How did I learn this semester?

I learn the way I breathe – I don’t even think about. I just do it. It is difficult for me to analyze how a particular course or learning activity has supported my learning because I learn from absolutely everything. Is a course component unclear or poorly crafted? – I learn from overcoming the barriers. Is a course component brilliantly constructed? – I learn by going with the flow. There is no course in existence from which I will not learn something or more than likely, a great deal.

So how to sum up the ETAP640 experience? I’ll try some free association:

  • full immersion
  • research rich
  • hands-on building
  • wild experimentation
  • gazillions of tools – some new, some familiar
  • interesting people
  • warm and supportive tone

I could go on, but I will use these to think about my learning.

As many have noted this is an intense class requiring a significant amount of time.  Learning tools takes time. Reading journal articles takes time. Thinking takes time. Building takes time. There was no way to superficially engage with this course. It was full immersion, and it was multi-sensory. There were audio, video, and text and many interactive tools. Audio and video actually takes a lot of time to listen to/watch. Text transcripts would be a good companion – most of us read faster than real time talking and you can take notes on a text transcript. But the multi-media was interesting and it was enjoyable to see the faces of old colleagues and “rock star” pundits.

I used many tools I had not used before, experienced learning curves, but enjoyed the mastery component. The hands on component of building in Moodle was my favorite despite my frustration. I feel I have a good sense of its gestalt, and it helped me with faculty trainees that I am currently working with who need to transition from Moodle to Blackboard. It also forced me to come up with new ways to do old things. I actually found myself dreaming about Moodle tools several nights, waking the next morning exhausted but with a new database idea!

Perhaps the thing I will remember the most is the supportive environment created by Alex. I was in way over my head with the gamification idea – totally out of my comfort zone. I was allowed to fail up, to try things, then change them, then try again.  I was allowed to deviate from the standard guidelines in my course build, because my exploration was respected. This kind of supportive environment makes me – or any student I am sure – fearless. And I fearlessly investigated the gaming literature, learning a new vocabulary, a new aspect of being human, and new ideas about learning.

I am not a playful or gaming kind of person – I am often referred to as “intense”.  So exploring this component of human behavior – play – and seeing its connection to learning, has given me intense insights into my own process. I always thought of games and play as frivolous or useless. But I realize now that my “intense” nature is consistent with the immersion of self into mastery activities. And this is an important part of being human and of learning.

I also need to acknowledge what I learned from others in the class. Because we are all from different backgrounds, it was sometimes difficult to relate to the real life struggles or challenges others were dealing with. Higher Ed, K-12, and professional trainers have very different issues to deal with. But there was a lot to be learned from finding the common ground in thinking about learning, thinking about a mediated online environment, and seeing it through the eyes of others in the class. Diigo links from classmates have made my personal library very rich and added components and topics I would not have thought to collect.

Lastly, I was teaching 3 online classes, and conducting a 9 week training course, while I took this course this summer. One of the things I noticed I changed immediately in my interactions with students and trainees was my teacher student dynamic. I have always been student oriented – I want to know what they need, how they need it – but I tend to work harder than they do. I noticed I am now reminding them more of the tools available to them and encouraging them to figure it out and make it their own with a healthy dose of self-regulation.

I am sure there are other things I have learned that I won’t even realize until much later, but I can say that I think I am on a completely different level in my teaching and design work. And it’s not just the notches in the belt – Moodle skills, social software skills, etc. It is an enhanced connection between theory and practice that I think is the result of having time to take what I knew, what I wanted to know, and what I found in the research and also practice its application to the design of a course.  Very powerful. Thank you.




What I learned about learning

I knew a great deal about how people learn when I started this course, but I took this opportunity to dig deeper and find more nuances. I also did a lot of research on the relationship between games and learning which turned out to be quite rich. I had first been introduced to gaming ideas in my spring semester when I took the Teaching and Learning in Immersive Environments. I had expected to hate it, but instead it opened a door to a whole new way of thinking about learning. I am grateful that I was allowed to pursue this direction this semester by trying to redesign an existing course with gaming strategies.

What I discovered though was that you can’t just layer on game ideas and expect it to work. You have to know what you are trying to accomplish, what the similarities are between learning and game play, and surprisingly, how narrative fits in to the whole picture.

When Raph Koster states that “Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun.”(p 40) I can easily recognize my own narrative. Any time I can learn something I will – it is, as I have stated in earlier posts, an “extreme sport”  for me. But for my students the same “puzzle” that intrigues me, can read as “noise” to them, which makes them bored and they quit. These gaming concepts speak to that which educators have discussed for years – meeting students where they are, establishing relevance, and fostering engagement in the way content is delivered.

Exploring gamification I have increased my toolkit for engaging students at multiple levels. I feel I will be more vigilant about tapping into their basic human need for challenge, while attending to their narratives. Their storylines were not always part of my approach, but now I will be watching for those.

The online environment, which I considered a superior teaching environment to the f2f classroom as soon as I was using it, is very well suited to the kind of differentiation that attending to student narratives requires. Gamification can tap into deeper and more basic human motivations as I encourage them to engage with content. Mastery can become its own reward over time, even if it needs a few badges to get things on track at the start.

My understanding of the CoI model was very helpful as I explored the JISC REAP assessment material. I see now that the ideas of using assessment to support engagement and empowerment will require a change in my courses. To support these deeper learning components, I need to add more reflection. I was surprised to see that self-regulated learning is best supported with peer activity and hope that my newly designed collaborative activities will work in this way. It will be something I will be monitoring. I think the gamification relationship to this is probably the use of collaboration or team/guild type activities. Working together they learn to self-regulate and “level up” to master ever more difficult challenges.

Learning about learning will never conclude for me. I was delighted to locate new research and new models and have the opportunity to spend time integrating them into my own professional toolkit. I look forward to building on these in the future.


Koster, Raph, and Will Wright. Theory of Fun for Game Design. New York: Paraglyph, 2004. Web



The stars were aligned! GIE was in town. Wow!

I can’t believe my good fortune in having the Games in Education conference arrive not only while I was taking this course, and not only in my own town, but actually at the point in my gamification activities where I needed every piece of information I got  from every session I attended. The Games in Education conference was held at Troy Middle School, just down the hill road from HVCC, and right at the point I was wrapping up Module 5 building activities. On both days, although I had signed up for some longer afternoon hands on activities, I found I had to leave right after lunch to go home and immediately apply what I had learned in the morning sessions. Wow – the stars were definitely aligned.

Of primary use to me were the sessions on Alternate Reality Games in the classroom and Pervasive Games. Both of these include online and offline activities, linking the game components to real life. I think that this is a great model for a class build, and with an online course the domains can be switched around. The online course is the online game component and their offline work is the reality. These structures appeared to be engaging and successful and I went home and combed through my designs to find where I could build up this dynamic.

But most revelatory was the idea of storyline. Tuesday afternoon I went home and brainstormed what storyline I could use to hold my gamification concept together. The obvious storyline for me was “student learns art history” – but I knew that was going to have limited appeal beyond a few. After much thought I went in and rewrote my welcome. It now reads (in part):

How can Quests and Badges help you learn? 

It is possible that you are totally devoted and addicted to the process of being a student and learning everywhere you go from everything you do. If so, you might not care about the badges so much, but you should really enjoy the Quest for knowledge and understanding of Modern Art History. Your story line is “A student who loves to learn, explores and masters Modern Art History and learns to think like an Art Historian with new classmates”.

It is also possible you are taking this course to fulfill a requirement and perhaps it is even a bit outside your usual realm of experience. Your story line might be “An explorer in a new world, discovers the important principles, skills and facts about the world of Modern Art History, and with others on the team, starts thinking like an Art Historian.

It is also possible that you are totally devoted and addicted to learning, but struggle with time management, organization, motivation, reading, writing, asking for help, or other aspects of learning, and you need more assistance in some or all of these areas. Your story line might be “A brave soul ventures forth to new and challenging worlds, and with the help of others on the team, keeps up, works to their personal strengths and starts thinking like an Art Historian.”

Do any of these story lines sound like your story line? Do you know what your story line is? Whatever you bring or do not bring to this major Quest, there will be activities and tools to help you succeed and an entire team of fellow explorers sharing the journey. Badges are awarded for the required student work done well, and also for optional activities that might better play to your strengths or help you acquire new strengths. Did you get a perfect score on your “Teach the Class…” Challenge? No? Well, go find a badge activity to make up for those points – called XPs (experience points). There are lots of small manageable badge challenges that build up points quickly while helping you and others in the class start thinking like Art Historians. You can move through 5 levels of 3 different types of badges in this class – that is a lot of opportunity for success!

In his Tuesday keynote, Lee Sheldon, who teaches at RPI, asserted that it was important for writers to write and programmers to program. I had wondered why Koster had been so adamant about the storyline concept in his book, and this clarifies it for me. Apparently, in game development circles, there are a lot of juvenile and underdeveloped storylines and both Sheldon and Koster are writers who see the importance of a good, sophisticated storyline to the success of a game. I could see that I needed to create a storyline – or several – in my course. Based on what I was incorporating from Koster in regards to “fun” I didn’t think that I needed to create a fantasy storyline. If fun was hard work, mastery, and reward in well designed interaction, then I just needed to identify the storylines that my students were bringing to the course. I also wanted to create a storyline for the student who struggles, so they would not see “noise” and get frustrated.

I also like the idea of the narrative because it presents a context to students when they start a class – a reason for engaging, and a map of sorts in that if they know the story they are in, they will have a sense of how they should be acting and what they should be doing.

I also created all my badges in this module. I had the idea for them, and still had not produced any visible designs. I needed to have them in the very beginning of the course so had to design at least the first level. I located the mozilla plugin for making badges and was able to produce all 15 in one afternoon. This is a fantastic tool – find it here:





I can build it – but is it FUN?

At the beginning of Module 5 I had pretty much decided how the course was going to be laid out, and what activities would contribute to badges and how students could level up with points. The Moodle tools were challenging and I had experimented with many, discarded some, kept others, and just when I thought I had found the correct combination of tools, wound up changing it yet again. But a rhythm was clearly there, the feedback loops were tight, the concepts in place, and I thought I had a good foundation.

But I was concerned that something was missing. What if it wasn’t fun? I thought it was fun, but how would I know if students would find it fun? During this module we had extra time to build because there were no discussions so I took that reading time to explore some additional game design concepts I had not yet focused on. After reviewing a few sites on game design principles that were way too specific to building video games, I stumbled on an archived presentations on the theory of fun in games by Raph Koster.  Searching the HVCC eBrary site I found a short book by him that helped me identify the important structures I needed in a game environment. His book also helped me wrap my head around what fun is, and when and how things become not fun. I can’t link to the book but here is a link to his website that includes some presentations based on the book. Raph Koster Website. Also an excerpt from the book can be found here.

Most notable for me was the idea that if a game is too hard, if the “patterns” presented read as “noise” to the player, they will give up. Koster states “When we meet noise, and fail to make a pattern out of it, we get frustrated and quit” . To me this means, in a gamified course, that there needs to be a student sense that they can see what is going on and they can succeed. Also that the tasks initially should be simple and have a quick reward to start the pattern of the rest of the course. I decided to make the first badge awards based on successfully entering the game/logging in to the course.My concerns about how fun the course would be as a gamified environment were alleviated when I read the following:

“Fun is all about our brains feeling good – the release of endorphins into our system. The various cocktails of chemicals released in different ways are basically all the same. Science has shown that the pleasurable chills that we get down the spine after exceptionally powerful music or a really great book are casued by the same sorts of chemicals we get when we have cocaine, an orgasm, or chocolate. Basically, our brains are on drugs pretty much all the time.
One of the subtlest releases of chemicals is at that moment of triumph when we learn something or master a task. This  almost always causes us to break out into a smile. After all, it is important to the survival of the species that we learn – therefore our bodies reward us for it with moments of pleasure. There are many ways we find fun in games … . But this is the most important.
Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun.
In other words, with games, learning is the drug. “(Koster, p 40)

Reviewing my course, the structure, the feedback or reward loops, I think that mastery can be visualized with my process regularly. There are multiple journeys through the “game”, all of which present challenges. Lots of small challenges (vocabulary, study guide questions, quiz questions) help build up skills for larger more mastery level challenges (Teach the class, annotate an image, Final Project). I believe the material is broken down in ways that it will not appear as “noise” unless a student is significantly underprepared for college level work. And in those cases, there is a team structure within the course to support them. They can use the collaborative tools to get peer explanations and help them build their own skills.

I think this course will be fun. I will have to assess that by surveying my students at the end.


Koster, Raph, and Will Wright. Theory of Fun for Game Design. New York: Paraglyph, 2004. Web



Deja Vu All Over Again – Revisiting Mod 2 Concepts

I started this post during the Games in Education Conference this week but alas am only getting around to finishing it up now. I probably will overlook some of the details of what I was thinking at that moment in time, but I clearly remember the “AHA!”. In Module 2 we were asked to look at some exemplar classes and see what we could take from those as we designed our own classes. I think we all took away a good deal. But now, after building and reading and the conference, I can see a common thread in multiple conversations that I either overlooked or perhaps I thought was common knowledge: frontloading!

At dinner with some conference folks, some of whom were ETAP folk, others in a similar program at Marlboro College, we were discussing strategies for gamification, among other things. I was telling someone about the things I had heard that day at the conference and had run home to implement before dinner (badges, multiple paths, differentiated activities for instruction, reflection, systems). As we discussed in more detail, she suddenly stopped me and said “Woahh – that is soooo much work up front to make that happen!”

Yes it is.

Frontloading is necessary for even the most basic online course. Those of us who teach online or help others build online courses know that, as SUNY data indicate, it takes about 120 hours to build a course. In Rob’s French course interview he said he was no exception, despite having spent years as an instructional designer. I started to think about all the exemplar courses again, the course we are taking, the course I am building and I did this while sitting in conference sessions about classes conducted as or with Alternate Reality Games, Pervasive Games, gamified structures and actual video games. Whether integrated or added on, each of these strategies adds a layer of complexity over all the other “systems” of a given classroom – or online course.

We’ve all experienced frontloading if we have ever built a test. Think about multiple choice tests vs essay tests. It is hard to build a good multiple choice test, but it is easy to grade. An essay test is usually easy to build but takes a significant amount of time and effort to grade. Essentially they both are about the same amount of work, but the work on the multiple choice test is frontloaded.

Looking at the exemplar courses, there are actually 3 different balances of “load” in evidence. The psychology course has writing prompts and rubrics. The major workload is in the extensive discussion requiring timely and time consuming faculty involvement in all levels of instruction in the course throughout its duration – foundation basics to conceptualization. The art history courses introduced home made video with embedded quizzes which is a huge frontloaded component in terms of multimedia production and planning, but they can be used throughout the course and have automated feedback. The work is frontloaded for the structures and foundation interactions, and faculty live time can be spent in other meaningful interactions with students with these pieces in place. And they can be used in subsequent years.  The language courses I happen to know were initially created with a great deal of home made audio recordings and structures for students to engage with listening and speaking. That is a lot of frontloading, but I did notice the French course has publisher links now. I believe this eliminates some faculty frontloading freeing up time and energy for meaningful interactions beyond these foundation pieces. And in all three courses, the use of an LMS should be streamlining structure and technical needs, eliminating the need for building websites with interactive plugins from scratch. This becomes another efficiency in support of frontloading, that can free up the instructor to be there for students, by first creating a richly automated and interactive foundation.

I am thinking of these courses as systems of interaction and strategy. I am looking at who does what work where. And now, with my investigation of gamification, or perhaps adding actual games, what happens to the process of building the system? Fundamentally, it needs to be frontloaded. There is no other option. To gamify you need to weave a system into a system. You need to identify your system of teaching and learner support in the online structure of your course, then identify what pieces are flexible and what pieces must remain. Then you need to put a system over that and figure out how to make them work in harmony to support student learning.

At this conference I saw some really elegant solutions. They required massive amounts of frontloaded work. In all cases the presenters each said at least once – “you may be wondering if it is worth all this work…”. Because it was obvious to everyone how much work a Pervasive Game set up requires, or an Alternate Reality Game setup requires, when they are presented and explained in a conference session. But when students are playing/learning in these scenarios, their focus is not on making the game “work” but on simply using it effectively to win, learn, score, discover or otherwise meet a goal. Just as they would be in a well designed course that had nothing at all to do with gaming.

It occurred to me that a really well designed course, one that encouraged significant student engagement and retention, that was scalable to multiple courses that had over 30 students, MUST be frontloaded as robustly as a gamified course. Because the things that make the gamified course work, are essentially the same things that make a good non-gamified course work. Motivating work, fast feedback loops, visible evidence of progress, differentiation, multiple paths – one person can’t do that on the fly for 160 students a semester. It has to be built in advance, using effective automation where possible, as the foundation of the learning experience and environment.

It is not the gamification itself that supports student learning and engagement, it is the deliberate and thoughtful frontloading in the design and build of a course – especially an online course – that increases student engagement and success. It is thinking about what has to happen and when, in advance, and finding ways to put that structure in place. AHA! – as our Tuesday keynote quoted,  “we don’t need no stinkin’ badges”.