Learning Spaces As Making Spaces

Image courtesy of be you.
Image courtesy of be you.

The games-based learning MOOC is officially over, but for those of us who have chosen to pursue the Games-Based Learning Badge, the process of collating the work that we have done during the MOOC is still ongoing (you can see my portfolio, which includes blog posts related to the MOOC, some of my discussion forum responses, and my final project on my Storify page). This is not the first MOOC that I’ve taken, but it is certainly the best by far. Granted, I’ve only taken two, but the other, which I posted about last year, was so diametrically opposed to this one in terms of methodology and design that I can’t help but view the two that I have taken as existing at opposite ends of the MOOC spectrum: the worst kind of open online learning that MOOCs (far too often) represent and the best kind of open online learning that MOOCs can (far too rarely) realize.

There are several aspects of the GBL MOOC that, for me, made it so much better than my previous MOOC experience, among them the constructivist and connectivist pedagogical philosophies that underpinned every aspect of the MOOC’s design. An especially important outcome of the course was the fact that I came away not only having learned something new and connected with people with whom I can continue to share ideas and learning experiences, but that I also came away with a tangible piece of usable pedagogical work: the games-based learning project. For, as much as it was a space (or, rather spaces) in which to learn, share, hack, and play, the MOOC was also a space in which to make.

Over the past few semesters, I have found this philosophy of the classroom as makerspace bleeding over more and more into my own course designs and, most recently, into my presentation and workshop designs as well. In several of my classes, I have eschewed standardized or even open-ended final exams for student-designed projects and research slams. And my students have whole-heartedly embraced the change. So I’ve begun to consider how I might integrate making into the day-to-day learning, rather than just isolating it within the end-of-term project. While doing so will require sacrificing some of the directed learning time, based on the quality of work and level of engagement that my students have demonstrated in their final projects, it’s a sacrifice that I think will be worth it.

One option is the 20% Project. This method gives students 20% of their in-class time to work on a learning project that they choose and design themselves. I’m already doing something similar in my Graphic Novel class this term. Because we meet for 2 1/2 hours each day, I am allowing students 30 minutes of class time to work on their final projects. This gives them the opportunity to conference with me and to seek advice, ideas, and feedback from their peers. But the 20% Project is typically an ungraded, strictly learning-for-the-sake-of-learning-and-having-fun endeavor, so for future classes, I may have students choose between an ungraded 20% project and a formal final exam or an ungraded 20% project and a graded final project that takes the place of a formal final exam. I think it will be interesting to see how students respond to these options.

I’m also looking for ways to turn regular in-class activities into opportunities to make. This term, my Graphic Novel students spent the first two days of class reading and discussing Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Instead of traditional reading quizzes, I had them complete various drawing assignments that would demonstrate that they had read the assigned chapters and understood the concepts covered in them. For example, in order to demonstrate understanding of representation, I had students draw realistic, iconic, and symbolic representations of themselves. To demonstrate understanding of closure, I had them draw a two-panel comic that represented either a subject-to-subject, aspect-to-aspect, scene-to-scene, moment-to-moment, or action-to-action transition. The students are working in small groups to teach the graphic novels we are reading this term and I have left the design of each instructional session completely up to them. So far, each instructional team has integrated some type of maker activity into their lesson. The group teaching Watchmen had everyone create a multi-panel comic that might be written if superheroes were an everyday reality, and then held a competition for the best set of panels. The instructional team for V for Vendetta asked everyone to design their own political activist/vigilante mask. It’s evident from the fact that each instructional team has created some type of activity focused on making and the enthusiasm with which the class approaches their maker projects that students enjoy the challenge of making something that represents their individual talents, ideas, and knowledge.

Seeing the success of creating makerspaces for learning in the classroom has inspired me to reconsider how I design and deliver presentations and workshops. I have the opportunity this summer to lead two workshops for k12 teachers and  I am designing each to be not just a chance to learn about new methods and technologies, but to use what they learn to actually design a unit or an entire curriculum with help and feedback from each other. So, those attending my workshop on immersive role-play will be provided with an outline of the questions I used and the steps that I took to create a class based upon immersive role-play, and will have time during the workshop to brainstorm and refine their own immersive role-play unit.

As I have written before, I see the desire to make as being a natural aspect of the hyper-digitalized  informationalism that characterizes our students’ everyday experiences:

Analogous to (digital) quilting bees, Maker Faires recognize and respond to several aspects of 21st century socioeconomics and the attendant cultural shifts: the need/desire to collaborate, co-op, share, create, and connect with each other and available resources in both new (digital) and old (humanist) ways. In a hyperdigitalized world, authenticity has become a scarce–or at least more difficult to locate–resource, so it seems only natural that people have begun to value the work of making something both beautiful and useful from raw materials.

When we turn learning spaces into opportunities to make, the dichotomy between digital and analog, virtual and real, hi-tech and low-tech no longer matter as much as we like to pretend they do. For students (and teachers), it’s not the tools that matter, it’s the opportunity to use those tools to create something new. What they create doesn’t necessarily have to be useful and it certainly doesn’t have to be graded or to “count” for something. It just has to be something that didn’t exist before. And would have never existed if you had not allowed them the space and the time to make it.

3 Things I Wish Everyone Knew about Gamification

photo credit: epSos.de via photopin cc

The Games-Based Learning MOOC is coming to an end (technically, at least, but I’m sure that many of us will continue to share ideas and resources since the MOOC is based upon the constructivism learning theory and uses Lisa Dawley’s Social Knowledge Network Construction method). The last week also happens to coincide with my preparations to present on my use of immersive role-play and Second Life in my Spring FYC II class at my university’s CoRE Summer Academy. The focus of my presentation will be on the benefits of using immersive role-play in the classroom and the results of my own experiment with doing so. Since some attendees may be unfamiliar with gamification and/or games-based learning, I have included a brief overview of some of the most basic principles of both. What I have discovered in trying to summarize the two is that they are extremely complex concepts; I am having great difficulty reducing either down to a single slide of bullet points. I keep finding myself wanting to summarize everything I’ve learned in the MOOC over the past six weeks and to defend both as important and viable pedagogical methodologies, especially as I consider how the term gamification has become almost  a dirty word due to misuse and misappropriation of the term and the method. I know the kinds of reservations that educators have about buzzwords since I used to have the same reservations about gamification.

But the focus of my presentation is convincing my audience that immersive role-play can increase engagement and motivation and critical thinking, not defend gamification or games-based learning. But what if I had just ten minutes more in the spotlight. What would I say?

#1: Schooling is already a (poorly-designed) game

I’ve argued this before. The students know this. Some educators know it or suspect it, but either believe there’s nothing they can do about it or don’t care enough to do something about it. Some educators are incapable of understanding the fact that they are playing a game because they can play the game so well; they are, as a result, often bewildered by those who can’t or won’t play the game or who want to change the game because, as far as they’re concerned, “this is not a game!” (how often have you heard an educator say that?).

Why do we continue to play such a poorly-designed game? Why do we continue to force our children and young adults to play this game? Even those who learn to play it well gain nothing from the game.

If schooling is already a game, then why not redesign it to be a better game?

In “Everything Is Game Design,” Elizabeth Sampat reminds us that just because something is a game doesn’t mean that it’s a good game; you can integrate all of the shiny, expensive, sophisticated components you can think of, “[b]ut if you don’t tie that stuff to the end experience of the player, you’re not going to have good design.” The reason why schooling is such a poorly-designed game is that the end experience of the player is not the primary focus of modern schooling. We continue to throw new, expensive, sophisticated pedagogical “tools” and theories into the existing game, while ignoring the players.

#2: It’s not a magic band-aid

Learning how to apply the principles of gamification and methods of games-based learning effectively is not easy. Designing a class as a well-designed game is extremely difficult and time-consuming on the educator’s part. Playing a well-designed game is difficult and may be time-consuming on the part of the student. Too often, gamification is used as a band-aid, a quick-fix applied on top of a poorly-designed game. As Sampat argues:

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. 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.

I think that every educator should have some grounding in game design before they attempt to integrate gamification or games-based learning into a classroom. After all, those video games that keep our kids so enthralled for hours at a time are not built in a day or even a week and they are often designed, created, tested, and debugged by an entire team of people with game design experience and expertise. While applying game design principles to a class need not and, indeed, cannot be that complicated, we can and should borrow some of the design practices from those who know how to effectively design games.

According to Lee Sheldon’s The Multiplayer Classroom, game designers typically use the Agile Development Model, which looks like this:

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

While it’s a complicated-looking model, it’s primary objective is pretty straightforward: “Iterate, iterate, iterate.” During the design process, you must constantly evaluate the game in terms of the primary objective (where you want your students to end up in terms of learning) and how effectively the game is guiding players towards that objective. In order to help you determine the last bit, you can use the Octalysis framework:

Model by Yu-kai Chou via Gamifeye

As the creator of the model, Yu-kai Chou, points out, different components of gamification can be used to either inspire or manipulate. If your goal is to inspire (as is, or should be, every educator’s goal), then you should lean more heavily towards the upper left quadrant, or white hat side, of the model. This quadrant favors ownership, accomplishment, meaning, and empowerment.

In addition to constantly evaluating the game throughout the design and creation process, you need to also be flexible during the gameplay, adjusting the mechanics and objectives to meet the needs of your students. And you must be willing to conduct a post-mortem after each iteration of the game and make the necessary changes in order to improve the game’s design. This may (and probably should) involve asking the game players for feedback. Here are screenshots of one part of the post-mortem for my Spring FYC II class:

FYC II roleplay feedback


FYC II Second Life feedback


#3: It’s not about points

Far too often, non-gamers and sceptics of gamification and games-based learning assume that gameplay is all about extrinsic motivation: points, badges, leader boards, prizes, etc. But, as I’ve pointed out before, no amount of points can keep someone engaged in a bad game. One of the reasons why schooling is such a poorly-designed game is because it focuses too heavily on the ultimate extrinsic motivator: grades. Remember the characteristics of the white hat quadrant of Chou’s Octalysis model? Accomplishment is only one component of inspiring game design and points are only one of many mechanics that can be used to demonstrate accomplishment. The best games use multiple methods for measuring and reporting accomplishment. Simply switching from letter grades to badges does not equate with increased engagement; it’s merely exchanging one game mechanic for another. If neither the grades nor the badges are linked to a more important factor within the game and the player’s end experience, then both are equally bad design. Remember, gamification and games-based learning are about applying all of what we know works in the best designed games, not cherry picking magic band-aids and sticking them on an obsolete game in the hopes of encouraging players to have one more go at it.

Okay, so obviously it would take more than ten minutes to say all of this. That’s my problem and, ultimately, the problem with gamification and games-based learning: it’s not easy, quick, or efficient. Like the most well-designed games, applying game design principles to the classroom is difficult, time-consuming, and challenging. But, as many game designers argue and hard-core gamers know, without a struggle, the pay-off is not nearly as rewarding.


Tools for Building Alternate Reality Narratives

This week in the Games-Based Learning MOOC we’ve been discussing Alternate Reality Games (ARG’s) and how to design them, especially in terms of building a narrative that will engage the players and help them become immersed in the game. For me, the most challenging aspect of designing and building an ARG is how to establish the “this is not a game” mentality (TINAG). In discussing both narrative and TINAG, I couldn’t help but think of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s theory of the willing suspension of disbelief. In describing his contributions to his and Wordsworth’s seminal collection of poetry, Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge wrote:

It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.

The result of Coleridge’s efforts is the greatest piece of supernatural poetry ever written: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. There are two essential components to Coleridge’s method: human interest and a semblance of truth; we see these two aspects of Coleridge’s theory at work in The Rime and it is, I believe, an excellent text for game designers to study in order to better understand both. So, the two questions that I’ve been considering this week as I continue to work on designing my Interactive Fiction syllabus and how I might integrate AR into some of my other classes is how to ensure that my narratives integrate both human interest and a semblance of truth. A great source of inspiration for me has been a TED Talk that was part of our GBL course work this week; it is the story of teacher John Hunter and the  World Peace Game that he has his 4th graders play.

Hunter’s World Peace Game is the perfect example of an ARG that addresses both of Coleridge’s requirements for a willing suspension of disbelief.  You can tell from watching and listening to Hunter’s students that they have willingly accepted the TINAG premise because they both value the importance of  the humanistic issues embedded within the game and they are, through immersive role-play, creating a semblance of truth.

In my own game design, the human interest component is not as much a challenge as how to create a semblance of truth. For this, my own FYC II students have provided some very good examples. As mentioned in my last post, this class is using immersive role-play to analyze and write about the short stories and plays they’re reading, which they have, as part of their role-play, treated as real events. Students have been working in role-based guilds all term, but for the final project, I asked them to partner with someone from a different guild and work together to create a multimodal piece that demonstrates their characters’ combined analysis of one of the texts we have covered. In doing so, the students have utilized various methods to imbue their work with a sense of realism.

Social Media

One group decided to address Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story, which involves an encounter between two strangers during which one, Jerry, seems to force the other, Peter, into helping him commit assisted suicide. Because Jerry is dead, the students recognized that they would need a way to investigate his motives. They decided to create a Facebook page for Jerry; using clues from the text, they created a page that included a profile pic, status updates, and quotations that indicated that Jerry was becoming increasingly depressed due to feelings of social inadequacy and  isolation.

The group had to use clues from the text to create Jerry's Facebook page.
The group had to use clues from the text to create Jerry’s Facebook page.

Because social media use is so ubiquitous, the students knew that, however isolated and disconnected Jerry might be in real life, he would more than likely use social media as a way to try to connect to people and as a venue for expressing his feelings.

When creating an ARG, social media is an excellent way to add a veneer of reality. Almost everyone has either a Facebook or Twitter account (or both) and most businesses and organizations also use one or both of these forms of social media for networking with other companies/groups and advertising to and connecting with potential and existing customers/clients. Social media embodies verisimilitude not only because of its popularity, but because it offers the ability to release content in real time, thus providing a sense of immediacy; social media sites are, by nature, frequently updated and content is organized in reverse chronological order. Because of this, social media is also a way to add ambiguity to your narrative (ambiguity being one of the seven ways that games reward the brain); by not having all information available immediately but releasing it gradually over the life of the game, players are more likely to become invested in remaining in the game in order to access the missing information and are more likely to experience the feeling of TINAG (because real life is ambiguous and full of unknown variables).


Another group, also addressing The Zoo Story, integrated one of the character’s blog into their project, using it as evidence in their analysis (the premise they created is quite complex and involves a Dr. Who-like time-traveling blogger who uses virtual reality to experience events from the past from whatever point of view he wishes; during the events of The Zoo Story, he chooses to inhabit Jerry and, in the process, becomes entangled with his identity, bringing it back with him and recreating Jerry’s actions in his own  time so that the other students’ investigation must solve both murders). Again, the students recognized that many people are now living their lives virtually via the internet and blogs are one of the most popular ways in which they are doing so (at the beginning of 2011, there were over 156 million public blogs and an untold number of private ones).

When creating an ARG, blogs are a good way to bring in the perspective of various characters. One example ARG that we looked at this week in the MOOC, Exocog, uses a blog in order to provide insights from the main character, Sarah. Like social media, blogs are frequently updated, affording a chance to release information over the life of the game and create a feeling of immediacy.


One student who ended up having to work independently decided to build on a previous project she had completed during the term for Joyce Carol Oates’s short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” which involves a teenage girl who is kidnapped by an older man. For her original project, the student, who had taken on the role of a criminal defense investigator, had filled in a real missing person’s report for the kidnapped girl, Connie. For her final project, the student created a premise in which Connie eventually escapes her abductor 13 years later, writes a best-selling book about her experiences, and starts a non-profit called Safe Zone, for which the student created a website. Again, websites are a common method for organizations and companies to provide information about their work to the public. Exocog also makes use of websites for providing clues and information to players. There are several tools for building a free website, two of my favorites being Google Sites and Weebly. While websites typically are more static than blogs, they are sometimes updated, so you can choose either option.

Web 2.o Tools

There are several other web 2.0 tools that can be used to add realistic elements to an ARG, several of which were mentioned in my last post on DIY mystery games. My students this term have utilized two of these tools in interesting ways. As part of her final project on the escaped kidnap victim, Connie, the criminal defense investigator used Fodey to create a newspaper clipping in order to introduce the premise behind Connie’s re-appearance.

The student created a newspaper clipping to create the context for her final project
The student created a newspaper clipping to create the context for her final project

A second tool that students made use of to bring a sense of truth to their projects is Glogster. One team, a cold-case detective and a forensic psychologist, used Glogster to create an evidence board for the play Trifles by Susan Glaspell.

One group created the kind of evidence board you might find in a squad room.
One group created the kind of evidence board you might find in a squad room.

These are just two examples of how web 2.o tools can be used to create the kinds of media you might find in real-life contexts within the game narrative. While you can’t have players discover a real newspaper article (or maybe you can?) or stumble upon a real evidence board in a real squad room, you can create virtual versions to embed within the game. Just remember that in order to maintain the TINAG-ness you’ll need to have players discover them under realistic circumstances (perhaps one of the detectives takes a photo of the evidence board and posts it to his blog or a character “pins” the newspaper clipping to their Pinterest board).

While the tools that I have focused on are all internet-based, don’t forget that you can integrate real-world media into your ARG, as well. If you can do so, integrating some location-based experiences into your narrative will increase player engagement, especially for students who are kinesthetic learners. Cemeteries and libraries are just two places that are chock-full of real-world media that lend themselves to ARG’s. The goal is to integrate as many different kinds of experiences and media as you can, always keeping Coleridge’s two narrative ideals of human interest and verisimilitude in mind.

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

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

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

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

The Relationship between decisions and experience

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Effort determines destiny

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

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

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

Timely connections

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

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

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

The element of surprise

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

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

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

Gazing out of windows

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

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

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

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

The social fabric

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

The People/Players:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Thoughts on Open Access and MOOC-ifying an Online Course

photo credit: dsearls via photopin cc
photo credit: dsearls via photopin cc

I was deeply saddened to hear of the suicide of Aaron Swartz. He stood for something that I believe in very deeply–open access and a creative commons. As a tribute to Swartz, academics have been encouraged to publish their work openly and share it using the hashtag #pdftribute. Since all of my academic work is already open access–published either here or at other websites–as tribute, I wanted to post about some of the issues concerning open access that I’ve been contemplating lately. I did participate in #pdftribute by creating a page on this blog where I will be listing links to the other work that I do, all of which will always be openly accessible.

For the past few years I have completely boycotted Blackboard, my university’s LMS. Instead, I create websites or blogs for my classes, usually on WordPress or Weebly, and I pay out-of-pocket in order to have access to a Pro version of the latter (which also gives up to 40 of my students Pro accounts). I also have my students create blogs, where they publish almost all of their work for the class. In the case of my Oral Communication class, students create an entire website that features their work over the course of the term. My hybrid FYC students also use Google+ as a virtual classroom and, while our interactions on the class circle are not necessarily public, students can and often do share those interactions with other circles and/or publicly. My reasons for making as much of a class as possible openly available is twofold: 1) I think that an essential part of educating our students involves teaching them how to be responsible digital citizens; 2) I believe that education should truly be “public” in every sense of the word and I want as much as what happens in my  classes as possible to be accessible to anyone who wishes to take part in it or discover/return to it whenever and wherever they desire.

For the first time I am teaching a completely online course, Survey of English Literature II. I was given the course on the third day of Spring classes, half-way through the first week of the term. I suppose I should have panicked (and at first I did a little), but it just so happens that I was recently a vicarious observer and occasional participant in #MOOCMOOC, so I had a few tricks up my sleeve to help get an initial course–or anti-course–out there for students to start participating in. I also kept in mind the arguments made in Jesse Stommel’s recent Hybrid Pedagogy article “Online Learning: A User’s Guide to Forking Education.”  I especially wanted to avoid the kinds of structures that typically characterize and constrain online courses:

Draconian learning management systems, hierarchical discussion forum tools, and automated grading systems replace the playful work of teachers and students with overly simplified algorithms that interface with far too few of the dynamic variables that make learning so visceral and lively.

Rather than struggle to throw together such an instructor-driven, top-down experience, I did just enough to get an environment established which the students can take over and make their own, collaborating to do the “work” of teaching each other (and me) about the authors, texts, and time periods covered by the course description. There are no video lectures, no discussion boards (in the traditional sense), no rubrics, a syllabus and schedule that students have been invited to help create and revise, a final exam that will be created by the class, and an assessment format that is based on how much participation the student is willing to dedicate. There’s a list of suggested readings but I have neither tied those readings to any kind of points system nor instituted any punishments for not completing any particular reading. If a student wishes to read a text, they may; if they don’t want to read it, they are free to not do so without compromising their success in the course. You can view the syllabus and schedule on the course website, Survey of English Literature. We will be using a Google+ class circle for our discussion forum, but anyone is invited to join this circle; just let me know and I will be happy to share the circle with you.

I have written about my reservations regarding MOOC’s and those reservations are still at the forefront of my resistance to the idea of trying to scale a class. However, the idea of an open, online learning environment that allows for and encourages connections beyond a specific physical, or even virtual, space and invites students to map, create, and share their own learning path is, for me, the most promising and important one embedded within the MOOC concept. And I think it is an idea that correlates with and supports Swartz’s vision for an open culture. Below is Swartz’s Open Access Manifesto. May it be yours, too.

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.

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.

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.

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.