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!



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