Spring 2012 Lessons Learned: 202D

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I haven't taught Business Writing since 2008, when I left Penn State Shenango for the Hazleton campus. And as with every other course that I imported, 202D needs to be changed to accommodate the particularities of this student population.

Most of the assignments I used were tried and true, oldies but goodies:
  • A resume and cover letter to begin, encouraging the students to see themselves as professionals in training
  • "Two Memos and a Letter" was a project that encouraged rhetorical design: students had to create three business documents with three different audiences and intentions but all relating to a single issue in business
  • A presentation assignment that asked them to adopt the best practices for PowerPoint as promoted by Penn State's Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence

A few assignments were new, and it's here that I think some improvement is needed.

I consulted with the director of the campus's baccalaureate degree program in Business, and he stressed that students need to learn plain English, summary and outlining skills to succeed in upper level courses. Plain English is always a focus of Business Writing, but I emphasized it in every assignment. But for the outlining and summary I devised an assignment I called "The Water Cooler Project."  The idea was to walk students through the process of preparing to have a professional, intellectual conversation around the water cooler. I chose a best-seller on a business related topic, had them read it, outline it, summarize it, and then discuss it in groups. They recorded the conversations and turned them in as part of their grade.

As assignments go, it was not a great success. The students hated the book (Lords of Finance), and it was certainly longer than needed (or advisable). A colleague who peer reviewed a class session wisely suggested separating the tasks, and having them outline / summarize articles from professional journals or even business news sources. The possibility then exists of having them use a shorter but far more engaging text for the water cooler project. (Say, for example, an episode of a much-talked-about HBO program--the project was inspired by my memories of people talking incessantly about the Sopranos during the early years.)

I also used a "self-designed project" in the place of a mid-sized report. Following my practice in Technical Writing, I wanted the students to choose a topic related to their major and choose the form best suited for its expression. The troubles were two. First, many of the students honestly believe (and proved impossible to convince otherwise) that their intended professions require very little writing, and no report writing. That's an issue that needs to be addressed in 202D, certainly, but it needn't (shouldn't) be part of a major project due at the end of the semester. Leaving so much about the project open was a mistake.

Second, I've learned from the tech writing class that major projects should not be due at the end of the semester. They should be due around the 2/3 mark. That leaves shorter, less stressful projects for the end of the semester when they are wigging out about "classes that matter" (classes, that is, in their majors).

In the place of the self-designed project I will adapt a mid-size report assignment that my colleague Jim Manis described for me tonight. He asks them to read the business news until they find a topic of interest to them, then brings in the librarians to help them find additional sources on their topic; they then write up a report that presents a full background on the topic, using proper citations, etc. This might actually dovetail with the outline/summary assignment: that could be a preliminary step to writing the full report.

In all, it's been a good semester. My students have succeeded at a high level, as usual for the 202s. My policy of allowing revision until students are satisfied with their grades produces wonderful results in the 202 courses, because the students are focused on their majors and on their futures, and they value achievement as well as good grades.

I look forward to teaching this class again and implementing these lessons.

First Year Composition: an Epic Win?

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I think most composition instructors would chuckle, ruefully of course, because what we want so desperately (for our students to share our sense that FYC is the most important course in their education, that their freedom to choose their own topics should evoke intellectual curiosity and lead to a lifetime of learning, etc.) very rarely comes to pass.

Writing instruction certainly improves when we move past the "write on a theme" assignments to self-designed project-based learning; it also benefits from our insistence on attention to rhetorical situations (considering audience, intention, and constraints) instead of imposing genre on them (write a narrative, an analysis, a proposal, etc.). We might encourage students to imagine real situations, but it's still pretty exceptional to find students who are NOT writing for the instructor and for a grade. (Web publishing is changing this; see, for example, Bob Cummings's Lazy Virtues on using Wikipedia in FYC).

In the context of my recent thinking about gamification, I've been asking myself whether one way to answer the "So what?" question is to go big: to imagine assignments that challenge what students believe they are capable of accomplishing. Inspired by Jane McGonigal's Find the Future game (in which 500 students locked in the NY Public Library overnight co-authored a book, which now resides in the Rare Book and Manuscripts collection), I've been thinking about a few possibilities.

I should mention beforehand that I'm inclined toward providing a loose framework for my Honors Composition classes. Last year, we interrogated Penn State's motto "Making Life Better," which was ironic but deeply meaningful in the context of the events of last Fall. A lof of negative attention was cast on Penn State, especially after the students rioted in the wake of Joe Paterno's firing, and some pundits suggested that the football cheer "We Are ... Penn State" represents all that was wrong with the university: it depended on football and the alumni support it created; having a sports program that was too big to fail led to ethical failures, if not also criminal acts. In order to speak back against that attitude, which mis-characterizes the university and its students, it might be interesting to have students reflect on questions of identity and ethics (and history and future direction and more) in what we might call the "Who We Are" project.

So, back to the potential for epic projects, now situated within the context of representing "Who We [Penn Staters] Are" --

A Day in the Life of Penn State: Ask students in the class to take photographs throughout the day on campus, covering as much ground as possible. They could then select the best shots, write captions and a short essay explaining what they saw and did, and how their completed photo essay explains "Who We Are."

That's an interesting enough assignment, in my book. It's different from the usual FYC fare, and it might even be fun. It's not quite epic, though, unless you then challenge the class to compile the individual essays into a single text that could be published as an e-Book or printed on-demand.

If you really wanted to push for epic scale, though, you could invite everyone on campus to participate. Or if you really wanted to go big, you could coordinate with classes on other campuses (Penn State has what, 24?) to make it a University-wide event and project.

Similarly, students could write essays inspired by This I Believe.  That's not an uncommon assignment in college and high school writing classes, but scale matters here. It's one thing for each individual to say what he or she believes, but it's much more interesting to see what a social group or community believes. The project would highlight the diversity that exists within the class, or if the scale were broadened, across campus or the University.

Story Corps could inspire a podcasting project. It would be interesting for students to interview each other using standard Story Corps questions, but it would also be interesting for them to interview students not in the class, faculty, staff, and perhaps especially alumni. That would provide some historical scope to the questions, which might include things like "What is your favorite memory of Penn State?"

I would imagine still asking students to complete a semester-long research project related to their majors, but perhaps making the outcome a multigeneric essay that defines who they are as Penn State students: as people, as scholars, as professionals in training. This could also be accomplished through an electronic portfolio.

I'd be interested to conclude the course with presentations inspired by Ignite (or TED, or Pecha Kucha) in which students, using a limited number of slides and a limited amount of time, explain who they are. It could be a wonderful evening event, with their parents and friends and the faculty (heck, even the student body at large) invited. They could record their talks and post them on their e-portfolios, or on a course website.

I don't know how serious I am about doing any one these projects, but I think they illustrate the kind of large-scale thinking that could help make my FYC classes more dynamic and exciting, and thereby stimulate more and better work.

Writing FTW, part 2

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Is it possible to replace the drudgery of a grading contract with game elements that transform first-year composition into a more engaging, dare I dream even exciting, class?

I hope so. I think so. I hope you'll help me think it through.

Before I get started, let me share some fundamental assumptions. I want to keep grades and game elements separate. I don't want the formal, institutional feedback to correspond to game results except insofar as the game motivates the effort that produces better writing. Also, I want the game to feel competitive but require cooperation, in the hope that combining the two gaming styles will make the course design appeal as broadly as possible.

 Let me say right up front that there's nothing new or interesting, gamewise, in what I'm proposing here. It might not even be new in composition pedagogy. It's new to me, though, and this is my blog, so cut me some slack (for now at least).

Last weekend I was at the Symposium for Teaching and Learning with Technology at Penn State. Their name badges included a lanyard, and attached to the lanyard was a small black button with the event's Twitter hashtag, #tltsym12, in plain white text. I immediately liked the idea of the pin, as I could see myself adding to the lanyard year after year that I attend the symposium. Then, the check-in staff told me I also qualified for the "Road Warrior" badge--car tire sable with venti latte cup argent--because I'd driven to University Park from Hazleton. That was my first indication that a game was afoot. It turns out that, for the rest of the conference, additional buttons were given out to reward contributions to the conference: for speaking, for asking questions, for answering questions, for visiting vendor booths, etc.

I thought it was a great idea, but I also thought more could have been done with it. If the goal was to motivate (and not merely reward) good conference behaviors, it would have been better to let us know beforehand what we needed to do to earn the tokens. I know: we all know or should know how to behave at conferences, but if it's just a reward for doing what you would or should do anyway, then there are probably better ways to spend the budget. (Unless, of course, the point was to demonstrate and spark thinking about how such a system could work in classes, in which case...WIN.)

Ok, so let's talk about the behaviors that we want to develop in a composition class.  I'm going to skip over the qualities of writing that we look for in the texts students produce, things like rhetorical design / genre focus; development of ideas through research, reflection, critical and/or creative thinking; organization; style and correctness. Let those form the basis for grading, and let's focus on the behaviors that produce those qualities.

I like the name tag / lanyard thing. Well designed, cool-looking buttons are worth winning in themselves, but I think I would also apply a point / rank / leaderboard system to generate some competition. The cooperation would come in through the means of awarding the badges: you can only receive a badge if you are nominated for it though a post on the course blog by another student in the class.

The badges might include:

  • The Friend in Need: awarded to a student who provides great peer review (generous in the time and attention devoted to the task; substantial, supportive yet constructively critical commentary. There should be three levels (bronze, silver, and gold), with the higher levels awarded for consistent effort in this area. (Silver could only be awarded after one third of the semester has passed, gold only in the final third, and only if the previous level was earned in a previous game period.)
  • Helping Hands: given to those who make contributions above and beyond expectation on a collaborative project. This badge could also come in levels, if the assignments allow for multiple collaborations.
  • The Good Citizen: recognizes those who take the time and make the effort to nominate others for badges; also available in levels.
  • Research behaviors could be recognized with such buttons as Digging Deep (exceeding expectation for quantity and quality of sources), F2F (including interviews by the author), Information Literacy (completing a literature review / annotated bibliography)
  • Digital Storyteller: recognizes high achievement in creating multimodal, multimedia texts
  • Gearhead: recognizes students who push themselves to master technological tools of writing in the context of 21st century literacies, including hardware, software, web applications, databases, etc.
  • Human Resources: seek help from librarians, writing center consultants, professors in your classes or major
  • Mr or Ms Dependable: recognizes classmates who are always there for you...or just there. Also available in levels.
  • Spread the Word: dissemination / publication rewards for sharing your work with a few trusted classmates, with the class as a whole, or even publishing your work to the internet (on a course blog, eportfolio, YouTube, etc.), and for publicizing or promoting your work on FB or Twitter.
  • It would also be possible to allow students to offer qualitative assessments through badges like The Scholar (nominate work that represents the best of academic endeavor, work from which you learned a lot); The Artist (nominate work that represents significant creative achievement).
If I include a points system, the silver and gold levels would be worth significantly more than bronze. The qualitative rewards would be worth quite a bit, with the intention of limiting their use. (One could also require some kind of group assent to those badges--multiple nominations, polling, or the like.)

Because the game is separate from grades, I would award high achievement through game rewards: t-shirts for every participant and perhaps a Nittany Lion statuette for the student who earns the most points during the game. I might also ask for nominations for the Avis award (not number one, but tried the hardest) and the Grindstone award for the student who, through hard work, improved the most during the semester.

Notes: 1. The names for the badges are (obviously, I hope) placeholders. I'd love to get some feedback, especially if you have better ideas for badge names or any ideas for designs, or for sources of funding to pay for all of this. 2. Tomorrow, hopefully, I'll post about why this is only a half-measure, and offer an even more tentative idea about how to help students achieve an epic win in FYC.

Thanks to all TLTSYM12 folk for inspiring these fantasies.

Writing FTW*, part 1

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*"For the win." Internet/gamer speak for awesome, derived, I would guess, from sports broadcasting: "Jordan, 3-pointer for the win...!"

In my last post, I described writing classes as the antithesis of gaming. I'm not at all convinced that HAS to be the case, so here I'll sketch out a few preliminary ideas for how one might bring game elements into the composition class.

First, some context. A few semesters ago, my wife Maggie introduced me to an article by UMass's Peter Elbow about using a grading contract in first-year composition classes. The basic idea is this: studies have shown that students who adopt good writing processes produce good writing; it makes as much sense, therefore, to base grades on the activities that constitute those processes as it does to evaluate the final product. Elbow does not recommend ignoring final product, but in the study he used a contract to guarantee students a grade no lower than B provided that certain conditions were met. Those conditions included attending class, completing assigned reading, meeting research expectations, outlining, submitting work for peer review and reviewing the work of others, revising and editing. The quality of writing only came into consideration if it suggested the student deserved a grade higher than B,

We adopted Elbow's contract with only minor modifications. Given the student population at Penn State Hazleton, and especially since I introduced the contract into Basic Writing (English 004), I added an item to the contract saying that all writing assignments had to be revised up to a passing grade.

The students reacted exactly as Elbow predicted. The fearful, at-risk students in English 004 visibly relaxed after I explained the terms of the contract, and every single one signed the contract. They seemed to enjoy ticking off the items on their contracts as the semester went along: attendance? check. Draft to peer review? check. Their grades were higher, my SRTEs were higher, and most of the at-risk students succeeded and remained in college. It was all good.

Well, almost all.  Despite the seriousness and commitment to success that I saw in the students, I was not sold on the contract. As an instructor, I felt like a bean counter, and I thought it appealed to the worst instincts of students today: I told them exactly what they needed to do, and they did it. But they did nothing more, and many of them were disappointed when their grades were stuck at B. "I did everything exactly as you asked; why didn't that earn full credit?"

At the heart of the my dissatisfaction was the knowledge that the contract did nothing to change the fundamental facts that the course was not challenging and it was not fun. The level of engagement and effort required to move beyond good work  (B range grades) into excellent work (A range grades) was not stated as an expectation in the contract. The contract did not stipulate a reward for those attitudes and behaviors, and the very staid method of fulfilling the contract by dutiful attention to required procedures did nothing to stimulate those attitudes and behaviors. In fact, it worked against them.

How Writing Class Is Not Like a Game

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I thought it might be useful, before spending a lot of time thinking about how to use game elements to enrich first-year composition (FYC), to consider the scope of the challenge.

In her keynote at Penn State's Symposium for Teaching and Learning with Technology, Jane McGonigal laid out what she believes are the four components of every game:

  • A goal
  • Rules
  • A feedback system
  • Voluntary participation
How might we apply these to FYC classes?

The fourth point should immediately take FYC out of consideration for gamification. Students do not willingly or enthusiastically take FYC, even when they enjoy writing and have excellent writing skills.

Add to that the critical importance of the course goal: we tell them they need better writing skills in order to succeed in college courses and in their professional lives. Good grades are a primary motivation, but that goal does not always translate into students' buying into the course objectives--the specific, measurable skills and achievements that form the basis of their grades. In other words, the rules do not always seem logical or fair.

In an ideal world, the instructor's goal of student learning and the student's goal of high grades would be mutually reinforcing: the student works hard, produces evidence of learning, receives positive feedback; in a worse-case scenario, negative feedback spurs harder work, better results, and (consequently) more positive feedback on revised drafts or subsequent assignments.

This feedback doesn't usually follow a gameplay model, however.

Feedback in a game is quick, usually instantaneous and ongoing. In FYC it's hardly instantaneous, as it takes instructors in FYC classes days, even weeks to return a set of papers (especially as enrollments creep up in response to budgetary pressures), and it's usually only periodical as work is submitted for grading several times during the semester.

(There's a lot more to be said about shortcomings in the feedback loop, both in terms of the kinds of feedback that are provided and how feedback is processed by students; that would take me beyond the scope of the present discussion, however, so it's best left out.)

There is also a significant difference in the consequences for failure. McGonigal mentioned that gamers are failing approximately 80% of the time they spend playing. Failure is integral to the learning that makes games fun, but only because the consequences (if any) are generally low: You lose a game and you return to start; you move through the challenges again with better insight about how to overcome them. That level of failure is impossible in education because the stakes are too high. I tell my students that I don't expect them to enter the class able to write up to the standard of the course (else, why take it?). Instead, I encourage students to revise their work until it earns the grade they are seeking. Regularly, students afraid of receiving low final grades give up on the course, refuse to learn what they need to learn, and withdraw. They do this not because they cannot do the work, or even because they do not want to work up to MY standard, but simply because the prospect of a poor grade is unnerving.

(Feedback also returns to the instructor, but that isn't part of the current discussion.)

To sum up, then, first-year composition is almost entirely ungamelike:

  • The key players (teacher and student) may approach the course/game with different, sometimes conflicting, purposes
  • Similarly, these players may approach the course/game with different, sometimes conflicting understandings of the rules
  • Feedback is sometimes slow, occasional, incomplete, and incomprehensible--or poorly understood by the student
  • Participation is mandatory, which means the attitude of the student-player is resistant or even resentful.

I don't know whether FYC is screaming out for the positive changes that gamification might bring, or whether it's a fool's errand to try.


Rethinking Games

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I've been thinking about games in composition classes again after listening to Jane McGonigal's keynote at the 2012 Symposium on Teaching and Learning at Penn State.

Before writing this, I was looking over my previous posts about gamification and cringing: they're a great example of how bad a game developer I was. I kept gravitating toward unnecessarily complex systems instead of what I was actually pretty good at: big picture thinking.

The game I worked on had an identity crisis. It was one of the early (and for its time, most successful and populous) text-based mmorpgs, groundbreaking, genre-defining, and quite successful commercially.  My main criticism of the game, or better of the management of the game, is that its complexity was poorly recognized in its design.

The game I worked for involved three activities which ideally produced mutually reinforcing pleasures: gaining experience, leveling up, and increasing skills; role playing; and socializing. As I rose through the ranks from copy editor and writer to community developer and coder to senior manager was that we didn't reward the two kinds of game play that were actually, from a business standpoint, the most rewarding. Players who invested in their characters by writing back stories and then, by play acting those characters, created new stories in the game were more likely to remain paying customers (the company charged accounts monthly) than players whose main interest was skill mastery through professional activities (hunting, healing, etc.). And our longest lasting players were those for whom the game world functioned like Cheers: a place where others know your name, where your in-game and real identity were known, a place where being together with friends was as important as any activity in the game.

Of these pleasures, only the mechanical game play was rewarded (or, forgive me, incentivized) by the game itself. Sure, we worked pretty hard to create world cultures on which character stories could be built, and gamemasters did amazing things with storytelling through events in the game. But the pleasures of creativity and collaboration and connection were intrinsic to the players rather than a formal part of the game. That's not really a problem, except that those pleasures are not disconnected from the pleasures of skill mastery / leveling up. Players who focused on RP and socialization sacrificed fame and fortune, and that, in my view at least, was not right.

Why does any of this matter?  When I think about using game elements in the classroom, I worry about the question of incentives. I would want to be sure that I'm not trivializing education by turning it into a game. I would want to be sure that I'm rewarding the right kind of behaviors. I would want the game elements to produce the kind of attitudes and behaviors that we know produce better learning. I wouldn't want the students to pursue game goals except insofar as those goals reinforce course objectives.

I suppose, then, that course game design will follow the principles of backwards course design: begin with the course objectives; create activities that use the appeals of gaming to motivate students to meet those objectives. THAT, I can wrap my head around. I'm considering a possible strategy that I'll outline in another post.

A Grammar Gaming Website

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Here's how I would design one.

First, I'd start with a great handbook, something like Diana Hacker's A Writer's Reference, or even the Purdue Online Writing Lab (which is, of course, much more than a handbook).  This would be an essential reference / interface.

Next, I would populate a database with material. This would be a huge undertaking, of the sort that could only be crowd-sourced (or, I suppose, if this were an industry site, outsourced overseas). I would imagine each entry looking something like this: SECTION | TOPIC | SUBTOPIC | R/W. Each entry to the database would be an error of a specific kind (for example: PUNCTUATION | COMMA | COMMA SPLICE | W | [The sentence.]. I'd include a correct sentence and then as many incorrect versions as it makes sense for the question creator to throw in (each of which would have to be similarly coded.  I'd also have the incorrect section of the sentence color coded. [Some guidance for the creation of questions would be necessary.]

What would this allow, by way of gameplay / use of the website?

1) Someone could focus on a specific area of grammar. I'm currently trying to memorize the map of the world, and I find repetition of geography quizzes on Sporcle very helpful. If an instructor assigned the chapter on commas, they could assign a comma quiz; or if I were having trouble with comma splices I could test myself just on that until I was satisfied I could find and fix them reliably.

2) Someone could test their grammar skills generally, and then focus on the areas that need the most work. The database could randomly select X number of questions of Y types for a short quiz or longer test. The results could be sent to an instructor as well as reported to the quiz taker.

From the discussion above, you can probably guess what I'd like to see mechanically. In test mode, the quiz would return results at the end of the test or quiz. In practice mode, the program could provide guidance to someone who does not answer within a specific time frame--first in the form of a general hint (by displaying the colored highlighting of the area of the sentence where the error appears) and then a specific hint (prompting the test taker to look at a specific area of the handbook)--and then display the correct answer on time out.

The coding would also allow different sorts of questions. You could ask people to identify the sentence as correct or incorrect; identify the error type; or ask them to identify the place in the sentence where the error appears. You could also provide for a testing mode where students would type correct sentences into the program, and these would be emailed to the instructor. Such variety would test knowledge of grammar much more thoroughly than just asking students to identify a correctly rewritten version.

If your database were truly large, you would allow people to retake the quiz or test over and over without repetition providing easy guidance. (On Sporcle.com, the map of Africa does not change between repetitions.)

I think it would also be interesting to add a social dimension to the site. One thing I like about Sporcle is seeing how my score compares to others who have taken the quiz, and also how people did on each of the questions. You could set it up so that users could compare themselves against other users in a pre-set group (Mrs. Smith's English class at Somewhere High), or other user groups (Penn State vs. Michigan students, say). Even a random person on the streets might like to see how their comma usage stands up against people with similar or different backgrounds. You could ask users to register things like age, education level, profession, as long as you display those results anonymously. You could also ask people to opt into public display of their scores.

I think this could be very effective in teaching, but I have some questions about classroom integration. If you had grades attached to the game, then displaying results even within a private class view would be a FERPA violation (correct me if I'm wrong). But if it's just a game with no points attached, it would allow competition to drive additional practice, study, and learning. You could, of course, leave out the social aspect if you were using the website for instruction.

You could also have a reward structure something like Qrank uses. For those who don't know, Qrank is a short daily quiz game that links to your friends list on Facebook, or your contacts list on your phone; you can display your daily results on FB and Twitter if you choose. I've found it sparks a nice competition between some grad school friends who also play. The other aspect of the game are the awards for specific achievements: if you get X number of questions right, or wrong, you earn an award; if you perform in specific ways in specific categories of questions, you earn an award; if you rank on the various leaderboards (local, state, national, international), you get awards; if you activate geolocation, you even get awards for playing in the various states and territories.  This would be a fun addition; the ability to track your friends' progress through awards would be one possible way to introduce competition without displaying specific results.

Now, if only there were a commercial aspect to teaching grammar....

Gamification of Grammar II

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Goal and Objectives
The goal is this: design a game that will encourage participation in and engagement with learning to use language at a college standard. In most first-year writing classes, this objective connects with three specific activities: grammar exercises, review / editing of one's own work, and collaborative peer review / editing. The game should have overarching goals as well as intermediate objectives, and it should offer appropriate rewards. It should be social, drawing on both competition and collaboration, to the degree possible.

**Bear in mind, this is very preliminary thinking. If I ever wanted to take this past rank speculation and move toward development, I'd request release time for a thorough lit review. This is just thinking off the top of my head about how you could design a game with those goals in mind.**

First, the major objectives are traditional educational objectives. They want good grades, so attach a specific portion of the final grade to language usage. You might keep language use a component of their writing assignment evaluation, but I'm suggesting attaching a specific portion of the grade to the grammar game itself.  The learning behind the grade is important, and it should be discussed early and often, but the idea here is to sublimate the intrinsic value to the extrinsic.

Second, the activities associated with the game need not--and perhaps should not--be fun. Learning to use language correctly and learning to edit is hard, literally "painstaking." Students will need to read the handbook, do exercises, and complete assessments--just as they have always done.

Assessment and Categorical Ranking
We begin with individual language assessment, which is important not just for game play but for assessing the efficacy of the game as a delivery mode. I'd recommend a test measuring a full range of grammar and usage issues. For practical reasons, this should be online and multiple choice, though I'd like to see variety in how the test asks students to identify errors.

Based on the outcome of the assessment students will be assigned a rank; the Olympic categories of gold, silver, and bronze are a useful place to start (assuming we don't want to parse any further). We might begin with Bronze = 0 - 69, Silver = 70 - 89, Gold = 90 - 100. Students will then be placed into groups of three to five with representatives from each metallic category for collaboration on classroom exercises and peer review.

Exercises
Exercises will measure and reinforce learning from the handbook. Students are assigned to read a chapter for homework; they're encouraged but not required to do any associated exercises. Ideally, class would begin with a quiz assessing the students' learning of the rules surrounding sentence fragments. That would allow the students to judge the relative skills of their group members, but also provide the designer / instructor more data. (See below: this might be assessment overkill!)

The game play / classroom activity involves collaborative work on problems. Students access pages (paper or web) with 3-4 sentences written on each; each sentence may or may not contain an error. The challenge is to describe what is incorrect about the sentence, referencing a specific page in the handbook that provides guidance on the issue, and then rewrite the sentence to fix the error. Collaboration might entail each group member's taking responsibility for a different task, or--perhaps better--each member's taking responsibility for completing their own forms, but tying group success to everyone's successful completion of the task. Writers will turn to others in the group for help as needed, especially to review solutions, and this will provide an opportunity for peer instruction and recognition of the skills that stronger users bring to the group. A sprint format would bring high energy and focus, but it might work against the goal of instruction and collaboration. (Ideally, the activity would end with a post-test, but that might be assessment overkill.)

Some reward would then attach to the successful completion of the exercise. But what? If a grade is attached, should the grade reflect participation or achievement? If ability, then what incentive does a gold writer have for participating? Or should participation attach to game-style rewards, while grades are attached to post-game quizzes? It's also possible to say that the exercises merely contribute to skills that will be tested in periodic repetitions of the assessment test.

Note: However a game like this works, it will require a huge number of assessment questions. This will need to be crowdsourced.

Peer Review
Gamification of peer review is a complicated idea. We need to create incentives for two things: bringing to class as well-edited an essay as possible, and finding as many errors in classmates' papers as possible. Both of these tasks are heavily weighted in favor of the student who begins the class with better skills, and therefore game rules will need to compensate. (Note: We're about to enter into the mechanics part of design, and I am horrible at math. Any suggestions would be gratefully accepted!)

Making Errors
We might begin with the premise that writers with stronger language usage skill can and should be expected to produce fewer errors than writers with weaker skill. For the purposes of argument, let's say that we're expecting 500 words, or two pages, per essay in a basic skills course. I think it's reasonable to expect an A student, after multiple opportunities for review and revision, to produce a perfect paper. A student earning a B or C will likely have an error or two per page, and a D or F student even after hard work will likely have an error or two per paragraph. The game score on a draft might therefore be determined by the formula below, where E = number of errors and V is a variable assigned to the expectation for error in each category of student. For gold, V = 0; silver, V = 2; bronze, V = 5.

Score = 100 + [(V - E) * 10]

This formula allows students to make a reasonable number of errors on a first draft, but it also creates strong incentives for careful editing prior to peer review.

Finding Errors
Editing other students' papers is perhaps even more problematic. It's easier for those with strong language skills to find errors, but their papers (presumably) have fewer errors. It's a recipe for disaster: one writer is marking up a bunch of things, and perhaps worrying that they're being too critical of their peer; another writer is frustrated by the activity because they can't find any errors / offer any help. Game play incentives might help keep both groups focused on the task, while also providing more authority for the students to engage in the activity.

I propose a fairly simple idea: ignore who is doing the evaluation, and score the finding of errors according to the level of the writer. If a gold writer's work has fewer errors, give lots of points to the editor who finds an error there. If a bronze writer's essay presumably has a good number of errors, give far fewer points for finding those. Bear in mind that the point structure above should lead to better drafts coming in, so we need to assign points for finding errors that makes sense for those expectations. For example:

  • Gold errors are worth 20 points each
  • Silver errors are worth 15 points each
  • Bronze errors are worth 10 points each
Each editor can earn up to 100 points per review session, but there would be some kind of game play reward for finding additional errors. I'd hope that each essay would be read by at least two editors, and that the process would lead to near perfect drafts turned in for my evaluation.

Note: issues of purpose, logic & reasoning, and organization need to be handled in a separate peer review held prior to this editing review. I don't want to give the impression that I believe PR is only an error check.

I have been using assessment rubrics--the same ones I use in my evaluation--for peer review, and I think that's appropriate enough for the first round review. For the game review, I would want a much more focused activity than merely circling or underlining an error. I would want to employ a form in which an editor will write out the sentence that contains an error, then provide the name of the error type and the page number in the handbook where guidance can be found. I would then ask the writer to sign off on the editor's work: was there an error in your work? was the guidance you received from the editor useful?

These points can contribute to badge type rewards, or they might factor into an average grade for peer editing as a component of the grammar game's grade.

Concluding Thoughts
Anyway, this has gotten laughably long. If my previous experience in game design is any predictor, this is the point where someone (you out there, Adam?) needs to slap me and say, "You're making this all WAAAAAAY to complicated!"

In the end this is probably more useful as a way of thinking about revised class activities and assessment strategies than a proposal for a specific instructional module. If I had a captive IDS, web developer, and programmer, and the time it would take to do a thorough lit review, I might take a more serious look...anyone wanna give me a grant?

<chuckles on his way back to the Faulkner manuscript>

Gamification of Grammar I

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What could a grammar game be? And why would anyone want to develop one?

Let's start with the second part, and put the first off to a second post.

The concept of gamification promises to harness the structural logic of video and internet game play (point accumulation, leveling, rewards, social networking, etc.) to non-play activities (mostly, til recently, in the business world: loyalty cards, for example). The notion is that even unpleasant activities can be made more engaging if we make them work like World of Warcraft...which makes a certain amount of sense.

When I was working for Simutronics on GemStone III, we had players spending ungodly amounts of time doing quite tedious chores in the game: silver mining, sure, but that had intrinsic rewards; also things like crafting armor, a mind-numbingly repetitive grind, when equally good armor could be had from a merchant, which carried only the reward of personalizing your character, giving her or him a skill consistent with the narrative you were creating for them.

When I consider mind numbing, tedious tasks in an educational frame, grammar immediately leaps to mind. I just deleted a long paragraph about how frustrating it can be to teach unskilled or under-prepared students grammar, but I'll try instead to keep this focused on students. Why is there so little motivation, from grammar school into our classes, to practice and (hopefully) master language skills? I suspect, for the present generation, the lack of motivation has to do with poor selling and poor delivery.

We know that "kids today" (millennials, if you like that term) perform best when they know why there are asked to do something, when they can see a benefit to themselves in or emerging from the activity.  Most adults, and nearly all college instructors, would agree that communication skills are essential, and we would naturally expect (or at least hope) that young adults would see the intrinsic value of language learning as part of their professional development.

They generally don't. My sophomore technical writing students seem genuinely surprised, even offended, when I tell them their resume and cover letter will be dismissed for typos. The idea that their experience and skills would be put aside because of something so trivial as grammar and punctuation is completely foreign to them, even when I try to explain the ethical implications of errors in personal and professional communication.

But even when you convince students that it matters, as I try to do by automatically failing resumes and cover letters that contain even a single error (in my defense, I allow revision), it may not matter because their editing skills are also lacking. (Just for example: this semester, a better-than-average student in my class misspelled his own name on the cover letter.)

Whatever it is that we're doing--asking students to read well-written prose, practicing for grammar tests, even old school activities like diagramming sentences (does anyone do that anymore?)--isn't working. When students get to us, we usually throw a handbook at them, perhaps require they do exercises in class or for homework, but I suspect many of my colleagues approach it like me, with little enthusiasm or hope for its success. Personally, I have relied on my hope that students would see the professional world and its high standards approaching and decide that they need to learn this stuff.  That, too, I admit, does not work.

So, if they fail to see intrinsic value and if the extrinsic value of earning a grade has failed to work...what's left?

It's possible--I'm not taking a stand here, but rather just speculating--it's possible that changing the game might work. I think the motivations need to remain in place: language use constitutes and, equally importantly, signifies one's education; grades, on the other hand, represent an institutional endorsement and guarantee of your skills and competencies. I wouldn't want students working for stickers or virtual badges INSTEAD of those serious goals.

But I am thinking it might be effective to ask students to focus on less serious goals and rewards if their activities in pursuit of those gaming-style goals and rewards actual provide instruction and practice consistent with existing course goals and objectives.

And then, of course, the whole thing would need to be studied to see if it works, and works better than what's already being done. Luckily, grammar and style--as opposed to writing quality or rhetorical skill--is easily quantifiable. (I don't have any experience doing that, mind you, but I'm confident I can find help with that angle should I want or need it.)

"Making Lives Better" Project

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Following up on the previous post, here's an attempt to take seriously the idea of creating new teaching methods that take advantage of--and prepare students for success in--a world driven by the communications environment of digital media and social networking.

Disclaimer time: When you're teaching at an institution like Penn State, which prides itself on being "one university, geographically dispersed," you have to maintain shared goals and objectives even while you tinker with activities, assignments, and assessment strategies.

I've already changed my teaching of English 15, Penn State's required course in Rhetoric & Composition, from the class I learned to teach as a graduate instructor at University Park. For 18 years now I've moved away from individual essays on set topics toward assignments based on what's now called constructivist pedagogy: inquiry based projects that combine individual effort with collaboration. I've continued to rely on Aristotelian modes (exposition, narrative, evaluation, analysis, and synthesis) as a guide to student thinking and writing, even while opening up topic choice within the modal framework.

Here are some questions I'm asking myself in light of discussions at ELI 2011 and PSU's TLTSYM11:


1. What will happen if I throw out the framing structure of modes and the limitation of topic choice?

·       2. What if I simply provide students with goals and objectives and ask them to design, individually and in groups, projects that meet those goals and objectives?

·       3. Would connecting the class to a social network replace the artificial rhetorical situation of the writing classroom (writing for me, because I make them, in the ways that my discipline and I demand) with real audiences and real exigency?

Is it possible, that is, to begin the course by providing students with clear statements about what the university expects them to learn from the course--which is to say, by reviewing goals and objectives--then introduce a broad theme for investigation, one that comes with a clear and immediate exigency for writers and readers, and then ask them to devise a set of research and writing tasks that fulfill those objectives?  Knowing my students, I would still have to provide some clear guidance on expectations, but I think there's a real possibility of this approach increasing student engagement with research and writing tasks, with their majors, with each other, with the University, and with the world. I think it's especially likely if I also introduce, right from the start, the concept that they will be using the affordances of social networking to develop an audience / collaborative community that shares their own engagement with the topic of the course.

You can teach this course with any topic, I suppose, but part of the reason why I resisted theme courses back when they were the rage is that you make it difficult to engage students if they're all asked to investigate the same subject.  That's why, in seeking a common topic, I've deliberately chosen something with which every Penn State student can--or should be able to--connect, and also something that's a broad category of investigation (one that contains a breadth and depth of component topics).

So here's the idea:

Penn State's motto is "Making Life Better."  I suspect that many of our students (and perhaps also our faculty, staff, and alumni) spend little or no time considering that motto and its implications. Doing so provides an opportunity to explore the ethical implications of our choices, including the choice of University, college, major field, professional ambition(s), and extracurricular activities but also more personal choices like pastimes and friends.

I'd like to propose to my students that they interrogate this motto. What does it mean for a university to make life better? Or is someone else the tacit subject of "making?" What specific activities contribute to this making? What lives? Some part or whole lives? Our own lives, or others'? And what, if anything, does "better" mean (especially outside of context like this)?

I suspect that there are an almost infinite variety of ways in which Penn State folks relate to this motto, but here are a few obvious questions that can lead to personal reflection or research:

·      1. How, in choosing Penn State, did students or alumni hope to improve their lives? Did they come for a skill set or professional certification, to pursue job prospects or other ambitions? Or was their focus closer (having fun in college, for example)?

·       2. How do people with their intended majors or in their intended professions contribute to making life better?

·      3. How do students improve the lives of others (service, philanthropy, collaboration, etc.)

·      4. How does Penn State make life better for its current students? What parts of the institution or individuals make the most difference in your lives?

These questions, or others like them, could also be posed to parents, friends, faculty members, staff, administrators, alumni, townspeople who live near the campuses, Pennsylvanians in general, elected officials, football fans, and so on.  Under this general umbrella topic, students can explore beyond their personal experiences and interests to examine the University's impact on a broad spectrum of stakeholders and other people whose lives are touched by Penn State.

In terms of specific assignments, I have in mind only a course blog and/or wiki.  These sites afford students an opportunity to contribute ideas for research and writing, findings, drafts, reflections on process and product, questions, etc.  I'm particularly interested in seeing the students explore the questions that arise around technology in conjunction with rhetoric: in what form (traditional essays, audio podcasts, digital videos, blog, wiki, xtranormal videos, Voicethread conversations, Twitter backchannel, Facebook page, Prezis, dipity timelines, graphic novels, etc. ) are the results of this reflection and research best presented?

Ideally, and ultimately, I'm hoping the students will choose forms that reach out to people, create an audience, and ultimately ask that audience to join in the project as co-creators. I'd love to see the project get contributions from students who aren't in the course or on our campus, from alumni, parents, and friends of the University...anyone, ultimately, who can get a Friends of Penn State account to post on the blog or who use our hashtag.

My feeling is that the best, and maybe even only, way to achieve this goal is via trans-media (the distribution of content across media). That is to say, I'll encourage the students to do anything, to do everything; to consider their content in the context of rhetorical situation and choose the medium or media that make(s) the most sense. We would then use the blog and tag cloud to organize and (possibly) make sense of it all.

If this comes off, and I believe it can, it will be very exciting for the students, because they will be able to see how their work contributed to something real--they themselves will have made lives better by bringing people together over shared interests and concerns. I suspect that their writing will improve through engagement with the project, through the selection of topics that matter to them personally and professionally, and by a concern for the public nature of their writing.

This is all in the preliminary noodling stage, but let me ask: Thoughts?