The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game

So, my unit at work is undergoing some changes here lately, and I’m a bit unsure as to what the new direction will be. I like to think that change is good, and what lies ahead is even better. Currently, our office deals mostly with online course development, however, there have been hints at us supporting both residence and online courses. An area of interest to me and my team is bringing games into the classroom.

The Multiplayer ClassroomIn case you didn’t know, I get out and about quite a bit, researching and finding cool ideas. A book I recently ran across, entitled “The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game,” caught my eye and I ordered it up from the libraries (because I can do that at Penn State.) The book arrived yesterday and this morning, I already had that dreaded “Dear Library Patron…” email in my inbox telling me it had already been recalled and I had basically eight days to get through it. So here is my take on the introduction and the first four chapters.


Imagine beginning a course and the first thing your instructor tells you is that you have an F… Lee Sheldon, former script-writer, game-developer, turned college instructor had the idea to turn one of his courses into a multiplayer game and this is how he started. After everybody’s eyes popped out of their heads and jaws hit the floor, he proceeded to tell them that they could get an A…only if they did certain things. I’m sure he had their attention right from the start.

This book isn’t about using video games in the context of the classroom; it’s about turning your class into a game. Why would you want to do that? Well, first, Sheldon says that learning is all about mistakes. We visited this concept in the Brain Rules, where we talked about kids being the “grand experimenters.” They test and observe. If there is something wrong, they correct. Same thing with games. In video games, players learn from their mistakes. They may die trying something, but they restart the game and try it again, doing something differently. And if it’s a massively multiplayer online game (MMO), they collaborate in teams and keep trying to overcome a certain challenge until they win. In education, you’d say this type of success increases their self-efficacy. I guess in game terms, it’s called “fiero” or pride–the feeling of exhilaration by triumphing over adversity. When Sheldon first launched this effort, he found both the students and he were having more fun than ever. He liked teaching and they liked learning. Talk about motivation. And he said that now is the time of the game because the gamer generation was immersed in gaming from the start: from collecting gold stars in kindergarten to collecting airline mileage points for perks (p. xvii) to earning badges on Foursquare.

The first few sections were a sort of foundation for the rest of the book. He spoke about how he came up with the idea and how he ended up writing the book. He spoke to history of games in the classroom. He then moved on to theory and practice of both the syllabi and the actual class. He started out with a simple thought: What would happen if I turned the class into a multiplayer game? He saw students who were shocked, then interested, then rising to the challenge. He saw that games could be applied in real life. And he saw that there were failures and successes, but ultimately a general improvement in learning. He saw results he didn’t expect and ended up writing this book so as to invite readers to learn to apply and explore these concepts on their own.

Sheldon states that children learn through play, so why do we interrupt it? Who interrupts it? Do the educators stop the play so they can stand up in front of a class in front of a PowerPoint? No! But where did this all come from? Who implemented the almighty “F” striking us down in failure for staring bored into the distance during another course lecture? How did we get here? And how do we get back? Through games, of course. Educational software actually dates back to the 1940s when flight simulators were used to train pilots. Most of the software back then was rooted in education up through the explosion of the personal computer. Then came edutainment software that was a marriage of education and entertainment, but it was a very delicate balance between the two…because if it was too educational, it was boring; if it was too entertaining, you weren’t learning. We are now in an age where we have games in which we learn because they are immersive, role-playing adventures that put us right in the action (e.g., World of Warcraft) and we don’t even know we are learning, rather we are doing.

The second section of the book turns to the actual theories and practices in the classroom. Sheldon brings up several relevant points. The instructor should always be flexible when using the game approach. The transformation of the syllabus to a game-based course is not always easy. While certain things will transfer over clearly like required books and certain policies, other things like grade structure and assignments are more complex. With a nod to Vygotsky, Sheldon transforms the language of the regular classroom to that of a game. Students become “players,” teams become “guilds,” presentations became “quests,” and grades became “experience points (XP).” The challenge with grades versus XP is that they accumulate and play out differently depending on the context. He then turns to the actual environment of the class, explaining how movable desk chairs could become zones that would allow teams to rotate throughout the classroom, but that could also be arranged to simulate a face-to-face battle. He also reviewed different aspects of the course. Students were all familiar with the concept of avatars, even though they all weren’t avid gamers. Even though students were aware there would be pop quizzes, aka “monster battles,” they still were unprepared, but most learned quickly to prepare for ‘battle.’ Sheldon also embedded peer reviews in the course. He was afraid everyone would get 100 or some may dock someone too harshly if they didn’t get along. However, he found most reviews were fair, and those who got the worst reviews usually deserved them. The low performers wouldn’t even take up the easy extra credit of hunting typos in the course text. He found those students who didn’t need the extra credit were the ones who usually collected it. Can you say intrinsic motivation? And finally, he spoke to some of the activities and how they played out. Some were successful, some were not, some were tweaked. In the end, most of the students found the course environment fun, laid-back, and collaborative. However, many were turned off by lack of structure and lack of clear expectations.

Upon reading these chapters, I heard concepts and thoughts that had been voiced in Brain Rules, and I recalled the days of my Educational Psychology course that spoke to the theories about how we learn. I think one of Sheldon’s biggest setbacks is that he isn’t grounded in pedagogy. He was grounded in screenplays and games. And while that may be engaging, it’s important to keep in mind other needs of the learners to make a more complete and useful learning experience. I’ll keep that in mind as I move forward through this book.


 

Sheldon, L. (2012). The multiplayer classroom designing coursework as a game. Boston, MA: Course Technology/Cengage Learning.

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