Friday, January 16, 2015

Assessing Collaboration through Game Play

After working with my sophomore English classes on skills of teamwork and collaboration, I needed some method of understanding how much they have learned. Unfortunately, the only tools available included minute observational guidelines that served more quantitative than qualitative results. As well, I felt that the tasks given to the students were not truly pushing them to rely on each other to accomplish a goal.

With that in mind, I created a puzzle challenge for my classes using the concept of ambition since we are reading both Frankenstein and Macbeth. The puzzle started with a Schoology page that included a (key) poem that I wrote and a coded quote from Napoleon using a Caesar substitution cipher. That led to another website that required a password (which they had to discover), which led to text they had to decipher from the key, generating a number which answered a question on the same Schoology page. If you wish to challenge yourself, you can find the puzzle on Schoology by joining the course with this access code: MJQGM-D8W4M.

My students accepted the challenge readily, which I think started with a sense that it would be an easy assignment, much like my past assignments. This anticipation came primarily from the reward I offered, a significant amount of XP points for the classroom avatar system (Classcraft). I used Galileo Educational Network 4-point Teamwork Assessment to rate the students, and discovered several important points that this difficult challenge exposed.

1.   Lack of communication, clear objectives, and trust: Students would often quickly begin working on decoding the message without vocalizing their thoughts to the rest of the group. There was no consensus on how to approach the problem or how to divide the labor. One student used an online decoder (to my delight), but failed to tell others on his team that he had moved past the first step. Another team member decoded the answer 20 minutes later, only then realizing that everyone else had moved on. The lack of trust was evident between higher and lower level students, often resulting in “freezing out” of information and disparaging comments as the lower level students struggled to understand the basics of cryptography. The lack of clear objectives (especially at the end of the challenge) resulted in unnecessary tangents and inefficient work.

2.  No division of labor or theoretical communication: If objectives were realized, students would often fail at dividing the amount of labor (breaking the codes into parts, researching different paths, creative style vs logical style) that would have helped to solve the problem. A few times, I even noticed how an entire team would crowd around one laptop (they all have tech) to solve a password instead of distributed effort. There was a lack of leadership to pull team members away from fruitless details to instead focus on overarching concepts of the puzzle, especially going back to the original poem as the key to each step of the puzzle. One team spent 20 minutes arguing about a Macguffin I put in the text instead of asking one person to follow that thread, leaving others to explore alternative avenues.

3.  Meta information about resilience and morality: As I assessed the teams, I was interested to discover the amount of time it took for students to divide themselves into three groups. After thirty minutes, a quarter of the students would simply disengage and quit (often lower students who were discouraged by cryptography and only teams that could not move past the first step) or a quarter of the students moved across the line of morality to meet their ambition (via brute hacking or trying to steal information from other groups). The third group, just under 50% of them, continued grinding at a solution, and continued over the following weekend before we discussed the puzzle the next week.

4.     Examples of game emotional concepts of fiero, naches, and flow: I’ve been researching gamification and understood these emotional concepts, but it was nice to see them occur in the class. There were many strong “fiero” moments of joy at solving a level, giving students a sense of accomplishment, especially for a few students who don’t have many opportunities to shine in normal class time. The sense of group success, or “naches”, helped to build some trust in the team, although as evidenced above, there is still more to construct. Finally, the focus and determination by many students exhibited the joy of “flow”, the complete immersion in a challenge simply because it is a challenge. I’m hoping this creates a sense of resiliency that will carry forward throughout their lives.

Despite the seeming failures I noticed, I’m excited. I’ve found some verifiable data that I can work with and a set of tools to correct and enable those failures. I’m planning to design more challenges throughout this spring, especially as part of a gamified version of Macbeth I’ve designed, and hopefully this will improve my students ability to work as larger groups. I’m still working on how to specifically address the failures above, so any feedback would be appreciated. More later.

-Seth Burgess

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