It’s Not a Class, It’s a Story

In the summer of 2012, I was presented with a challenge.   The time had come to drag my dusty, online, 100-level media literacy course into the 21st  Century.   I had inherited the course a few years earlier and it was essentially a digital version of an old-school correspondence course.  After attending an inspiring seminar on innovative teaching (iTeach) and with the assistance of two talented course designers, I was ready to do the heavy lifting this course needed to really be effective.   There was one thing I knew for sure as I faced this big transition: I was going to gamify this class.  
Gamification is the process of applying the motivational characteristics of video games to a course.   How do great video games motivate players?   They include frequent small achievements:

  1. award badges as recognition of various accomplishments,
  2. reward with points for positive behavior,
  3. put players in a position to decide the outcome of a story they really care about,  and
  4. recognize effort by promoting players to higher levels that unlock new features and/or abilities.

These motivators stood in stark contrast to the methods I had been using in my courses.   My students started off the first day with a 100% in the course and it was up to them to keep it.   It was like they were playing a video game they had already won and the more they played, the more they lost.   They were motivated to do only what they had to do to get the grade they wanted.   The majority of my students saw any additional work that did not earn them extra credit as not being worth the time.  
“As a casual gamer, I had ignored the lessons my video games had to teach me about teaching. Once the connection was made, I was positive gamification was the way to connect with my millennial students. I hoped it would inspire them to make the class their own and do good work because they wanted to, not because they had to.”
So how do you take what seems to be an inherently dull, 100-level media literacy course and inject it with some gamification?   Step one is to create a backstory and a conflict within the class.   I wanted to drop the students into an existing drama and leave the resolution of the conflict to them.   The story needed to accommodate promoting the students to higher levels as they progressed in the course.   One of the closest models for this kind of promotion is the workplace.   Considering I teach in a journalism department and this is a course on media literacy, a newspaper seemed to be the ideal setting for my story.   I decided the students would be employees in a newspaper and would get promotions as they progressed through the class.   With each promotion would come additional rewards and powers within the course.   Things like access to the “staff lounge’ (a password protected page on the website with funny and informative videos related to mass media), the ability to write a story for the front page of the website for extra credit and, my favorite, the ability to gift points to another student in the class.   What better way to encourage students to be team players, make friends, and work well together than to give them some extra credit points to gift to their classmates at their own discretion?   Students could also earn badges for participating in our weekly online discussions.   It may seem like I was giving away a lot of extra credit, but I’ve found students will respond to even a miniscule amount of points.   I set the points possible for the course at 100,000 so getting 50 points of extra credit would seem big to them even though it represented only 0.05% of their final grade.
“So I decided the class’ newspaper would be in the middle of a crisis: do we sell out to a corporation or stay privately owned?”
The fundamental element of the course I had yet to define was the story and conflict behind the class.   What situation was I going to drop these students into at the newspaper and what outcome were they determining by their efforts in the class?   One of the struggles in the newspaper industry today is the diminishing presence of privately owned papers.   Most of them have sold out to conglomerates that push profit over content.   So I decided the class’ newspaper would be in the middle of a crisis: do we sell out to a corporation or stay privately owned?   How well the students performed in the class would determine the outcome.   I graded their assignments using “views’ instead of points.   The better their work was, the more views I gave it to represent more attention from readers.   If the class as a whole reached a certain number of views, the paper would be saved and would continue as a private venture.   If they failed, the newspaper would be sold to a corporation.   Don’t get me wrong, corporations have their place, they just have not always had a positive effect on the newspapers they’ve taken over.
The course was launched in the fall of 2013 and I wish I could say it was an immediate success.   As with most efforts at innovation, there were a lot of kinks that had to be worked out.   Students know the traditional college course system.   Breaking them free from those railroad tracks and sending them off-road, metaphorically speaking, can be unnerving for them.   This course design also required a lot of regular maintenance.   Manually keeping track of promotions, total class points, and who had what abilities was tedious and frustrating since it seemed like something that could easily be automated.   The course was split between a WordPress site, which resembled a newspaper website, and the Blackboard side of the course, where students took assessments and reviewed their grades.   This split killed the illusion of working for a real newspaper that I wanted to create for the students.   I was trying to immerse them in a story much like a film tries to convince you that what you’re seeing is real.   Blackboard was the equivalent of the production crew coming on screen and waving at you in the middle of “Lord of the Rings.’   Finally, I had students posting their answers to weekly discussion questions as individual posts, which meant they would only see their peer’s postings if they went through the effort to click on them.   A better system would be to post the weekly discussion question myself and have them comment on the same page.   That way they would see their peer’s postings and be more likely to read and comment on them before posting their own comment.   These are a few of the many items I intend to fix for the next time I teach the course.
“Students know the traditional college course system. Breaking them free from those railroad tracks and sending them off-road, metaphorically speaking, can be unnerving for them.”
Gamifying a class is more work than teaching a traditional course, but I absolutely don’t regret it.   It can come with resistance from grade-anxious students who view any change from the routine as a threat to their GPA.   The effort required to come up with a backstory, conflict, levels, frequent rewards and keep track of who has earned them is not required in my traditional courses.   What keeps me going with gamification is the story.   When your class is not a class but a story, it’s exciting and inspiring to craft the drama and see where the students take the course.   In the end I would rather stumble my way down the right path with gamification than continue to cruise down a path that goes nowhere.icon-gamepad
See more about the course here.

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