The Multiplayer Classroom

This is the second in an ongoing series of entries about my experiments in gamifying the Latin classroom. In doing so, I am relying heavily on Classcraft, a web-based classroom-management system that facilitates my multiplayer classroom. Future posts will be grouped under the category ‘Gamifying Latin.’

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In my last post, I promised I would discuss some of the basic principles I have adopted from Lee Sheldon’s The Multiplayer Classroom or which underlie the structure of Classcraft itself. Given how long my comments on Sheldon ran, however, I have decided to delay the Classcraft material to its own separate post.

It’s somewhat difficult to unpack the way I evolved my particular class from these two sources, as each influenced the way I read or thought about the other. As I mentioned before, I had a general grasp of the software when I was introduced to the book by a post on Classcraft’s forums, so as I read I was constantly thinking about how to adapt Sheldon’s ideas to the game as it existed. Since, however, Sheldon is better for establishing certain broad ideas about gamifying the classroom, I will start with some comments on his book.

I should first outline what I knew some of my goals for this class would be. Latin I was going to be somewhat different from the classes that I had spent the last two years teaching, which were ultimately more interested in training students in general principles of writing or thinking. Since the goal of the intro Latin sequence is to prepare students for the more challenging work of reading Latin texts, there would now be a more concrete body of specific knowledge that I wanted to them to master. By the end of the first semester, I wanted them to have internalized a certain set of Latin morphological forms and rules of grammar, and be developing a skill in applying those forms and rules to the act of translation.  The main difficulty outlined in the last post is that there is a lot of work that the instructor cannot do for the student: while we are there to arrange, explain, and assess, he or she needs to set themselves to the task of learning the forms at home (even more so with the reduced contact hours that would be involved in this course).

What I hoped gamification could do was create an environment where students were more motivated to do that learning, in part because the game would create more frequent—and hopefully more fun—opportunities to show what they had learned. I was also immediately excited by Classcraft’s inherent promotion of collaboration between students (but more on that later).

Sheldon’s book is a very helpful introduction to both the principles of gamification and the MMORPG model specifically. It is a mixture of advocacy, memoir, and how-to, and details several iterations of the model which he instituted for several classes at several institutions over several years. Mixed in are firsthand accounts from other educators who have used the model in other environments. I found it most useful for establishing a working model of a gamified college syllabus that I could use Classcraft to manage. It’s probably worth quoting his straightforward definition of gamification at this point:

Simply put, gamification is the application of game mechanics to non-game activities. Its underlying idea is to increase engagement. (78)

While Sheldon is occasionally frustratingly short on detail (e.g. he often does not explain exactly how he conducted particular exercises (such as peer voting) or how he graded them), I would still recommend giving it a look if you are at all interested in this subject (I note it is cited by Ted Gellar-Goad as an inspiration for his own explorations in gamifying Latin).

Sheldon talks about a number of benefits to be gained from gamification, two of which I want to outline here. The first is what he calls grading “performance by attrition” (43). Both Sheldon and Classcraft adopt the XP and levelling system that should be familiar to anyone who knows RPGs (MMO- or not): players earn Experience Points (XP) for completing specific tasks, and as they amass XP they (or, more correctly, their avatar/character) are granted higher and higher statuses (called levels), reflecting their increased experience and often bringing with them new perks and abilities. This system is ubiquitous in gaming, and has crossed into other genres such as the FPS (most famously in the Call of Duty series, but see also the new hybrid RPG-shooter Destiny).

Even if students are somehow unfamiliar with the model, it is very easy to grasp: complete a task and you earn points; amass points and increase your level; your level reflects your overall standing in the class. Sheldon’s advocacy of this paradigm is as straightforward as it is sensible: it makes grading clearer. A traditional syllabus customarily breaks down a semester-grade across several categories (e.g. Quizzes, Attendance, Final Exam). This break-down is presented to students on the first day of class, and it can easily put them in a counter-productive head-space.

As Sheldon says,  is not unreasonable—and, indeed, is quite common—for them to conceptualize this break-down as meaning that every student starts with a potential 100%, and that everything they do in the semester is a struggle not to lose points from that total. This is not the best motivator, since it can make them feel like they fail their way to their ultimate grade, rather than achieve something positive. Moreover, it can figure the instructor as someone who penalizes mistakes rather than rewards successes (Sheldon calls this grading by “subtraction” rather than “attrition” (58)). No teacher I know actually operates on that principle, but it is one that is potentially communicated by the traditional paradigm. This paradigm also has the drawback of sometimes being rather arcane, often requiring quite complicated mathematics on the part of instructor/student to calculate final or mid-semester grades. It can make it very hard for students to have a feel for how well they are doing in the class, which leads them to pepper instructors with that very question, which, in turn, leads to necessarily inconclusive answers (“well, we haven’t had the final, and I don’t know if you will continue to attend and participate at the same level, but…”).

In comparison, the XP and level model is much more transparent and positive. The student starts at zero, having done nothing and earned no experience. Assignments, attendance, quizzes and the like are given weighted XP values, and as students complete a class or an assignment they immediately earn the appropriate amount of XP.  They are rewarded in step with their achievement, and can track their progress towards a specific goal in the class (articulated in concrete amounts of XP). The level-system gives a ‘lower-resolution’ picture of their standing in class (e.g. Sheldon often makes an ‘A’ commensurate with achieving a certain level, such as 10 or 20). In principle, this approach leads to a more open and transparent environment, which both empowers the student and takes a lot of extra work off the instructor.

Closely related to both the gaming paradigm and grading by attrition are the gains Sheldon reports in student motivation. These all hinge around the tension between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, a dichotomy he spends much of the book exploring. Simply put, intrinsic motivation is when one is “motivated by internal factors,” whereas extrinsic motivation relies on “external drivers” (78). The problems outlined in the first post of this series could be characterized as ones of intrinsic motivation: students did not just feel enough internal, personal reasons to put in the work on the material.

Sheldon’s general proposition is this: the atmosphere of the game  and its clearer rewards system work in tandem to provide immediate, extrinsic motivation for student learning. The desire to earn XP and level up—and being able to observe that happen in the immediacy—enliven the traditional practices of learning and assessment. What Sheldon then chases, throughout the different iterations of his multiplayer classroom, is the moment when these forces of extrinsic motivation turn intrinsic. He reports, for example, the great enthusiasm of his students for a midterm prep exercise, which was played for no XP benefit; he believes at this point the intrinsic rewards for knowing the material and contributing well to the exercise had outpaced the extrinsic—although there remained the extrinsic carrot in the work they were doing to prepare for the midterm (75–78).

The dichotomy is not a simple one to navigate, and it might ultimately prove difficult to measure the switch from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. Lisl, for example, has observed that Sheldon is still using a game in this example, and so one could still characterize the motivation as being extrinsic (it depends how you understand the ‘reward’ students got from doing well); her general concern was that gamification could potentially leave students only able to accomplish things if they are gamified. Given, however, that what I cared about most was getting them to learn the Latin, at this stage I was more than satisfied with the powerful extrinsic motivators Sheldon promised the game would bring.

In the next post, I’ll talk about turning back to Classcraft with Sheldon’s ideas percolating in my brain.

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