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Monday, January 12, 2015

Game-Based Learning and Classcraft

One of the trends in education that is gaining popularity and has growing data to support its positive impact on students is game-based learning.  The concept is not completely new; many older graduates and teachers today have fond memories of Oregon Trail (which first began in 1978!).  The phrase "game-based learning" still makes some shudder, suggesting teachers are letting students play video games all day instead of utilizing real skills or learning content.  But just as "edtech for the sake of edtech" should't be done, I am not suggesting games alone are the key.  As always, it is the way the games are integrated into a classroom that can transform the educational experience:

  • Novel way of learning content.  Which one do you think would be more engaging -- a PowerPoint lecture about the Underground Railroad, or roleplaying as an actual runaway slave?
  • Immediate feedback and gratification.   By the nature of a typical classroom experience, we are all about the delayed gratification.  You study or research, apply yourself to an assessment or write your essay, turn it in...and wait, sometimes days or even weeks for a grade and feedback.  In a game, you know as soon as you try whether you succeed or fail.  And if you fail...
  • The power of a 1UP.  It's fascinating that the same young people who never want to revise a paper or "try again" are willing to sweat through a game level over and over until they defeat their big boss.  But the philosophy behind the way a teacher assesses and grades is also interesting to note here.  Is it right to only give students one chance with no "do-overs"?  In standards-based grading, reaching proficiency in various areas is a continual process of opportunity, not given only once on that Friday in September.  ("You failed the test, so you can never learn that skill.  Let's move on.")
  • The power of a "Leaderboard."  For many modern video games, there are virtual trophies you earn for achieving certain goals, called badges.  Of course, this leaderboard of badges can be shared socially with other gamers as a point of pride.  Although I used Edmodo my last few years of teaching, I regret not trying out their "badge" system in my own classroom. However, other teachers have totally embraced this approach with their own students (and not just with Edmodo!).
  • Cultivating creative and cooperative skills.  Last but not least, we shouldn't ignore the creative and cooperative juices that get flowing with games.  It takes intelligence to problem solve a riddle or determine when to use the right power at the right time.  To take one popular game example, "modding" in Minecraft is the pinnacle of creativity (and recently in our own backyard, a group of enthusiasts are creating the whole city of Louisville as a Minecraft map).  In team based endeavors, the virtual stakes are high to work together to achieve a goal where all will benefit.
If you still feel ambivalent about gamification of education, see if Jane McGonigal convinces you in her TED Talk that "gaming can make a better world."

In Shelby County, game-based learning is not completely uncommon.  For example, the elementary students periodically play Dreambox to learn math skills.  But a few months ago, I learned of a site for the first time that kinda blew my mind.  The site is Classcraft, and the teacher that told me about it was Tim Oltman from Martha Layne Collins High School.  Which is why Tim gets a well-deserved #ShelbyTUITshoutout!

Setting up an account in Classcraft is free.  Teachers first ask the students what kind of role they want for their character ( Mage, Fighter, or Healer) along with some limited customization of the character's looks.  The teacher then inputs the students and their character choices into Classcraft, grouping them in teams, and gives the students login information.  From that point on, Classcraft becomes something that quietly runs in the background until the teacher has an event occur where students can gain or lose experience points (XP) or health points (HP).  (These events can be customized by the teacher.)   There are also peer incentives to do well in class; for example, not turning in a homework assignment can affect everyone on your team. Over time students can earn class rewards or use XP to get upgrade armor, spells, etc. for their characters; this part is typically done outside of class.   Keep in mind that currently Classcraft is static.  There are no moving parts, no animation, no actual jumping/scrolling/fighting.   In a way, it's a much more glorified and clever system of digital badge delivery.

The following video gives a quick overview of what Classcraft is, how it came to be, and what it looks like:

I recently visited Mr. Oltman at MLC HS, and he was kind enough to submit to an interview.

Tell us about yourself!

Here at MLC I teach the Project Lead the Way engineering classes.  This will be my 4th year teaching.  I learned about integrating edtech in my college classes and enjoyed it because I have always been using technology plus it is a great fit with engineering classes.

How have you integrated Classcraft in your classroom?

In 3 of my classes I have Classcraft running in the background during class and as questions are answered I can quickly add experience points to the characters.  However, they get their main experience points after assignments are added to their characters.  The other advantage I have is we are already 1:1 in the engineering classes [each student always has a desktop computer], so they have their characters running in the background because they love to keep up with their experience points.  You could also do this with cell phones because there is an app also.

Sounds like the students enjoy Classcraft.   Do you think it has improved learning?  In what way?

The students love the game.  They come into class and ask to the daily spin [a random event generator] to see if they get anything that day.  They want to use their powers whenever they can.  It has improved learning because once again the students are more invested in their learning.  [The academic work in class results in rewards.] They can see something they are getting out of it.  The game allows you to alter many of the spells and achievements they get so you can alter the game to fit each of your classes. 

A student's character takes health point damage from a random event.  If the team has a Healer, however, they can recover quickly, adding to the cooperative nature of Classcraft.

In the "dashboard" of the teacher's account, Mr. Oltman surveys the state of the various teams in his class.

Before Classcraft, what did you think about gamification in education?  Had you tried any game-based learning before?  How has Classcraft and other tools changed your attitude toward gamification?

I have always loved the idea of gamification in education.  Being an avid gamer myself I have seen many ways games teach lessons in a way that can work for education.  I have never tried gamification before because I have been looking for the right game to integrate.

What other edtech tools are some of your favorites?

Other favorites I have is Canvas [a free Learning Management System] and of course our 3D printer.  I love Canvas because you can get everything on one place for the students and then let them submit assignments online.  It is also nice because I never have to answer the question what did we do yesterday because they know to go online and look for it.

Mr. Oltman's  first generation 3D printer.

Any advice you would like to share with other teachers wanting to integrate Classcraft into their classroom?

Integrate the game in one of your classes to start with.  It does take some time to get used to and definitely get the students involved in helping to design the game that way they are really part of it.  You will have some students who do not want to play to start with but after a week all of my students have gotten really involved in it.  Remember too you can make it a large part of your class or a small part depending on how the students take to it.

Thanks again to Tim for his interview and insights! How do you feel about using games in the classroom?  Do you already use gamification?  Please share in the Comments below.

Update 1/23/15:  After publishing this entry, I saw a tweet (embedded below with a great infographic) that led me to a detailed article about the differences between gamification and game-based learning.  I realize now that I somewhat vaguely used these terms interchangeably, which is incorrect.   So please check out Steven Isaac's article on Inservice ASCD.

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