Week 7-Gamification

When it comes to game theory, I have had only a passing, skeptical interested.  But my recent studies have started me thinking about gamification from a different perspective.  So that is my selected adventure this week.

The quick Answer to One Framing Question

The week’s framing questions for the topic were provocative.  Do I think we need to gamify our classrooms to engage students?  This one I can answer quickly.  No.  There are many ways for creative teachers to draw students into learning without having to sexy it up with a video game interface.   That “no” is even firmer if it means that gaming is the only way we conduct instruction since no teacher can be successful with only one method or strategy in their toolbox.

Do I think gamificaion is bribery and the way students learn in the 21st century?  As a result of my course work last term and my readings and explorations this week, those answers are now more complex.  As I said, the idea of gamification has been, at best, at the edges of my professional interests.  When thinking about my own gaming experiences my gut tells me there is something there that I “get” as it applies to learning and I have trusted that academics have teased out all the theory for those teachers who want to traverse that route in their classrooms.   But this grown up, serious teacher never pursued deep research into game theory because I was fine with my practice as it was, thank you very much!  But last term was a watershed for me when it comes to thinking about the conditions that provide powerful learning experiences.  The course of study Dr. Angela Elkordy put together for Intro to the Learning Sciences required us to think deeply about our own learning in every conceivable context (documentation of which is posted on this blog under the NLU Class Journal Entries tab above).  Examining my own informal, collaborative, digital, self-directed, just-in-time, playful learning experiences caused me to realize the potency of learning in these other-than-formal contexts.  Those reflections have led me to re-evaluate some core beliefs about teaching and learning — for both students in the classroom and teachers in professional learning.  That re-evaluation has ramifications for my thinking about game theory.

Constructivism and Game Theory
My niece learning to code on her mom’s phone by playing Lightbot (and then teaching me!) Source: D. van Dyke

I’ve always believed that teachers needed to be more facilitators of exploration than dispensers of information.  I am a constructivist.  So my instruction — be it with children or adults — is designed accordingly.  My lessons are always written for the specific learning needs of the students in front of me.  Pacing is a dance with students’ zones of proximal development.  Formative assessment is central for two-way feedback, metacognition, and reflection for both students and myself that then determine my next planning steps.  With the growth of digital technology and mobile tech particularly, it makes sense to leverage these to push the boundaries of constructivism even farther.  Additionally, I see clear connections now between constructivist methods and the way games work for those who play them.

Any-time, just-in-time, exploratory learning all cement learning in long-term memory.   As a result of Dr. Elkordy’s strategies with us, I experienced first hand how learning new content through learning a new app permanently inks that neural tattoo on the brain.  Almost weekly I learned a new app of my choosing by exploring it, playing in it, and not from a formal training course or a user’s manual.  Then I applied my understanding of the app to demonstrate my understanding of the course content.  All of this was done informally, in my time, with just enough difficulty to challenge me.   Except now I don’t only understand the content.  By learning content through the use of a digital tool, I now understand so much more than just the content itself.  Not the least of which is that the learning I structure myself is highly enjoyable and more often than not elicits flow and the consolidation of understanding in long-term memory.  These are the learning conditions I want to create for my students and teachers.

A More Complicated Answer to the Other Framing Questions

As to the questions of gamifying education as bribery and being particularly suited to 21st century learners, I believe it is neither.  The way humans learn best is the way humans learn best whether they are of the 11th century or 21st century.  What is different about the 21st century is our knowledge of how the brain functions; the advent of technologies that allow us to align our pedagogy to our neurology, psychology, sociology; and the economic imperative that we change the way we do school.  In as much as game theory and educational psychology share underlying elements, I can accept gamification as a methodology.  Though does it always need to be so literal as turning the learning process into an actual game?  Especially since doing so requires an incredible investment of time and effort to convert a unit of study into a game that will create the conditions necessary for deep understanding to occur.  So I have generated a few key questions that could help guide decision-making when thoughts turn to gamification:

  • What are the concepts from game theory that are applicable to a given unit of instruction?  A given set of students?  Under what circumstances might it be useful to apply those concepts to improve teaching and learning?
  • When teachers decide to convert a unit into an actual game, what online platforms are available to facilitate the implementation and that can quickly and easily provide insights (evidence and data) about student learning?
  • When teachers want or have to make the game themselves, how can they create elegant games that don’t require disproportionate amounts of time to construct and relatively easily provide insights (evidence and data) about student learning?
How can we make certain gamifying efforts result in students learning the intended content and not just playing the game?
Video: Heck Awesome blog, Carrie Baughcum

Still, informal learning, unstructured learning, choice, and play are powerful contexts in which deep understanding can occur.  These modes are, as Willis calls them, “neuro-logical”.  It makes sense to create them when possible since they activate optimal learning pathways in the brain and foster new, strong synaptic connections.  Well-designed games create these conditions and leverage the same brain processes for learning.  Thus, including high-quality game-based instruction could be a powerful method for teaching and learning.

Gamifying Professional Learning

What was already a paucity of professional learning time in CPS has been completely eliminated this year as a partial “solution” to the budget travesty being visited upon CPS teachers and students.  As a result, I have started leveraging ICT options that are included with GAFE to continue our professional learning despite losing our PD calendar.  Via Groups and Sites, we continue the work asynchronously by holding discussions of professional readings, presenting aggregated learning walk evidence and sharing thoughts and insights about them.  We have already moved quite a bit of planning to remote, synchronous spacetime via Hangouts and Drive.  So the idea of gamifying professional learning is just an extension of this.  Taking PD into the realm of gaming would have the combined benefits of making PD more relevant by providing teachers with differentiation, choice, and timing.  I have also started researching adding digital badges to the work which I find terribly exciting!  On my goal list for next year:  implementing a badged, gamified professional learning series for the schools with which I work.

Digital badges for both student and teachers.  Video: HASTAC

Below are three game-based PD ideas I’m totally stealing from our readings this week:

Fired Up For February — Gamifying professional learning; Source: Unified School District of De Pere, WI

 

A Language Geek’s Rhetorical Finish

Even as I find myself being convinced of the benefits of game theory as instructional practice, there is still something that doesn’t sitting well when I hear phrases like “gamifying the classroom”.  If you’ll indulge the English teacher unpacking language here.  A game is a diversion or something trivial.  Something that can be taken less seriously.  Even in the multi-billion dollar world of professional sports, the expression, “It’s only a game.” is used to readjust perspectives when emotions are high.  Yet the very project at hand for education is de-trivializing digital instruction among reluctant educators.  So while I can see the underlying value and power of this way of “doing” teaching and learning, I wonder if framing it as “gamification” works against us.  I don’t have an answer as yet for what to call such a complex process.  Maybe a few rounds of Words With Friends will do the trick!

We’re all just hitchhikers…passing thru….

The early years

This hitchhiker — raised in New York, educated and lived most of his twenties in DC, then moved to Chicago, where he’s been ever since — has developed an interest or two.  Between the

Doug in black and white

ages of 6 and 28 I was an actor.  My bachelor’s is a BFA in acting.  During my sophomore year I took Foundations of Education because I needed a sociology credit and didn’t want to get out of bed before 10am.  Turns out, I was bit by the ed bug and wound up minoring in education in order to teach my major.  After several years of burning the candle at both ends — teaching by day and acting by night, and realizing I couldn’t continue doing both well — I never would have predicted teaching would win out.  But as my cooperating teacher (and later mentor) said part way through my student teaching, “Teaching is the longest running acting gig you’ll ever get.  And you’ll know you’ve taught well when you leave the classroom each day as exhausted as you do the stage after curtain call.”  Truer words….

Teaching

Along the way I’ve taught high school in Montgomery County, MD, Jersey City, and the Bronx.  Here in Chicago I’ve taught in Roseland, Englewood, and West Garfield Park.  Subjects include English, humanities, forensics, oral interpretation, and theatre.  My favorite grade to teach is 9th graders.  For some strange reason, many teachers find them to be the least desirable assignment.  I find freshman still impressionable, still into learning, a little vulnerable, and in need of teachers who “get” them.  Not to mention, with all we now know about the importance of freshman year for future success, they need the strongest teachers possible.

First Master’s & the Charter Movement

Somewhere in the late ’90’s I picked up a master’s in English lit from De Paul.  After DePaul I was part of the early charter movement — back when the first charters that opened had missions to serve communities in Chicago most in need and before they became for-profit ventures, opening in predatory ways to gut CPS neighborhood schools.  Technology has changed just a bit since then.

An ah-ha moment compiled for LSE 500…
What used to be high tech the last time I was in grad school.

In the early Aughts, I discovered I am a curriculum and assessment geek.  I spent 8 years as a curriculum and instruction director, shepherding my school through mapping our curriculum and improving instruction through formative assessment practices.

Consultancy

Through the Teens, I’ve been the principal consultant for my own educational consulting business, the primary focus of which is leadership coaching, curriculum, instruction and assessment development.  It’s good work.  Important work.  These days all my client schools are within CPS.  But it’s also solitary work.  So my two year goal is to complete this degree and head back to a single school to teach.  What exactly, I’m not yet sure.  A digitally mediated ELA classroom?  A technology classroom?  Regardless of what I teach, I know I will be a coach and resource for colleagues and be a force for shifting school culture such that students experience their education in technologically relevant ways.

Smattering of Interests

Outside of education, my primary interests are in photography, cooking, and mixology.  I’ve always had an interest in photography.  But back in the film days (and my youth) it was far too expensive to pursue seriously.  Thank goodness for the gains in digital photography (and my bank account, because it is still an expensive hobby)!

People, nature, macro, street, architecture encompass some of my photographic interests. (Hover over pictures for captions. Click to enlarge photos.)

Cooking is my therapy.  Most days, I cook three meals a day.  My husband is the catering director at a major hotel downtown.  So we do a lot of entertaining.  A few years ago, we blew out our kitchen and made a professional chef’s kitchen — of the working variety, not trophy variety!  Since word count is telling me I’m already at 772 words, I’ll refrain from saying much more than #GOCUBSGO!  As season ticket holders, to finally be there for the World Series and the incredible afterglow that followed…still makes me tear up.  I’ll wrap with a confession:  My wannabe self is a bartender.  Ahh, to be creative and social and leave work with no papers to grade or lessons to plan or the burdens of the world on your shoulders!  What a life.  For more on my mixology interests, check out my cocktail blog, Dilettante Cocktailer.  (Yup, nearly all the photos there are mine, too.)  Santé!  Tsin-Tsin!  Huzzah!  L’Chiam!  

That’s a snippet of Doug.  Looking forward to travelin’ thru the next ten weeks together!

Entry# 10: Augmented or Virtual Reality

My experience with AR and VR is extremely limited.  The closest I’ve come to virtual reality would be Second Life.  But it’s probably considered more of an immersive world than virtual reality.  Aside from that, the extent of my virtual reality experience is getting a free Google Cardboard viewer with my New York Times subscription a few years ago and downloading the NYT VR app.  It’s cool, but not something I’ve used often.

As far as my experience with augmented reality goes, well, that limited to:

yelp_AR
Using Monocle on Yelp to see what’s nearby…

 

skymap_AR
Using Sky Map to see what constellations and planets are overhead in the night sky.

So initially, I thought this entry was going to be a challenge.  But in a quiet moment, I posed a question to myself.  “What if you were required to teach a lesson using VR or AR even with your current level of knowledge and experience?”  The answer came back and the instructional implications were clear:  “Let the kids teach you.”

This would be a great opportunity to swap roles with my students and let them become the experts in areas that interest them and then have them present and demonstrate individual apps with suggestions for possible uses in our studies.

In such a lesson I’d present students with a lists where they could explore several VR/AR apps like the ones below.

Of course, we need to set some parameters for exploration, as in the embedded outline.

I’d then basically get out of their way and let them find their way through an app, learning as they go; while I monitor and help with any questions or issues that arise.

Both the punted lesson outlined here as well as many possible uses of AR/VR would align well with what we’ve been exploring all term.  The lesson is both taught through and is about digital media as learning tools.  The lesson explicitly incorporates self-directed learning through formal structures and in digital contexts.  The lesson outlined here makes use of the 4C’s — communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creating.  Students’ own interests are leveraged as are their previous learnings/schema likely will influencing their choices. Finally, the teacher is a guide on the side, creating the room and conditions for students to explore while putting students in the constructivist driver seat.  They will build knowledge to answer the analytical and evaluative question, “Which of these apps would make the best tools for teaching and learning our class content?”

As a result of the quick exploration I did to write this log entry, questions arose concerning the feasibility of using true VR in the K-12 classroom.  Nearly all the apps I saw made use of devices such as Oculus Rift, Samsung Galaxy Gear VR, or Google Cardboard.  Given the costs involved, this would, at the moment, seem to put VR out of reach of most K-12 schools.  Even Google Cardboard, at $8-$10 a pair quickly adds up.  (And I can hear the complaints now about having to hold the device to their face during the lesson for those who go the DIY route!)  I suppose finding videos as desktop or tablet options is a possibility.  But they don’t seem to be as abundant as the apps for dedicated VR devices.  I also wonder about school bandwidth issues with so many students in one room using data heavy video apps simultaneously.

In the end, perhaps such challenges are all just more opportunities to press on into the 21st Century.  Bandwidth issues or device issues at school?  Well then, flip that classroom.  Explore the VR landscape at home instead of in school.  Not everyone has a high speed internet connection or devices at home?  Well then divide classroom activities accordingly.  Let those who don’t have resources at home use those in class.  Flip for those students who do have home resources.  Break those spacetime limitation of the classroom that digital technology now allow us all to do!

 

Entry #9: Collaborative Learning

These last two entries are now officially out of my experience when we’re talking about the ICT/digital domains.  So I’ll have to resort to some metacognition about collaborative learning and “maker” activities that are a bit more traditional.

While I was teaching, I had the good fortune of being a part of Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education (CAPE).  In this program, community artists partner with classroom teachers to co-teach academic content through the artist’s particular medium.  Three things make this program lightyears ahead of the rest.  First, the art is not an “extra” or “add-on”.  The artform and its particular methods are used as ways of learning the content.  Second, the artist is not a mere guest who comes to visit once a week.  The artist is a co-teacher in the classroom of the artistic content and to a lesser extent, the academic content.  Third, the teacher and artist commit to establishing a long-term relationship — one meant to last years, not just for the length of a unit.  By the end of a CAPE unit, students understand the academic content more deeply from processing it through making the art, and they know how to “do” that artform.  The teacher knows new methods for incorporating different kinds of art to teach content, and the artist knows more about the academic content that was taught.  Over the years I learned how to create murals and create found-object installations by working with local muralist and painter, Bernard Williams, as well as how to produce shadow puppetry by working with two artists from Red Moon Theater.  

For any CAPE partnership, the process is the same.  When beginning, the teacher meets with CAPE staff and discusses the content they’re interested in teaching and through which medium.  CAPE then sets up an appropriate partnership with a local artist.  The artist partner and teacher attend a certain number of professional learning sessions about how CAPE works, why it works, and the organization’s expectations for the partnership.  Then there is protected time for the teacher and artist to meet and start planning.  After these professional learning sessions, it is up to the artist and teacher to set regular planning times to develop the co-instructional unit and individual lessons.  The first few “CAPE days” (which usually become “Bernard days” or “Sarah  days”), the artist comes to teach the some of the necessary artistic concepts and skills students will need.  After that the artistic application moves rendering the academic content artistically.  Finally, an installation or performance is also required to take the learning and art public — beyond the classroom itself. CAPE staff continue to support both artist and teacher throughout the process.

My CAPE experiences were, hands-down, some of the most powerful teaching and learning experiences I’ve ever had.  And the most memorable.  To start with, the relationships I forged with the artists I taught with and learned from were foundational to the units we taught together.  All the art we created — murals, installations, shadow puppetry — all seemed overwhelmingly difficult to me when we started.  But my confidence grew as  my relationship with the artists deepened over time.  Mutual respect developed between us as we came to know the depth of each others’ expertise.  Trust developed.  Friendships formed.  Plans were made.  Over the course of that process, I can confidently say, that while I would prefer to work with an artist co-teacher, if I can’t, I could incorporate any of these kinds of artistic projects into my curriculum and execute them successfully on my own.

CAPE artists are working artists, not educators.  So starting with a new artist was like having a student teacher in the classroom for a while until they got the flow of unit & lesson planning, structuring the classroom for the lesson at hand and managing the kiddies when they’re up to their eyeballs in paint and cardboard and canvas.  Or shifting them from the “fun” of making a puppet to the “work” of writing a script for the show.  At the same time, it was fulfilling to see my partner artist develop as educators teaching the techniques and theories of their art.  So too with their developing their own understanding of the academic content the art was meant to evoke.  As a teacher who relies heavily on formative assessment, it was fascinating to watch and listen for the levels of understanding develop in both the students and the artists as we worked.  The same was true for me to learn the art right alongside our students.  It’s difficult to describe how exciting it was to hear kids discussing and debating the content as they manipulated the artistic media; and as they manipulated the media, their manipulation of their understanding of the academic content.  It’s equally difficult to find prouder moments as a teacher as when my students performed, installed or presented their artwork and then took questions from the audience about the content the art represented.  What could leave a stronger imprint on them than not only for others to see them as the experts in the room, but for them to see themselves that way too?

I’m certain I was aware of it at the time, but it bears articulating here.  As I look back at these experiences, everyone in the classroom inhabited all roles at various points of time over the course of the unit:  teacher, learner, novice, practitioner, expert.  We were all in it together.  Each and every one of us was learning something new.  That made for a more equitable distribution among all members of the power dynamics that develop in a classroom.  To a very real extent, we were all learners learning together, supporting one another in a spirit of discovery and aiming towards a common goal.  No one wanted to leave class on a “CAPE day”.  

Including the teachers.

(While I’ve been out of the classroom for a number of years, Bernard has continued to do amazing work with other Chicago schools.  You can see more of his work here.)

Entry #8: Digital Learning — Immersive Experiences and Tech-Enhanced Experiences

This is going to be a difficult log entry since I don’t spend much time playing video games or in immersive worlds.  This is because I become too immersed and exhibit just a few addictive behaviors.  I knew I had to start being very careful one Christmas when I was staying with my parents for the holiday.  I had just purchased a Star Trek (of course!) starship builder game that allowed players to build custom or canon starships and then fly them on various missions.  One night, my parents and I sat in the den, them watching television, me building and flying starships.  I recall my mother giving me a kiss and going to bed.  I remember my father doing the same sometime later.  My next memory is my father coming back to the den, looking at me sitting in the exact same position he left me and saying, “Have you been playing all night?!”  I had indeed.

Up all night building starships. Uh-oh…

I remember feeling exhausted, knowing I should go to bed and get some sleep.  My eyes hurt from staring at the screen for hours and hours.  Throughout the night I knew, with every ship lost I should close my laptop and go to sleep.  Yet each time I went back to the builder module and thought, “Just one more.”  Then it became, “Just build it, but don’t fly it.”  As my father stood there laughing at me, but I was starting to wonder if there might be a problem here.

Over the years I have spent endless hours in SimCity — another particular favorite.  I got lost in Star Trek and Star Wars RPGs.  On iPad there’s a game that has taken far too much of my time, Galaxy on Fire (1 and 2).  For all of them, I have to monitor and limit my time very carefully.  

All that said, I find Second Life far more manageable in regard to my time.  I was initially introduced to it by a dear friend in Australia who was getting a degree in medical informatics and discovered it when he was working on virtual meeting spaces for doctors to interact.  It came at a time when I had just finished reading several cyberpunk novels, and SL reminded me very much of the VR & AR worlds described in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.  Aside from meeting my friend there on occasion I was and still am a total nube.  I find it a somewhat intimidating space.  I’m not comfortable interacting with strangers online and this world of avatars and Linden$ and objects that can be given and received can be overwhelming.  Not to mention my fears of somehow getting hacked.  So I mainly stick to myself and wonder and window shop in the different continents and parcels that interest me.  

One place I spend a fair amount of time is Scilands — the science and technology continent.  And once NPR’s Science Friday started taking questions from Second Life, on occasion, I have listening from there.  Though I rarely interact with other individuals.  It’s fun from time to time.  However, I still find it a rather unnecessary additional layer for that particular listening experience.  So the media I watch or listen to in Second Life are things I happen upon in my wanderings, like NASA videos or information about colonizing Mars.

There is a lot of drek in Second Life and the interface is very cumbersome and rather unintuitive.  So those aspects definitely don’t “work” for me.  Although, I’m fascinated by the details of all the different worlds and seeing the things that others have clearly taken a lot of time to build.  That’s what keeps me coming back.  I think it’s interesting too that there are things that participants can buy that have value in the virtual context somewhat analogous to objects in the real world — clothes, real estate, private aircraft.  It’s enough that I actually think about purchasing Linden$ (especially when the exchange rate is favorable!).  It’s interesting too how it facilitates some sort of telepresence between people separated by long distances — as it did for my friend and me.  So it’s elements like these — analogues to the real world — that make it “work”.   

I’m less certain about Second Life or any other such VR platform functioning as a community of inquiry — at least not at a very high level.  Though it would be an interesting exercise to try setting up a formal class in SL for a while to see what evolves.  However, I see at least one major element that could potentially keep Second Life and any other such platforms from reaching the level of community of inquiry.  That is the use of avatars as they primary means of interacting with others in the virtual environment.  Avatars in particular strike at a critical part of the CoI model — that of social presence.  Avatars in and of themselves are veils, masks that hide the true person behind them.  There’s always a level of wondering about how closely the avatar represents the actual person.  Trust, then, on some level, becomes an issue.  Since learning is impossible without trust between student and teacher, the social and teaching presences are disadvantaged.  The climate is infused with a certain level of dissembling if not dishonesty.  This would in turn, have to impact, in some way, on supportive discourse, climate setting which in turn impact cognitive presence.  If all the other elements of a CoI are compromised, then it almost doesn’t matter what the content is as there may only be a certain level of depth participants are willing to risk in their discourse, reflection, and construction of meaning.  

Additionally, with our current level of VR technology, using it is less effective than using the technology we do have that make a virtual learning community/community of inquiry more cohesive, i.e: platforms such as D2L in combination with conferencing apps like Zoom, where participants can see and/or hear each other in real time.  The current platforms do better at lowering the obstacles of time, space, and distance for such educational endeavors as opposed to adding other layers that must be parsed in order to have meaningful interactions around the content.  Afterall, right now, it’s just easier to put Science Friday on the radio or stream the podcast than to sit at my computer, logon to a virtual platform, fly to the virtual studio in the virtual space, pipe the audio feed, and then send chat texts to digital avatars.

It seems like a lot more work!