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A College Professor's Perspective on Gaming in the Classroom

On campus, games are being taken seriously.

As the technology that supports gamification becomes more accessible, many universities are infusing their courses with game mechanics and alternate reward structures to enhance learning among the generation of digital natives.

When I started teaching a copy-editing course in the journalism department at Howard University in 2011, my goal was to help students master editing as well as AP style, which is widely used in newsrooms and public relations firms, and I wanted to find interesting and engaging ways to do that. Gamification piqued my interest.

At the time, students’ use of social media was exploding, due in part to gamification. The social app Foursquare is one of the best examples of gaming as a driver of engagement. Users “check in” to locations and earn badges for the visits. The user with the most check-ins at a location becomes the mayor. If five different airports are visited, five JetSetter badges are earned. Customer loyalty programs have also taken advantage of this strategy to encourage frequent return visits to a business.

Andrew Miller, an educational consultant and online educator, says there are three types of game categories. First, there are serious games, which are primarily used in training and often incorporate simulation for problem solving. Next is gamification. This model applies game mechanics in areas such as education or credit-card use. Finally, there is game-based learning (GBL), which can include board games as well as video games in the classroom.

While developing a syllabus for my course and considering the use of games to enhance my teaching, I found instructors all over the country who are similarly engaged in the exploration of gamification. Most interesting to me is how communications professionals have adopted game mechanics for the classroom.

Amanda Hickman, an adjunct professor who teaches interactive data journalism at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, uses everything from board games to JavaScript to Google forms to teach fundamental concepts in programming and news storytelling.

Steve Johnson of Temple University’s Fox School of Business has developed Social Media Innovation Quest to teach a course on innovation in social media. On his course blog, All Social, Johnson says he developed Quest to “encourage self-paced learning” that takes students through assignments that get progressively difficult. He uses the WordPress Achievements plug-in for the game platform and Google Forms to help him keep track of completed assignments. His highly developed and detailed game is laid out in the syllabus, and students can receive points and badges as they complete assignments and activities that figure into their grade for the course.

Then there is Kim Pearson, chair of the African-American Studies department and an associate professor in the English department at the College of New Jersey, who has been collaborating with Dr. Lillian Cassel with Villanova University on an interdisciplinary Distributed Expertise in Computing project funded by the National Science Foundation. Their project combines communications and computer science to build computational fluency among students who are not specifically studying computer science. In the game-based project, students collaborate, but in different locations, and work according to their competencies to build games that tell stories. In a previous course, professor Pearson used the Scratch programming language to develop a game that demonstrates what it is like for a family to use food stamps.

At Arizona State University, one of the nation’s most innovative campuses, Retha Hill, executive director of the Digital Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab and a 2010 Knight News Challenge winner, developed a news-game workshop that combines game mechanics, news and data. She also plays a role at the Center for Games and Impact in the university’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. The center’s goal is to “cultivate game-infused solutions to society’s biggest challenges.”

While not everyone may agree about the effectiveness of games for improving learning, retention and career success, most educators will agree that the exploration will be fun and the potential is great.

Apr 10 2013

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