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”.


Note to self: choose paths wisely

The other day I received a link to a very nice video in which our class blogs were reviewed by Maree. It was great to see a contextualized  step by step review of how to make my (our) blog(s) better and I am considering using Camtasia to do something similar for my students when the class reaches a point that they can benefit from that kind of holistic  assist to a challenge they are all taking on. (However I would add closed captioning or text transcripts as HVCC is committed to Universal Design as our implementation of ADA compliance protocols in all aspects of our courses). I enjoyed receiving feedback this way; it felt social, caring, and a little bit like the fine art studio class critiques I endured for many years (although without the caustic comments and soul shredding humiliations). As I listened to our constructive reviews, I realized that I had somehow missed some key components of the blog set up assignment. Categories corresponding to modules, a page about me, and a blog roll of our class blogs, being the most prominent deficiencies in several of our class blogs. How had this happened?!!?? I went to the assignment – not there. I went to the rubric – not there. I went to the blog “how-to” videos and voila! Embedded in the “how-to” videos that I had SKIPPED because I already knew how to make a blog, were very specific requirements that I did not know about. Hence: Note to self: choose paths wisely.

Nota bene: In the spirit of course feedback, as requested by the instructions for this blog post, I  would suggest breaking out assignment requirements from “how-to” documents and put them in with the other list of required elements for consistency. Maybe make actual subheaders for “how-to” as this is a technology rich course and all students will need different levels of support. I have done similarly embedded things myself in my online courses and have fallen prey to the “atrocious assumption” that: Your students will read every word of every word of every page on  your online course.  But the issue here I think is that some of us already know how to do a blog so we would be inclined to skip the how-to videos, missing required components.

Interestingly, this has significant relevance to some concerns of my contemplated course modifications in support of differentiation through game strategies and collaboration. I have noticed that in all of my courses, students automatically self select a path through my material and in so doing, simply ignore some components they don’t feel are necessary or for which an additional effort may not seem worthwhile. For example, some students use the table with the full outline of the course and due dates almost religiously. While others, go to each complete weekly module and make sure that they do everything in there each week, relying on me to be accurate and thorough about what I want from them in each module, and only check the table for the big picture and due dates weeks ahead – or not. One semester I neglected to put a link to the Final Project Step for a given module right in the weekly module. Those who looked at the course holistically, using the full table, and the menu with a dedicated Final Project folder that was the destination of the weekly links, got that step done on time. Those who broke their experience down into manageable rhythms each week and relied on the weekly presentation of material as a kind of checklist, missed the step completely. And I am sure that in addition to these 2 strategies for managing a large body of incoming information and outgoing deliverables, there are many others that I should at least try to anticipate.

Jason Scorza, in his article Do online students dream of electric teachers?” (2005) states:

“When I first started teaching online I created elaborate guides to writing papers and participating in discussions that, I am almost certain, very few of my students actually read. My thinking, as I recall, was that I needed to tell my students everything they needed to know about their assignments by answering every conceivable question in advance. In retrospect, I realize how counterproductive this was. While it is important to provide clear instructions for assignments, in bullet format whenever possible, it is not necessary to present overly elaborate guidelines which will, more likely than not, leave students confused or intimidated.”

If I truly want to create multiple paths through the material, and also create a sense of leveling up with knowledge acquisition, collaborative effort, and individual achievement, while letting them know there are common tasks and optional tasks and bonus tasks and super power opportunities, how will I communicate this in a way that is not intimidating or overwhelming? How do I keep the warrior queen from missing her glossary contribution? Or what happens if the visual learner spends 4 days on an image wiki annotation and neglects to take a midterm? When does the individual need to have differentiated instruction detract from the social cohesion of a community sharing an experience of inquiry into a particular body of knowledge? Will a student motivated by my providing an optimized learning experience and feelings of success based in “flow” and “fiero” choose a path through the course that ensures they are touching base with their community? Or will they miss important components  because they are leveling up “alone together” as they might be in an immersive game?

Jane McGonical in “Reality is Broken” discusses the social benefit of players in games working on tasks “alone together”. She discusses the safe environment gaming provides to help those with social difficulties or hesitencies to become more social, thus improving life. On the flip side, Sherry Turkle, who I have followed for many years is concerned that “alone together” is a problem we need to address and largely responsible for us not knowing how to be alone – to experience solitude – in ways that make us more whole as humans. But then Scorza makes his point about empathy,  which compels me to be concerned that my students are individuals and need to have multiple opportunities to communicate and succeed in my course. I find I am not sure where that fine line is located.

I am a social person but sometimes feel overwhelmed by the multiple channels of communication in this course – much as I do when I want to listen to a speaker on a webinar and find there is an entirely different conversation going on with a back channel. I am finding I self select what to read and what not to read and get a sinking feeling each time I see there are ever more “unread posts”.  I do feel comfortable scanning posts for useful and relevant resources, common concerns and other information I can use.  I try not to focus on just one channel as I have missed things already by doing so. I read Forums, but I’ve not been able to keep up with others’ blogs and comment. I spend a larger percentage of time on instructor posts as they usually have critical information. I try to send Tweets now and then, but still haven’t “followed” all my classmates. I looked at Netvibe and saw a giant data collection engine and never went back. I see now that there are not only comments on blogs, but also notes within posts on blogs, as well as replies on posts, and replies on assignments to follow up on. This week I think I spent more time revisiting Module 1  than moving forward in Module 2 and fear that iteration of previous Modules may be my downfall. I admit that every time my phone blings with another daily digest of posts, I panic that I am ever more behind.

My undergraduate students will not be able to do this. They need a safe, focused environment with a certain amount of choice and opportunities for social connection and one or two carefully chosen ways to communicate. Some might need to be alone together, others might need to be together to learn. All need to feel a reasonable  expectation of achieving success or enjoyment of process – key to persistence in most gaming environments. Many can read and write to learn, others are still learning to read and write. My communication channels, structure, feedback patterns, and expectations must be embracing of this diversity. I must “assume nothing”.  I must choose my channels – choose my paths – wisely.