Gameful Learning Lab event showcases growth of new learning methods
Day Two of the Gameful Course Design Summer Institute took place Tuesday. Hosted by Academic Innovation’s Gameful Learning Lab, the two-day event took place in the Michigan Union Kuenzel Room and saw approximately 40 attendees — primarily instructors and graduate student instructors from the University of Michigan, K through 12 teachers, instructional designers and higher education faculty from across the country. The event aimed to teach participants about gameful learning opportunities and how they can implement such practices in their classes.
The Gameful Learning Lab encourages educators to implement new learning environments in their courses. Gameful learning refers to a type of learning — a pedagogy or approach to course design — that draws on the designs and techniques of video games and applies their attributes to online teaching systems.
In 2012, GradeCraft — a learning management system that encourages gameful learning, created by Barry Fishman, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Learning Technologies in the School of Information and School of Education and Rackham student Caitlin Holman — launched its first course at the University.
In fall 2015, GradeCraft merged with the Digital Innovation Greenhouse, a program also overseen by Academic Innovation, which aims to explore methods of digital learning. By the summer of 2016, over 5,100 students had taken a gameful course at one of five institutions nationally and the Gameful Learning Lab opened in fall 2016.
Rachel Niemer, the founding director of the Gameful Learning Lab, said the purpose of the lab is to explore gameful learning opportunities.
“Over time, we’ve built a larger community of instructors that have been experimenting both with gameful course design, but also other pedagogies that try to tap into students’ intrinsic motivations,” she said. “We’re really looking at how (you can) design learning experiences differently to be more engaging — not necessarily more fun … — but really focus on what draws people in to do the hard work of learning.”
Niemer said the purpose of the event is to spread the University’s work in gameful learning to the larger community.
Today, approximately 34 University instructors have used GradeCraft for their courses, according to Niemer, and several others have incorporated gameful principles in their teaching. Opportunities within gameful learning include multiple “pathways,” in which students can make their own decisions about what learning activities would be most beneficial for them, as well as students earning points from zero to get their desired grade, among several others.
“One of the ways I talk about (gameful learning) is that it’s a creative playspace for instructors to think differently about their teaching,” she said.
Niemer said, oftentimes, when people talk about educational technology, they use a lot of buzzwords, such as personalized learning, adaptive learning and teaching at scale; she said people are concerned with the practical implications of how technology can be used for teaching. On the flip side, she said, there’s a scholarly discipline focusing on critical digital pedagogies that study educational technology from a more theoretical and intellectual perspective.
“What gameful (learning) is trying to do is actually connect the scholarly to the practical, and the practical back to the scholarly,” she said.
Niemer said the University is in a unique position to contemplate the scholarly-practical dichotomy because it has been doing so on campus in a sort of “distributed network” on campus. Niemer said she hopes that by bringing people from outside the University to campus to hear about the work the University has done so far in the field, the gameful phenomenon will spread.
Tuesday kicked off with a panel discussion moderated by Niemer and featured four University affiliates to discuss their experiences with gameful learning. Among the panelists was Mika LaVaque-Manty, a Presidential Bicentennial professor, an Arthur F. Thurnau professor and an associate professor of political science, who also served as an investigator on a grant that has funded development on GradeCraft.
LaVaque-Manty taught his first gameful learning class in 2009: Political Science 101, which has 250 to 300 students. He said students came into the class thinking there would be discussion of healthcare and elections, when in fact — to their surprise — it examined thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and Machiavelli.
“I wanted to take their diversity and their different kinds of interests, their bewilderment with the material, and give them lots of choices — encourage them to leverage their skills, encourage them to try to take risks and so ever since I began in 2009, I’ve been trying to emphasize the idea of multiple paths to achievement,” he said.
Rackham student Jandi Kelly is pursuing her doctorate in the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education; she was also a graduate student instructor in a bicentennial course taught to graduate students from across the University which examined the role of research universities in society.
“Because we were going to have graduate students from across all disciplines, we wanted to think about how (we can) continue to have these conversations, and there can be an array of familiarity with this topic and there can be different levels — there were Ph.D. students, there were master's students (in various years),” she said.
Overall, there were 17 students who were enrolled, and each class had different experts coming in to speak on the topics; students were given assignments to engage with the speakers. The classes also had a walk-in policy so that anyone could come to listen.
“It got us thinking about how can we encourage a lot of flexibility in this course,” she said. “(One of the professors) was familiar with GradeCraft and thought it could be a way to really encourage experimentation among students. So when we talked with students when we introduced GradeCraft, we really tried to encourage them to think, ‘Alright, there’s this array of assignments.’ … We wanted to encourage students that this is going to be an experimental course, this is a course that’s going to be offered one time; we really want you to try to engage with different types of assignments.”
Kelly said the instructors liked GradeCraft because students could have more autonomy in the ways in which they engaged with the material; there were several different types of assignments offered.
Kelly also discussed the structure of assignments in her class. She said she thinks the main distinction between the class she taught and other classes that used GradeCraft was the instructors based credit hours on the number of points the student earned — an approach they found successful.
“Students at the beginning of the term were able to declare how many hours they were registering for and then up until about the final month of the course, students were able to go back and forth between credit hours,” she said. “The feedback that we received was that students like this flexibility, because they were able to frontload a lot of their assignments; they were able to really structure their workload based on the other assignments they had in their classes.”
Pamela Bogart is a lecturer in the English Language Institute. She used Canvas to build a gameful course for new graduate students to build a strong skillset and vocabulary as they develop as scholars. The ELI is an English language facility that works to assist graduate students from countries around the world, who speak a variety of languages and have differing levels of proficiency.
Bogart said courses through the ELI seek ways to personalize education. She discovered gameful learning after running into issues in a class that taught vocabulary and strategic critical reading to international graduate students. Bogart said the class ran well when there were only a few students, but became more difficult to teach with more students.
“We needed a way to personalize, or to maintain the personalization, of the curricula of this course where everybody was studying different vocabulary for different reasons; everybody was reading their own graduate reading material and coming together to look at strategically and critically doing so and writing about it,” she said. “We needed a way to scale that up and we needed a way to make the course more accessible to more students.”
Bogart said the first step was to make the class online, rather than in-person. She said she was inspired by a talk Holman gave on GradeCraft to develop the online format.
“The pedagogy just hit me,” she said. “I said, ‘This is it, this is the answer.’ For me, gameful is key as a strategy to efficiently, and in a fun way, support personalization, so that I can serve 18, 20, 25, 30 students at once — each pursuing a really personalized path.”
Monica Chen, a recent graduate from the School of Information, started working with gameful learning opportunities in the fall of 2015, first as a game ambassador, where she provided insight on her experiences with gameful courses, and then as a user experience design quality assurance fellow, where she could converse with peers and continue to provide information to improve user experiences. She took multiple gameful courses in a variety of subjects in her time as a student.
Chen said her relationship with gameful learning grew a lot in the past few years. She said she took a gateway course for the School of Information in winter 2014, at the time GradeCraft was developing.
“It was at that point that I was really interested in how such an intro course that had so many people in it could still offer such a personalized way for me to figure out what I wanted to do and how I could achieve that,” she said.
She later served as a student grader for the class she took in winter 2014; she said she was interested to see how the learning experience had developed and how other students after her chose their own pathways.
Among the attendees at the event was Dave Goodrich, an instructional designer at Michigan State University. Goodrich said he attended a conference at Ohio State University where he heard Niemer discuss “going gameful.” He said he became interested in the focus on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and some other theories behind the learning process.
Goodrich said he has spent a lot of time exploring GradeCraft. He said he sees the potential of the system to be used for professional development opportunities and faculty development opportunities, among others, at Michigan State University.
“The main reason I came here is because I wanted to see examples of how this idea of gameful learning is being used,” he said.
He was particularly struck by some of the examples LaVaque-Manty gave in terms of strategies for helping students step out of their comfort zone and take risks that they usually wouldn't. He said the conference provided him with what faculty and student perspectives can look like.
“To see some examples of laying out course structure where it’s not sequential, it’s not linear, there’s choice being made by the student in terms of the things that they want to emphasize — I’ve seen less of that than I’d like to see in the field in general, and I’d like to see more explorations in that,” he said.
He feels more instructors should be exposed to gameful learning.
“Learning management systems are bloated like crazy because they have so many different colleges, universities, school systems that are using their systems,” he explained. “I think the fact that GradeCraft is being built from the ground up, from the get go, around this concept of gameful learning, really sets it out in the marketplace as a really differentiated system that has interesting affordances that I don’t think other learning management systems could really pull off.”