Platform aims to shift basis for class grades

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School of Information Professor Barry Fishman, co-creator of Gradecraft, in his office in North Quad on Tuesday. Buy this photo

By Carly Noah, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 24, 2015

When Education Prof. Barry Fishman walks into one of his classes, he uses a program called GradeCraft in which students begin with a grade of 0 percent and have the ability to build up their grade as high as they desire.

This is a far cry from typical first-day-of-class speeches, Fishman, who is also a professor in the School of Information, explained. Most professors tend to tell their students that they begin class with an A+ and the grade is theirs to lose.

“It’s incredibly problematic because once someone says that, all you can do is lose points,” Fishman said. “So say you do a fabulous job on your first paper and get a 99 percent. While that’s great, you don’t have 100 percent anymore and you never will again.”

GradeCraft, an online learning platform created at the University and designed to complement sites such as CTools and Canvas, presents a potential solution to this problem by making grades something to win. The program was created by Fishman and Caitlin Holman, a PhD student in the School of Information, who was also a lead developer for the platform.

According to Fishman, there are two types of learning environments that involve gaming and the classroom: what he calls “gamification” and having a “gameful classroom.”

Gamification is taking an existing system and giving it game-like features to force people into doing specific tasks. Fishman does not support this method of teaching, and compared it to the advertising incentive methods used by airline companies.

“Maybe you don’t love Delta Air Lines but you’ve got a lot of frequent flyer miles so you’re going to fly Delta,” Fishman explained. “They’ve got you because you’re kind of trapped in their points system.”

He called this method ineffective because it does not allow for people to take the course of action they actually desire.

In contrast to gamification, the second method, which is used in GradeCraft, is known as a “gameful classroom.” Theorized to foster a better learning environment in the classroom, the model attempts to encourage students to take risks.

“I would actually claim that all of school is a game right now — it’s just a terrible game,” Fishman said. “My job is to figure out what makes it such a terrible game and what I can do to make it into a better game.”

Fishman said his inspiration for “gameful learning” can be found in very successful video games.

“They have been designed very well to get people very engaged and want to try very difficult things,” he said. “They’re set up to encourage you to take risks and even if that means you’re going to fail, the cost of failure isn’t so critical — if your character dies, you’ll get a new character.”

Fishman said students’ fear of failure is what inspired him to create an online learning system where students can determine their goals and grades for their own classes.

“High school used to be preparation for college and now it’s preparation for applying to college,” Fishman said. “The result is you’ll end up in college and you’re so used to be doing exactly what you’re supposed to do that you’re not sure how to take a risk. But failure is super important.”

With these ideas in mind, Fishman created GradeCraft. The platform currently serves over 1,400 students in 15 classes at the University and two at the University of Michigan—Dearborn in disciplines ranging from kinesiology to linguistics.

The site allows students to view their assignments, course progress, grade predictor, badges and teaching teams.

Students are able to choose which assignments they want to do and see how the preferred assignments will affect their grade.

Fishman said the key to the platform is the grade predictor. The predictor allows students to view their cumulative points within a class and alter the assignments they elect based on the feedback they receive from their instructor.

“Everything is optional — even attendance,” Fishman said. “It also allows students to have freedom to fail. If you don’t do well on an assignment, you can try something else.”

Fishman said he believes the greatest problem with students using the site is their early anxiety after assessing the amount of work required for a GradeCraft course. However, he said GradeCraft allows instructors to look for “cues” that may hint at a future poor performance by the student.

“I have a different interface that lets me see how students are doing,” Fishman said. “It lets me analyze at what point students begin to fall into trouble.”

Fishman said interest in GradeCraft is growing among educators from all over the world.

“We get half-a-dozen requests per week from people who want to use it,” he said. “We’re not ready for the outside world to use it yet.”

In an e-mail interview, Information junior Monica Chen said GradeCraft is unlike any other online learning platform because it fuses the concepts of competition and cooperation together. Because the system is so complex, the success of the program is left largely to the professor.

“The badge system might not be tweaked or implemented at all, the scale of points might be too low to inspire dedicated work, there might not be a theme or leveler scheme as encouragement, and depth of information as a whole might be inadequate, among other things,” Chen said.

Rackham student Ryan Wawrzaszek, a former student of Fishman’s as an undergraduate, said in an e-mail interview that the benefits of GradeCraft lie in the flexibility students have in choosing what work to do outside of the classroom.

“In Professor Fishman’s class, every assignment was optional, so you were able to pick and choose which assignments seemed more interesting to you,” Wawrzaszek said. “GradeCraft made it easy to plan out the semester by clearly showing due dates, assignment specifications, grading rubrics and point values right at the beginning of the semester.”

Wawrzaszek added that the grade predictor helped him manage his assignments.

“It was nice to have a clear but flexible list of assignments right from the start and to also have an option to do an extra assignment or two if I didn't do as well as I had hoped on one of the projects I picked out at the start,” he wrote.