When I posed questions, I did not receive immediate (or even proximal) feedback; the earliest I received an answer was a little over 24 hours after posting the question. Of course, one aspect of open online learning that MOOCs bank on is student participation; they count on the fact that other students are probably online when questions and comments are posted and are likely to respond faster than forum moderators. However, in this particular MOOC students did not seem particularly eager to help each other out or respond to each others’ posts, and all of my questions were answered by forum moderators.

What does this mean for MOOCs?
My initial response to the idea of MOOCs was hesitantly hopeful. Having completed one, I’m pretty much stuck with the same reservations about them that I have for tuition-based online courses. They are inherently more suited to certain types of students, i.e., those who are highly motivated, self-aware learners with good time management skills and a high tolerance for working alone and not having immediate access to and feedback from their instructor and classmates.

In terms of instruction, it requires as much, if not more, effort to make online instruction engaging because it’s far easier for students to become disengaged with an online course, especially one that’s free and has no extrinsic motivations to stay connected and finish. The one thing that’s possible in online course design that MOOCs cannot capitalize on, due to their massive size, is individualizing instruction. I’m not completely sure of the purpose of the pre-course assessment for Google’s MOOC (unless it’s simply for their own data collection purposes) because the rest of the course was not structured based on my answers to the initial assessment questions. IRL and in small online courses, diagnostic assessments allow for individualization because you can use the information garnered to help direct students towards those materials that will be of most use to them in terms of the gaps in their prior knowledge.

My first MOOC was like the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel. It seemed to offer an educational paradise: no-cost, developed and delivered by domain experts (whose “certificate of completion” holds cache), flexible in terms of when and how I completed it, open in terms of whom I would be sharing the experience with. Unfortunately, the reality did not live up to the fantasy. Of course, unlike Hansel and Gretel, I could have left whenever I wished. Instead, I stuck it out to the bitter end, hoping to find some redeeming quality in something that held such promise.

What does this mean for hybrid and fully f2f courses?
We need to continue to figure out how to capitalize on the best aspects of f2f learning and online learning. Some variables remain the same, no matter what the medium of instruction. Boring is boring. Materials and activities need to be intellectually engaging and individualized to the greatest extent possible. Community is essential; students need access to their teacher and their classmates, whether it’s physically or virtually, and some of that contact needs to be synchronous (which is one reason that I think hybrid courses are so effective). Assessment needs to be formative, immediate, and authentic. And no type of assessment can measure engagement. I earned a pretty high score in the Google MOOC, a score that does not reflect the boredom and frustration that I experienced. While I certainly came away from the course with an extended set of Google search skills that I did not posses prior to the course, I’m not sure that I would have  completed the course had I been less motivated (the certificate of completion will help to pad my annual faculty review packet).

How many of our own students have walked away from our courses with A’s or B’s, despite boredom or frustration? If we base the success of our courses on the grades that students come away with, we’re ignoring the aspects of learning that MOOCs make obvious: the hardest working and most motivated students will succeed, no matter how poorly designed the learning experience. So, it’s important for students to have opportunities to share anecdotal feedback, not just at the end of the course, but from the very beginning and throughout the course. And it’s important that we be willing to act on that feedback.

In hindsight, I now recognize that it will be very difficult for designers of MOOCs to do this. In fact, it is difficult for MOOCs to enact most of the learning practices that I value: learning-centered instructional design; a skatepark-like learning environment; immediacy; flexibility; authenticity; hybridity; intimacy with the materials, ideas, and people who make up the body of the course. Instead of heralding MOOCs as the salvation of education, we need to recognize them for what they are: an alternative that works for some learners on some levels. However, it’s also an alternative that is still in its infancy and still has room to grow; in fact, I think that DS106 demonstrates what MOOCs are capable of with the right kind of instructors and objectives. Whether or not they can, as a general rule, get there is up for grabs. What makes DS106 work is that it is, like the best IRL course, a truly student-centered community, in that students develop and help assess the assignments. It’s a course completely devoid of sticks and carrots and completely built on the desire to be a part of a unique learning community.

This ideal of a free and open learning community built upon choice and intrinsic motivation is the real promise of MOOCs. But if we continue, as some institutions and companies do, to look to MOOCs as a vehicle for the mass-production and broad dissemination of canned content, we’ll never get there.

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