The early stages of envisioning, planning and designing a gamified learning experience for teachers was exciting and invigorating for me. Trying to articulate the medium and scope of this PD resource made me rethink my approach in supporting teacher learning. In one way, gamification gave me permission to throw out what had been previously done to develop teacher learning and start from a fresh new perspective. Rather than developing a teacher workshop session on the topic of self-organized learning environments (SOLE), I instead wanted to create an online learning environment that would allow teachers to access the learning environment in a way that best fit their own schedules as well as support their own unique learning needs and strengths. In my attempt to incorporate elements of gamification, I wanted to create a learning environment that would allow teachers to access content at different levels of readiness and experience. I also wanted to provide a social element in this gamified learning experience to promote sharing of experiences, resources and products. Ideally, accessing this network would also serve as a meaningful reward for teachers completing their work around the development of a SOLE learning experience. Furthermore, it was also hoped that observing the work of others would encourage teachers to try this process again and hence “level up” on their learning.
Although the original plan was to have this resource released by the beginning of October, the release of the All-in-One PCs that were to serve as an example of a self-organized learning environment was delayed due to imaging issues around the new Windows 8 operating system. Furthermore, rethinking the support of teachers new to the concept of inquiry-based learning and SOLEs, it was decided to have a system-wide release of this resource on November 22, 2013. Howeverm since this online, gamified resource was near completion, I opted to share the resource with a small group of teachers in order to gather their feedback. As a result, I have had the luxury to spend more time revising this resource as it has since gone through of a number of changes and tweaks. Even with the delay of officially releasing this resource to the system, in meeting and collaborating with others I have had a chance to reflect upon my work and appreciate my own growth throughout the entire process.
In Theory VS In Practice
Throughout the entire process, research served to both inspire and challenge my action plan to gamify teacher learning. In their respective research, the parallels between gamification and the intent behind the use of SOLEs were an encouraging parallel that initially strengthened my resolve that creating this learning experience would be a natural and symbiotic process. Moving away from learning that is solitary and moving instead towards a collaborative and intrinsically motivated path of discovery are inherent in the use of both Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLEs) and gaming.
The challenge inevitably began to arise when attempting to facilitate this path of discovery in an online forum. Moving teachers towards formulating and developing their own goals and objectives is difficult when trying to articulate and design an interface that is supportive but not prescriptive. It is also one thing to understand and even envision the interactivity you would like foster in a learning environment but for me, actually infusing that interactivity within the fabric and context of my online resource was also very challenging. Even with the wealth of well-established social media platforms and Web 2.0 applications, leveraging these resources into a gamified, online learning environment presented the risk of merely becoming items of novelty rather than critical tools of creation, exploration and communication. Simply embedding a Twitter feed or button on a webpage or blog post, does not ensure nor motivate collaboration. In attempting to find appropriate web applications and social media platforms for this online resource for teachers, the services needed to carefully fit this purpose and intent of the gamified environment. For this project, I was looking for a platform that I could use to provide a virtual space to share the work of teachers in classrooms across the system. I also wanted to have a fairly quick and automated way for teachers to submit their work and then grant participants access to submissions from other participants as a rich and meaningful reward.
Know Your Stuff
At some point between identifying gaming elements that I wished to employ and actually implementing these elements into my teacher resource, I had to revisit my content and ensure that I had a deep understanding of what it was that I wanted to cover within this gamified learning experience. In this particular case, I had to revisit the concept of the self-organized learning environment (SOLE) and dig deeper into the purpose behind this concept. At its heart, the SOLE is a tool and resource to support inquiry-based learning and as a result the focus of this resource now had to account for this critical concept. Failing to address and explore the concept of inquiry-based learning would deprive the SOLE of its intent to support student-initiated questioning and exploration.
I met with our science learning coordinators to discuss their work in supporting inquiry-based learning in science classrooms. Their work in supporting teachers with student-driven learning meant developing teacher skills around generating questions of curiosity that ultimately arise from the student. This observation required me to update the content of my resource and as a result, alter the gamification of this learning experience. Rather than focussing on the topic of self-organized learning environments, I now had to address and link the concepts of SOLEs and inquiry-based learning. Gaming elements now had to account for both concepts to be explored in my learning resource.
Feedback from the science learning coordinators also profoundly changed how this online resource was going to be delivered. Ultimately, I had to concede that this resource alone would not adequately address the critical groundwork of changing how we as educators engage students through inquiry. This type of shift requires time, discussion and ongoing trial and error on the part of teachers. In the end, it was beyond the scope of this particular online resource and I had to rethink the system-wide delivery of this gamified learning experience. It was decided that this resource would instead be released in conjunction with a system-wide technology workshop where teachers would be supported in exploring inquiry-based learning first before referring to this online resource that they could then build upon within their own schools and classrooms.
Keep it Simple and Managing Expectations
Reflecting back towards the beginning of this project I had a number of gaming concepts and mechanisms that I wanted to explore and implement. Looking over my completed teacher resource on self-organized learning environments and inquiry-based learning, I admit that I was expecting the resource to be more dynamic and completely different than any resource that I had created before. I appreciate now that my work and exploration of gamification will take time and perhaps it was ambitious of me to expect a complete transformation in the way that I teach and support teachers. But perhaps more importantly, this was a reality check for me and my own misconceptions around gamification.
With the appeal and prevalence of video games, I still struggle with the idea that gamification is the use of gaming elements to support learning in classroom rather than simply incorporating a game into the fabric of a lesson. As a result, gamification may result in changes to instruction that are more subtle where the focus remains on deeply engaging content and learning rather than playing a game about the content. Another misconception that I struggle with is that gamification is accomplished through the use of technology. As I was reminded in an online discussion with Allen Goode (Lead Game Designer, Digital Extremes) technology is not a prerequisite for gamification. In fact the concept of gamification is not new as teachers have long been using gaming elements to try to connect and engage students in learning. The use of “bump it up” walls and even points or rewards systems are but a few of the many well established gaming mechanisms employed by teachers. Although it is tempting for me to want to see major changes in the complexion of my instruction through gamification, I concede that it is more appropriate to regard gamification as a more integrated element that supports rather than take over classroom instruction and learning.
In the end I did bring in many features and elements that I had never really attempted in my previous work supporting teachers. Creating a learning experience that was to be experienced completely online rather than a blended model of face-to-face instruction with online supplementary materials was a bit of a departure for me. Likewise, the design and creation of infographics to better match this gamified learning environment forced me to rethink my approach in presenting content and to be concise with my delivery through the use of both words and graphics. Finally, the integration of social media and Web 2.0 platforms to create an online and automated collaborative space was something that I have never attempted before in a learning environment. Utilizing an online dropbox with the services of Google, If This Then That and Tumblr, I was able to create an automated way to collect input and contributions from teachers and then have them posted online for other participants to see.
Gamification is not easy
I must admit, I am still coming to grips with my end product. Although I understand that gamification is not the wholesale change of teacher instruction whether online or in person, I believe this also illustrates the idea that gamification is not easy. Deeply integrating gaming mechanisms within the ebb and flow of instruction and exploration will require time, patience and a lot of trial and error. I would also posit that gamification requires the careful evaluation and assessment of various online tools and platforms. Similar to the planning practice outlined in the TIP process (Robyler & Doering, 2010), one would have to thoroughly screen and consider how each gaming element would work and support the learning environment. There would also be the ongoing need to reflect and evaluate how the gaming elements are supporting student learning and to be always on the look out for better and more appropriate alternatives. For example, the tools and features inherent in a learning management system may serve as a more stable and customizable platform for gamification compared to bringing together and coordinating a collection of individual Web 2.0 applications and services.
However, acknowledging the challenges and difficulties inherent with trying to improve teacher instruction whether it be through the integration of gamification or the move towards inquiry-based learning, one can consider the goal of reaching and inspiring every student as the ultimate gaming objective for teachers. This is not to suggest that building the future of our students is a game, but rather the objective to be a better teacher is this goal that drives educators to “level-up” on their knowledge and skills surrounding pedagogy. The engagement and performance of our students provide us the instant feedback that let us know if we are on the right track or if we need to start over. In the end, it is their success and engagement that serve as powerful motivation to move forward and ultimately keeps us coming back to the game of improving teacher practice.