Saturday, February 24, 2024

KyEdRPG Spotlight: Chad Collins and "The Academy"

Chad Collins has been with Spencer County Public Schools (KY) since 2013, first as a middle school social studies and ELA teacher, and currently as the campus Gifted and Talented Teacher for Spencer County Middle School (SCMS) as well as Spencer County Elementary School.  He is also one of the SCMS Academic Team Coaches, which led to the start of the journey that is the basis for today's blog entry.

Not long after Chad began at SCMS, principal Matt Mercer wanted to try something different during fifth period schoolwide: Mercer envisioned all students receiving extra time for reading and writing enrichment.  Chad and the other Academic Team coach and SCMS science teacher Sarah Parnell pitched the idea of having an Academic Team elective class for its team members during the same period.  Mercer agreed, and the course was born.  This elective would eventually not only grow to include students who are not Academic Team members, but also in sheer numbers; in 2023-2024, the roster is over eighty students, split by grade level into three classes, and SCMS math teacher Michelle Gross joined Chad and Sarah to become the third teacher to lead a section.

As the years went on, Collins, Parnell and Gross all felt the Academy Team class needed to be a deeper learning experience, but how?  In the summer of 2023, Collins had an epiphany.  He had learned about the work of KyEdRPG educators, particularly John Brewer of Jefferson County Public Schools.  (Here's a fortuitous X exchange between the two!) While not a tabletop roleplay gamer himself, Chad has played video games since he was a child, and recognized the DNA of the latter was built on the former: “While I don’t have much experience with these types of tabletop games, and definitely not running that type of thing in my classroom before, I’ve been playing video games that use many of the same systems that are in these games since I was the age of my students or before."  With that in mind, Chad was the architect behind the new structure of the elective course: The Academy.   In the following YouTube video (where the previous quote came from!), Chad explains in more detail why and how The Academy was created (19:17):

We should also give credit that Sarah and Michelle didn't hesitate to embrace the course design for their own grade level sections, and since the launch of The Academy, have added their own content materials and revisions.

But...what is The Academy, and how is it different?  Storywise, the premise is that students have been transported into another world where they are enrolled in "The Academy," a place similar yet different from their own.  Each quarter, students choose one of several "classes" (in the TTRPG parlance of the term) in order to pursue their studies: The Bard (arts & humanities), The Beastmaster (language arts), The Magician (math), The Ranger (science), or The Knight (social studies).   Each of these classes has a corresponding Google Site as first designed by Chad, which consists of unique, personalized paths of learning.  These pathways have a series of Main Quests (must do’s), Side Quests (should do’s), and Feats of Strength (aspire to do’s).  In actuality, these Quests and Feats form various Mastery Checks of learning that are assessed by the teacher, and if the student does not meet the requirements, are asked to revise and resubmit.  Successful completion of the Main Quests earn Experience Points (XP) and this total amount earned is what eventually determines the student's grade for each quarter.  This progression of XP can be monitored by students and parents alike in real time on, fittingly titled, Progress Trackers (Google Sheets) embedded in the Google Sites.   Successful completion of Side Quests can earn "coins" that can be used to purchase items from an in-class "market."  Lastly, completion of most Feats of Strength are for learning enrichment and the "honor and glory" of helping the whole Team, as opposed to coins or XP.

Chad was kind enough to let me copy and create sample snapshot versions of each of The Academy's class Google Sites midway through the school year, which you can preview below:

Chad would be the first to acknowledge the pedagogical structures that undergird and inspired The Academy.  For one, it's a brilliant example of competency-based education, with tenets such "meaningful, positive, and empowering" types of assessments; students having different learning pathways; and mastery of learning, not seat time, is the metric of progression allowing students to "move when ready" to new content or higher levels of complexity.  Secondly, the language of structures like must do's/should do's/aspire to do's, Mastery Checks, and Progress Trackers come from the Modern Classroom Project.

Many digital tools are employed in The Academy, both in the design of the course as well as students' day-to-day instructional interaction.  Chad used several artificial intelligence tools, such as Eleven Labs (to create a narrator voiceover for a video introducing students to The Academy), Midjourney for images, and ChatGPT for monster and scenario descriptions.   For content delivery and note-taking work, he uses Edpuzzle; for Main Quest Monster Hunts, there is Quizziz.  For "sparring sessions" (where students review content via some friendly competition), Chad rotates through several tools, such as Gimkit, Blooket, and Quizalize.

The display case outside of Chad's classroom.  Note the d20 dice, the examples of "Treasure Cards," and the "Roll for Prizes" chart.

In my in-person visit to Chad and Michelle's classrooms back in November 2023, I was a delighted witness to some of these sparring sessions.  Since most of these head-to-head digital tools embed a leaderboard indicating ranking of winners, this allows an incentivization protocol where the top three student finishers use a d20 die to roll for prizes and therefore draw from an indicated jar.  Some of these tokens include stickers and candy, but a premium item is a "treasure card" worth an "upgrade" in class.  Here are some examples:

In Michelle's class, I recorded a video of students happily rolling for their goodies:

The student agency was palpable in these classes, as was the joy of learning.  From the perspective of TTRPGs, there were so many wonderful elements present, yet the only thing really "missing" was the actual playing of a role-playing game!  Chad shared that he was looking to have more cross-content, collaborative opportunities for his students, so creating some group mini-RPGs modules may be in the future.  I'm excited to see how The Academy will "level up" in the years to come!

Speaking of the future, Chad may now be a Gifted and Talented Teacher with new responsibilities, but part of the agreement for taking his new position is his ability to still teach his section of the SCMS fifth period Academic Team elective.  With that in mind, Chad shared that he would appreciate any feedback on his structures and ideas, especially as other teachers attempt to incorporate them into their own courses.  Or share them in the Comments below!

Be sure to check out Chad's guest turn on a recent Modern Classroom Project podcast episode (Episode 177, "Gamification," 2/18/24, 61 min long).  Also, for those who will be attending KySTE 2024 in March, Michelle and Chad will be presenting a session about The Academy ("Play to Learn: Building a Class with Game-Based Design") on Wednesday, March 13, at 11:30 am.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Announcements for February and March 2024!

 Hello friends!   This blog entry is fairly short, but since I had several upcoming appearances, I thought I would put them all in one announcement.

Last weekend, I had the good fortune to virtually meet Melody McAllister and be her guest on the Growth Over Grades podcast, produced by SpacesEDU.   The focus of our talk was on game-based learning -- in particular, tabletop role-playing games in education, and KyEdRPG!  The episode is scheduled to drop February 29.  (I'll update this blog entry once it streets.  Meanwhile, give them a subscription so you'll be the first to know!)

TTRPGs in education continue for today's theme.  Next up, I'll be presenting at the annual international industry convention for game publishers and gameshop owners, the GAMA EXPO, coming to Louisville on March 3-7.   My session is "Teaching with TTRPGs: How Publishers and Hobby Shops Can Help."  I'll be presenting on the morning of Tuesday, March 5.  (The conference can only be attended by GAMA members; no general public is allowed.) This is the first of three years that GAMA will be in Louisville, and I'm excited and proud that our city is hosting this prestigious event -- especially in the year of the 50th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons!

The last announcement:  I'll be presenting at KySTE (March 13-15), also in Louisville.  My session is "Dungeons, Dragons, and Digital Tools: Tabletop Role-Playing Games in Schools & Classrooms" and it will be on Wednesday afternoon, March 13.   I hope to see old friends and make new ones!

Thank you to Melody, GAMA and KySTE for the opportunities to share with, and learn from, others!

Monday, February 5, 2024

Credit Discovery, Not Recovery

Recently, I was flattered and honored to be the guest of Season 2 Episode 2 of Education Perspectives, a podcast hosted by Liza Holland.  Our talk ranged from edtech to game-based learning.  You can listen to the episode on your favorite platform from here.

On the podcast, one of the topics I briefly discussed was the need to shift from a "Credit Recovery" system to one of "Credit Discovery."  I wanted to extrapolate on that subject for today's blog entry,

Credit recovery, as educators well know, is a pretty common hallmark of the traditional educational system.  For a semester or a school year, a student attempts to get a passing grade in a class.  The student is marched dutifully through a curriculum.  For a variety of reasons -- likely aggravated by absences, low grades or missing assignments that creates a statistical hole the student cannot climb out of -- the student reaches the end of the timeline, only to fail.  In some cases, the student may have an opportunity to spend time in the summer "making up" for the class, somehow achieving in a few weeks what the student could not do in months.  In other cases -- especially if there are several such classes to make up -- a student may be put into a program where they can tackle several credits side by side, thanks to an online course platform that asks students to watch a video, take a quiz, watch a video, take a quiz, then take a multiple choice test.

There are, of course, well meaning variations to the above.  Perhaps the student completes a PBL in the summer, knocking out credits for a few classes simultaneously.  Perhaps the online course platform has some interactive tools to make the learning more engaging.  In the end, however, credit recovery is mostly a seat-based solution to learning that rarely takes mastery or personalized interests into account.  It is also an inefficient approach that closes the door after the cow has already left the barn.  Last but not least, it saves the innovation of learning until the end.  If somehow a novel way of teaching can really work in just a handful of weeks -- in a PBL, or through a digital platform --  why would you waste the prior instructional months in frustration just to arrive at failure?

If we don't like such outcomes of a traditional system, let's start something new by changing the questions. What if we instead turn a reactive, post-mortem, negative approach to learning into a pro-active, diagnostic, positive one?   What if students were allowed to discover a way to earn their credits, with their input front and center from the start?  What if the rigor of learning was raised, right alongside the joy?

Breaking away from Carnegie Units and fixed seat-time scheduling is not easy, but it is not impossible either.  I've blogged before about William Smith High School in Colorado, and how its courses (created with teacher passions and student input in mind) ingeniously blend traditional credits into PBL classes that are high interest with a complex, authentic performance assessment as a final product.  Back in November, Cory Steiner, superintendent of Northern Cass School District of North Dakota, visited OVEC educators (he'll return next month to talk to our regional district leaders).  He shared the many innovations of Northern Cass, but one that particularly jumped out for me was the studio classes being put into place at its secondary schools.   From the beginning, these inquiry-based "courses" are co-designed between students and advisors in order to complete credits the way students want to earn them, through independent mastery-based projects.  (For more on Northern Cass and its "microschool" program, read this Getting Smart article from May 2023.)

As educators, we can be commended for all the energy we spend trying to save a student who has already "failed."  But this may not be the best way to focus our time, and certainly suffers from framing a student in a deficit mindset rather than an asset-based one. Instead, let's invert the model.  Let's spend at least the same amount of energy empowering our students who often are the victims of a failed, traditional, outdated school system.  Let's help our students discover their own greatness, and be the exploring pioneers of their own learning.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

The Refurbishing of Artificial Intelligence

Hello everyone, and welcome to 2024!  Hope you had some happy and restful time with family and friends over the winter break.

Back in December of 2022, I published a blog entry titled "How AI Will Save Education."  It was just a few weeks after ChatGPT 3.5 had debuted on November 30, and as I put it back then, it "exploded into our zeitgeist seemingly out of nowhere, and it feels like something foundational has rapidly and irreversibly shifted in education...indeed, the world."  There was a lot of strong feelings in the air: wonderment to be sure, but also fear.  And there were many questions.  What does it mean to be a "writer" or an "artist" when AI seemingly has the capacity to be creative?  How does teaching look differently in such a world?   Perhaps most worrisome for educators: What can or should I do if students "cheat" with AI?  Is it cheating to use AI?  Will my time be consumed with a neverending quest to catch students passing off AI-generated work as their own?

Certainly, we still lack definitive answers on those questions, nor is it possible to be definitive when discussing something as rapidly evolving as artificial intelligence.  On such a topic, pressing "publish" almost instantly puts you out of date.  But a year later, some answers have emerged. While I won't dare presume to be the oracle or the burning bush of artificial intelligence, I thought it might be helpful to offer my perspective on some AI trends that have caught my personal eye, and share some selected articles and tools that have emerged in the last twelve months.

The Reality of Students "Cheating"

As it turns out, perhaps we can dial back from the feeling of panic that befell us in December 2022.  As Stanford researchers discovered, "Cheating Fears Over Chatbots Were Overblown" (The New York Times, 12/13/23).   In their recent survey of over 40 high schools in the United States, the amount of students who admitted to have cheated at some point has remained the same 60-70% range that it has been for years.  More fascinating, "[m]any teens know little about ChatGPT...[a]nd most say they have never used it for schoolwork."  Two sets of numbers from the research jumped out at me.  The first is that when looking at all U.S. teens, 44% said they only knew a "little" about ChatGPT and 32% said "nothing at all."  That's three out of four students!  The second shows what could become a disquieting trend of racial and socioeconomic inequity.  When deconstructing the total teen numbers into White, Black, and Latino demographics, the total numbers of "little/nothing at all" are relatively close.  However, when broken down by group, you can see the awareness of ChatGPT inching upward for Whites (50% know at least a little about the tool, versus 27% knowing nothing at all) when compared to Blacks (35%/44%) and Latinos (42%/37%).   Household income makes the disparity even stronger. For households under $30,000, students that know "a lot/a little/nothing at all" about ChatGPT is 11%/30%/59%, compared to the students from households $75,000 and over:  26%/50%/24%.

Does this reflect that ChatGPT is being blocked more at schools in "certain areas"?  Are educators trusting, and teaching AI to, some students more than others?

In a separate set of experiments in September 2023, Stanford researchers explored how well AI cheat detectors were working.   The short answer: not well.  There were a number of both false positives and false negatives.  In fact, when the scientist simply asked the chatbot's generated essay that had been previously detected as AI to "elevate the provided text by employing literary language...[d]etection rates plummeted to near zero."  Another disturbing finding: actual essays written by multi-language learners were often falsely flagged as AI.  This is likely because the more simplistic, emerging language skill of such students seem to reveal the bias of the AI detection programmers: simple text "must" mean a machine wrote it.

Of course, this issue of cheating doesn't address the powerful opportunities to ask a chatbot AI to generate an initial draft of a paper for the student to improve and revise, or to have it provide major points to consider in an argument, or the need to make sure AI is properly cited when used.  Passing off someone's work has always been cheating, whether you Google an essay and pretend it's your own, or when a machine (or human!) writes something for you and you just put your name at the top.   What is important is for students to learn, debate and practice the ethical use of AI.

So, in summary: students may not be using AI chatbots as much as we think, and student cheating with AI (and the software that detects it) is a complicated topic at best.  In fact, we may need to think more closely on how AI is being permitted on school devices and networks, if enough awareness and ethics of AI are being taught, and at the most basic level, reflect on how our concern of "cheating" may be unfairly manifesting itself into inequitable practices in our classrooms.

Proactive and Positive Uses of AI in Teaching and Learning

On a more positive note, there have certainly been numerous reports in the news and research of the potential of AI having a positive impact on learning...or at least approaching it with cautious optimism. Here are a few recent examples: 

  • Carnegie Learning has launched several AI tools to help students and teachers. In particular, LiveHint AI is providing real-time math tutoring support.  The tool helps coach students to understand the problem-solving issues of a difficult problem, not simply giving them the right answer: “ 'When students use it, they have the ability to provide line-by-line feedback. If there’s any particular response that they either like or don’t like, [the students] can comment on it,' Carnegie Learning Chief Data Scientist Steve Ritter said. 'And then overall, in terms of the overall quality of the session, they can also comment on that.' "  According to Ritter, the tool has been received positively by faculty and students. ("This Pittsburgh edtech company uses AI to help kids learn math amid ‘uncertainty’ about the tech,", 1/4/24)
  • Harvard researchers have been studying the impact of AI-generated feedback on students.  The results were positive for teachers, but mixed for students.  Teachers appreciated how AI sped up their ability to respond, as well as gave them ways to customize their feedback to a student's needs.  Many students appreciated how such feedback improved the feeling of a perceived "caring classroom culture" (likely because it was timely and seemed to be responsive), but some struggling students felt the feedback was "unhelpfully short and insensitive."   ("Harvard researchers explore how to use generative AI for student feedback," WBUR Public Radio, 12/27/23)
  • The University of Kentucky's Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning has published some AI resources on its website.  In particular, I'm impressed with their "Course Policy Examples," which give an instructor options and exemplars for clarifying whether AI is permissible in their class, from "No [Student] Use" at all, to "Conditional," to "Unrestricted."  

From Prompt Professors to Pragmatic AI Professionals

When the generative chatbots came out in full force in early 2023 (ChatGPT and its rivals like Google's Bard, as well as various graphic-generating AI), there seemed to be a brief time when the educator who was an expert in "prompt engineering" might be the next new thing.  Certainly, we soon became awash in websites and PDFs offering effective prompts to copy and paste for our own AI adventures (such as this one).  What it reminded me of was the pioneering past of other Internet tools.   Do you remember the halcyon days of Geocities, when the idea of publishing your own personal website made us hungry to HTML code?  Or the beginning of Google Search, when we all were ablaze with Boolean operators and the power of a well-placed parenthesis or quote mark?  This was grand stuff for early tech adopters, but for most of us, the effort of process overwhelmed the product.  We don't want be an expert HTML coder unless we plan to create sophisticated websites full-time; we just need a decent templated site that gets our message across.  We prefer a natural language inquiry that gets us the right result, rather than pondering whether it is better to type "AND" instead of "OR" in a search engine.  In short, it is the content that is king. 

In the same way, the appetite for using an AI tool like ChatGPT is also shifting.   We appreciate the power of AI, but want to concentrate on where the vehicle takes us, not so much the vehicle itself.   What that has led us (in a remarkably short amount of time!) is into a world of tools that refurbishes artificial intelligence into an interface that is more inviting and user-friendly.   The word "refurbish" may at first bring to mind a negative connotation, if you only think of the broken device that is fixed and resold at an electronics store.  However, I'm leaning into the original Oxford Dictionary definition of refurbish as renovate and redecorate.   That is an almost literal description of what many new AI tools are doing.  They often take the same "raw" AI code -- such as ChatGPT -- and put it in a renovated, redecorated package that is easier and often more effective to use.  In fact, if the tool has a premium tier, people are now often willing to pay for such convenience, regardless if or whether the raw AI engine underneath the tool's hood is free or relatively inexpensive.  There's a bit of irony at work here; many of the same people (especially educators) struggling with their "buy in" for AI in 2022 are now buying AI.

Here are just a few AI tools that offer outcomes that would have seemed impossible for technology to achieve just a few years ago.  (While there are not necessarily education-specific, it takes the smallest leap of imagination to see how they could be used creatively for learning by a teacher or a student in the classroom!)

  •  An AI-assisted presentation tool, this is particularly powerful in creating infographics within seconds.
  • Synthesia.  This can not only create videos with AI, it can insert a virtual lifelike avatar that speaks the script you type for it, in over a hundred languages.
  • Explain Like I'm Five.  As the title suggests, the tool takes what could be complicated subjects and adapts the explanation of such topics for an audience of varying needs.  Note that you can not only toggle how you're feeling on the topic ("pretty dumb/dumb/smart/pretty smart"), but also whether you want the reply to be sarcastic or not.  The snarky language aside (which arguably may not be appropriate for a young student to interact with), the nuanced functionality of the tool makes it worth mentioning.
  • I also need to mention that many popular online tools now include some sort of embedded AI tool, from Zoom to Canva to Google Docs to the writing of LinkedIn posts.
From the website Explain Like I'm Five.

This refurbishment concept can particularly be seen in educational tools.  It is no small thing to save me time from constantly having to tell AI at every new prompt, "I'm an educator," so that it shapes its answer accordingly.  As such refurbished and personalized AI becomes increasingly sophisticated in the near future -- it will soon know and remember that I am a fourth grade teacher who needs a science lesson every Tuesday, and which of my students will need a translation in Spanish -- the possibilities for AI to become my "artificial instructional aidebot" loom larger and larger.

Here are some promising education-specific tools, with some accompanying cautionary tales:

  • Toddle.  A learning management system I first discovered at the Aurora Institute 2023 conference, it was the first LMS I've seen that incorporated AI into its platform.  When the LMS has been preloaded with your district/school curriculum, it can leverage this (along with information about your grade level, content taught, etc.) to have very specific results within Toddle itself, which can then be easily exported or incorporated into your classes.  (And Toddle is not unique in its AI upgrade; since I first encountered it, I've seen several more learning platforms add a version of AI to their toolbox.)  It's great to keep your AI generation within the same browser tab as your LMS!  It should be noted, however, that the purchase of Toddle does not automatically include AI, as it is a premium feature (and likely this would be true of other LMS's that add AI as a feature).
  • Curipod.  Another AI-powered presentation tool, but more focused on student and teacher usage.   By entering in your prompts, a lesson plan in the form of a multi-slide deck with built-in interactives for students is generated.  The features and the name remind me of Nearpod, and like that platform, a student can join a teacher's live session with a PIN.  There is a limited free account available.
  • LitLab.  A tool for creating "AI decodable books" to help primarily with early literacy.  Once perimeters are given, an online book is generated with customizable text and images, which can then be shared with students via its URL.  However, the images, while clearly AI generated, are not very sophisticated, nor are they specifically tied to what is occurring in the text of its particular page.  While currently free (if you nab one of the limited initial seats available), the platform will become a paid service in June 2024.
  • Magic School AI is impressive by having a one stop shop approach to AI integration.  You can discuss ideas with Raina the Chatbot, which can then export your result as needed.  Additionally, there are several dozen AI "Magic Tools" that lean into a specific need.  Examples include "Text Leveler," "YouTube Video Questions" (give the video URL, and you can create a custom assessment based on the video's content customized by grade level and number of questions), "Choice Board (UDL)," "Project Based Learning" (create a plan), "Rubric Generator," and much more.  (Again, it should be pointed out that free chatbots can generate many of these outputs, but perhaps without the specificity and convenience this platform can achieve.) While Magic School offers an initial free trial, it does eventually cost to use.

Magic School AI

One of Magic School's "Magic Tools" is an "IEP Generator."  This brings up one of the biggest takeaways and pieces of advice about using AI, regardless of the platform or type: be mindful of what you put into a prompt, and be careful how reverently you treat its output.  To further explore this example, I asked my OVEC colleague and special education teacher Dr. Debbie Mays for her opinion, and Dr. Mays shared some thoughts she and her ECE colleagues have had on using AI for creating an IEP: "We have the concern of confidentiality and information being exposed [when personally identifiable information is inputted into an AI tool]. Also, if AI just considers federal requirements, it may miss the unique state regulations and statutes that do need to be considered and followed. It has to do both, as well as follow district policies and procedures. Finally, the intricacies of an IEP – all the connections and 'threads' that need to be addressed for that specific student throughout the program -- will probably be missed, opening the district to legal ramifications." Ultimately, Dr. Mays gave her personal "thumbs down" on AI-generated IEPs, but acknowledged "there may be ways to use it. The trick is a teacher needs to know how to write an appropriate Individual Education Program. If they don’t know how and need help, they may not know how to fix one either, if AI started one for them."  Again, while applying AI to IEP creation is a very specific use case example, it illustrates the general need for educators to practice discernment.   AI is not infallible, nor is it always "right."

As I wrap up this entry, we can see that the last year has proven the reality of AI is somewhere between an apocalyptic destroyer and consequence-free manna.   In May 2023, the U.S. Office of Educational Technology published "Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Teaching and Learning: Insights and Recommendations." In a brief handout with the paper's core messages, a comparison was made between electronic bikes and robot vacuums.  Robot vacuums may be treated as somewhat independent machines, with a "mind" of their own; such machines may be disruptive in the way that they can substitute for a human completing the task it was designed for, or perhaps more ominously, replace the human worker that was previously needed for such janitorial labor.  However, the OET would assert that it is more accurate to think of artificial intelligence as not our eventual robot overlords, but as an electric bike: "We envision a technologically-enhanced future more like an electric bike and less like robot vacuums. On an electric bike, the human is fully aware and fully in control, but the burden is less, and their effort is multiplied by a complimentary technological enhancement."

From the OET's summary handout of their May 2023 full report.

In the world of our educational future, we should hope to use more artificial intelligence "electronic bikes" for ourselves and for our students.  Let's embrace AI to augment and enhance what makes us human so we can dare to dream, think, make, and create in even more innovative ways, and by doing so, transform the learning experience.


Thursday, October 26, 2023

Aurora Institute Symposium 2023

 Last week, my colleague Kathy House and I went to the Aurora Institute Symposium 2023 (#Aurora23).  It's the first Aurora Institute Symposium I've attended in person since a pre-pandemic one in Nashville several years ago when I was still with Shelby County Public Schools. I was so thankful to go, and it was a great conference. In short, it replenished my well to the brim and beyond!  

One of the most unexpected delights of the Symposium happened in the hallway of the convention center.  I was talking to Eliot Levine, the Research Director of Aurora Institute.  We had emailed and Zoomed over the years but hadn't been face to face for a stretch.  Suddenly, a young man who was walking by had stopped to stare at me.  

"Mr. Watson?" he asked.

I took him in.  There was a beard now, but he looked familiar.  Of course I cheated and looked down at his lanyard.  My mind reeled backwards to my classroom teaching from a decade ago.  This young man was a former student of mine. 

"Clay?" I was gobsmacked.  How on earth could a Kentucky high school graduate (who had never expressed the desire to teach), per his lanyard, move to Utah, become a teacher, and now be standing in front of me in Palm Springs, California?  

Eliot graciously yielded the space, and Clay and I quickly caught up.  Turns out that a few years ago, Clay was feeling burnt out in his then career of finance and his wife suggested he teach instead.  As he shared with me, "At first, I thought of all the reasons that teaching wasn't a great choice.  Then, I thought of some teachers that I really loved, the ones who made a difference for me.  What if I could be one of those teachers?  And Mr. Watson, you were one of those teachers."  A few hops later through a job interview, a move to another state, and an alternative certification pathway, Clay and his colleagues are now preparing to open a new school in Utah in fall 2024.  The Symposium was helping the school's staff get ready for their innovative road ahead.

You might not believe in fate or destiny, but while I was staring at this young man in the middle of California, teary eyed, I had to feel that the Spirit of Life had conspired to make us cross paths, and to send a message.  And that message was one that all of us as educators should heed: If you are unsure that the learning you facilitate and the relationships you develop today make an impact, be patient.  Sometimes, seeds you plant may take years, or even decades, to sprout.  

But they sprout.

So, Clay, if you read this, thank you!

Back to the conference.  I was busy posting on social media and taking lots of pictures and notes, so as I was mulling over how best to share my Symposium journey, I decided to utilize Wakelet and curate a multimedia collection to put on Edtech Elixirs.  You can click here or view it embedded below.  

As I wrap up this entry, THANK YOU to all the presenters and facilitators, particularly the several Kentucky friends you'll see in the Wakelet.  I can't wait to go back to the Symposium next year.  Mark November 4-6, 2024 in New Orleans down on your calendar!

Sunday, August 6, 2023

GenCon 2023

When I first began playing tabletop role-playing games in the mid-1980's, I read about GenCon.  It seemed a faraway and magical gathering where attendees played games for hours with their fellow enthusiastic fans, and vendors offered previews of upcoming releases while also giving away swag.  GenCon was officially started in 1968 by Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax and had humble beginnings in legion halls and university campuses; it took several years for it to become a multi-day event that topped 1000 attendees.  By 1985, GenCon made its first move to a Milwaukee convention center and had around 5,000 participate, but that was just the start of its runaway train of growth.  GenCon moved to its current home in Indianapolis in 2003 with a pre-pandemic high watermark record of around 70,000 attendees in 2019.   That's a long winded way of saying that GenCon is a big deal that earns its moniker of "The Best Four Days in Gaming."  But like many things of youth, attending GenCon seemed to be a fever dream that faded over time.  I convinced myself that I needed a practical, pragmatic, or professional reason to go, which seemed unlikely.

Then in early spring of 2022, I heard for the first time about Trade Day. Considering that I had just started KyEdRPG last summer, it felt like fate. 

Trade Day is GenCon's "day zero" on the Wednesday before its official four day launch on Thursday.  It is open only to vendors, educators, and librarians, and includes hourly sessions on the intersection of education and gaming.  (Your Trade Day badge also gives you a pass for the rest of the four day convention.)  Trade Day was my opportunity to fulfill a long-delayed quest, a way to learn from other educators who are using game-based learning, and a unique chance to celebrate KyEdRPG's first year anniversary.  

To say that GenCon filled me with knowledge, ideas and joy would be an understatement.   I wanted to capture here some highlights.

Trade Day Sessions

Like many education conferences, I got some golden nuggets throughout Trade Day, but I wanted to mention three memorable sessions in particular. 

Playful Learning: How Board Game Stores, Schools and Libraries Can Collaborate to Benefit Children

Jamie Mathy -- owner of Red Raccoon Games in Bloomington, IL and married to a fourth grade teacher! -- gave an excellent keynote address.  He is clearly passionate about issues of equity, starting with his belief that "Everyone should have a safe place to play games."   He sees the fastest growing segment of gamers is high school girls playing D & D, which as a father of two daughters, makes me happy! Mathy had many ideas for how a game store can work better with a school, including:

  • As educators reach out to a store and need to purchase games for extracurricular clubs or events, have ready some pre-packaged "tiers" of starter sets at various price levels, depending on the school's budget.
  • Coordinate with event schedulers as far in advance as possible, especially for public libraries.
  • Have small giveaways for students who complete reading programs.  Mathy talked about having an aquarium full of inexpensive polyhedron dice where students are allowed to pull out two.  Costwise, it is a modest investment for him: barely .15 a student.
  • Offer staff as volunteers to help run gaming events.
  • Create coupons that a school can give away for a percentage off a single item, with a small percentage of the coupon sales going back to the school.  (A variation of this is a percentage of sales on a certain night or weekend going back to the school for those that mention the school's name, similar to how schools use "pizza nights" as fundraisers.)  Of course, this is good promotion for the store as well.
  • Have a social media partnership.  A store can repost the gaming events/opportunities at the school to help it spread the word, with the hope that the educators can do the same for the special events of their game store community partner.
  • Host in-store opportunities to "teach the teacher" how to play popular and just released games.
  • Mathy fairly pointed out that while stores may occasionally be able to donate materials or offer significant discounts, they are still a business and can't give everything away for free all of the time.  It's a reminder that educators need to respectfully consider the type and amount of requests they make, not assume generosity is a blank check that lasts indefinitely, and to honor their side of developing an ongoing relationship with a store in finding ways to pay it forward.
  • Try to create legacy programs with schools that deepen and enrich (in both learning and financial ways!) over time.  Having a relationship with a "teacher champion" of game-based learning is likely the key to start, but teachers also can come and go.  Find ways to keep in touch with multiple levels of school leadership and community (the admin, the PTA, etc.) and keep telling the story of your mutually beneficial partnership.

Gaming in Libraries:  Bridging the Gap

Clare O'Tsuji is a public librarian with the Kent District in Michigan.   Her presentation was chock full of statistics and research on the power of game-based learning, particularly on literacy. Firstly, she reminded me about Marc Prensky's work on the positive impact of games and play on learning -- namely, that playing games reduces stress and increase productivity.  O'Tsuji emphasized that effective gaming program in libraries -- and connected learning in general -- need to build relationships (teacher-student as well as peer to peer), incorporate student interests, and provide opportunities where educators can enrich and deepen learning via those interests and relationships.  (One relationship-building tip: sit beside students and learn a new game together.)  Lastly, I loved how O'Tsuji framed key literacy elements as "discussion, joy, and cooperation," all of which gaming naturally integrates. 

Creating a RPG Summer Camp

I admit I have bias when I say that my favorite session came from Tom Gross and Dan Reem, high school educators from Illinois.  (Tom and Dan host the Teachers in the Dungeon podcast of which I was a recent guest, and this GenCon was our first opportunity to meet face to face!)  But Dan and Tom's session on their annual summer roleplaying game camp was full of pragmatic advice, as well as generous resources (including an example day-by-day schedule!) of how to effectively start up and facilitate such a camp at your own school.  Dan and Tom's camp now runs four days long with the number of participants almost doubling every year.  Here are some highlights from what they shared:
  • Understand your "why" of having a RPG camp, and create a list of your camp non-negotiables.  Dan and Tom's non-negotiables include using recent alumni and game club members to help facilitate camp attendee groups as their "dungeon masters," giving students time to learn and develop skills as well as play a multi-day continuous story, and introducing students to hobbies and careers adjacent to roleplaying games (such as dice making, comic book art creation, and miniature figure painting).
  • Invite other educator colleagues to come by the camp, especially from the school admin and your district central office.  Seeing in person the positive learning culture, the development of literacy, and the students' practicing of durable skills will go a long way to earn support against skeptics who may think roleplaying games are frivolous and non-educational.
  • Catch a student "doing good" (for example, being helpful and inclusive to another student) and reward them with a ticket that can be used in drawings for door prizes at the end of each day and/or the whole camp.
  • Reach out to community partners early, to better ensure their ability to participate or donate.
  • Reciprocate in your partnership with community members, particularly those that donate materials, volunteer time, or offer something at a discount.  Help publicize and celebrate their willingness to help. (This is a great echo of what Jamie Mathy said in his keynote!)
  • A student registration fee can help a student put "skin in the game" and be more likely to honor their camp commitment (Dan and Tom ask for $30), as well as help offset your expenses. But don't let fees be a barrier to students who might have a financial hardship.  Offer camp scholarships.
  • Reflect on how the camp went as soon as it is over in order to find ways to improve it for next time, as well as celebrate your well-earned success stories -- in particular, capturing anecdotes about students who may have surprised you with how much they matured or rose to leadership levels.  (On that very subject, Dan and Tom published a podcast episode after every day of this year's summer camp; the first episode of the series is here [15:38]).

Among many delights and tips that Dan (right, standing) and Tom (left at podium) shared was a highlight reel of students reflecting on their RPG camp experience.  If there is any doubt in the power of TTRPGs on learning, these student voices would convince you otherwise.

GenCon Vendors

From the Trade Day Demo Night to the massive exhibit hall itself, I marveled at many a game, accessory and piece of art.  For the sake of this blog entry, I'll limit myself to highlighting some items that have educational potential, both as extracurricular and in-classroom opportunities.

  • 9th Level Games has a "Polymorph" TTRPG (tabletop roleplaying game) system that is significantly simplified and socially inclusive. This, combined with their various thin pocket rulebooks, makes for compelling game options for younger students.  For example, The Excellents is a princess-themed RPG that could work well with upper elementary and middle school students.
  • Alexandria RPG Library is based in Seattle and is a registered 501(c)(3) charitable organization.  They have amassed a collection of thousands of RPG rulebooks and boxsets going back decades, which they often curate and exhibit around the country.  Their online database may serve as a resource for teachers or students researching the history of tabletop roleplaying games, but their website may also be the start of some inquiry-based learning: What can the history of role-playing games tell us about a culture over time?  How do various gaming systems create mathematical balance to ensure fair playability?  In what ways are RPGs inclusive and exclusive (lack of translated materials, accessibility concerns, cultural insensitivities, etc.), and how can we make RPGs more inclusive?  How can a roleplaying game charity positively impact a local or global community, and how can we help increase that impact?
  • Columbia Games has (among other historical options) The Last Spike, a board game about the expansion of railroads across the United States in the 1800's.   Even more helpful is their teacher resources to go with the game.
  • Metal Weave Games probably deserves a shoutout just for their adorable Owlbear plushes, but for educational purposes, I want to highlight their Baby Bestiary Companion Rules supplement.  The book uses D&D fifth edition rules, and shows how to incorporate a character rescuing and raising a newborn fantasy monster.  This could be a way to bring in younger players into a roleplaying game experience that doesn't necessarily involve fighting and battles.
  • Nations & Cannons is a newer TTRPG that would be perfect for a secondary social studies class.  Using the D&D fifth edition rules, players can create characters set during the American Revolutionary War.  From a local standpoint, I was particularly excited to hear they are working on a supplement that includes Kentucky's Fort Boonesborough!  There's plenty of game material to peruse on their website, as well as some educator opportunities to explore.  
  • Oddfish Games has some items that are just plain fun, including a guidebook on How to RPG with Your Cat.  But they also have products that could inspire some educational integration.  Their line of Adventure Scents could not only add to the ambiance of a roleplaying game journey, but could also increase the immersive experiences during a readaloud of a story, be the kickoff (whiff-off??) of a descriptive writing piece, or amplify a "you are there" moment of history.  Oddfish also publishes Cooking with Dice: The Acid Test, which could gamify a culinary arts unit or even the entire course.
  • Rowan, Rook and Decard, who describe their company as "strange games for curious people," have made dozens of one page RPGs.  These games obviously have very light rulesets which make them extremely playable when you have limited time or need something that won't overwhelm students with too much complexity, factors that are often the case in school settings.  While some of their RPGs lean toward darker themes with adult language, they do have a collection of ten one-page roleplaying games for younger players.
  • Treasure Falls Games is about to release The Quest Kids: Giant Adventure.  In their words, it is a "life-sized fantasy game experience" with a simplified rule set geared toward students kindergarten age and up.  Large durable tiles are placed on the ground, and students are to choose a pathway from one tile to the next while overcoming challenges and collecting tokens along the way.  There is a kinesthetic aspect about the game I find intriguing!  This might be a good alternative activity for an elementary PE class, or even as a way to do a creative indoor recess.

In closing, I have to compliment the camaraderie I experienced at GenCon, which was truly moving.  From nearly every attendee and vendor I met or literally bumped shoulders with, I encountered endless permutations of kindness and generosity.  If by chance some of those new friends read this entry, thank you for your willingness to welcome me as a new member of the GenCon community.   I certainly hope to return!

Saturday, July 29, 2023


While I didn't attend ISTE 2023 in person last month, I watched the social media about it from afar.  One tool that came up repeatedly was Figjam.  The enthusiasm I read about it encouraged me to try it out for myself.  The result was endless grinning and multiple Keanu Reeves-like "Whoa's" as I played around with it.  Figjam is basically a browser-based collaborative whiteboard tool, but considering the possibilities and the joy it sparked for me, that somehow feels reductive.  My hope today is to convey that joy of possibilities to you.

First, a clarification.  Figjam is technically a program that has emerged fairly recently, but it's actually part of Figma, a popular industry-standard design tool that's been around for years and used by the world's top corporations and designers.  In order to use Figjam, you must create a Figma account, and that ends up giving you access to both tools.  Figma is a powerful program with some features that overlap with Figjam.  Figma is certainly worthy of its own blog entry -- and there are teachers and students who are definitely using it! -- but in my limited time of playing with it, I found the learning curve to be a bit steeper, and its application seems limited to product-oriented projects that may require designing and prototyping.  On the other hand, Figjam feels user-friendly right out of the box, and has the potential to be used by educators and students for learning on a much more frequent basis.

Strap yourselves in, because I'm about to make a new Edtech Elixirs world record for most screenshots in a single blog entry!

How does it work?

As you sign up (using your Google account is my recommended option), there is a process where you verify your educator status.  This takes a minute, but totally worth it, as you will get the full enterprise edition of Figjam (and Figma!) for free.  Let me repeat that: even if you were willing to pay something, there are no other premium features, because as a teacher or student you get the whole ball of wax at no charge.  A round of well-deserved applause for Figma's patronage to education!

Once you are logged in, your home screen will present you with several options, including opening up a previous Figjam board, making a board from scratch, or starting with a template.

This is what your home screen looks like if you're looking at your "Recent" files (see the upper left).

Let's jump right away to discussing Figjam's templates.  The bench is deep on this one.  In fact, I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a web tool that has so many useful pre-made models.  Within sixty seconds you could conceivably launch a learning activity with students.  While there is a whole template category "for the classroom," the other categories give you an idea of how versatile Figjam can be for brainstorming, having a meeting, planning a project, and more.

You will likely find value in using a Figjam by yourself, but why be lonely?  It really comes alive when collaborating with others.  While you could create Teams with students or colleagues for ongoing work on particular Figjam boards, I love how you can also open up a board to anyone for 24 hours and they don't even need a Figma account.  If you can give someone the URL, they can join you and work on the board in real time.  (Here's a timecoded link to a video showing how sharing works; it's at the 17:25 mark.)

By simply hitting "Start" and "Copy link," your students, colleagues or PD attendees could be seconds away from joining you in a "jam session." Note that similar to Google Docs, you can also limit a board's viewing or editing to specific people.

The interactivity of Figjam is user-friendly and straightforward, mainly centered around its toolbar at the bottom of the screen.  You can participate in multiple ways, such as drawing, inserting shapes or sticky notes, making line connectors between elements, using stamps and emotes, and more.  There are also some clever "widgets" available to use.  You are even able to have an audio chat with others in the Figjam board, which can make it an alternative teleconference-style meeting.

An annotated Figjam toolbar, slightly edited from the original found in the "Figjam 101 Overview for Education" Template...yet another aspect of Figjam that I appreciate, which is how many Templates they have that also function as tutorials.

Voice Memo (allowing you to record your voice for up to 30 seconds) and Photo Booth (which uses your webcam to take a selfie) are two particularly useful (and fun!) widgets to put on a board.

As a facilitator of the board, you'll enjoy the built-in timer in the upper left of the screen, as well as the opportunity to play some ambient music.  This can be particularly useful when participants have some work time for a portion of your live session before coming back as a whole group.

Here are some helpful shortcuts and tips that participants can use inside Figjam:

  • E for Emotes/Stamps.  
  • Tip: While in the Emotes/Stamp wheel, click once on a stamp choice so you can stamp with it multiple times.  You can also hold down you mouse to grow the stamp bigger and bigger until you release it on the whiteboard.
  • S for a sticky note.
  • X for connectors, and drag cursor to where you want arrow to stop.
  • / to open a cursor chat for live interaction (not to be confused with making a more permanent text comment).
  • Tip: be mindful when you are in "pointer mode" (which means you can select and move elements around on your board -- perhaps unintentionally!) and when you are in "hand" mode, which allows you to move the entire board around in order to navigate.  Until you get used to this, you may be using Edit>Undo a lot.
  • Hold H and move cursor for waving your hand at other participants.  Then they can give you a high five!
  • Tip: Copy and paste a URL into a Figjam to create an embedded website or YouTube link.  (This works for Google Docs too!)
  • Tip: If logged into the platform on your browser, go to in a new tab to quickly make a brand new board with some simple template options on the left side.
The landing page when you go to Note the quick template options on your left.

What if you want to share your board with others outside the platform, or want to save a "snapshot" of the Figjam for archiving your current progress?  You can export the board as a PNG, JPG, or a PDF, either in its entirety or just a selected portion.

Another excerpt from the "Figjam 101 Overview for Education" Template.

Here's a short overview video of some of the basic collaborative features of a Figjam board (2:48):

How could you use it?

I've threaded some examples of use throughout the narrative above; if you're stuck for ideas, check out the massive list of different templates available!  But I'll add a few more.  Figjam can be a powerful way of making thinking visible for learners, as well as providing a wonderful digital space for collaboration and planning.  Additionally, a person could use Figjam as an alternative presentation tool, either in person or as a shared screen in a teleconference -- you could set up its sections in advance and zoom in, out and move as appropriate to highlight the next part, as well as explore an image, play a video, or visit a website.  Lastly, because of its export feature, both teachers and students might use Figjam as a designer tool for handouts, logos, and other graphics. 


You know you're struggling to find fault when the worst thing you can come up with as a downside is the number of questions you have to answer when signing up in order to validate that you are an educator. It's really remarkable how much Figjam can do, and all at the cost of zero point zero zero dollars.

I hope that you try out Figjam with your students soon.   If you do, leave your story on how you used it in the Comments below.  Now go out there and get Figjamming!