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).
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.