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Want to Make Your Course ‘Gameful’? A Michigan Professor’s Tool Could Help

What if the classroom were more like a video game?

Barry J. Fishman, a professor of information and education at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, would like to help you find out. Mr. Fishman has borrowed elements of gaming to develop GradeCraft, a learning-management system that lets instructors organize their courses in a “gameful” way.

The system lets students choose their own path through a course, selecting the assignments that interest and challenge them. At its heart is a tool, called the “grade predictor,” that helps to “manage some of the chaos” of such a personalized system. The grade predictor also helps students figure out what they need to do to reach the classroom goals they set for themselves.

GradeCraft also aims to give students the ability to fail without detrimental consequences. There are many assignments to choose from, so any students who do poorly on one can find plenty of other tasks to redeem themselves. Instructors, meanwhile, can allow students to revise their work. Mr. Fishman’s assessment system treats unsuccessful assignments not as failures but as learning experiences that pull students closer to mastery.

Today’s students are often made to feel that they can’t afford to make mistakes, Mr. Fishman says. In video games, by contrast, risks don’t come with serious consequences: Maybe you just end up repeating a level. “The idea that, if you played a game and when your character died that was it, that game couldn’t be played anymore, that would not be a very good-selling game,” he says.

When the educational uses of video games became a hot topic several years ago, Mr. Fishman developed a course on the subject. But he didn’t adopt elements of gaming in his own teaching — at least not right away.

“One of my undergrads came up to me and said, ‘You know, Professor, your ideas about games as models for learning environments are really interesting, but I’m curious, why don’t you teach your class following those ideas?’” Mr. Fishman says. “And I thought, Well, that’s a really excellent question.”

When he began to let students decide which assignments to complete and when to complete them, he realized it was much harder for both him and his students to keep track of a course that didn’t use standard methods of organization and assessment. The complications prompted him to create a system to help professors organize their courses, which led to GradeCraft. The professor worked closely with Caitlin Holman, a doctoral student at Michigan, to develop the tool. (It was Ms. Holman who came up with the idea for the grade-predictor feature.)

Mr. Fishman doesn’t define what he’s doing as gamification. In his opinion, that buzzword refers only to superficial elements of games, like points and leaderboards. He prefers to talk about “gameful design,” which he describes as applying the positive attributes of gaming systems — like establishing clear goals and giving players multiple routes to success — to the classroom.

This academic year, GradeCraft was used by about 2,000 students in 19 courses at Michigan, Mr. Fishman says. He hopes the system’s use at the university will grow to about 20,000 students; eventually he plans to expand GradeCraft’s reach beyond his own institution.

Most reviews of the tool by students have been positive. GradeCraft can be scary at first, though. The students who are most uneasy with the new system are often high achievers who have to find a new way to play and win, Mr. Fishman says, but once they understand how the system works, they find it more engaging.

Mr. Fishman acknowledges that the GradeCraft model creates more work for professors: There are more assessment events, and they happen at different times for different people. Grading happens, he says, as a “slow burn” rather than in weeklong chunks around midterms and finals. Despite the added work, Mr. Fishman says, nearly all of the instructors who experimented with the system this year want to use it again.

Throughout its lifespan, the project has had supporters at the University of Michigan: Mr. Fishman’s own departments, the Learning Analytics Task Force, and the Office of Digital Education & Innovation. Next, the project will receive support from the university’s Third Century Initiative, by way of a $1.88-million grant.

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