A Game Design Framework for Course Design

January 12, 2015 in Academic Technology, Games, Interests

Who is the Course Designer?

Jamie attends a class that her instructor has spent months creating. Her instructor, let’s call him Dr. X, has slaved to make sure that all the content he wants to cover fits in the course. He has active learning activities peppered throughout the semester. He has chosen the best readings for each of the topics. He has weekly quizzes written to keep students accountable, and tests designed not just to assess but to teach. He has designed a well-thought out course that all students should easily pass, provided they follow his plan.

Q. Who designed his course?

Jamie attends four courses in total. She uses Google Docs to take notes in three of them where she feels comfortable using her laptop, and a spiral notebook for the other (Prof Q doesn’t allow electronic devices to be used in class). In two of her Google Doc classes, she takes those notes collaboratively with 1-2 friends. They use the chat function in the Google doc to check themselves, they fix each other’s mistakes; they fill in gaps that each other misses. It’s a good system. They use the notes to study for the tests, and because they all have a sense of co-ownership in the creation, they figure out problems together and do pretty well on the tests. If one of them is sick, the other two can cover pretty well because they are familiar with each other’s note-taking style and have, in fact influenced it with their own ideas and habits.

Q. Who designed their courses?

It turns out, that despite instructors’ best attempts, instructors and students are co-designers of their courses. The instructors set up the initial course, based on both the educational models that they’re familiar with, and student behavior that they’ve witnessed. They (often) attempt to create a learning environment where their students [model of student] will participate in their course [model of course] with an expected degree of participation such that the appropriate content will be learned.

MDA for Course Design

Hunicke, LeBlanc & Zubek’s (2004) MDA framework for game design can be adapted here. They propose that game designers can approach their craft through the lens of MDA (Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics), where the Mechanics (what is possible — rules and resources) leads to Dynamics (what occurs — activity), which lead to players’ Aesthetic experience (components of engagement).

I apply the MDA lens to course design, where the instructor plays the role of game master — both a designer and a player, adjusting the Mechanics both before and during the actual game in order to affect the Dynamics in each class such that the desired Aesthetics are reached.



Mechanics include the rules and resources that allow Dynamics to happen. In game design, the mechanics include everything that can affect the play of the game: rules, pieces, cards, the game board or playing field, etc. In course design, mechanics include things like: policies and rules, classroom or class space (online or face-to-face or both), assignments, lectures, videos, etc.


Dynamics are what actually happens when players interact with the Mechanics. In games, the dynamics are what the players do. In baseball, they run and throw and hit and catch and steal and bunt and foul etc.; in Poker they shuffle and deal and fan cards and sort and draw and bluff, etc. In courses, Dynamics are what the instructor and students do. For example, students listen and watch and read and raise hands and talk and move seats and flirt and take tests and cheat and text and increase the typeface to stretch their papers, etc.; whereas instructors take attendance and lecture and assign homework and quiz and test and grade and hold office hours, etc.

In addition to the mundane Dynamics in a course listed above, perhaps the most sought after cognitive Dynamics are captured in Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956), or Anderson et al’s revision of them (2001)

  1. Remember
  2. Understand
  3. Apply
  4. Analyze
  5. Evaluate
  6. Create

And Krathwohl & Bloom’s (1964) affective Dynamics (these are often ignored in course design — and instructional technology, in general)

  1. Receive: be open to accepting new information/ideas, etc. (e.g. I am aware of a rule)
  2. Respond: comply; change behavior accordingly (e.g. I will follow this rule — perhaps because I don’t want to suffer negative consequences)
  3. Value: assign intrinsic worth to new information (e.g. This rule makes sense to me)
  4. Organize: relate new information within existing systems (e.g. This rule helps other beneficial things happen)
  5. Characterize: relate new information with one’s identity (e.g. This rule is part of what makes me who I am)

Dynamics spring from models — based in theory and based on trial and error experience. Models help designers predict Dynamics, but as with most models they’re not as perfect or accurate (or chaotically messy) as real life. Dynamics provide Feedback to designers, who can use it to iterate and adjust mechanics, which in turn can affect Dynamics. Game designers typically do this a lot in playtests before they publish their games. As a sort of Game Master, instructors can adjust mechanics (to some degree) on the fly by modifying assignments, spending more or less time on a topic as needed, reviewing material, grading more or less rigorously, etc. Changing the Mechanics changes the Dynamics, which affects the Aesthetics. Exercising caution must be advised here — changing the course to be responsive to student needs is often a good thing, but changing the Mechanics of a course too much often results in students feeling ungrounded, and may result in backlash against an “unorganized” instructor.


Aesthetics are the tone or the experience. Hunicke et al shy away from describing Aesthetics as “what makes a game ‘fun’?” (2004, p2) and instead suggest a taxonomy of Aesthetic components that includes: 1. Sensation (Game as sense-pleasure), 2. Fantasy (Game as make-believe), 3. Narrative (Game as drama), 4. Challenge (Game as obstacle course), 5. Fellowship (Game as social framework), 6. Discovery (Game as uncharted territory), 7. Expression (Game as self-discovery), and 8. Submission (Game as pastime).  The balance of each of these (and there are probably others) determines the aesthetics of the experience. I think of it as a sort of graphic equalizer. One adjusts the frequencies to try to get the sound one desires.


In course design, we can even match up the eight aesthetic components that Hunicke et al list with educational ones:

  1. Sensation (Game as sense-pleasure) = Embodiment
  2. Fantasy (Game as make-believe) = Epistemic Frames
  3. Narrative (Game as drama) = Course Schedule, pacing (help me out on this one)
  4. Challenge (Game as obstacle course) = Problems
  5. Fellowship (Game as social framework) = Sociocultural Learning
  6. Discovery (Game as uncharted territory) = Research
  7. Expression (Game as self-discovery) = Personal Strengths Finding
  8. Submission (Game as pastime) = Time on Task

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to adjust the Aesthetics of the experience, whether in game design or course design, as simply moving a slider. For example, if one wants a game high in Sensation and Fellowship one must adjust the Mechanics to be more like Twister than Chess. In course design, a collaborative field research assignment might be high in the Embodiment and Sociocultural learning components, whereas reflective journaling might emphasize Personal Strengths Finding. Assigning plenty of worksheets might increase time-on-task; but not in a good way.

What This All Means…

So, can we use this framework for designing courses? Yes. With the following caveat. Courses are not publish-and-leave games, or books, or movies, that can be designed and left for consumption by students. Instructors and students continually interact with and affect course form long after the initial design. Recognizing that instructors are sort of Game Masters and students are active participants (and shapers) of the gameplay of courses, it’s important that we design them as evolvable and emergent systems that take into account human psyche and social interactions — much more complex mechanics than dice and cards. This is where a deeper understanding of experiential and sociocultural learning (discussed throughout the rest of my writing) begin to contribute.

At this point, however, it starts to get messy. The educational Aesthetic components can be achieved through a mix and match of educational Dynamics, which in turn are affected by course Mechanics. For example, a Fellowship/Sociocultural learning is hampered when there’s no forum for student-to-student interaction. Likewise, Discovery/Research may be more difficult when computer browsers are locked down. Without a compelling story, learners may not enter into the Epistemic Fantasy of deeply solving an authentic problem from the perspective of a person in the field or discipline being studied.

Next Steps

A good next step might be to begin to map out a number of these relationships, either through stories and examples or through educational research. Both have value in this conversation.




Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R., Airasian, P. W., Cruikshank, K. A., Mayer, R. E., Pintrich, P. R., … & Wittrock, M. C. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives, abridged edition. White Plains, NY: Longman.

Bloom, B. S., & Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain.

Bloom, B. S. (1969). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals; Handbook. Affective Domain. McKay.

Bloom, B. S. (1974). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook 1-2. Longmans: McKay.

Hunicke, R., LeBlanc, M., & Zubek, R. (2004, July). MDA: A formal approach to game design and game research. In Proceedings of the AAAI Workshop on Challenges in Game AI.

Krathwohl, D. R., Bloom, B. S., & Masia, B. B. (1964). Taxonomy of educational objectives, handbook ii: affective domain. New York: David McKay Company.Inc. ISBN 0-679-30210-7, 0-582-32385-1.

Krathwohl, D. R. (2002). A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy: An overview. Theory into practice, 41(4), 212-218.


Blending Active Learning with Twitter

October 2, 2014 in eLearning, Interests

As some of you know, I have been using Twitter the past 2 years in my CP125 (and have had several instructor consultations. Twitter shows some promise for blended and active learning (constructive) to crowd-source (student-source?) content application and knowledge construction.

student accountsgraphWHO TWEETS?

Although not everyone has a Twitter account, all of my Fall 2013 Freshmen students had a Twitter account, and 18 of 24 of my Fall 2014 Freshmen students had one. Everyone had Facebook, but using it for classes opens a myriad of problems that I won’t get into here (if you’ve heard my “Socializing D2L” presentation at Ignite or elsewhere, you’ll recall the issues. If not, I’m happy to share).


I’ve been using Twitter for two assignments in my Wisconsin Experience course, and embed a Twitter stream following the  #WIexp hashtag on the course WordPress page. The first week, to set up for the following week’s discussion on “why are we here?” the I ask them to find a university commencement speech and link it with the (short) excerpt that is most significant to them. I write about that assignment in more detail here.

ommencement tweet
The other, ongoing assignment is to share every week at least one thing that they think is cool and/or helpful to a Madison first year student on campus in the nearby community, again with the #WIexp hashtag. The idea behind this is to build a community where they construct/share information that they feel is important to build a culture of peer learning, and to give the more introverted (less likely to talk in class) a forum to showcase their participation at their own pace and place.


Once students start tweeting, they seem to enjoy it. I have no data on how many of them have begun following each other, or on the student-to-student effect of the tweeting outside of our class discussion (in class check-ins, several do comment on each others’ tweets), but the biggest complicating factor is grading. As with quizzing, assigning a grade (each week’s tweet is worth a minuscule amount of points) starts and keeps them tweeting. It’s an easy way for them to accumulate points, but only if I see their tweets to give them points. While I step into the hashtag search from time to time, I don’t spend all my time on Twitter, and I don’t stalk my students’ individual feeds to see if they’ve tweeted for class, which is why I use the course #WIexp hashtag to collect them and embed them on the course site. But this has problems as well.

Twitter only indexes their hashtags for 7-10 days, and not all the tweets show up in Twitter’s hashtag searches. So, I’ve had several (slightly embarrassing) situations where I didn’t see a student’s tweet, and contacted them to remind them to tweet, and they got flustered because they had tweeted, but it was their first one, and it had a URL in it, so Twitter assumed(?) it was spam.

My search for a solution to the “How do I collect and track class Tweets” led me down several roads. IFTTT (If This Then That) has a recipe that does a pretty good job, but Chris Limburg in Geography shared a much more effective Google Spreadsheet script that does much better job (Martin Hawksey Tags script http://mashe.hawksey.info/2013/02/twitter-archive-tagsv5/). This returns a spreadsheet that looks like this (for me):



Although this was a simple experiment to see what, if any, uses and challenges Twitter might offer as a teaching tool, the results, for me, make it worthwhile.

  • All students participate. 
  • Students engage with each other in topics beyond the course.
  • They think about the course, and course content throughout the week.
  • They connect course content to other aspects of their life.
  • They seems to appreciate glimpses into their peers’ lives (outside of their close social circles).
  • We discuss and work on internet identity management.
  • They work on writing concisely (Twitter’s 144 character constraint).
  • They practice multimodal digital media literacy by often including images, videos, or sites that support their tweets.

Other benefits that I’m missing? Thoughts? Comment away, please!

An Active/Interactive Learning Story

September 30, 2014 in Interests

The Wisconsin Experience seminar class I teach has provided a fantastic opportunity for me to try out a bunch of teaching strategies. Although I love to talk, one of the big experiments is structuring activities where students construct their own knowledge, and do so socially — through interactions and co-construction of their knowledge with their peers (See Chi, 2009 for definitions). 


The physical layout of Sterling’s Collaborative Learning Classroom helps tremendously. It’s almost impossible to just lecture in this space. The activity represented here was an exploration of the Wisconsin Experience and Essential Learning Outcomes [pdf]. They looked at the four main categories, and were asked to match these with their course assignments:

  1. SterlingWIexpELOactivity2Consider the four areas:
    • Knowledge of Human Cultures and the Physical and Natural World
    • Intellectual and Practical Skills
    • Personal and Social Responsibility
    • Integrative Learning
  2. Consider the assignments in all of your courses
  3. Try (hard) to map some of the assignments to the fours areas
  4. Share with your table (three other students), and write them on the whiteboard
  5. Individually check out all the whiteboards, and add a checkmark next to the courses you are taking. 

The goals of the activity — 

  • Develop an introductory understanding of the Wisconsin Experience and Essential Learning Outcomes, and identify intentional ways of creating their own
  • Promote appreciation and involvement with campus, both in and out of class
  • Introduce the value of high impact practices and essential learning outcomes

meshed here with the goals of the course — 

In ten years, I want you to look back on this course and think: I learned to be a critical thinker in part because of that class. That won’t happen unless you jump into real discussions with your classmates. My goal for the course is to create and foster an environment and activities where you can develop the attitudes, skills, and knowledge that you need to succeed at UW-Madison —most significantly to develop and integrate your own path and goals.”

Chi, M. T. (2009). Active‐constructive‐interactive: A conceptual framework for differentiating learning activities. Topics in Cognitive Science1(1), 73-105.


Teaching for Graduate Student Instructors

July 25, 2014 in Academic Technology, Interests, Learning, uwcomets

GSIsPedagogical Treatments for Graduate Student Instructors  (GSIs)

I’ve been thinking about his for some time. Thought I should write something up on it.


I propose that someone create small programs to improve the teaching of GSIs — in conjunction (and collaboratively) with various entities on campus to identify and target needs, to avoid programming in areas that do overlap, and to capitalize on lines of communication to potential participants.


This proposal addresses a problem that has not been adequately acted upon, and does so in such a way that could benefit several levels of a university.

For Undergraduate Students:

  • Many R1  undergraduates are taught by graduate instructors, most of whom have had no pedagogical training.
  • Most universities have little programming to improve undergraduate education through graduate instructor outreach.

For Graduate Students:

  • Of the 9,430 graduate students at a local R1 university, ~2400 (21% of Masters students and 27% of doctoral students) are TAs.
  • Although graduate and professional students were 13.9 percent of all students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities in 2001 (U.S. Department of Education, 2004), conversations and subsequent efforts to achieve educational excellence regarding student engagement have focused almost exclusively on undergraduates.
  • TA training opportunities on many campuses are varied. Often these are on specialized trainings (e.g. HR procedures, sexual harassment, etc.)
  • A significant percentage hunger for opportunities to learn to teach more effectively.

For T&L Communities:

  • Awareness of current practices (through contact/communication with graduate student instructors) will better inform T&L communities of the current state of teaching on campus.
  • Graduate students often have more time and energy to devote to learning about good teaching practices (at certain stages of their studies) than many faculty — especially non-tenured faculty, so can provide fantastic opportunities/inroads in improving the T&L of those classes.
  • Graduate students are often more willing to share openly about their frustrations with current T&L practices. They can provide “fresh” (on the student side of) insight to recent trends in T&L.
  • Graduate students can teach us of new technologies that are relevant in their fields — technologies that we may not be aware of (e.g. deep experience from a user-perspective with Piazza).

For faculty:

If faculty know that their TAs are learning how to teach (beyond TA experience, and faculty-provided knowledge), they will be more willing to trust and share with the TAs the responsibility of designing assignments, units, and even courses.

  • increased willingness to try new things (e.g. Hybrid Learning, mobile-enhanced field research, experiential and socioculturally-rich activities)
  • increased sharing of their successes and failure (failures are shared “learning experiences” for TAs, rather than reinforcement of only marginally-effective practice).

For the local R1 university:

By helping graduate students become expert communicators and instructors, the reputation of the university will be enhanced, but so will the day-to-day workings of teaching, learning, research, and administration.

  • graduate students could leave as experts in Teaching & Learning, which would raise the competitive advantage  beyond most R1 universities by producing not only research leaders, but research leaders who can effectively communicate and teach to a wider variety of audiences.


Increasing undergraduate success is such a tremendous goal for this R1 campus that it is built into the very fabric of the university and taken for granted. However, increasing undergraduate success by increasing the success of their primary instructional contacts — their TAs and graduate student instructors — is typically not discussed. Increasing the pedagogical abilities of graduate students will help them become better teachers, better learners, and better researchers. The impacts of this will affect the entire campus culture.


Given the intensity of graduate student schedules, the diversity of disciplines and practices, the relatively short time they are on campus (2-10 years), and the high cost of “cohort”-style fellowships, I envision this succeeding most effectively as a “broad-but-shallow” program with the following aims:

  • broadly target all ~2500 graduate instructors with a “light touch” treatment (e.g. one-hour brownbag, online series of short YouTube-style videos, etc.) providing very basic questions for inquiry into their current teaching (i.e. awareness of a lack of knowledge and need for action)
  • establish a (or supplement to an existing) community of graduate student peers who are interested in increasing their teaching skills
  • support and maintain that community, both online and offline by participating, mentoring, and rewarding their participation.
  • create pathways for deeper exploration (and credentialization/recognition options) for those who delve more deeply into increasing their pedagogical skills and implementation.

Proposed actions:

  1. Identify entities on campus who are engaging in graduate student instructor outreach (we have many of these already identified)
  2. Map out the types of outreach and professional development they are already doing.
  3. Identify focused “generally applicable” pedagogical practices for adult learners.
  4. Share any and all data with campus entities who prefer to do their own training (do not target their GSIs).

If this moves forward and receives funding,

  1. Develop or curate a variety of short treatments (workshops, videos, readers, etc.) to address the focused “generally applicable” pedagogical practices for adult learners.
  2. Create a GSI T&L community, or if appropriate and welcomed, expand existing campus T&L communities with GSI SIGs.
  3. Actively maintain the community by participating in it, moving treatments to it, expanding and curating treatments on deeper T&L topics, rewarding GSI participation with recognition, credentialing, and inexpensive tokens of appreciation.

Connect Wisconsin MOOC!

April 16, 2014 in eLearning, Interests, Mobile

connectWII’d like to see a Connect Wisconsin! MOOC that leverages the already-EI-funded mobile research tool with a campaign of quests led by UW-Madison student researchers (essentially undergraduate course leaders), where some quests are seeded, and some are solicited and chosen by popular vote (Reddit-style), and then citizens across the state use our new mobile research platform to collect data and document the issues (and potential solutions). Results are tagged, geo-coded, and given peer feedback.

Essentially, this would be an exercise in sharing with the general public some of the methods of research done at UW-Madison, using topics relevant to localities, where they will find that their own local concerns are local concerns across the state, and ideas and solutions might come from other Wisconsinites.

For example, one quest could be about litter (John Francis and I developed this idea when he was a visiting scholar in the Nelson Institute here, btw) — where people document the types of trash they find on the sides of roads. 

  1. What types are predominant?
  2. Where do they come from?
  3. What are the similar factors of high-trash areas across the state? 
  4. What are the similar factors of low-trash areas across the state?

I think a number of interesting topics could come out of this (litter laws? population density? cultures? amount of fast food joints? etc.) Potential Benefits: 

  1. scale up UW-Madison MOOC experience in a cool way that 
  2. engages Wisconsin citizens as “UW students” — giving them a sense of connection/ownership of the university, AND 
  3. exposing them to UW-Madison research and research methods, while
  4. providing UW-Madison students with classroom leadership/teaching experience and 
  5. uber-relevant (to families, hometowns, etc.) research experience 
  6. with an awesome cutting-edge mobile collabor ties sweetly in with, and provides a nice platform for the Big Data/Learning Analytics folks to learn with, and 
  7. lands UW-Madison on the cover of WIRED! magazine and NYTimes and Chronicle for Higher Education
  8. and Wisconsin Public Radio and Television, who I imagine would love to be partners in it.
  9. etc.

I think it’s both sexy and pedagogically-strong. Your thoughts?

Situating Mobile Learning

April 16, 2014 in Academic Technology, eLearning, Mobile, work

Presentation/workshop for EDUCAUSE Connect Chicago, March 18, 2014.

Abstract: Educators know that learning happens best when learners are motivated and supported, so how can we support learning activities where students use the technology at their disposal? Our faculty used mobile and web technologies to create interactive tours and collaborative field research for students to engage with content situated in authentic contexts. Building on this experience, the Mobile Learning Incubator has been evaluating the integration of game elements into newer field research tools. In this session, we’ll get in touch with our inner college student to understand the breadth and scope of mobile as a learning tool, synthesize our different perspectives in small groups, analyze and evaluate how current uses of mobile in higher education teaching and learning support these perspectives, and create a set of challenges and strategies around mobile learning for higher education IT to address. 

Outcomes: In this session you will:

  • Learn several types of mobile-enhanced T&L activities
  • Inhabit a student’s view of mobile
  • Create and share a range of potential learning activities based on that perspective
  • Evaluate how IT can address mobile learning needs, based on a T&L focus

Writings: 1997

April 10, 2014 in Poems n Stuff

I took a poetry class this semester…