Tag Archives: assessment

Points & prizes for core education elements

In the last few days I’ve come across multiple case studies where standard academic skills or issues have been overlain/augmented with game elements: those pillars of writing, referencing and  assessment.

Writing : 750 Words

Mainly aimed at (budding or struggling) authors, nonetheless this site would be useful for anyone having to write very long texts (of which academia abounds). In fact, it was recommended to me by a PhD student, @jennifermjones, who liked the fact that as well as providing space and encouragement (through points) to write 750 words each day, it also analyses themes and patterns within your writing over time. A simple space, simple points, with the addition of some variation with monthly challenges and ‘walls of shame’ or ‘amazingness’. I wonder whether the points, or the idea and well designed site, are more motivating, but it’s certainly a very interesting idea and useful tool.


…at the University of Michigan is a lovely little project which fits in well with the idea of using elements from the student’s projected context (ie. an effective subject researcher) and bringing out a competitive element within that familiar context. Using Zotero (an online reference manager/sharer), BiblioBouts encourages students to find new resources for a research theme, and then invite other students to rate them for academic suitability/relevance. Points are awarded for both rating/commenting on other students’ resources, and for scores given to their own resources. It will be interesting to see how this works in the coming year, as (much with my own Great History Conundrum) there is potential for students to develop as a community of practice together, gradually increasing their knowledge and skills within a valid research context.


This is an old chestnut, but worth adding here as it’s been doing the rounds again due to game-related conferences. Sheldon has the benefit of teaching game design to a class of game designers, but even so his approach is an interesting one: instead of grades, he assigns experience points and levels to his students. What has always interested me about this is the way that individual grades are far less important than the gradually increasing levels – which help to show students that essays and other assessment points are just elements (or side quests) within the greater aim (or campaign) of development  as experts in the subject.

Within the current debates around ‘gamification’ and the (often unrelated) application of points and gaming systems to real life situations, these three cases are fabulous examples of how game elements can be naturally combined with existing contexts, and strengthen existing elements of academic study.

ARG Event at SGI, Coventry

The Coventry University Serious Games Institute hold a series of mini-conferences around a gaming theme on the second Wednesday of each month; and on November 11th it was the turn of Alternative Reality Games. The presenters, and audience, were drawn from academia, the games/arts industry and publishing, which made for an interesting range of topics and good questions/discussions.


Dan Hon, Six to Start

Six to Start’s Dan Hon opened the proceedings with an overview of their projects since the initial, and impressive, We Tell Stories (which English teachers apparently really liked: good news!). He described how their Spooks: Code 9 ARG sneaked in education elements by linking in-game events and deeper information into the realtime TV programmes. He also revealed that they will be making an ARG for the new Misfits superhero series.


Mike Bennett was up next, of Oil –  makers of, amongst other things, the Channel 4 Routes genetics ARG (which a colleague of mine working in Genetics had found less than educational). Mike had the interesting theory that of a typical audience, 90% are casual observers, 9% are engaged, and 1% are immersed (90/9/1) – it struck me that this kind of ratio might well be applied to many education contexts too.

I was there to talk about competition – and how my initial research into ARGs, and later experience with four case studies in academia, had revealed a strong link between motivation and competition elements; I also touched on the lack of competition in modern education, and the incongruence of this with the modern student’s social life; and argued for a realignment of assessment with more motivating methods such as those incorporating competitive elements.

After a break, where I had a good chat with the midlands regional team for 4IP about their plans to introduce game-based learning at sixth-form level, there were two fascinating live storytelling/interactive presentations from Toby Barnes (Mudlark) and Tassos Stevens (Coney). Toby was presenting a new project based in Sherwood Forest, and mused on the fact that people engage in different ways (some are happy to watch in silence; others discover; some prefer public engagement, others private) and all need to be covered in a game experience. Tassos described a number of fascinating projects with schoolchildren (my favourite being a ‘live’ emailing cat). His presentation, and the discussion in the room afterwards, centred around the idea of liveness – how high engagement is dependent not on things actually happening ‘live’, but on responsivity – having individual or collective contextual and timely responses. This is something which has been on my mind since then, and is a concept which applies well to assessment and feedback too. More thoughts/musings on this in a later post.

All in all, a varied and thought-provoking day, with some excellent speakers. And well hosted by the Serious Games Institute and BAFTA’s games arm. Food for thought!



ALT-C 2009: Manchester

The Hilton, ManchesterMy thoughts on the way to ALT-C this year were rather mixed. The problem with all previous ALT-Cs I’d been to has been the predominance of technology-focussed papers, with little in the way of pedagogic thought, evidence-based practice or strong research – so this was a real risk again. On the plus side, I knew many more participants this time round (almost all through my Twitter network) and was looking forward to meeting them and networking; but also, with my day job now taking a focus on distance learning, I was on the lookout for a new range of topics.

Oh, also, I was to be staying with my brother and sister-in-law-to-be in the rather swanky Hilton which now dominates the hitherto rather confused Manchester skyline. Thanks to them, I had a very comfortable base.

So to the conference itself. I’ll cheekily fit into the ALT-C mould by first noting the technology I used – of note only because it’s the first time I’ve conference’d with an iPhone, which rather revolutionised the way I interacted with it, socialised and recorded (see a fuller description here if you’re that way inclined).

I’ll deal with the game-related sessions in a separate post, and focus on the main education themes here. I was aiming for those on feedback and assessment methods, mobile learning and open and distance education (including Open Educational Resources, OERs) in the main. These, sadly, largely disappointed.

Using CRS for fieldwork

Using CRS for fieldwork

On assessment methods I saw nothing of interest; on feedback the presentation of a forced feedback-read for students within BlackBoard before they can receive their mark, by Stuart Hepplestone et al from Sheffield Hallam, was interesting – although there was no solid data yet on how the students reacted to or benefitted from it. A nice side-idea from this project was getting older students to write the instruction guides, rather than staff. I also took part in a great workshop on alphanumeric portable CRS (classroom response systems) which used a mixture of well structured questions and instant feedback in the field and back in the classroom to develop and reinforce learning – an impressive improvement on previous use of simple ABCD devices I’ve seen which don’t encourage deep learning.

The most interesting OER project was the OLNet.org project at the OU, which aims to gather together existing resources in a useful and searchable way, emphasising reuse rather than creation. The questions from the floor afterwards were particularly good, with a suggestion that open pedagogies for using the open content would be a very useful addition. A project worth watching.

There were sadly no mobile learning papers of note that I could see (surely a huge omission), but one online project to support students at point of need by involving tutors in the use of google talk and wikis to help exam revision was interesting (Manish Malik from Portsmouth) though short on details/feedback. The most thought-provoking session of the conference for me, though, was Dave White’s update to Prensky’s digital natives, with his ideas of Natives and Residents (I’ve followed – and liked – this idea for a while): great discussion after. Oh, and our Twitter paper went down well too.

The keynotes (viewable here, go to Sept 8/9/10) were good overall: Michael Wesch started with a great anthropological study which moved from Papua New Guinea to the ‘I want to be on TV/Youtube/famous’ attitude of the contemporary 18-year old. Martin Bean gave an upbeat first keynote of his time as OU vice-chancellor; but Terry Anderson finished off with the best of the three: a fast-paced but always interesting look at the nature of the modern student and how they arrive at university with their own already formed ideas of the tools and information which is relevant to their life (it is up to us to widen and expand this view) and a plethora of open resources and tools which it will take an interesting week or two to work through.

LizardThe venue was good, if a little inflexible in terms of workshop/symposium-friendly rooms; the locale perfect for social meetups (plenty of bars serving great beer at proper northern prices) including the excellent Manchester Museum across the road, with its tyrannosaur, fabulous anthropological and egyptian collections, and collection of live lizards and frogs (through which Alan Cann gave us a guided tour). F-alt ran its usual collection of slightly disorganised but well attended and lubricated sessions, and putting faces to, and sharing drinks and ideas with, Twitter friends made it the most social ALT to date.

Overall, a very good three days. A noticable increase in pedagogically-driven papers, if not always supported by good evidence, but it’s a move in the right direction. And socially/network-wise, a cracker.

Mmm... beer

Mmm... beer

Reflection in small, assessed, bites?

Following a very thought-provoking post by Alan Cann:


…I’ve been mulling it over with a coffee. His post talks about his students’ dislike for reflectve writing in blogs – mainly due to the time and thought it requires. It combines two key topics (reflection and modern, appropriate, assessment) – both of which are vital, I think, for the near future in education.

Myself and Alan have already tweeted about the difference in expectation/ease of reflection in Arts/Sciences, which means that some longer forms (blogs, wikis) do work to a certain extent in Arts subjects, contrary to Science contexts. However, this still leaves two problems: reflection for scientists (that could be a conference in its own right, no?!) and appropriate and clear assessment.

For the first, I like the idea of micro- or mini- blogging. short statements which encourage instant and secondary reflection (just finishing a class/activity, and in the evening – for example) combined with communal comparison (‘I thought bit X was really unclear: I can’t see how it fits in’ / ‘I agree – foxed me too. Anyone get it?’) We know scientists talk in single sentences 😉 so Twitter (or my proposed 300-character mini blogging service, Yakkus) might be just the thing.

Visual Assessment Guidelines

Visual Assessment Guidelines

For assessment, I’ve had the same problem as Alan. Complaints from students that it’s too difficult to comprehend; increasingly convoluted attempts to express it. With micro- mini- blogging, this should be easier. A string of sample tweets/yakks down the page, each with a green-yellow-red coloured bar indicating the depth of reflection and collaboration (see example at side). At-a-glance assessment guidelines.

The more I think about this, the more I like it. Any thoughts from the scientists?

Initial Reflections

Well, the Great History Conundrum finished its first iteration three weeks ago now, and the final marks (for the reflective, group wiki stage) have come back in from the departmental tutors. Given that some sectors of the department were (quite rightly) slightly apprehensive about this new fangled online game thing, the comments coming back have been mightily heartening!

A press release recently went out containing some brief details of the course’s success (see PublicTechnology.net‘s article) but, in advance of a full analysis of the results, I thought I’d reflect on some of the key things we discovered:

  • Moderation is a mutable but vital beast. Some of the moderators were slow to start (due to poor advance warning on our part) which caused initial unrest amongst students; and moderation varied from fair to outstanding at different times, whereas the students and department expected consistency (of course). Biggest problem? Time. We allocated 5 hours per week per moderator, and probably needed 7-10. Lesson: more preparation/handholding at start, more time, more checks throughout.
  • Students are all different, despite what you hear.A portion of students really liked the narrative puzzles, a portion hated them. A portion liked cryptic ones, others preferred straightforward questions. About half enjoyed working in a group, about half as individuals.Lesson: No size fits all – don’t try to.
  • Enthusiasm is infectious. Academic departments are used to bored/unengaged students (it’s becoming the norm), so a show of enthusiasm can bring them onside to anything. Our closing ceremony was a stroke of genius: the students whooped their way through it, and the departmental staff present got to see their enthusiasm first hand. It also came through in their reflective wikis (I really enjoyed this one; this one took me ages, etc.). Lesson: try to capture and disseminate any enthusiasm to students and staff.
  • Assessment is a double edged sword. It guarantees that students will do your course, and gives it status within a department; but means that you are open to strong scrutiny, are affecting a student’s degree, and (most importantly) the students feel that they have the right to moan. a lot. all the time. even when they are actually enjoying things.Lesson: none really. For mass take-up, assessment is vital. Accept the moans.
  • Learning is doing. This was the primary aim behind our course, and it’s been proved in spades. First year students this year have engaged with the key skills and topics in a way that surpasses their second and third year peers. The difference? They’re having to think, and apply, to achieve an aim. Lesson: it’s not a new one. But it’s true.

Merry Christmas everyone!
(I’m allowed to say that: I grew up near to Noddy Holder).

The Great History Conundrum

Although I’ve been researching and preparing for this course for one and a half years, I’ve held back from writing about it here until it launched. Which it has. Last Monday.

Stakes are high. The History course it was designed for had a cohort of 140 students; and for the last few years both they and their lecturers have complained about the first year research skills course they have to do in the first semester (the students find it dull and patronising; the lecturers find that the students don’t engage with it or pick up the necessary skills). 

A Great History Conundrum Puzzle

A Great History Conundrum Puzzle

Using my research into ARGs (see earlier posts) I had designed a new online section of the course which hoped to use key features of online reality games to engage the students with historical research, teach them key skills, bring them together as a group, and allow them to work in their own pace and time. Two successful pilots were run last year, with 10 students each time, and the department decided to include it in the assessed first year module this year. In September, I heard that the number of students had risen to 200.

The Great History Conundrum (GHC) is based around 50 ‘problems’ or puzzles of varying difficulty, which are designed to introduce students to the range of resources and skills they will need in their three years. Various of them incorporate narrative elements, cryptic clues, real life locations and collaborative tasks, increasing the range of skills they develop and broadening their interest to different types of students (theoretically). 

As equally important, though, are the course’s forums (held, like the GHC home, on the University’s BlackBoard system), which encourage collaboration and reflection on resources and skills discovered. Posts on the forums feed into the final section of the course, which asks the students to create a shared resource (as a WIKI) which describes the resources and skills required and will become a reference for their studies throughout their degree.

Motivation and engagement is provided by instantly updated leaderboards and delivery of new puzzles (via a custom-built but ‘simple’ web app which talks to the intranet) and by carefully developed assessment methods: the three aspects of the course (puzzle solving, forum posting and WIKI creation) are assessed continually, with students able to see 66% of their actual assessment scores as they go along.

So that’s the background. And so to the launch. Following an opening lecture to introduce the cohort to their challenge, they quickly and encouragingly rushed off in droves to log in and solve their first puzzle – only for a bug to become apparent in the custom web system which resulted in blank puzzles being sent back to the students rather than new ones.

To cut a long and rather forgettable story short, niggly problems with the technical side continued until Thursday, when they were finally banished. The students stuck with us, though, and were able to solve puzzles and post to the forums throughout. Which they did with aplomb: to date, 125 of the 200 students have engaged to some extent, and a quarter of those have now achieved a running mark of over 40% for the course, with the WIKI stage (and 33%) still three weeks off.

More reports to follow, with further background on the course itself.