Category Archives: Gamification

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.



Role Play Games

Playing Role Play Games is often seen as a guilty secret, something which places one slightly above train-spotting and the anorak-brigade! I guess it’s time to come out of the closet and admit to playing RPGs, and to assert that I believe they have a definite, and under-explored place in education. I have used RPGs in the English Second Language classroom from time to time alongside more prosaic role play situations to encourage authentic talk.

For those who are uncertain as to what an RPG is, it is a game in which a number of players assume a role within a scenario created by a Games Master (or Dungeon Master). The DM creates a narrative of events in which the players face situations, puzzles, challenges or combat, and, using a set of rules, resolve these situations to conclude the narrative and propel it forward. A set of die are used to help simulate luck and determine the success or otherwise of player actions. Some DMs are fairly proscriptive, others more free-wheeling in approach. In the most famous RPG, Dungeons & Dragons, parties of adventurers seek fame and fortune in dungeons dreamed up by their Dungeon Master.

In the classroom I create a common scenario, and split the class into groups. Each group represents a party of adventurers. I then circulate continually, adjudicating each action the party has decided on. I don’t use any set rules, merely set what roll of a die is required to succeed in an action, based on a quick assessment of how likely it seems that it would succeed. By moving quickly from group to group each game moves at some pace. By using set situations I am able to remember what each group is up to. The aim is to encourage talk, and it certainly does this. I often used it also as a Friday afternoon lesson when any thought of more serious work would have resulted in rebellion!

Recently, however, I have begun to see the enormous benefits of using RPGs to encourage writing. Players become attached to their characters, and are willing to invest an enormous amount of time and energy in fleshing them out. This includes art-work, and writing about their characters on forums and blogs devoted to the game. I run a Mind Sports Club at my sons’ school and one of the activities they engage in is RPGs. Over the weekend, many of the players use the club website to blog about their characters and the game. The volume of work they produce would amaze their English teachers I am sure!

RPGs (such as Runescape) can also be played online, and are very popular. I am not entirely sure how this loyal fan base can be harnessed by a school to encourage writing, but it seems to me that part of the answer is to take it outside the classroom and into the realm of the extra-curricular activity such as a games club. By creating a club blog or using a social website tool such as you can begin to create a community of students who share a common passion. This is the key to creating the conditions under which students will write copious quantities of writing. I cannot attest to the quality of the writing, but the quantity and enthusiasm displayed by these reluctant writers would astound their English teachers.

The RPG format also allows you to encourage writing of a particular type. A few weeks ago I asked all the players to use their blog to write a motivation why they should be chosen for a special favour in the game. I would choose the player based on what they had written.

From what I have seen on the Mind Sports website of the club, RPGs and social websites can be a powerful tool for promoting writing. How this can be used by a class teacher is not so certain to me, because I know that the moment writing becomes perceived as a chore, the motivation for doing it is lost, and any work produced will be laboured and meaningless.

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