Author Archive: Grant MacDonald

The medium is the pedagogy?

Two of my colleagues ( @ms_edstuff and @joshdeanLC ) are currently on a tour studying educational technology and formative assessment in the USA.

I have been reading their blog with interest. The most recent entry is an analysis of the relationship between technology and pedagogy. There is a lot in that post, and I encourage you to read it for yourself, but a key point is that technology is educationally neutral.

…there ought to be and will be no difference between pedagogy in online learning, blended and face-to-face learning.

In simple terms it is not the tools we use, it is the way we teach that matters.

I agree with this 100%. It is obvious that sitting students in front of computers to work doesn’t automatically improve the learning. I am not sure, however, that technology is totally neutral.

To start with I want you to consider this image as a metaphor for educational technology.

horse car


Horses are an effective, if rather out of date, form of transport. Cars are also  an effective form of transport. Combining these, however, doesn’t necessarily give us the best of both worlds.

In a simular way face-to-face teaching has advantages and limitations. Online learning has another set of limitations and advantages. If we take our face-to-face learning program (assignments, activities etc.) and simply move them online, we may end up with something good, but we are also likely to end up with all the limitations of both contexts and none of the advantages. In other words a car being pulled by a horse.

To avoid the “horse and car” situation we need to design our educational activities with the technology in mind. If we do that effectively we can ensure that in applying technology to our educational program we will maximise the advantages. The technology based learning will be an improvement.

Looking at this from another direction. In the 1960’s Marshall McLuhan famously said

The medium is the message.

By this he meant that the medium provides a context which influences how the message is received.

In education examples of media are face-to-face, online, blended, etc., and the medium used to deliver the learning shapes the way the learning is received. So we need to consider the medium when we plan educational programs to ensure they are well received (effective). Technology (the medium) is not totally neutral.

Design for Technology

Putting this philosophy into practice involves redesigning educational programs with the technology based medium as a consideration. There are several design frameworks which could be used, but I would suggest the Learning Design Studio as the basis for a process which could be used to design for technology.


EdTech is not a pedagogy and we need to stop talking about ‘blended learning pedagogy’, ‘online learning pedagogy’ etc. as if they were specific ways of teaching.

On the other hand technology provides new media for delivering educational programs that colour the way students receive the learning . We need to design learning ecologies which take full advantage of the new media.

We are still working that out.


Self Determination Theory in the classroom

Having spent some time discussing Gamfulness, and its basis in Self Determination Theory, the obvious question is how can this be applied in a classroom?

I have a group of students working on a project based activity where I have applied these ideas. The course is based on a curriculum called Project Implementation. You will find the curriculum document at:

This short video presentation describes the course.



Gameful Learning Online

Having spent some time learning about Gameful Learning, I am looking forward to investigating the practical aspects. What can we do in our classrooms to implement a Gameful Learning Ecology?

New Generation VLEs

Virtual learning environments have a reputation for being at the educational cutting edge. When we look at them closely, however, it becomes clear that in general they are designed for a largely didactic pedagogy. It seems that most online learning environments are simply attempts to replicate familiar teaching practice online. While this might support a smooth transition to online learning for teachers, it seems to me that this is a missed opportunity. The introduction of online learning should be disruptive enough to trigger a rethink in teaching and learning.

I am reminded here of a story from my childhood. A man was labouring to cut wood for his fire with a old hand saw. In frustration he went to the hardware store for a replacement saw but the shop assistant suggested he buy a chainsaw. The assistant assured the man that he wold cut 10 times as much wood with this chainsaw, without raising a sweat. The woodcutter went home with  the new chainsaw, but he found it no help. In fact it was harder work and slower than the old saw. He returned to the shop to complain that the new chainsaw was no good. The shop assistant was confuse, so he pulled the chord and the engine roared to life. The woodcutter jumped in surprise, “What’s that noise!!” he said.

The moral of that story, of course, is that new tools generally mean changes in the way we do things. If we keep trying to use the old skill set we get no benefit from new tools. This has never been truer that it is with ICT. Unless we rethink teaching and learning we risk getting all of the disadvantages of technology and none of the advantages.

Fortunately we are seeing a new generation of learning software which is based on new pedagogies, designed for the new communications technology. One such package is GradeCraft.

I mention GradeCraft because it was designed specifically to support Gameful Learning. I looked at GradeCraft to better understand how Gameful  Learning looks in practice.


Readers will find the paper “Designing a Game-Inspired Learning Management System” by Caitlin Holman, Stephen Aguilar and Barry Fishman, University of Michigan provides a useful overview of the GradeCraft software design process.

Gameful Learning in GradeCraft

Quoting from Holman, Aguilar and Fishman , the following Gameful Learning ideas have been built into GradeCraft:

  • using points and incremental levels instead of grades
  • awarding badges to recognize achievements and skill-acquisition
  • allowing students to redo assignments as many times as necessary to succeed
  • giving students the ability to decide the types of assignments they would attempt
  • allowing students to determine how much assignments would count towards their final grade
  • having students work together in both self-selected and pre-arranged groups on larger, sometimes competitive, challenges
  • sharing earned skills amongst students
  • requiring the completion of specific assignments and tasks in order to ‘unlock’ other challenges
  • and displaying generalized information regarding classmates’ performance.

It is easy to see how these techniques cover the 3 key principles: competence; autonomy; and belongingness. It is also obvious that attempting to implement all these teaching methods in a traditional classroom, and without the support of technology, would be very difficult. In that respect GradeCraft is realizing the promise of new teaching technology, in that it makes possible a new and better learning ecology, rather than replicating didactic teaching online.

Moving forward from here

In implementing Gameful Learning, one of my early tasks should be a controlled rollout of GradeCraft. Unfortunately I work in a public (government run) secondary college and I don’t have that level of autonomy. In order to move forward I will now investigate how, and to what extent, gameful principles can be applied within the infrastructure I am provided. In simple terms how can I move my current learning ecology, with a number of constraints, in a gameful direction?

I am encouraged by the fact the some gamefulness is better than none and these principles were developed and tested before GradeCraft was written.


Gameful MOOC core – key ideas

Gameful vs. Gamification

When a discussion of Gameful Learning starts anyone with knowledge of Gamification immediately thinks, how does Gamefulness compare to Gamification? Do we need a new term? I had some discussion of this on the ‘back channel’ and I think  the best explanation was tweeted by Evan Straub at University of Michigan

Gamefulness tweet

So Gamification is about running a learning program as a type of game, while Gamefulness is about applying what we know about the underlying psychology and theory of games to make our learning activities more effective.

Barry Fishman’s analysis of successful games identified 10 attributes, which simplified down to giving a sense of competence, of belonging, and of autonomy or agency. It is likely that building these into learning programs will result in more engaging and effective learning. That, however, is quite a leap. As educators we need research and a theoretical basis for making that assertion.

Theories of motivation

What is it about games that makes them so engaging and effective as learning environments? A study of motivational theory provides the answers. Two key theories discussed in the MOOC are Achievement Goal Theory and Self Determination Theory.

Achievement Goal Theory identifies Mastery Orientation and Performance Orientations. Mastery is the most powerful orientation for learning, and is associated with intrinsic motivation. Performance orientation is when a learner associates with the achievement norms of their peers, either to compete or to avoid looking deficient. Performance orientations are linked to extrinsic motivation.

Self Determination Theory describes the conditions under which intrinsic motivation is fostered. SDT identifies three key precursors to intrinsic motivation. All of which are the bases for effective game play.

So when students experience competence, belongingness and autonomy in their learning activities, intrinsic motivation and therefore mastery orientation is facilitated. That, in a nutshell is the basis for Gameful Learning as I see it.

The question is, what practical things can we do in our classrooms to facilitate belongingness, autonomy and competence? A team at University of Michigan have developed a learning management system called GradeCraft, which incorporates these ideas. The next step for me is  to leave the MOOC for a while and spend some time investigating GradeCraft.

An Overview of Gameful Learning

Caitlin Holman is one of the creators of a LMS called Gradecraft. Gradecraft is especially designed to  incorporates Gameful Learning techniques.

This clip is Caitlin talking about Gameful Learning.


As promised in my last post, we are moving on to talk about Grit.

This section of the Gameful Learning MOOC is presented in the form of an interview with Angela Duckworth.

What is grit?

It is easy to see Grit as analogous to determination and hard work, but Angela defines it more positively as perseverance and passion. So Grit is not only something we draw on to overcome setbacks, it drives us forward all the time. Grit underpins our capacity to step out and take risks, learning from failure. As such grit is closely associated with intrinsic motivation and a Mastery Orientation.

How do we foster Grit?

It is therefore obvious that Grit has a positive impact on learning, but how can a teacher encourage the development of grit in their students? The secret is obvious when we study the relationship between grit and motivation.

Giving learners agency encourages intrinsic motivation, resulting in the development of passion or Grit.

A learning environment characterised by high challenge and high support is also conducive to developing Grit. Challenge and support was discussed at length in the interview, but put succinctly students that are challenged and supported feel a sense of belonging and competence.

In other words the three components of Self Determination Theory are integral to fostering grit in students.


Grit is an attribute which facilitates learning, and is itself closely aligned with the principles of Self Determination Theory. Grit is also connected with the Mastery Orientation in Achievement Goal Theory. Grit ties together what we have learned in our study of motivational theories and connects those theories with effective learning.

Self Determination Theory

Continuing through the Gameful Learning MOOC on EdX we have arrived at what Barry Fishman describes as a key concept. Self Determination Theory.

SDT has three components:

  • Autonomy
  • Belonging
  • Competence

Traditional classroom teaching provides little autonomy to students. In general students do what the teacher wants them to do at the time they want them to do it. SDT tells us that students will be more highly motivated and successful if they have a higher degree of agency. Gameful learning does not mean that students do anything they want, but it does mean that students are able to choose between a curated range of pathways to the learning outcomes. They may also be given some agency in how they demonstrate their learning.

While teachers typically teach to an average student, there is actually no such student in the class. Every student will differ around the average. Autonomy provides for a natural differentiation of learning based on individual differences.

The second element of SDT is belonging. Outside formal education learning is a social activity. Generally it happens in clubs and societies or at the workplace. Classrooms on the other hand are often set up to minimize or constrain social interaction. In addition assessment regimes are often competitive, setting individuals in competition with one another. Competition used in the correct way is a motivating influence, but competition that isolates is not. Gameful learning provides for constructive social interaction to support and motivate students.

The third and final element of self determination theory is competence. There are two key aspects in developing a sense of competence in students. Firstly, instead of marking from 100% down, always start at 0% and build up. In practical terms this means that students should understand that the teacher is giving credit for what they do know rather than looking for what they don’t know.

A good example of this is the way most students approach tests and exams. These are stressful and the students usually assume that the test is something they need to beat. It is there to try to make them look incompetent. Their fear of failure encourages them to approach a test with a performance orientation. A more productive way to approach an assessment is to see it as a way to demonstrate what they have learned.

Providing students with a competence based approach involves giving achievable challenges where everything is seen as progress towards a goal. Gameful learning always provides for recovery from failure so that failure is always progress towards success. In fact if there is no failure then most likely the challenge is too easy.


Self determination theory, when properly developed, is very supportive of intrinsic motivation. When students do not have autonomy, belonging and a sense of competence, then teachers have to resort to a higher level of extrinsic motivation.

In summary I will relate an anecdote. A student of mine explained recently that he had not been allowed to attend the school celebration dinner last year (i.e. ‘prom’ for my USA readers) because he had not completed assignment work. This illustrates clearly the relationship between self determination theory and motivation. That institution was relying on a high level of extrinsic motivation (which obviously didn’t work) and in doing so was actively undermining the autonomy, belonging and sense of competence of students. An approach based on SDT would support more intrinsic motivation to complete assignment work. The school would then be able to rely less on extrinsic motivation and let all their students celebrate their success.

Next topic is “Grit”. I can’t wait.

Motivation and Flow States

A “flow state” is when a person is being carried along with a task. Many of us experience a type of flow state when we are immersed in a computer game. In the classroom productive flow is that magic time when a student is fully engaged in an activity. It is when learning is most effective. As educators it is what we strive for, but what can we do to facilitate a flow state?

There are, in my opinion, a number of things which contribute to achieving a flow state. Many are not controllable by the teacher, but one important contributor is. Achieving flow is heavily influenced by the level of challenge presented by the learning task. To illustrate this we will return to considering computer games. If a computer game is too easy a gamer will quickly lose interest, similarly if a game is too difficult a gamer will become frustrated with the lack of progress. When the game offers a challenge at the correct level a gamer will experience a flow state. Computer games are carefully designed to increment difficulty as a gamer progresses up through levels, to keep the gamer engaged.

Applying this to the classroom, students will be most likely to enter a flow state when the challenge provided is high enough to engage, but not so high as to frustrate. It is here that we can see a connection between Gameful Learning Design and the familiar Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development In other words students will be more motivated and enter a flow state when the challenge applied is just outside what the students can do without extra thought and support. Gamful Learning Design provides an environment where students are constantly “leveling up” as in a computer game.

Good Games

In my last post I started thinking about the work of Barry Fishman on Gameful Learning. I got as far as concluding that school is a game, but not a very good one. On the other hand, we know from experience that good games are powerful learning environments, but the learning is generally not very useful outside the game. The logical conclusion from this is, if we could make school into a better game then useful learning would be enhanced.

In his EdX MOOC (Gameful Learning 101), Fishman identifies 10 principles behind good games.

1      Clear Learning Goals

Games all have clear and well defined goals.

2      Identity Play

In game play the identity of the player merges into a game identity. It is easiest to understand this in the context where a player identifies with a character in a computer game

3      Embedded Assessment

Games don’t stop to see what you have learned. Skill is demonstrated and rewarded within the game play.

4      Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Games have built in motivators which reward play. They also have extrinsic motivators, for instance digital badges which can be shared to earn status in the game community.

5      Support Autonomy

In a good game the players are often allowed (or encouraged) to explore and find their way through he game. They are also often able to find alternative ways to play the game.

6      Encourage Belonging

Good games are supported by communities that promote belonging. Sports clubs and online communities for computer games are examples.

7      Support Competence

As competence grows the games gets harder and more enjoyable.

8      Productive Failure

In a game failure is never final. Gamers know they can come back and learn from their mistake.

9      Encourage Exploration

A game always encourages exploration. In any game a good gamer will explore, even after competing a level, to find out more about the level and a better way to complete it. This is particularly true of computers games. Another example is golf, as golfers will repeatedly play a course to improve their score and find better solutions to the problems the course presents.

10    Practice and Reinforcement

Practicing a game is rewarded by improvement in the skills of the game.

The School Game

If some of these attributes of a good game can be applied to education, then the game we call school will be improved. Leading to improved student engagement and learning.

How to do that will be covered in future posts.

A tool for teaching coding

I have been a computing teacher and IT professional all my working life, so it is exciting to see coding being elevated as a new ‘literacy’. While I have some reservations about the direction this is taking, I will leave it till later to comment, once my thoughts have settled.

One positive coming out of this is the wave of new coding tools and IDEs (Integrated Development Environments) being released with education in mind.

This brief post is to introduce a tool I have recently found called Greenfoot.