The Centre for Distance Education (CDE) at the University of London have, for many years, run an excellent annual conference on Research and Innovation in Distance Education (RIDE). They also, from time to time, host occasional symposia on current issues in HE. Late in 2014 I was approached by Steve Warburton to design and co-host one such ‘In Focus’ event around games and gamification (linking into the current interest in this area).
Adrian Hon (SixToStart), one of our invited speakers
I’ve known Steve for a while, and it was a real pleasure to work with him over the next few months to scope out and book a range of perspectives on games, gamification and learning from HE and industry. We particularly wanted to set up points of contention/discussion, and also include ample opportunity for active playful participation.
The symposium took place on 4th March 2015, in the impressive surroundings of Senate House, and from our point of view certainly fulfilled the above aims: we had the 100-strong audience scrabbling under chairs and on the floor to create epic stories from brickabrack, solve clues and battle for grand prizes; over lunch groups were playing noisy games of CubeQuest; and we heard some challenging perspectives for and against ‘gamification’ along with some inspiring examples of well designed games-based learning experiences.
I’d designed a new variant of my ‘Curate-a-fact‘ game to get teams working together during the day, and it worked a treat – with eleven teams (60 people) submitting games by the end of the day.
Participants playing the conference game
A detailed writeup of the event will soon appear on the CDE site, but in the meantime there’s a great Storify narrative which gives a good sense of the day by Katie Piatt, and pictures on Flickr.
My daughter’s school recently ran a month-long trial of the “next generation in online Math learning platform” – Mathletics (http://www.mathletics.com).
It’s a site which aims to augment maths teaching/practice for children from 4 to 13. Its ‘next generation’ label comes from the online and gaming aspects which “students love”. I sat down with my daughter to find out how she responded to it.
On logging in, the first thing she did was create an avatar, and choose a character to guide her through the site (so far so good). She then started work on two challenges set by the school: nothing new here – just a series of maths questions with an answer box (just as you might see on paper) – on a right answer, a tick; on a wrong answer, a cross: no feedback or hints on approaches. To complete the challenge, all ten questions have to be answered correctly; any errors, and the whole ten questions (same ones, in order) have to be attempted again.
As a result, she soon got frustrated and gave up on these challenges, then spent a good 30 minutes changing hair, backgrounds, colours etc. on her avatar (the avatar area takes tips from Moshi Monsters et al, and inherits something of the same engagement level). No maths learning here though.
The one redeeming ‘next generation’ feature is a live challenge mode, where you can play against other students from around the world. On starting, you are assigned three other competitors, and a countdown clock starts, as mental maths questions appear on screen: the aim being to answer more than your competitors in the time available. This certainly attracted both of us, but within seconds frustration was back, as all three of the competitors stormed ahead (easily beating our combined efforts): there is no obvious option to filter competitors to different age ranges or skill levels to provide a challenge, rather than an impossible task.
All in all, Mathletics is a poor example of gamification – applying apparently ‘motivating’ aspects of games and playful activities (in this case, the use of customisable avatars and competitive aspects with avatar-rewards) to what is essentially a very traditional try-and-repeat approach to teaching. The gaming aspects add nothing to the experience other than temporarily diverting (and non-learning) activities around the edges.
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.
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.
RESEARCH & REFERENCING: BiblioBouts
…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.