Wednesday, April 29, 2015


So, you know how Liz has incorporated her senior project into Camera Obscura? Well, guess what? Our school recently had a showcase of all the senior capstone projects. Not only did Liz win an award for the best education focused project, she also won for best project overall! Out of eight categories featuring roughly 50 projects, ranging from student-designed-and-built flight suits and disadvantaged youth outreach programs to animal training and software development, Liz's work on Camera Obscura was deemed the most impressive not only by her teachers, but by the many peers and community members who attended the ceremony.

Way to go, Liz! We couldn't be more proud. 

Here are a few photos from that night. 

Liz Speaks about her project.

Liz is announced as the winner from her category. Another student, who also did a gamification project, congratulates her.

Liz is announced as the overall winner.

Liz poses with some of our crew members.

Grading is Backwards

Hiya. Adam here. This post (with minor editing) is borrowed from my personal blog, where it was titled "How Our Current Grading System Directly Undermines the Goals of Education" The tone is different from what I go for here, so please forgive that. Enjoy!

As should be so obvious it hardly needs stating, the purpose of most any class is to take someone with a certain baseline of knowledge in a subject (ranging from nothing to quite a bit) and add to his or her competence in, understanding of, or exposure to the relevant topics. In other words, classes are designed to facilitate learning in some way. We go to school to learn. Is it safe to say we can all agree on that?

My purpose is not to address what, why, or (mostly) how we learn. Those are all weighty topics that deserve their own attention. I just want to point out that the way we evaluate learning is, at its most fundamental level, not only flawed but directly counterproductive. 

I'm talking about letter grades. 

Given our initial assumption, that in a class we should start at the relative "bottom" and work our way upward, we should theoretically have an evaluation metric that mirrors that progression. Instead, we have the opposite. Here's my inartistic and incomplete visual metaphor for how grading currently works:

The balloon in this drawing represents the student, who starts at the edge of the cliff and, with an initial updraft that comes from excitement, energy, a teacher, a parent, or personal determination, gets off to a great start. Of course, not all students are like this, but let's be optimistic. Very soon, however, a problem develops. The student makes a mistake by flying into the path of a well-meaning sportsman (riiight). The question is answered incorrectly, the assignment failed, and now the student has a less-than-perfect score. Under our current grading system, although the student begins the class at the bottom of the developmental scale in the subject, he or she also begins with the assumption of top marks: there are no strikes against him or her, so the student coasts along with an "A" grade. As soon as the student makes a mistake, however, ground is irretrievably lost. Sure, there's credit recovery, make-up tests, and other interventions, but without some sort of deus ex machina, it is now impossible for the student to achieve a perfect score (i.e. the highest possible grade). If continued, this translates to closed doors down the line as secondary schools, employers, and others withhold opportunities, seeking instead the students who made the grade.

Recognizing this, schools, legislators, parents, and well-meaning individuals and organizations try all manner of strategies to help kids "get their grades up," thinking this will equate to a meaningful solution. Sometimes it does. Some kids genuinely get on the path to more effective learning, improve themselves, and become better prepared for later life. But sometimes they just learn how to give the expected answers or work the system to their advantage without actually increasing their mastery of the subject in question. Other people abuse said system, pressuring teachers to give kids grades they haven't really earned, or to grandly reward the most token efforts in the name of positive reinforcement. Some teachers, loving their students, do these things on their own, trying to preserve opportunities for students whose potential they can see, but who for some reason haven't taken control of their own lives. Sometimes teachers do this to avoid the wrath of parents who want to make sure their kids get "good" grades, or to preserve government funding based on student performance, possibly because of administrative pressure or simply to feel good about how they're doing their own jobs - temptations people in all professions sometimes succumb to.

This, in turn, conditions students to focus on what letter grade they have, rather than how well they have progressed in the subject matter. Many kids may not see the difference, but pay attention to a teenager sometime. Ask how he's doing in school. Ask about her grades. Odds are, she will start telling you stories about negotiating with teachers for better grades, making up a poor grade by doing far less or different work than it would have taken to get the grade in the first place, or a time when he suffered some kind of extreme stress because of a grade, whether or not it was deserved.
Furthermore, notice how often a single failure - an absence from a key class period, a poor score on an important assignment, a failed test, a negative relationship with a specific teacher - features as the main reason for the bad grades in these stories. Sometimes these failures are skewed out of proportion, but many times they are all too real. Doing poorly at the wrong time for any reason can, and often does permanently damage a student's grade to the point that making it up requires special accommodation.

Now, I'm not saying the concept of letter grades is the source of all educational ills, but we have set up a system that only rewards perfection, and even then the reward consists merely of maintaining status, not any kind of growth or increase. Even when the ground to be gained in subject matter is daunting, the only way to be rewarded above and beyond simply keeping the same grade you had at the beginning of the class is to complete extra credit, meaning additional tasks that further increase difficulty, and, for the high-performing student, offer little increase: from an A to an A+, a nominal distinction with few if any benefits beyond a proud feeling and increased expectations for the next class.

Now let's consider a different model:

This looks like a warm, fuzzy illustration of many years of rhetoric about how we all have different paths to follow and are all at different places on our path. The funny thing is, it also looks like how students actually learn. Some coast along above the rest of the class, not knowing any more but grasping the material more easily. Some struggle the whole way up the slope. Others hang out at a specific spot for a while before moving on (or not), and still others zip to the top and would keep going far beyond the scope of any single class, if we would only let them.

What if there was a system in which everyone in a class started not with the assumption of a perfect score, but with the much more realistic assumption that they have a lot to learn? What if we started at the bottom and, as the gamers say, leveled up as we went along? What if rather than having a single standard for perfection that could only be maintained or fallen from, we had a standard of progression that was, quite literally, unlimited? Imagine a student being able to achieve a level 13 in math - a respectable accomplishment that might get you up to geometry - while another could get all the way to calculus at level 25. A third, struggling student, might only reach level 6 in a given year, but that would be OK because instead of having fallen from grace, that student would still be getting rewarded for every right answer. Every effort would bring with it a tangible benefit. Failure and misunderstanding would result in additional attention from the teacher, but not in a punitive way. There would be no ground to lose as long as the student was trying. There would be no shame in retaking a class if you could start at the level you left off on before. In fact, you could mix all kinds of ages and ability levels in the same class, provided the curriculum was well designed (more on that another time) so there would be no per se re-taking a class. It would just be Math, a class shared by all, and students would progress as fast as they were able.

Plus, the long-term benefits of subjects like math would remain. These benefits, in my opinion, do not reside in being able to compute advanced statistical formulas - that's only useful on a day-to-day basis for statisticians and a precious few others. The rest of us have helps and shortcuts for things we lack true aptitude for. The lasting benefit is in the development of the mind that comes from practicing the logical, analytical thinking that math requires. That's just one example. Something similar could be said for any subject.

This is far from a Utopian solution, of course. Parents would still demand performance at a specific level by a specific age. Students and others would still look down on those who progress more slowly. Governments would still want to impose one-size-fits-all metrics for purposes of funding and evaluation. Colleges, universities, and employers would still show preference for the highest-performing students. Most of the pressures I've already described would remain, and not all of them are bad things. But one key element would change: fear.

There would still be standards and expectations, but fear of failure would evaporate, and we could focus on helping students genuinely learn. Grades would actually mean something because they would reflect actual understanding, achievable only by performance. Kids would progress faster because they wouldn't be afraid of being punished, and they could help each other along more easily because they would be more confident in their own skills. They might only earn a Math level 7 by midterm, but that could be improved with extra effort, while perhaps backing off for a while in a subject that comes more easily, and this could be done with no negative repercussions. Students who lack an aptitude for math might easily excel in language arts, social studies, fine arts, or some other area, while still continuing their gradual but rewarding progress in the harder subjects. Instead of worrying about an all-inclusive and over-simplified GPA, a student might graduate with an accumulated level 12 in math, level 30 in English, level 26 in social studies, level 17 in science, and level 32 in art. Of course it could (and likely would) get more complex than that, but you get the idea.

This would give counselors a better idea of how to direct student ambitions, and students themselves would have a better idea of their true strengths and weaknesses. Schools could still set benchmarks, but they could be based on competency level, not grade level. Best of all, students would be empowered to achieve as much as they can, without arbitrary limits. Hopefully I don't have to go on listing the benefits, because they should be easy to extrapolate from here.

I have a lot more to say on restructuring education, but what are your thoughts about this most basic element: how we evaluate progress? What have I missed?



Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Structural Integrity at 95%

Hi there! Adam here again.

This time I'm going to talk about structure. This will be a long one, so strap in. There are a million ways you can structure your gamified curriculum. A lot of it depends on your mechanics, some of it on your content, and some on your target audience. Probably other things, too. I'm no expert, so I'm just going to talk about what we're doing and some of the considerations involved.


Before I get into our approach, let me take a minute to address some of our considerations, starting with Desired Results of Student Learning, or DRSLs (as they're known). We're designing a photography curriculum, so obviously a big DRSL is for students to master the course content by developing knowledge and skills related to digital photography. That can get a lot more specific, but we'll leave it high-level for now. We can create a wonderful, engaging story that keeps kids following clues and loving our class, but if they're not completing the core content of the class, we've failed.

Other DRSLs might include collaboration, lifelong learning, communication skills, critical thinking, competitiveness, etc. Sometimes these are defined at the school or district level. Some are at the class or individual level. When planning your game, you should have a good idea of your DRSLs and the indicators that will show whether you are achieving them.

State Standards

This is where things get more specific. Most if not all of us are accountable to someone (or several someones) for the content of our courses. In my case, my classes count towards graduation as CTE credits or arts electives, and I need to meet the state standards for those credits. That means my game needs mechanics that allow me to guide student learning in specific directions. For example, one state photography standard requires students to learn to interpret photography and find meaning in images. Another requires the learning of specific technical skills. So my game has to do more than allow kids the chance to possibly learn those things: it has to ensure the material is presented to them. I love it when kids explore and go beyond the base requirements of a class, but I need to make sure all the bases are covered.

Self-directed Collaboration

I've briefly mentioned the problems with multi-age classrooms before. A room full of 7th-12th graders have a wider variety of backgrounds, skills, and maturity levels than a class that caters to a specific age. Engaging everyone at the same time is difficult, but also key to success. One of my goals from the beginning was to develop a game that allowed students to take an individualized approach to the course material but still encouraged collaboration. Ideally, I'll have more experienced or faster-learning students helping those who struggle, not because I ask them to, but because the game itself rewards them for helping everyone succeed. But the more advanced students still need to feel challenged, and the struggling students need to feel optimistic and successful. The perfect mix will let students choose their path while highly incentivizing collaboration, or making collaboration essential to progress. In the age of online multiplayer games students are very open to teamwork as an essential mechanic of the gaming experience.

Game Within a Game

The core mechanics of Camera Obscura revolve around a photo contest website we've created that in and of itself acts like a mini-game. In order to protect student data I won't share the address to the site, but it works like this:

  • Students create an account, which gives them access to a variety of photographic contests, each of which is designed to teach a certain concept, technique, or skill in accordance with state standards. They complete these contests in any order they choose, but I can rotate which contests are available at what time, giving me loose control over the class's general directions. This lets me sequence the learning as much as necessary, but not so much that participation in any given contest feels involuntary. It also allows me to make sure I'm meeting standards for what is being taught. Strange as it may seem, this flexible point of entry to the course material is really important. Some students will look for the easiest possible project, or the one that sounds the most fun. Others need the freedom to tackle something really challenging even if they lack skills. Once they see how hard it can be I get to encourage them to try more basic contests. Later, they can come back to the harder projects with enhanced skills and understanding. The excitement they feel over their progress in each case is exactly what the self-directed approach is all about.
  • Before students can enter their work in the contests, they have to submit it to our peer-review forum and receive at least three critiques from classmates. This fulfills a variety of goals and gives me a chance to provide individualized feedback. 
  • In addition to the contest requirements, the site features a dice game that can be used to add extra conditions and value to contest entries. For example, based on a roll of the dice, a student entering the silhouette contest might be tasked with only entering photos that fit the theme "lost and found." These conditions are divided into subjects, techniques, and themes, and point multipliers are assigned by category. The categories align with Costa's Levels of Questioning, and cause students to think on all three levels (subjects = level 1, techniques = level 2, themes = level 3). Here's a lovely graphic that breaks down how the points are assigned. 

  • Students get points for entering each contest, meeting the dice criteria, thoughtfully critiquing each other on the forums, and replying to critiques. There's your collaboration DRSL right there, incentivized and everything, not mention the analysis side of the curriculum. Some contests also include extra credit assignments (usually writing) that encourage deeper analysis. Students receive a bonus for winning a contest (competitiveness DRSL). Winners are chosen periodically, once enough students enter a specific contest.
  • Students begin the class at Level 0, and gain points to progress up to Level 13. Each level corresponds to a letter grade. I'll do a post on grading later to address some of the obvious problems with that system and how I'm planning to overcome them. They are never penalized for poor performance, they are simply not rewarded. A student who fails to meet the dice requirement gets the normal contest points, but not the bonus. This means there is no such thing as complete failure because every effort results in some learning and some points. Building upward means every new attempt contributes to a better grade, as opposed to the traditional system under which every imperfection causes students to fall further from grace, with recovery becoming increasingly difficult. This creates a very positive environment, minimizing boundaries to participation. Students can enter a contest more than once as long as it remains open, and can revise their work based on the feedback they receive on the forums. 
Those are the basics of the site. There are lots of possibilities there, but I'll save them for another post. This much is kinda fun on its own, and it keeps kids learning the right stuff and then some in a very approachable way. I've implemented the game this far already, turning my students into unwitting play testers for something much bigger. In class I assist students with their projects, provide individual and small group instruction on specific techniques or concepts, and maintain a record of student scores. The results have spoken for themselves. I'm seeing better photography earlier in the semester than ever before. Students are generally on task, and the quality of their questions (when they have them) has risen.


But why stop there?

The biggest piece that's missing from this puzzle is something to engage the students on a visceral level: to keep them fully committed and firing on all cylinders. That's where the ARG comes in. 

As soon as the kids get comfortable with the website, I start introducing certain... oddities. An obscure link to a strange video. A reference to a mobile app. An unusual image of something not quite right. Unexplained things also start popping up in my classroom. Things that seem related somehow to the anomalies on the site. Again, I've tested this part out. It doesn't take long for the kids to start asking questions. A little bit of not-quite-denial on my part and they start exploring, showing me things they've discovered. 

This is the hook. It leads them, after a short initial chase through some moderately easy clues, to the first episode in our web series, telling the story of Liz, a regular girl who inadvertently triggers some unexpected consequences while exploring with her camera.

No spoilers allowed on this blog, but suffice to say Liz ends up in a situation where she needs the class's help, and the way they help is by completing the contests on the site they've been using all along. That sounds really contrived, but we've come up with a story that actually (we think) makes it work pretty organically. The important thing is that the students' motivation for entering the contests stops being because I said so and starts being to find out what happens next

New contests mean new discoveries, including the ability to interact with Liz and other characters through the website and social media, as well as a variety of other instruments. Even better, the choices students make as they complete the projects actively influence the storyline. This transforms them from spectators to participants - a powerful change. They not only determine which path is taken to the end, but what the ending actually is. Of course, there are a limited number of possibilities, but it's more than two or three and they're not all super obvious. This is important not just for engagement, but for replayability. This project represents an enormous amount of work, and it would be far less effective the second time through if the story was known, mystery solved, suspense ended. Rather than trusting past students not to spoil things for their friends, we actually have a story that can go differently enough with each new class that it feels fresh along the way and the resolutions are completely unique. 

To give you a taste of the setup, here's our pilot episode, shot by my Film II class with a budget of exactly zero dollars:

As you'll see from the credits, we were fortunate enough to get my friend Russ Whitelock, a professional film composer, to create an original score for us at no cost! 

In addition to engagement, this approach also helps us maintain rigor, which comes down to motivation. As I mentioned in another post, suspense is a powerful motivator. People, including students, will go to great lengths to find out how a story ends, or what happens next. You just need a compelling story.

Oh, is that all?

The point is, students will work harder, practice more, study longer and progress faster if they're doing it within the immersive environment of the interactive story. I can expect more of them because they will give more voluntarily. No more coercion, begging, or bribing. 

What's next?

We still have a lot of development to do on the show and the site. This semester has been a great dry run, but we've learned about a lot of fixes we need to make. We have to take much of our story from outline form to screenplay form to finished series. There are clues to invent, contests to create, hooks to plant, funds to raise. 

That last item is our next big step. We're in the planning phase of a fundraising campaign to help us produce the rest of the series, with more music by Russ and a bunch of other professional help. The students of Film II and a few handpicked others will still be involved, but the production values will be much higher, and we're bringing in some professional actors to play the adult parts. How cool is that?

It's really cool. Stay tuned for more updates, and let me know what you think in the comments. Thanks for reading to the bottom!



Cool Collaboration

A few weeks into our project we took a risk and it paid off. The risk was contacting a wonderful man by the name of Jeff Parkin, who along with Jared Cardon masterminded the brilliant ARG/web series called The Book of Jer3miah.

Jer3miah is the story of a college student who finds himself at the center of strange, supernatural events following the deaths of his parents. In addition to producing the series, Jeff and Jared established a transmedia ARG that incorporated clues hidden in the episodes, social media accounts, elsewhere online, and in the physical world to flesh out the story and engage players on a variety of levels.

During our planning, I remembered having heard them speak about their work at a local film festival and decided to send Jeff an email explaining Camera Obscura and asking if he had any tips. Not only did Jeff respond quickly and positively - in the middle of the night, no less - but he offered to set up a video conference at which we could discuss things in greater depth. He brought Jared along, and we had a starstruck hour full of some of the best advice we could imagine.

Listing all the good ideas we received would be nearly impossible, but here are a few of the highlights:

Tip #1 - Anything free and accessible is a tool. Because the goal is to engage people on as many levels as possible, anything that expands your reach can and should be used. Know your audience, but don't be afraid to spread the clues/story across a wide variety of media. We've found some great tools by keeping this in mind, such as Aurasma, an augmented reality app that lets us hide digital content in the physical world by placing trigger images discoverable by mobile devices. This really contributes to the immersive quality of the game and to the collaborative potential. Maybe we'll write a post on how we're using it sometime.

Tip #2 - Don't underestimate your audience. Jeff and Jared said they basically couldn't make clues that were too hard for the players to figure out. Almost without exception, puzzles were solved far faster than anticipated.

Tip #3 - Story is your biggest motivator. Gimmicks and points are fine and can be important, but people will do anything to find out what happens next. A truly engaging story should be top priority. Which leads us to:

Tip #4 - Show progress. One specific suggestion they made was to put a progress bar on the wall that lets students see how close they are to the end of the game. They want to know what's happening, but they also want reinforcement that their work is moving them towards an endpoint. We all know TV shows that begin with an end in mind are better than ones that go on interminably, never really gaining meaning but not being willing to part with the profits that come from being on the air. Don't let your game become a pointless TV show.

Tip #5 - Celebrity endorsements. Doing things to give your game legitimacy outside the world of school will go a long way towards getting kids involved. One suggestion was to use what Jeff and Jared termed "celebrity endorsements," or references to your game from sources outside the school environment. Ask popular YouTube personalities, community members, and others to mention your game or to hide a clue in some of their materials. They should be people the kids will recognize either by name, face, or reputation. That will open up a world of credibility and players will start to take their efforts much more seriously.

Tip #6 - Bring in stragglers through individualized content. Jeff and Jared talked about having lists of players' addresses and personally delivering some game content to players that lived near enough. This would help players who were falling out of the game come back with enthusiasm because they were getting exclusive hand-delivered content. Nobody else got these clues, but they were important to solving the puzzles. You can see how incredibly helpful this would be in the classroom environment, where you could hide clues in the locker or workbook of a student who seemed to be losing interest or left out. Imagine how important that kid would feel the next day, when he or she was able to single-handedly supply the clue the whole class had been missing.

We could go on like this for a while. I'm sure we'll talk a lot more about what we learned from these guys in later posts. They're kind of like our patron saints, even though they might not like that title. We couldn't have gotten this far without them. If you guys are reading this, THANK YOU!!!

To all readers: please let us know if you have any other tips and tricks, especially if you've done something like this before.



Everyone Loves an Origin Story...


But in this case it's cool.


ADAM sits at his desk students leave the classroom. Some faces show boredom, others show confusion. Some students seem relieved the class is finally over. Adam watches them as they depart, then stares thoughtfully out the window. 

                           (to himself)
                     If only there was a way to make
                     this better.

Hi, I'm Adam, and this is the story of how Camera Obscura got started. Like many teachers, I fought the problem of meaningful engagement every day. By "meaningful engagement" I mean getting kids to do something they will learn from in a way that changes their understanding. Of course, the first step is getting them to do something at all.

As a teacher of electives at a K-12 charter school, my classes are pretty diverse. I usually have the whole range from seventh graders to seniors in the same class period, which presents some unique challenges. Often I found that when I was teaching at a level that worked for one age or maturity group (maturity doesn't always go by age), another group would be completely lost, or bored to tears, or asleep.

One day at a family gathering I was talking with my brother-in-law, who works in video games, about a project my graphic design class was doing - creating their own trading card game. He suggested I check out a YouTube channel called Extra Credits. That suggestion changed everything for me, because I found this:

I've always been a lover of strategy board games, among other types, and I couldn't believe none of this had occurred to me before. I started planning.

Enter: Liz.

Liz and I had worked together over the summer on a Chinese ESL arts camp that was hosted by our school. Here's a link to some videos about that, if you're interested. 

Knowing Liz's reliability and passion for photography, I asked her if she would be willing to help me revamp my photography class to be more engaging and super effective. She said yes, and Camera Obscura was born! A little while later, Liz adapted her senior project to fit the game. That was when things really took off and we got ambitious. We've been developing this curriculum for going on 8 months now, and our plans have only gotten bigger, hairier, and more ambitious. But you can read more about that in our other posts. Glad to have you on board.



Monday, April 27, 2015

We're Doing Something Awesome And You Can Watch!

Welcome to this behind-the-scenes look at the process of creating Camera Obscura, a gamified digital photography curriculum based on an original alternate reality game! Our names are Adam and Liz. We do all the things.

This is our crew. Human awesomeness personified:

That picture was from our first major day of shooting on our web series, which was preceeded by months of brain-squeezing, heart-pounding, joy-and-pain-inducing work. Liz was there, but she was behind the camera (her preferred position, in spite of how things are working on this show).

That was a huge milestone, but it's only a part of what we're truly all about. Web series, short story, printed materials, website, mobile app, other shtuff - it's all about improving the classroom for the students at DaVinci Academy of Science and the Arts (the school where Adam teaches and from which Liz is about to graduate) and, hopefully, a lot of other places too. We believe in the power of self-directed, gamified, story-based educational systems to propel todays students through many of the social and emotional barriers they face into the world of life-long learning and success.

We decided to make a project - a huge project - to try it out. That project is called Camera Obscura, and it will be implemented as Adam's new photography curriculum starting next year. This blog is here so you can follow our progress, give us your insights, and maybe get inspired to try out a project of your own.