Monthly Archives: August, 2014

Gamification: Making sure the game is ‘learning’

In my last post I asked some questions about gamification using digital badges. The gist of my concern was that digital badges may become victims of their own success. Specifically, the game might end up being more about badge collecting than learning. Secondly, if badges are the driver for engagement in learning activities then students may revert back to old habits when the badges lose their novelty.

We need to be developing the 21st century skill of innovation in our students, making independent learners of them. The danger with digital badges is that students may instead become, or remain, reward  and guidance dependent learners.

So is this an argument against digital badges? Absolutely not. It is important to reward learning and digital badges are excellent rewards. The pleasure of the reward, however, must be transferred back onto the learning that took place. Students need to learn to take pleasure in learning if they are to become independent learners. I believe this can be achieved if the badges are designed well.

It is important for the badge criteria to be written to reward specific learning outcomes, that need to be demonstrated consistently. Students should know exactly what the requirements for the badge are and be able to consistently meet those requirements. In other words an element of consolidation needs to be factored into the badge. In this way students are being rewarded for learning rather than completion.

I believe it is also important to use progressions of badges, so that students are encouraged to build on prior learning. This emphasises the notion that learning is a process and also consolidates the prior learning.

Many badge systems use groups of badges to work towards a higher badge. For instance science, technology, engineering and maths badges combined earn a STEM badge. While this might be suitable for holiday programs I believe it encourages the ‘collector’ mentality and I think that the progression model is more powerful for learning.

As an example of a badge progression here are a series of badges for developing skills in collaborative problem solving:


 

Basic badge

CPS1

When solving a non-trivial problem in a collaborative context the recipient

  • Recognizes the role of others in solving problem
  • Shares resources
  • Communicates strategies to achieve a common understanding of the problem

Bronze badge

CPS2

When solving a non-trivial problem in a collaborative context the recipient

  • Shows perseverance and commitment to solving the problem together with peers
  • Approaches the problem systematically, setting goals and evaluating different strategies
  • Can make connections between different pieces of information
  • Is aware of the performance of their peers, and can see their own performance objectively

Silver badge

CPS3

When solving a non-trivial problem in a collaborative context the recipient

  • Acts with planning and purpose, drawing on prior knowledge and experience
  • Can adapt and change with new information
  • Initiates interactions and responds to contributions from peers but may not resolve differences or change plans

Gold badge

CPS4

When solving a non-trivial problem in a collaborative context the recipient

  • Assumes group responsibility for the task
  • Works through the problem efficiently using only relevant resources
  • Tailors communication and incorporates input from peers, changing plans and resolving conflict as necessary
  • Can reorganize the problem in an attempt to find a new solution path

 

Badges like these are a powerful way of developing independent learning skills in students because:

  • Each badge builds on the previous one, so that students consolidate existing skills as they move on to the next badge.
  • They can also see what the next badge is awarded for and work towards it, advancing their learning while still giving the students ownership.
  • The badges are focussed on their collaborative behaviour in the group over time, they can’t simply ‘do collaboration’ and move on.
  • The badges are hierarchical, but there is no pass/fail line. Students can enter the sequence at any point and move on to maturity in collaborative problem solving. They don’t reach a point where they can consider themselves ‘satisfactory’ in this skill.

By constructing our digital badges in this way I believe that the focus is always on continuous learning. We are therefore developing independant learning habits in our students. We are making sure that the game is learning.

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Gamification? Hmmm let me think about that…

There has been a lot in the blogosphere lately about gamification. In the context of this post it involves using techniques common to computer games to promote engagement in school classrooms. This is distinct from game-based learning, which uses computer games as the medium to deliver the curriculum.

Gamification is defined as:

Gamification is the concept of applying game mechanics and game design techniques to engage and motivate people to achieve their goals.

http://badgeville.com/wiki/Gamification

So how do we gamify our classroom learning. The web site http://badgeville.com/wiki/education#how%20to%20gamify list the following methods for gamifying activities:

  • Add points to tasks that need to be completed
  • Define badges/rewards to be given out after a criteria is met
  • Create a Leaderboard to show top performers
  • Define levels to repeat tasks or to perform harder tasks
  • Earning of badges can be tied to unlocking higher levels

In a modern classroom we usually try to avoid an excessively competitive environment. As a result the practical application of gamification in a classroom generally involves establishing an ecology of digital badges which students can work towards. These badges are connected to learned competencies and students can progress through them and often combine them to achieve ‘higher’ badges. The badges can be collected and shared.

This presents a picture of students engaged in their learning as they collect badges and show them proudly to their peers and family. Activity doesn’t necessarily equate to productivity, however, and I can see some potential dangers in this.

The first issue is touched on in the last words of the definition above. “…motivate people to achieve their goals.” I love learning. I am 56 years old (shhhh…) and I still get joy out of learning new things. I wish my students were the same. When I am speaking to a disengaged student about their progress I often ask,

“What is your aim in maths class? What are you here to achieve?”

Typically the answer is,

“I want to pass maths.”

“Wrong”, I say, “if your aim is to pass then no wonder you are bored and struggling. Your aim should be to improve your maths, then if you pass or fail you are a winner and you will likely pass anyway.”

Unfortunately our system has made collectors out of many students. They collect subjects and if they can collect them easily with a minimum of learning then that is fine. If we gamify the classroom a student with that attitude will simply start collecting badges. They may collect a lot of them, but they will do this by completing badges quickly and moving on without necessarily retaining much along the way.

Now to my second concern. During my teacher training I learned about “token economies”. These are Pavlovian systems where students are rewarded for a desired behaviour with a token or reward. In this way the desired behaviour becomes more frequent. The problem with this is that sooner or later the rewards have to stop and if the underlying reason for the undesireable behaviour isn’t addressed, the student will revert back again.

Looking at gamification with badges, we need to ask ourselves what happens when the student stops getting badges, or the law of diminishing returns nullifies the reward? Will they just stop learning? In  other words the gamification has helped the student through a few years of education, but it has not addressed their underlying attitude to learning and they have not become independent learners in the sense of 21st century skills.

In conclusion, I don’t want you to think I am against digital badging or gamification. I just think that we need to be very careful how we implement it. Gamification is effective only when the game is learning, if the game becomes badge collecting then the badges become a distraction from deep learning. How do we ensure this? Well I did say I needed to think about it.

What are 21st Century skills?

In previous posts I have side-stepped giving an exact definition of 21st Century skills. To be fair on myself, there is some debate about what they are and definitions like this are difficult to pin down. It is a bit like trying to define a dog, they are all different, but you just know one when you see one.

For my purposes it is important to find a definition which is broad enough to include current thinking from a range of sources, but clear enough to be useful.

One definition which is gaining support at the moment is provided by ATC21S, and Microsoft have also produced a list of skill areas as a basis for their 21st Century Learning Design initiative (previously called Leap21).

21CLD

21CLD lists 6 dimensions of 21st century learning.

  • Collaboration

Working in collaboration with others and in teams.

  • Knowledge construction

The ability to go beyond what has been learned to generate ideas.

  • Self regulation

Taking responsibility for their life and their on-going learning

  • Real-world problem-solving and innovation

Adaptability, creativity and balancing requirements and constraints to solve problems.

  • Use of ICT for learning

The ability to leverage ICT to enhance life and learning.

  • Skillful communication

Actively participate in society and learning through enriching communication.

The descriptors are my abreviations and you should refer to the site for a more detailed explanation.

21CLD has provided sample learning activities and a rubric to evaluate classroom activities against these 21st century competencies. This information is available on the web site above, or through the 21st Century Learning Design app (available from the Microsoft appstore).

ATC21S

This project defined the following list of 10 21st century skills.

  • Critical think and problem solving
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Information literacy
  • ICT literacy
  • Citizenship
  • Life and career
  • Personal and social responsibility
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Learning to learn

The ATC21S group is looking at how these skills can be taught and assessed. For this purpose they are combining the skills into broader areas. To date they have done extensive work on teaching and assessing collaborative problem solving, which is a combination of the first three skills in their list.

Overview

Looking at the two lists above it is obvious that they cover the same broad skill set, only differing in the way in which they divide up the skills. This is true of all the major attempts to define 21st century skills.

The ATC21S list of 10 skills is more granular than it needs to be. The skills are so inter-related that attempting to assess them all in isolation would be difficult, complex and ultimately unnecessary. For instance how would we separate personal and social responsibility from citizenship, and do we really need to in developing a learning activity? This has been recognized by the ATC21S group and they have incorporated their skills into sets of related skills, for instance critical thinking/problem solving, communication and collaboration, as inter-related skills, have been placed under the umbrella collaborative problem solving.

Looking at the lists of skills and extending from the groups of skills used by ATC21S, I can see 4 broad areas which could be credentialed as a series of badges:

Collaboration skills
  • critical thinking/problem solving (ATC21S)
  • communication (ATC21S) (21CLD)
  • collaboration (ATC21S) (21CLD)
  • real-world problem-solving and innovation (21CLD)
Information skills
  • information literacy (ATC21S)
  • ICT literacy (ATC21S)
  • use of ICT for learning (21CLD)
Community skills
  • personal and social responsibility (ATC21S)
  • life and career (ATC21S)
  • citizenship (ATC21S)
  • self regulation (21CLD)
Innovation skills
  • creativity and innovation (ATC21S)
  • learning to learn (ATC21S)
  • knowledge construction (21CLD)

As a practicing teacher I am excited by the prospect of using the work of the ATC21S group to move on in teaching and assessing 21st century skills, with the 21CLD resources to assist with designing rich learning activities to support that learning. All this could be overlaid with a robust and criterion referenced digital badge ecology, so that students can earn credentials under these 4 broad areas, and take them out into the world.

Digital badges for collaborative problem solving

In my last post I suggested that although open badges are a powerful credential and those working with them are making excellent use of them, badges will struggle to find traction as a replacement for existing reporting systems.

I went on to suggest that badges were ideally suited to credential skills currently classified as 21st century skills. In this way open badges can form a parallel system to the reporting systems currently in use in most jurisdictions. While an assessment for maths provides evidence on the level of numeracy a student has reached, a badge would provide evidence of  global citizenship, research skills or collaborative problem solving. Arguably, these 21st century skills are rarer and say more about a graduate than a traditional school report.

In order to receive broad acceptance, however, the badges need to be based on an objective measure of the skill it is awarded for and in the case of 21st century skills this is difficult. Fortunately work is being done on the assessment of 21st century skills by the ATC21S project, headquartered at Melbourne University. In March of this year ATC21S released an empirical progression for collaborative problem solving, which can be the basis of an assessment rubric.

Based on the collaborative problem solving empirical progression I have developed a series of open badges, from basic (blue) through bronze, silver and gold, to recognize the level of development a student has achieved. These badges provide evidence of a student’s skill level and also identify a zone of proximal development for the student. For instance a student at the bronze level can see from the  silver level criteria what their area of development is.

Each of these levels is supported by more detailed descriptors in the ATC21S documents, but I believe the badges have more utility if a simplified version is attached to the badge, while still maintaining clear developmental stages. An assessor would refer to the more detailed descriptors when awarding a badge. In the empirical progression the basic badge corresponds to level C, the bronze badge level D, the silver badge is level E and the gold badge is at level F.

Collaborative problem solving badges

Basic badge

CPS1

When solving a non-trivial problem in a collaborative context the recipient

  • Recognizes the role of others in solving problem
  • Shares resources
  • Communicates strategies to achieve a common understanding of the problem

Bronze badge

CPS2

When solving a non-trivial problem in a collaborative context the recipient

  • Shows perseverance and commitment to solving the problem together with peers
  • Approaches the problem systematically, setting goals and evaluating different strategies
  • Can make connections between different pieces of information
  • Is aware of the performance of their peers, and can see their own performance objectively

Silver badge

CPS3

When solving a non-trivial problem in a collaborative context the recipient

  • Acts with planning and purpose, drawing on prior knowledge and experience
  • Can adapt and change with new information
  • Initiates interactions and responds to contributions from peers but may not resolve differences or change plans

Gold badge

CPS4

When solving a non-trivial problem in a collaborative context the recipient

  • Assumes group responsibility for the task
  • Works through the problem efficiently using only relevant resources
  • Tailors communication and incorporates input from peers, changing plans and resolving conflict as necessary
  • Can reorganize the problem in an attempt to find a new solution path

There still needs to be some thought put into refining these badges and techniques for assessment must be developed, but I believe that there is enormous potential for open badges in this area. As the work of developing empirical progressions for other 21st century skill areas continues, this badge system can be expanded.

Digital Badges and 21st Century Skills

Open badges

Open badges offer a method of credentialing specific skills in a number of contexts. They can be used to support professional learning, they can be used to evidence skills developed in extracurricular activities (such as holiday activities) and finally they can be used to reward classroom achievement. In the educational system I work in, however, assessment is already criterion based. It is, therefore, already possible to lay a school report alongside the subject curriculum documents to identify the level of competence a student has achieved for a particular skill. In this situation any curriculum-based badges will, to some extent, be doubling up on the existing assessment. I still issue badges for work within the curriculum and I still see value in it, but many would argue convincingly that these badges represent an unnecessary doubling up of credentials.

On the other hand curriculum documents tend to be relatively narrow and subject specific. Students in the classroom can be awarded badges for co-curricular achievement, in the sense that they credential valuable skills which are not part of the formal curriculum, but underpin the curriculum. Some might refer to these as ‘meta-skills’, such as collaboration, research and time management etc.

The problem with these co-curricular badges is that they can easily lose their value if the criteria are not well thought out. In addition, badges issued through different sources will not necessarily be comparable. For example if I issue a badge to a student for “Internet search skills” the student and I will know what that involves, but will a third party understand it the same way? Finally how does my badge compare with a simular one from the school down the road?

21st Century skills

I would like to move on from badges for a while and consider 21st century skills. The term 21st century skills is used to refer to a collection of skills which will be of particular use in a post-industrial world, where routine skills and factual recall is of less value. There is as yet no definitive list of 21st century skills, but there is a consensus that they include such things as collaboration, digital literacy, problem solving and global citizenship.

These skills are universally valued by educators, but in general they are not well served by school curriculums and assessment methods. In addition, there is currently a political agenda pushing for increased accountability for schools and a need to measure success. This is evident in the common core in the USA and NAPLAN in Australia. While accountability is important, the danger is that this emphasis on numeric measures of success, comparing students and schools, can emphasise those elements of the curriculum which are most easily quantified. In other words test marks can overshadow learning processes, so collaboration, creativity and ethics (21st century skills) end up being neglected.

Bringing this all together

In summary we have a set of 21st century skills which are universally valued, but are in danger of being neglected because they are not easily quantified. We also have a credentialing system in open badges, which recognizes competency without seeking to make comparisons. I suggest we bring these two ideas together. Instead of seeking to replace traditional school assessments with digital badges, badges provide a parallel system to provide recognition for those skills which are ultimately more important, but not easily measured in a traditional testing regime. 21st century skills can be recognized and encouraged through the badges, while the existing assessment of the subject curriculum, NAPLAN and common core testing continue to serve  their purpose, resulting in a balanced and effective education system.

The issue that remains to be addressed is the assessment of 21st century skills. I commented above that for badges to be effective they need to have well defined competencies. Fortunately there is work under way to provide an objective measure of competency for 21st century skills. A leader in this field is the ATC21S project headquartered at Melbourne University. Their particular emphasis at this stage is on the key 21st century skills of collaborative problem solving and learning in digital networks.

ATC21S have developed an empirical progression to define levels of competence at the developmental stages in collaborative problem solving. It is now possible to use this empirical progression to develop a series of digital badges recognizing competence in collaborative problem solving across the developmental stages.

So we have the tools, in the empirical progression and open badges, to begin to develop a robust credentialing system for 21st century skills. The next task is to work on defining the open badges for the existing empirical progression and as the work on teaching and assessing 21st century skills progresses, develop a badge ecology along side to assess and reward those skills.