“Leveling Up” Students with Class Blogs: Engineering Active Learning through Game Mechanics

COM125 Award Winners

Back in Spring 2007, when my colleague Derek Lackaff and I conducted the “COM125: Intro to the Internet” class simultaneously in Singapore and Buffalo, New York, we decided to do something completely different…

We ran a social learning experiment of the “funnest” proportion (watch video).

Given the positive feedback from students on both sides, we’ve finally taken the time to publish our story in the Fall 2008 edition of the UBlearns Update newsletter [PDF / 500kb]

UBearns Update Newsletter (Fall 2008)

This particular issue has a social media + pedagogy theme to it, as it also features Jenn Austin’s Transforming Learning: The Power of Blogs, Journals & Wikis – Web 2.0; a great article filled with rubrics and tips on how to incorporate these social media tools into your classroom.

Our article was originally meant for journal submission, but we adapted it for the Blackboard user audience, in time for the launch of Blogs (Journal LX) and Wikis (Teams LX) inside UBlearns. If you’re looking at the actual newsletter, our article is listed under a less threatening title of “Incorporating Blogs and Wikis Into Teaching”. You can read the full article after the jump…

UBlearns Update, Volume 5 Issue 1 (Fall, 2008)
Incorporating Blogs and Wikis Into Teaching
by Kevin Lim and Derek Lackaff, PhD candidates, Department of Communication

With UBlearns (Blackboard) incorporating blogs and wikis, branded as Journal LX and Teams LX respectively, the question now becomes: “What can I do with them?”

Blogs and wikis have gained popularity in recent years as pedagogical tools. Duffy and Bruns (2006) explained how blogs can be seen to promote active and engaged learning, since they afford “digital literacy” toward collaborative and (co)creative purposes, as well as for critical assessment and evaluation of information. Although the ease of participation could come at the cost of quality and reliability, Boulos, Maramba and Wheeler (2006) suggest that the “Darwinian type ‘survival of the fittest’ content” would help ensure competition for the production of quality content. Befitting of Ray Oldenburg’s notion of the “third place” (1991), blogs also situate students in a broad communication environment that reaches far beyond the sociological confines of their traditional classrooms and home.

When we taught our Internet communication courses, we learned first-hand how blogging could support a truly active and collaborative learning experience. We felt that the printed “essays” and “response papers” used in many classrooms traditionally promoted a closed dialogue between a student and instructor. In contrast, class blogging allowed for a multi-logue among students, peers, the instructor, and potentially, the public. The possibilities of interaction that ensue from this open writing process serves several pedagogical functions. Students are presented with another channel for engagement and participation, creating a discussion sphere that is more controllable and potentially less threatening than speaking in a classroom. As students blog, they create an archive of thoughts and discussion that can be easily revisited as the class progresses.

One challenge of using blogs and wikis as educational tools is encouraging students to engage in these public forms of active participation. While many instructors mandate interaction through such devices as weekly comment postings, these regulations often guarantee only minimal learning and interaction outcomes. For students to receive the full benefits of the class blogging experience, they must internalize the goal of the intellectual interaction. Because blogging places students’ work in their own public spaces, there is an intrinsic sense of ownership and recognition of their personal production. Students are thus likely to produce higher quality work if they are motivated to engage with their lessons and colleagues in a more social fashion.

To encourage positive forms of online social interactions, we used an innovative approach from Amy Jo Kim’s Game Mechanics (2006) as a viable framework to motivate student blogging communities. This framework also allowed us as educators to achieve both specific and emergent learning outcomes. Kim outlines five elements of social gaming environments: collecting things, earning points, feedback, exchanges and customization. Kim originally directed these five factors toward software developers, but the same factors are applicable to a variety of social systems, including class blogging communities. While earning points might be the sole motivating factor behind traditional class assignments, Kim’s other factors present an innovative model for encouraging participation. For instance, collecting things might include adding friends on a blogroll and achieving “Best of the Week” awards, customization might include the adding of interactive blog widgets, and feedback can be provided in the form of links, comments, trackbacks, and even leaderboards implemented using Technorati rankings.

Earning Points – Amy Jo Kim’s idea of points was presented as a scoring mechanism. Our feedback was provided using Technorati’s authority ranking algorithm as a way of showing a blogging leaderboard. Although more holistic web ranking systems are available today, Technorati.com provided our students a rudimentary measure of how they were doing against one another. In-class grades were hidden for student privacy, but students were made aware of the overall class performance with weekly audits.

Collecting Things – Students exhibited collecting behavior on their own (e.g. adding friends to blogroll); one of the ways we motivated students to write quality blog posts was to give out a limited number of awards each week.

Collection of Blog Medals for COM125

Course instructors would pick the best postings to earn relevant awards, which students would typically display proudly on their blog post. As the semester progressed, these awards also earned students extra credits or the ability to gain “immunity” from extra assignments. The last class of the semester was dedicated to an exciting “Blog Awards Ceremony” where top achievers in each category won trophies determined by class vote.

Feedback – MySpace is an example of a non-game application that gives lots of feedback, including notifications on messages, comments, and just about anything that goes on there. In our class blogging community, comments and trackback allowed the students to recognize the quality of the blog and wiki contribution and gave them the opportunity to improve on entries. This feedback encourages students to accelerate mastery of each week’s theme.

Customization – Young students adapt to online environments quickly, as evident when most students instinctively personalized their blogs by the first week of use. Besides swapping blog templates, students also often added sidebar widgets, which allowed them to display personal photos, stream their favorite music, or chat with friends (via Shoutbox).

Goodbye Yourminis.com - COM125 Bloggers

Exchanges – Seen as structured social interactions, the grades we gave were based on the level of intellectual interaction online and offline (in the classroom). This included tracking the content of student blogs, the comments and trackbacks they gave one another, and the level of contribution they made to class wikis (such as a collaborative exam study guide). To track these layers of interaction, we visually aggregated RSS feeds of their blogs and wikis using web services such as YourMinis.com and Netvibes.com.

While newer generations of information communication technology afford educators the ability to engage in more sophisticated learning environments, the appropriateness of use is still imperative in reaching specific learning objectives. Amy Jo Kim’s Game Mechanics framework provided us with one such engaging method to induce passion and active learning in and out of the classroom. Blogs and wikis provide educators an opportunity to encourage student proficiency in an important technology and to promote social and collaborative inquiry into course topics.

For savvy educators, you can now give Howard Rheingold’s Social Media Classroom a whirl. It’s an integrated set of social media tools for the classroom, including integrated forum, blog, comment, wiki, chat, social bookmarking, RSS, microblogging, widgets , and video commenting!

Duffy, Peter and Bruns, Axel (2006) The Use of Blogs, Wikis and RSS in Education: A Conversation of Possibilities. In Proceedings Online Learning and Teaching Conference 2006, pages 31-38, Brisbane.

How Game Mechanics Can Make Your App More Fun (March 8, 2006) by Bruce Stewart in ETech. Also see we-make-money-not-art.com for a deconstruction of Amy Jo Kim’s points.

Oldenburg, Ray (1991) The Great Good Place, New York: Paragon House, 1991. New York: Marlowe and Company.

MN Boulos, I Maramba, S Wheeler (2006). Wikis, blogs and podcasts: BMC Medical Education.