Educause, Day 2

I thought I had published this post awhile back. Here’s the second installment from Educause.

Day two of my Educause experience was just as interesting as the first. Games and gamification was the theme of the day. The very short version of the story: designing games is hard, and taking design elements and throwing them at non-game contexts until they stick is not a good way to approach gamification.

My day kicked off bright and early with a good session on using badges to recognize granular student achievement. Perhaps the most interesting thing to come from it was the connections I made with others who were undertaking similar projects. It was the most discussion-based of the sessions that I attended, with many different people in the audience weighing in on various aspects of developing a badge system. Two notable insights emerged for me from this session: first, their experience showed that badges could actually drive interest in a course. Second, utilizing badges forces a self-conscious alignment of course activities with learning outcomes – for what is a badge but a demonstration of competency around a learning outcome – and thus there is some question about whether badges themselves are responsible for student learning gains or the thoughtful redesign that generally accompanies the addition of badges. Food for thought, for sure.

Then came the second keynote presenter of the conference: Jane McGonigal. For those not familiar with Jane, she is a gifted game designer committed to doing real societal good through the games that she creates. She gave an inspiring talk about the future of games in education. Two things stood out quite strongly to me. First, as part of a discussion about the ways that games make people feel, I was struck by the most common feeling experienced by gamers: creative agency. I’m willing to bet that this is not the first thing one would think about or talk about it the context of higher education, but it is obviously a powerful motivator for gamers (as evidenced by the now one billion gamers on this planet).

Second, gamers fail an average of 80% of the time. Think about that for a second. When you’re playing a game and trying to accomplish a goal you feel engaged in that game. If you fail the first time that you try the goal, it actually seems to increase your motivation to try again. To make this more concrete, my wife has been playing Candy Crush for a few months. There are times, now that she’s in the really hard levels, that she will try a level twenty or thirty times before mastering it. While this can get frustrating at times, it seems that the act of failure also teaches: trying out a strategy and trying to understand why it fails is a great way to learn (and is not dissimilar, incidentally, from the hypothesis-experiment model in most science disciplines). Once again, this is not the model of higher education. We are all about high-stakes exams, where failure is not an option at any point in the process. What would it look like if we embraced a model more similar to gaming that encouraged students to try something until they mastered it? Our assessments would need to get more sophisticated, for sure, but perhaps rethinking the multiple-choice model would be good for us anyhow.

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