Monday, July 29, 2013

Avatars, badges and gamification in university education

I had a great opportunity last week and attended Appalachian State University's FreeLearning Conference, sponsored by ASU's Learning Technology Services.

As part of the communication department's distance education initiative, I have become deeply immersed in Internet teaching. Technology is becoming a key component in the learning experience. Educators are striving to enhance the classroom experience through new methods that connect with technology-oriented students.

The FreeLearning seminar brought keynote speakers together to share important updates in classroom connectivity. After pondering some of those techniques over the weekend (much during a metric century I rode Saturday) I'd like to comment on just four: Avatars and virtual reality, gamification, badging and the flipped classroom. 

The state of North Carolina has a new mandate, that professors are responsible to assist in placing graduates in competitive jobs, then tracking their progress. Based on that dictate, I'd like to vet each teaching technique through a career/workplace mindset:

Avatars: I have seen amazing examples of the virtual university. Students assume a personal avatar, then attend classes, to to offices, or meet for small group discussions. It's an other-world experience and in that I wonder if a virtual existence is practical.  First, the virtual teaching environments I have reviewed are opulent in nature, there are no students with physical challenges, no one is overweight, and no unattractive individuals exist. Should we be projecting a platform that can't be achieved? Should those who must face challenges assume a perfected avatar state? I am also concerned about building authentic character. Many students I encounter cannot verbalize well and are intimidated to present in a group setting. We may want to consider having our students gain courage and strength in who they are, not a virtual being they project themselves into.
Badging: This technique is building from the grade school level up and is now permeating into graduate-lever certificate programs. It's the instant recognition and gratification model. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

At the free online-education provider Khan Academy, for instance, students get a "Great Listener" badge for watching 30 minutes of videos from its collection of thousands of short educational clips. With enough of those badges, paired with badges earned for passing standardized tests administered on the site, users can earn the distinction of "Master of Algebra" or other "Challenge Patches."

I believe it is good to encourage and acknowledge success, but in the workplace, one seldom gets a slap on the back and kudos for doing the job. In sales, it's called a commission, but in most other roles, good performance is expected. My badges come in the form of heartfelt emails, sent to students who are clearly rising well above the class norm. I agree we should encourage whenever possible, but badging for what should be expected class effort may set unrealistic expectations post-graduation.

Gamification: I have been told it's what students want, or that it's how they learn best; whatever the motivation. Gaming in the classroom is gaining popularity and exposure. During one of our presentations, I saw a game this simulated the TV show Jeopardy, where students can pick a category and dollar amount to reveal a quiz questions. Students compete as teams and amass dollar scores.
Another educational game provided a war simulation. Get the answer right and your team can launch a few heat seeking missiles at the opponent's shoreline. Other games simulate marathon running or even boat racing.

I'm interested in bringing games into the classroom. For example, how about game theory, where students learn to make logical and strategic decisions in the face of conflict. Or, how about a case study where a sales associate states, "I had the account almost sold, but then Billy Smith got in for an 11th hour pitch. He was fast on his feet and took that client right out from under us. Billy sure has a lot of game." Business is many times more like a chess game and I believe we need to educate our students to play well and win.

Flipped classroom: There are quite a few variations of this model, but an example would be students who view a pre-recorded course lecture, then attend class for break out groups and discussion. The course is "flipped" in that the traditional lecture is conducted externally, while the student discussion moves into the classroom where the instructor can facilitate learning.

This makes sense in a business context. Due diligence prior to a meeting is essential; one examines and digests the material available and when the meeting congregates, the group pushes into forming the best solutions that impact sales and profitability. I'd like to integrate the flipped classroom into my next seated courses, then track the outcome. My concern is that students must be able to comprehend the lecture material on their own. If that does not prove to be the case, I'll modify to assure they understand the basics prior to looking for outcomes.

It's a great time to be an educator and to examine the tools available through technology. However, I'd suggest we move forward with some caution, to assure we're delivering the product that will best arm our students to achieve their highest potential within the realities of corporate America.

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