Category Archives: Gamification

Towards a Taxonomy of Educational Games using Bernstein as a Guide

Games and gaming have increasingly become a part of the educational landscape, both in analog and digital formats. Teachers are keen to find out if they can use games in their classrooms to improve student learning and performance. It is often easy to demonstrate an uptake in engagement, but less easy to justify the time spent on a game, if educational benefit cannot be quantified. Taxonomies of games are largely based on their genre or features, the degree to which chance is present, or the complexity of the rules. This is great if you are trying to classify games, but not very helpful if your interest lies in its pedagogical value. One approach has been to try to map the affordances of game genres to educational concepts derived from Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives, Gagne’s five categories of learning outcomes, and Jonassen’s typology of problem solving (O’Brien, et al, 2010). This approach is promising, but suffers, I think from a surfeit of base concepts. By trying to account for too much, we end up with the kind of diagram beloved of these post-post times, so complex that it differs little from anecdote, and illuminates nothing.

I would like to suggest instead that a fruitful avenue might start with the work of Basil Bernstein (2004). Bernstein’s sociology of education has offered many researchers insight into the problems they were researching and a shared language which can illuminate different concerns, at different scales from the macro socio-political level to the individual lesson. By bringing this language to an analysis of types of games in education it seems to me we might be able to leverage a common language to understand better what it is in a game that might bring use value to the educational setting. I am not going to go into a lengthy summary of Bernstein’s work, which is often dense and difficult to navigate. Bernstein was basically interested in the ways in which education reproduced inequality in society, the rules and processes by which middle class students are advantaged, and working class students disadvantaged. A key tool of analysis for Bernstein was to see pedagogic practice in terms of two concepts: classification and framing.

Classification refers to the content of pedagogic discourse, the boundaries and degree of insulation between discourses. This answers the question of what knowledge is considered valid and legitimate. For example, in a Science class there is a strong sense of a body of knowledge that constitutes Science and doing Science. Even within different Science classes, some teachers may organize around tightly drawn boundaries of what constitutes doing Science, but others may operate around learning Science through problem-based approaches. A Social Studies class may have less of a sense of what might constitute legitimate knowledge in the field. In Social Studies there is more cross-disciplinary work being done, and the boundaries of the field are less tightly drawn. A class might quite legitimately be engaged in gender studies or in studying ancient history. Classification, in other words can be strong or relatively weak. Some schools organize work around themes rather than distinct subject areas. Problem-based learning probably represents the weakest classification of all.

Framing refers to the “how” of pedagogical practice, and sets out how control operates within a classroom, the ways in which the curriculum is sequenced, paced and evaluated. Strong framing reflects very much a teacher-centred approach, while weak framing is where students have greater control over what and how they are learning.

Both classification and framing are described as strong (+) or weak (-) and allowed Bernstein to identify two codes – collection codes which result in the acquistion of specialised knowledge and integrated codes in which the boundaries between subjects are weaker as are the boundaries between everyday knowledge and school knowledge. By visualizing these continua of weak to strong as a Cartesian plane – as below – we can start to identify recognizable pedagogical modes and ways of describing shifts in pedagogical practice over time. While teachers tend to favour one style or another, effective teaching relies upon the ability to shift between pedagogical modes according to the needs of the moment.

Figure 1: Pedagogies analysed with classification and framing (adapted from Jónsdóttir & Macdonald, 2013 in March et al (2017)

As Maton and Howard (2018) have shown, integrative knowledge building is dependent on movement between fields of knowledge – what they term Autonomy Tours. I have summarised what is meant by autonomy tours in a previous blog, but what research indicates is that successful lessons involve more than just sticking to the subject or topic being studied. Effective teaching involves turning everyday knowledge, knowledge from other bits of the curriculum to the purpose at hand. A Science teacher will often need to use Maths knowledge in her lesson. A History teacher might use Geography, and all teachers tend to use knowledge from students’ everyday experience to unpack and understand the concepts being built upon in their discipline. To teach effectively teachers need to take tours through content that is relevant to their field and knowledge outside their field and turn it to the purpose of teaching the topic at hand. In this way knowledge across the curriculum becomes more integrated.

It seems to me that in a similar way, effective teaching depends upon Pedagogical Tours, movements between pedagogical modes. There are times when it is appropriate for students to explore a topic on their own or with minimal guidance, but it is also appropriate for much more teacher-directed activities at other times. Movements between student-centred and teacher-centred pedagogies are necessary for learning to take place. It might well be that teachers are more comfortable in one or other pedagogical mode, but it is hard to see how effective learning can take place without movements between modes.

How are we to understand the role played by educational games?

I would argue that educational games can similarly be described through the lens of classification and framing.

Classification here would refer to the relative insulation of the game content. Some games have highly specialised content, while others have more integrated or open content. A game of Maths Blaster, for example, is clearly focused on mathematical concepts and skills, despite a space age theme. The content of the game displays strong classification (C+). On the other hand a game of I Spy with my little Eye incorporates content from everyday life around the players, and has very weak classification (C-). All games have relatively stronger or weaker classification along a continuum. Chess, for example, although it has warlike pieces and is nominally a game of conflict, is clearly more integrated in terms of general cognitive skills than a tactical wargame, which has more specialized military content.

Framing here would refer to the locus of control. Some games are tightly controlled through the operation of the rules, or software. Progress and sequencing is determined by the rules of the game and players have little opportunity to choose their own path. For example, in a game of tic-tac-toe, possible moves are heavily circumscribed. Players can only ever place a nought or a cross, and there are only nine possible starting positions. The Framing here is strong (F+). On the other hand, in a role play game, although the Games Master may have circumscribed the action by setting out a particular setting or scenario, players are generally free to try anything within their imaginations. The Framing here is much weaker (F-). In between of course might lie a continuum of games with relatively stronger or weaker framing. Chess, for example has more pieces and more possible moves than tic-tac-toe, although the framing is still strong because players cannot deviate from a set of possible board positions or legal moves. A tactical wargame might have weaker Framing because there are more pieces, more freedom to move in any direction and fewer restrictions on what a player may choose to do.

If we put the two together on a Cartesian plane, we can start to plot different games as follows:


Clearly we might differ in where we position any particular game on this matrix, and these are just a few examples of both analog and digital games. By using classification and framing, it seems to me that we can easily see the affordances of games for educational purposes, without being clouded by its features, genre and so on. By superimposing the two diagrams we might begin to identify possible code matches and code clashes between educational games chosen for use in a classroom and pedagogical styles. A code match is where the classification and framing of both pedagogical style and game match each other, and a code clash where this match is absent.



What exactly does this tell us though beyond a common sense understanding that teachers that value a great deal of control over the pacing and sequencing of their teaching are unlikely to choose to use a role play game in their classroom because it surrenders a great deal of control over to their students? Or that a teacher who values insulated academic boundaries is more likely to explore History through a game like The Oregon Trail than through creating an alternate world in Minecraft because there is simply more historical content in the former and learning is more tangential in the latter. This may seem obvious, but many teachers are genuinely confused by the range of material available to them, are easily swayed by sales reps, and misunderstand the affordances of the games they select for use.

What this taxonomy does offer, I believe, is a clear way into looking at those very affordances to be able to understand better the choices that teachers make. I think it also represents a useful research tool for looking at games in education generally and being able to relate it to pedagogical choices.



Bernstein, Basil. 2004. The Structuring of Pedagogic Discourse. Vol. 23. Routledge.

March, Jackie & Kumpulainen, K. & Nisha, Bobby & Velicu, Anca & Blum-Ross, Alicia & Hyatt, David & Jónsdóttir, Svanborg & Levy, Rachael & Little, Sabine & Marusteru, George & Ólafsdóttir, Margrét & Sandvik, Kjetil & Thestrup, Klaus & Arnseth, Hans & Dyrfjord, Kristín & Jornet, Alfredo & Kjartansdottir, Skulina & Pahl, Kate & Pétursdóttir, Svava & Thorsteinsson, Gisli. (2017). Marsh, J., Kumpulainen, K., Nisha, B., Velicu, A., Blum-Ross, A., Hyatt, D., Jónsdóttir, S.R., Levy, R., Little, S., Marusteru, G., Ólafsdóttir, M.E., Sandvik, K., Scott, F., Thestrup, K., Arnseth, H.C., Dýrfjörð, K., Jornet, A., Kjartansdóttir, S.H., Pahl, K., Pétursdóttir, S. and Thorsteinsson, G. (2017) Makerspaces in the Early Years: A Literature Review. University of Sheffield: MakEY Project.

Maton, K. and Howard, S. K. (2018) Taking autonomy tours: A key to integrative knowledge-building, LCT Centre Occasional Paper 1 (June): 1–35.

O’Brien, D., Lawless, K. A., & Schrader, P. G. (2010). A Taxonomy of Educational Games. In Baek, Y. (Ed.), Gaming for Classroom-Based Learning: Digital Role Playing as a Motivator of Study. (pp. 1-23).



Teaching ICTs – Computational Thinking Pedagogies & Thinking Strategies

As more and more schools start teaching computing explicitly in one form or another to all students, the focus moves from advocacy, getting computing for all into schools, towards pedagogy – how best to teach it. There are a number of pedagogical approaches and cognitive strategies that have been promoted, but I would like to look at just one which I have found effective over the years. I think it would be fair to say that many teachers of ICTs are self-taught, and perhaps for this reason, the discovery method is still remarkably popular. The influence of Seymour Papert’s Constructionism, allied with Constructivist learning principles has made direct instruction far less prevalent in the computer class than in perhaps any other classroom. Nevertheless, a lack of direct instruction, I believe, threatens to undo many of the benefits of a discovery learning framework.

Discovery learning is predicated on setting problems which will allow students to learn through grappling with trying to find solutions, drawing on their past learning and knowledge. But there is the danger that no learning will take place at all if there is no scaffolding of the discovery process, and ironically, the greater the reliance on student-centered learning, the greater the need for directed teacher interventions. The greatest weakness of the discovery method is encapsulated in the scholar’s dilemma. How do you discover something that you don’t know exists? You need a more experienced other to, at the very least, nudge you in the right direction.

Teachers who use discovery learning, need to be careful to make sure that students have the tools they need to learn something from problem-based approaches. This scaffolding can take many forms, but without it, learning is a very hit and miss affair. Teachers need to adopt a range of strategies to scaffold the kind of knowledge that will feed into problem based learning activities. For example you can carefully guide students through base skills and knowledge needed, and then set more open-ended projects that build on this learning. Or you can set open-ended projects and make knowledge available where needed as students explore what they need to discover to solve the problems set. Alternatively you can pursue a mix of these approaches, giving some instruction up-front, and then supplementing knowledge where it is needed.

But another approach is also possible. If students are working in groups, you can use a jigsaw technique. Students can be split into expert groups and work on guided assignments so that they become experts in one aspect of the overall task. Groups are then formed by taking a member from each expert group so that each group has multiple experts in different aspects applicable to the task. They then teach each other what needs to be known to perform the task. For example, if a project uses spreadsheets, one expert can be trained in formatting cells, another in creating formulae, another in functions, one in graphing, and so on. When they combine they should be able to tackle a task which requires all these skill sets, and students should learn from each other.

An alternative approach is to have groups work on sub-tasks which combine to solve a larger problem. Each group works on a task which, combined, comes together to provide an elegant solution. For example one group might work on moving a robot, another on the operation of its crane, and so on. These approaches do, however, require different students receiving different instructional input. This can be achieved using a flipped classroom model. Even when I cover material in class, I make a video of the content and post it  on my Learning Management System so that it accessible to everyone, even if a student did not do that particular task at the time.

Having said this, managing different instruction for different students is a logistical problem. I prefer to have a wide range of tasks and either allow students to choose tasks they wish to pursue, or to focus tasks around building capacity for particular projects. An example would be the task below. By preparing task cards which set out the brief for any task, but also includes a hint about how to proceed, students can work at their own pace, or use the tasks to build up the skills needed to tackle larger projects. The task card may include very detailed steps to follow, or simply hints.

I have gamified the tasks, which is not necessary, but does, I believe, add a certain something. If you allocate Experience Points (XP) for completing tasks you can use the number of XP earned to unlock larger projects or challenges much in the way that XP allows characters to level-up in RPGs. This ensures that students complete as many tasks as possible, hopefully accumulating base skills needed for the challenges and projects. Because the hints and instructions are on the the reverse side of the task card, as a teacher you do not need to do a great deal of whole class instruction. Jigsaw groups, or sub-task groups can work relatively independently, typically after a whole class session when introducing a new application. If students are still stuck I am able to answer individual queries in class, and there are always the videos as back-up.


The Matrix Game as a Thinking Tool

Matrix Games (developed by Chris Engle) are an excellent classroom tool. A handbook detailing their application in education and other professional settings has recently been published. They represent a flexible and easy to use game mechanism for any role play or simulation setting. In brief, players (either individually or in teams) make arguments about what they wish to do and why this should happen. An umpire then assesses these arguments and evaluates how likely they are to succeed. A die is rolled to simulate luck and the argument either happens or fails to happen. Games can be relatively free-flowing or more structured depending on the context and desired result.

So, for example in a History class in a game simulating the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik player might argue that the First Machine Gun Regiment would lead an assault on the Winter Palace, with the backing and support of the party and that this would succeed because the regiment was well armed and prepared, was militarised and supported the party and because the palace was weakly defended by troops whose loyalty was suspect. The umpire might rule this argument average, giving it a 50% chance of success. The umpire’s reasons for ruling this way might be that although the First Machine Gun Regiment historically did indeed ask the Bolsheviks to take action, the Bolshevik leaders turned down their request to begin the revolution, fearing it was premature. Each player makes arguments which either succeed or fail and the game develops in his way along its own trajectory. In this example it is likely that the players will develop a better understanding of the background and the forces at play in shaping the outcome of the revolution. The Matrix Game is an excellent tool for running simulations in the classroom, but I want to argue that the Matrix Game represents a cognitive tool in its own right and should be added to every teachers’ tool box. The Matrix Game supports two major cognitive processes: thinking and communicating with clarity and precision and listening with empathy and understanding.

Thinking and Communicating with Clarity & Precision:

When advancing an argument, players need to think about what they want to happen and the reasons why this action will be successful. This can be scaffolded by providing a matrix of reasons (which is why it is called a matrix game), but usually players use the matrix of the real world or of imaginary worlds to draw on for supporting their arguments. In this way the argument represents the conclusion and the matrix of reasons the premises for any logical argument. The form of the Matrix game thus forces players to think in logical and coherent ways about what they want to argue and why it should work.

Empathy & Understanding:

Players assume different roles and compete against other players to have their perspectives advanced. This necessitates understanding the world from another’s point of view and simulating action from that perspective. I am currently running a game in which different interest groups compete to mine the moon. Each team makes arguments from their own perspective. By setting different victory conditions for each team, the players are scaffolded in framing their actions from a certain point of view. See the graphic on the right.

Because different teams have different criteria for winning they will try to manoeuvre game outcomes in their favour. I like to set Victory Points at 2 or 1 points for different outcomes. A player can claim a win on 2 points, or a partial win on 1 point. They lose if they achieve none of their victory conditions. This encourages players to work with others to reach compromises.

I believe that this mechanism helps students to develop an understanding of different perspectives in ways which encourage a much deeper appreciation of how actions are founded on world view and one’s standpoint.

Setting up a Matrix Game

Matrix Games are easy to set up. All you need is a context and roles for players to simulate. You can set up role play cue cards as depicted for the Mining The Moon game, or allow players to define their own roles. Play normally proceeds in turns during which each player gets a chance to advance an argument, but you can adapt this to suit your needs quite easily. For example, I sometimes let players submit an argument whenever they wish to, but then I make them submit in writing and adjudicate in the order received.

When umpiring arguments it is a good idea to assume average as a starting point and then decide if it is weaker or stronger based on criteria more directly linked to the curriculum. Go with your gut instinct. I always try to reward greater understanding of a context and give reasons why I am ruling something weaker or stronger. Adjudication, of course, is always done in terms of what has succeeded in the game. You cannot have one argument cancel out another. Arguments that support other arguments closely are automatically very strong.

If you try out a Matrix Game in your classroom, please drop a note in the comments. It would be great to hear your experience.



The Möbius Effect – Gamifying Your Classroom!

One of my teaching hats is as a teacher of computer skills, which can be very dry. Students do need to learn how to use word-processors and spreadsheets, databases and photo editors, web editors and animation applications, but a solid diet of skills can become something of a tick list! A few years ago I decided to gamify the computer skills syllabus, not so much with the classic gamification triad of points, badges and leaderboards (PBL), but with a strategy designed to maximise a games narrative. Something more like a role play game or alternate reality game. I believe that what games narratives do well in education is establish a motivating reason to put in work.

So I invented a framing story about a fictional Professor of astrophysics who has uncovered a bug in the Mathematics of time (The Möbius Effect) which she believes originates in a kind of computer virus placed in the fabric of space-time by some vast super-intelligence! This bug threatens the end of life as we know it! The Professor is being ignored by the White House, labelled a cook-ball conspiracy theorist, and urgently needs help to save the Multi-verse! This help is offered in the form of the production of various kinds of digital documents from Flyers and Newsletters to spreadsheets which can calculate the gravity on different planets or convert Celsius to Fahrenheit or databases to search for planets capable of supporting life! Any kind of digital document can be worked into the game format from fixing the professor’s citations and bibliography to evaluating fake websites or creating a website or Flash animation.

It also involves the cracking of coded messages and solving riddles and puzzles, which seems to add just the right note of motivation to submit work. I had one student ask me the other day if this was a game! “I’m confused,” she said!

The game had to satisfy the demand for assessment and syllabus completion, however. So I decided to use the points and badges part of PBL. Marks are there, but hidden behind Level Completion. Each level in the game translates into points, ie. marks! Completion is also rewarded with a badge. So completion of 50% of the levels results in a grade of 50%, full completion means 100%, and so on.

Students are able to work at their own pace and some quickly finish levels and can work on riddles or codes, which they unlock as a reward for completion. Others take longer but still complete far more work than previously. I use Google Classroom as a platform, and each Task is set up as an assignment. This allows me to easily record all progress and attach any scaffolding materials such as videos showing how to do this or that (the sort of things I demonstrate in class).


I think this kind of gamification could be used for any kind of classroom with some modification. To my mind what makes the game engaging is to treat it as an Alternate Reality Game and to step in and add clues or puzzles if the pace is slowing, and drop clues if it is proving too difficult. Embedding clues in music videos can be fun too!


What Sports Betting May Have To Tell Us About Education

superbruI have become quite a fan of sports betting. Without the money, of course! I’m way too poor a gambler to risk my shirt! The site I use is Superbru, and the idea is that you make sports predictions and get points for accuracy based on whether you predicted the result correctly, and whether you predicted the correct score. Your points are not based on the absolute accuracy of your prediction, but rather on how well you did against others in your pool.You can form public or private clubs and compete against friends or colleagues for kudos! All good fun!

Within each club you can compete in tournaments, which might run for a single sporting event, or for a season, such as the English Premier League soccer. At the end of the current soccer season I was sitting in second position in my club, and the chap in first position invited myself and the chappie in third round for a drink to watch the final games and see who would win the league. By the end of the evening I had slipped down into third place and our gracious host remained unchallenged in first position! While this was all very sociable, I believe that it also has a message we can draw on for our classrooms. I’m not suggesting we introduce our students to the world of sports betting! That might represent, after all, a bit of a slippery slope. But I do think that the main mechanics of this kind of site have a great deal to teach us as teachers.

I’m not suggesting that we predict sports results on a regular basis, although that could form the basis of any number of lessons. I believe that many of the mechanisms used in sports betting websites like Superbru, would have traction in the classroom.

The first mechanism is the idea of the club. The value of team sports lies very much in what they teach us about collaboration and esprit de corps! When the top order batsmen are back in the hut, it is often down to the lower order to save the day, and the success of the team often rests on the performance of its weakest individual. How that individual is mentored and supported by the team is what makes a team a team! Clubs operate very much in the same spirit. Students are frequently organised in age cohorts, in houses which cut across age cohorts, and in form classes. A student thus might have multiple identities across a school week. During the swimming gala or inter-house debates, she might support her house, at other times she might feel closest to her form class, or even her entire grade. If she participates in extra-murals, her identity might be formed by being a member of the choir, or the music department. Or she may see herself as a History student, or a Spanish student.

What is often missing in these associations, though, is any real sense of support for the weak, which is common in sport. In our classrooms, the end result is usually a report card for each individual, with a list of grades achieved by that student. Students know that ultimately this is what matters as their grades give them points for University entrance, and prizes and kudos within the school. What is missing is the importance placed on achievements at a personal level. Sport often hinges on these moments: a personal best by a player that swings a match! In sports betting too, the battles are often not for top spot but between friends for a minor position or even just to get one up on someone you know in the pool. The friendly banter and obsessive interest that can be aroused by these rivalries is all part of what makes for a successful club environment. “I don’t mind where I come, as long as I can beat you!” It sounds daft, but sociable rivalry, sociable competitiveness is something we could perhaps explore in our classrooms to some benefit.

On Surperbru you can belong to multiple clubs, and be ranked differently within different clubs, much as any student carries multiple identities across the school. I find it fascinating to see how my performances on Superbru compare in different clubs. Amongst Spurs supporters I was in the top 4% for the recent season, I was third in my regular club, and top in another. In another tournament I am currently in twentieth position out of twenty-one – lest you think I am a whizz at this!

Within a classroom it is common to form groups at different times for different activities, and for the teacher to mix up the groups from time to time so that students learn to co-operate and collaborate with a range of different people. I would argue, though, that the greatest benefit can come from a semi-permanent grouping which brings together students who might normally not share the same interests or affiliations and ensures that students learn to work together with people over a longer period of time than the single task.

In my computer skills classes I divide each class up into Mentor Groups which have the longevity of a year. These groups are given the names of women who have shaped the history of computing such as Ada Lovelace or Radia Perlman and are encouraged to support and help each other with individual assignments as well as group tasks. I hope that by creating these more permanent sub-groups within my classes, I will provide a way of encouraging ongoing mentorship and support.

predThe second mechanism on sports betting sites which I believe would be useful in the classroom is the mechanism of Prediction. The content of much of what we teach centres around facts and certainties. We tend to forget how central prediction is to the thinking process. All knowledge is tentative and provisional, and a pedagogy that focuses on prediction is one which foregrounds thinking rather than content. It makes no sense to talk of predicting what the capital of Sweden is, but a great deal of sense to speak of predicting what would happen if you added water to phosphorus. As an English teacher I often use prediction when studying a literary text. What should, or what will a character do next? Questions about what would you do, what do you think a character will do addresses core concerns around characterization in a novel or play and opens up discussion around multiple points of view. If they do this, what do think will happen? These are powerful questions, and it seems to me that the sports prediction metaphor acts as a useful model for organising prediction in the classroom.

What do I mean?

Many teachers use polls, and these can be used for prediction. You can also use Google forms to set up quick questions. What is good about using Google forms is that it generates a spreadsheet of responses, and if you use Flubaroo it will self-assess the responses. You can then use the email address to sort responses over multiple rounds of predictive questions and a total can be generated, giving a prediction leaderboard much as you would find on Superbru. If this is a bit too much work, you can use a chart in the classroom which can be updated manually either on an individual or a “club” basis. Either everyone who gets it right gets a point added to their chart, or just the group with the highest accuracy!

Adding a dimension of social competition to the discussion around prediction, I believe, opens up all sorts of opportunities as it gives a weight and importance to prediction.




Saving the Universe – Alternate Reality Games

DSC01789Jane McGonigall, in her TED Talk talks about the four powers of games: urgent optimism, blissful productivity, social fabric and epic meaning. These are qualities often missing in the classroom, which games have in abundance. This year I ran an alternate reality game for our end of year programme in grade 8. Alternate Reality Games are games which present themselves as real life events. In this game, I assembled all the garde 8s for a collaborative project with another school. When accessing their website to contact them, students had to solve a mystery and save the fictitious school from alien invaders. To accomplish this they had to crack a few codes, sift through some clues to solve a mystery and figure out how to use the lyrics of a song to find a secret web-page to communicate the solution. I used a fictitious blog and some fake twitter accounts to sprinkle clues around.

The task was run on the second last day of the year as part of an extension programme, and was meant to show-case our cognitive education programme. There is a concern that our girls are not as confident in problem solving skills as we would hope, especially that they give up too easily. The current task was adapted from one I ran a few years ago, and was shortened, with a little more scaffolding early to try and ensure that students did not give up too early.

DSC01775In the reflection, girls were generally positive about the game, although significant numbers found the tasks too challenging, and felt they had not received enough support from me. This was deliberate, and expected. I wanted my role as puppet-master to be hidden, and I tried to act surprised and bewildered as events unfolded. What hints I made to groups who had given up were done purely to get them engaged in the task again. Some groups were unable to crack any codes and were sent to spy on groups that had done so. About two-thirds of the students did successfully crack substitution cyphers. All groups were able to correctly identify what the fictitious school needed to do to defeat the aliens, but the biggest struggle was over finding the easter egg on the index page, and translating the song lyrics into a URL.

I believe that students need far more exposure to problem solving tasks than they are getting, and that alternate reality games offer a wonderful way to accomplish this. McGonigall’s powers of games offer a useful perspective.

Urgent Optimism

The predominant attitude in games play is for players to search around for tasks to engage in. This was evident in this Alternate Reality Game (ARG). At times girls were running around the room to consult with other groups or find out what could be done next. One aspect of the game I particularly enjoy is the richness of the red herrings. A group can explore a blind alley and really enjoy doing it, uncovering all kinds of unexpected and unintended associations which appear to lead to clues. These red herrings are actually as beneficial in terms of problem solving than the intended clues.

Blissful Productivity

The ability to spend hours engaged in a task while losing all sense of time is one common in games, and absent in many classrooms! In the ARG, I noticed that while pursuing a clue, girls seemed to lose all track of time, but when they gave up, time dragged. This was an aspect of the game that I will need to improve on, perhaps by insisting that all clues solved get shared. Some groups translated the task into a competition to solve it first, and this  competitiveness, while useful, did hamper those who needed extra help at times.

Social Fabric

Most games are strongly collaborative, and players will help each other with clues, inventory and so on. In this ARG, too many groups became competitive, but, what was enlightening was that groups formed naturally. Nowhere in my instructions did I ask them to form groups, in fact I gave no instructions at all. Groups are often problematic in the classroom, but seem to be intrinsic to the game format.

Epic Meaning

Games have a purpose, one often not very visible in the classroom, and their relevance and importance are self-evident. This ARG had as its point the saving of the planet from alien control, and the students appeared to take up this task with gusto. I was at first bombarded with questions about what they had to do, but after it became clear that I was not going to say anything, or give any direction, the class naturally splintered into groups and started working on clues, not all the same ones at the same time. As soon as the narrative was revealed, once the easter egg had been found, groups seemed instinctively to know what to do and what the “game” point was. The task fitted into game play genres and so made sense. When the game was “solved” there were loud cheers and frantic attempts on the part of all groups to submit the solution online. I think even groups who had not “won”, felt they had shared in the task by solving parts of the puzzle.

In conclusion, I think that Alternate Reality Games have a great deal to offer the classroom. But they need to be carefully designed and structured. They are much harder than any board game, role play game or computer game, because they need realia rather than playing pieces or pure imagination, but this makes them, in some ways, more rewarding.


What Hogwarts has to teach us about Online Education

hogwartsHogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry has recently launched itself online. You can enroll at the legendary school, join a house, buy your textbooks online at Flourish and Blotts with money placed in your vault at Gringotts Bank and enroll in courses such as Defence Against the Dark Arts or The History Of Magic. Your professors and teaching assistants are volunteers. You have textbooks to read for each course, sometimes a prezi as well, and write essays and take online quizzes to pass your courses, gaining points as you go. You can also collect chocolate frog cards which pop up periodically! You can join a dorm, and make friends from among your fellow students. Your points contribute to House points, and there are leaderboards and bragging rights to be had.

All good fun – but what can it teach us about real schools and their online offerings?

In essence Hogwarts presents itself as a pretty mediocre MOOC. The learning material is created by volunteers and the quizzes and assignments suffer from the same vagaries as one finds on Coursera, for example. Some are well thought out and others are idiosyncratic and bear little connection to the instructional input. Some courses promise engagement and others are pretty pedestrian. No surprises then!

The gamified elements are not innovative either – the usual Points, Badges, Leadersboard stuff! But simple is often best. I like the way that students’ academic assignments earn House Points, and maybe schools need to look at this. The moment your assignment has been graded, your points are incremented. The site is in its infancy, and I am sure many features will be added, many opportunities for exploring the world of Harry Potter in unique ways. Fan fiction is already an option, and users may write their own books and post them.

What is genuinely exciting about Hogwarts, of course is its brand! You’d have to be quite churlish not to feel a twinge of excitement upon receiving your acceptance letter – who would not want to study at Hogwarts?! The glossy look and feel to the home page exudes confidence, and is exactly what you’d expect from an elite school. It is this aspect, the sense of wonder which real schools need to try to emulate. Not all schools are exciting as Hogwarts, but schools need to find what is exciting about their ethos and mission and sell it to their students.




Kahoot! is a Hoot!

kahoot2I don’t particularly like quizzes. The snobbish English teacher in me hankers after meaty critical essays or compositions worthy of Steinbeck or Faulkner! But they can be a fun way to revise some quick content, and they certainly can stimulate that all elusive student engagement factor if made interactive and taken online, then gamified and given a competitive edge! That’s exactly what a free web-based application called Kahoot! does!

You need to sign up for an account, but can then easily set up a quiz by typing in a question, selecting possible answers and indicating which is correct. You can add images to your questions, and even videos, although this facility is currently in beta version. Once saved, your quiz is posted online with a pin number. Students can access the quiz using a pin on their laptops, tablets or phones. they give a user name, but do not have to sign in. They then take the quiz (which is timed) and receive scores, competing against others.


The display shows whether they are correct or not and shows what other students guessed. The colourful displays and the use of a count-down timer is pretty engaging, giving a game-like sense missing in many polling or quiz applications.

What looks promising also is the ability to make quizzes public, and share them, allowing access to a considerable library of quizzes. I took one created by another teacher, but the possibilities of getting students to create quizzes for each other is exciting. Once the link is shared anyone can take the quiz.

I seldom use quizzes as a quick feedback mechanism at the end of a lesson – usually because I’m running out of time! I like them as an introduction though, to find out what the class already knows, and to focus attention on the teaching point. Where a significant number of students disagree about an answer, there is an excellent way in to a lesson. As part of a flipped classroom, it is also an excellent way of revising content accessed outside the classroom, and ensuring that everyone has adequately covered the material.

In my own classrooms, though, not everyone has a smart phone or tablet. Most do, but concerns about equity have meant that I have only ever tried this exercise in a computer room, where all had access to desktops. Doing quizzes in pairs though, might ensure that all have access.


Gamification in The Classroom

This term I am experimenting with gamifying one of my classes. Over the last few years I have identified a need for an online computer skills class which will allow students to brush up on their ICT skills above and beyond the time spent in class: either for remediation or enrichment.

I decided that this would be a good opportunity to play around with gamification. Spreadsheets, databases and the like can be very dry and off-putting, and yet they represent key skills both in school and beyond, for the world of work. By gamifying the course, perhaps I could leverage more engagement. I wanted to go beyond the usual points, badges and leaderboards. I would need to use the course to generate marks for the school reporting system in any case.

I was inspired by Paul Andersen’s TED Talk:

I immediately set about creating a framework within which students could work at their own pace through various exercises to hopefully master various computer applications such as spreadsheets, databases and so on. I decided to use a framing story, with a central riddle which needed to be solved. Here’s what I posted on the course Moodle page:

Professor Jane Muller of the Faculty of Astrophysics at Harvard University has discovered an anomaly at the heart of the Universe, which threatens to destroy the very fabric of the space-time continuum! The Möbius Effect, as Jane has called it, was set in motion by an alien race which eats off the resultant chaos.

It’s pretty complicated, but basically, if you think of Time as a Möbius band, a bit like a continual play car radio tape rather than a linear progression, then you’ll understand that what has happened before is about to happen again, but more so! And it will continue to happen, and to intensify until someone can figure out a way of making it stop. Professor Jane Muller might just be that person.

I said it was complicated. The actual formula is

Make sense?

Jane has figured out a way to get around that and make time go back to normal, or relatively normal anyway.

But she needs some help – and that’s where you come in!

A computer virus, probably released by the same alien race that set off the Möbius Effect in the first place, has corrupted all her files, and she needs someone, a bit of a computer boffin, like you, to help her put all her work back in order so she can get on with the job of saving the Universe!

Are you up to it?


To help Jane you will need to work though each of the levels below, until you become a Level 10 Geek Girl and can help solve the riddle at the heart of the Möbius Effect!

Level 1: Spreadsheet Suzie

The virus has taken out all Jane’s spreadsheet formulae, and without those formulae, her calculations will be way off!
Download each of the spreadsheets in turn, fix them according to the instructions Jane has left for you, and upload the file for Jane to continue with her work! You will be given experience points based on your performance.

You need 100 XP to become a Level 2 Geek-Girl

Each Spreadsheet completed correctly earns you 20 XP

Good Luck!

I then set up a number of levels, each one with a series of tasks to be worked through. Each task, successfully completed, earns the student experience points. After a certain number of experience points the player levels up. I tried to set up each task so that it was fairly self-contained, had some kind of logical link to the framing save the universe narrative, and covered the syllabus adequately.

I planned to scaffold the tasks in a number of ways:

  • in-class instruction and assistance
  • online SCORMs and videos
  • peer-metoring

Because all the tasks were set up on the class Moodle page, I was able to assign grades to each assignment. These grades are of course equated with experience points, but can be used as grades for reporting purposes. Because one can create a spreadsheet off Moodle, I plan to use this to create leaderboards created using a Mailmerge, together with the relevant badges earned.

This is the plan, but I know that I will need to tinker with it as I get feedback on how it is being received. I will follow-up with a blog on the programme in a few months.


Flipping The Assessment?

It is exams time at our school, and amidst all the hype around the Flipped Classroom, I wondered if I could Flip the Assessment in any way.

Once again I am running my Information Technology Exams in a nearly paperless environment. Students still receive a printed exam paper so that they do not have to read the screen, but all the source files for the exam are posted on the school Moodle, students upload their replies, and I assess and give feedback online, posting a copy of the marking memorandum at the same time. The graphic shows the Moodle interface at work.

What I find so liberating about this way of working is that it is much quicker than opening a digital file to assess and record feedback on the question paper or rubric sheet, as I used to do when assessing ICT work, and then recording the marks on a separate spreadsheet. This required three separate interfaces: the student digital file, recording feedback with pen and paper, and entering the marks on a spreadsheet. Using Moodle, everything is assessed, and feedback recorded in the same interface. I then simply generate a spreadsheet of the marks at the end. What a pleasure!

The feedback and assessment is also available to students as soon as the batch has been marked, simply by toggling from hide to show.

The graphic shows the Moodle page once everything has been made visible to students, with download files, upload links and memorandum files available to students as soon as the exam has finished.

This means that when students get to class for the big hand back of papers, I have already dealt with the inevitable queries about marks being added up correctly and so on. I can concentrate on going over the paper and discussing, and modelling responses. Because the memo is posted online I do not have to go over every aspect of the paper, but can zone in on the worrying areas. I feel that this way of handling exam feedback is far superior to the rather rushed and unsatisfying hand-backs that time allowed in the past.

In a sense, this amounts to a partial flipping of the assessment process. By making the feedback, marks and memos available outside the classroom ahead of any formal handing back of papers session, I can use the time in class to make sure that my feedback achieves some meaningful remedial purposes as well.

A full flipping of the assessment would be to have students work on the exam questions at home, and for the assessment to be done with the student in class. I have used this with normal homework, paper-based assessments in the past, with great success. I found that by giving the student feedback during the marking process, talking to the student while doing so was very effective, and I feel that students greatly appreciated such a direct form of feedback. I would move around the classroom, sitting at student desks, or if this was impractical, calling them to sit next to me in the “hot seat”.

When I first became a teacher (of English), I spent a great deal of time at home marking scripts that I often felt students never read on their return. Students would often look at the mark, and leave the homework or test behind them when they left. By doing the assessment in class, next to the student, talking them through my reactions to what they had done, I felt that they really listened to the feedback, and could also explain their thinking to me, allowing me to award partial marks or explain why I couldn’t award a mark for an answer. I found that students really seemed to appreciate this one-on-one interaction, and perhaps, for the very first time gained insight into why and how marks were awarded for tests.

Sadly, though, the way the examination process is set up does not allow the time and space for this. But it is certainly something that platforms such as Moodle enable.

The optimum system would be for peer mentors to do the assessment and feedback, and an ideal Flipped Assessment model would entail peer mentoring and assessment, such as we find in the Personalisation By Pieces model. Although Moodle does have a peer assessment module, it does not have a system where peer mentors could be allocated according to a skills ladder, where someone is assessed by someone else who is one level above them.

I sincerely hope that any Moodle developers out there read this and get inspired. Such a skills ladder system would enable gamification approaches as well.



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