Tag Archives: research skills

Pervasive Learning Activities – Workshop July 11th

UPDATE: Date change to July 11th 2013

Pervasive Learning Activities (PLAs) are deeply embedded games-based approaches to learning which draw from key features of alternate reality games, and play on the idea of suspension of disbelief amongst participants: students become part of a developing scenario, learning skills and approaches in context, and gradually blur the line between the scenario and real life.

This approach has been used successfully to teach Enterprise in the Universities of Portsmouth and Leeds, and has potential for any other discipline.

As part of our ongoing research and practice in this area, Simon Brookes, Sarah Underwood and I are holding a workshop to outline the concept of PLAs, give participants experience of a real PLA, and then cover the skills needed to develop one in any discipline. It will be no surprise to hear that the day will be action-packed, fun and (we hope) rewarding.

The PLA Workshop is being arranged in conjunction with the Higher Education Academy, and will take place on Thursday 11th July at the University of Leicester.

Info / Sign up here

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.

Games in the Midlands

In late May, I joined in a research/workshop event organised by the ARGOSI (Alternate Reality Games for Orientation and Student Induction, based at Manchester Metropolitan University) project team, at Aston University in Birmingham.

As well as wrapping up the project, and working out how it would continue and spread (Brighton may be taking it on next year), we pooled our various experiences together to think about ways in which immersive/alternative reality games could help solve two perennial problems in higher education: induction (ie. becoming a student), and research skills (becoming an effective student). We also looked at new media or digital literacies too, being another hot topic which fits nicely into the ARG-online sphere.

Several coffees, chocolate muffins, Werthers Originals and live-linkups later, we came up with an interesting little project which I can’t reveal too much about, but suffice to say it combines principles from Facebook-style games, online searching and online treasure-hunt style games (like http://thenethernet.com/) to teach prospective students about university life, research skills and digital literacies. More information to follow, I hope.

Nightlife consisted of reimagining various ‘classic’ tabletop games (principally due to lack of instructions) like Kerplunk and a card-based football game, before settling on a grand Scrabble match. The Manchester crew were surprisingly lurid in their choice of words, I have to note…

In addition to the above, we wrote and tried out several sample puzzles for the project – here’s one for you to try from Scott Wilson:

  1. Where Am I From?
  2. Where Am I From?
  3.  Where Am I From?
  4. What links the three locations above?

We also scoped out a new collection of essays, on the use of alternative reality / immersive games in education, covering some very exciting areas: again, more of this to follow.

All in all, an excellent event: many thanks to the ARGOSI team for organising and funding it. These short research gatherings are a great hotbed for ideas – unfettered by talks or strict agendas, but focussed on a particular theme. I look forward to more of the same in the future.

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 Quest for Truth!

Phew! Tired but happy.

A couple of months ago I was asked to run a day activity for a group of 15-year olds from Barnsley, as part of the university’s widening participation scheme.

How to teach fifty 15-year olds about university life in 5 hours and keep them entertained enough to avoid them interfering with the degree ceremonies going on elsewhere on campus? I borrowed a few approaches from alternate reality games, principally live events (example here) and a broad mix of media. Over a good day’s brainstorming with Kate (Litherland, a research associate from my last arg-influenced project) fuelled by coffee, cake and (for the really tricky parts) beer, we came up with PuzzleX: The Quest for Truth.


Student Newspapers

PuzzleX Archives Challenge: Student Newspapers

Essentially, we planned to teach the schoolkids what most undergraduates fail to grasp before their third year: a healthy academic cynicism for the published word/image, and an ability to peel back the covers and delve deeper. This was to be no lecture series, though: the schoolkids would become Puzzle Teams, working against the clock to solve a variety of different challenges, then producing their evidence in a dossier in a final frenetic showdown.


And, well, it worked rather… erm… well.  At 10:00 sharp a Mission Impossible-meets-Jack Bauer opening sequence drew the Puzzle Teams in, and set them off on their first challenge of the day (the first mission dossiers were hidden under six random seats in the 200-seat theatre). Aided by black-clad Puzzle Agents (a fabulous team of postgrads) and under pressure from constant countdown timers above their heads in each mission room, seven Puzzle Teams were to be found (at various times) measuring themselves up against the tallest building on campus, furtively listening to recorded messages and shortly after wiring up the sound of flushing toilets or crowded cafés, making 3D camels, and trying to catch out fictitious online MySpace fraudsters. All in the Quest for Truth.


PuzzleX Group Wiki

PuzzleX Group Wiki

Most impressive of all was the work the teams put in at the end to record all their evidence in a Wiki: in less that 45 minutes, some groups produced 6-page illustrated guides which would put much undergraduate work to shame. Boring subject? Not when it involves problem solving, collaboration, a good story and a healthy splash of fun.


I’ve questioned the motivation and understanding of undergraduates twice in the above post. But are we teaching them these skills in the right way? Barnsley’s 15-year olds might have an answer. 

A 3D Camel