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”.