Blended Learning and Game Design: The Perfect Fit

Blended Learning and Game Design: The Perfect Fit

Bev Vaillancourt M.Ed., Educator, Instructional Designer

According to the Clayton Christensen Institute, in 2000 about 45, 000 K-12 students took an online course. By 2009, that number had skyrocketed to 3 million K-12 students. It is anticipated that by 2019, roughly 50 percent of all high school courses will be delivered online. Blended learning is an integral part of the growth of online learning as more and more school districts take advantage of the personalized learning and ease of assessment blending learning offers.

One of my first assignments with Zulama was to teach Games Through the Ages (now Evolution of Games) to a group of middle school students in three different countries: the United States (Pennsylvania, Ohio, and California), Singapore, and Greece. It was, in every way, an amazing experience. I say “teach,” but really what I did was facilitate and mentor. The kids absorbed the online content, worked with their families to make and play games like Ur from ancient Mesopotamia and Senet from ancient Egypt, and grew into a collaborative and supportive group of students through their discussion posts and the sharing of their completed WebQuests. It was a wonderfully enriching experience for me to work with kids so invested in learning for the fun of learning. They grew in knowledge and gained an appreciation for the global learning network right at their fingertips. Learning just happened, naturally and unencumbered.

Missing from this wonderful online experience was the value and importance of face to face contact with students. It’s the teacher in a classroom offering accolades, support, and always asking the probing questions that sparks innovation and creativity, and for kids fosters a belief in their capacity to learn and learn big. Teachers bring effervescence to a subject and inspire iteration by asking a simple, “Are you satisfied with what you’ve created?” And then, teachers help students take the next step in their learning journeys by looking beyond the content to where the content can lead them.

I often wished while teaching my online Zulama students, that I could have had all of them together around a table to share their excitement about the cultures they were studying and the games they were creating. Such an opportunity would have underscored the energized learning that happily bounces around a classroom where students assume accountability for their learning while deep diving into collaborative projects. Invested teachers inspire new ideas, creative moments, and a desire to learn, especially in a blended learning environment that is interest driven, personalized, and game-based.

Blending learning offers an ideal setting for Zulama’s courses in game design. Here students become self-reliant learners by assuming ownership of the content delivered online, and then invest themselves into the group dynamics of IDEA teams (Innovate, Design, Engage, Assess). Within their IDEA teams they design and build products that deepen their knowledge of cultures, storytelling, computer coding, and 3D modeling. The basics of game design parallel the learning process: rules, voluntary participation, feedback, and goals. Blended learning and game design become a perfect fit.

Blended learning offers unlimited opportunities to turn kids on to learning. With blended learning, test and forget give way to a desire to learn, share, collaborate, iterate, and excel. Teachers play a pivotal role in the blended learning environment, not as subject matter experts, but as facilitators of that curiosity and directors of sustained knowledge acquisition. Game design creates a template for the process through its focus on helping students become collaborators, communicators, critical thinkers, and creators: the 4 Cs of the 21st Century Skills. And it all happens within the blended learning courses that make up Zulama’s Entertainment Technology Academy. They serve as a foundation and a model for education’s bright future.

Teacher Spotlight

Back To the Classroom Via Zulama

Wasserman2Scott Wasserman

Entertainment Technology Teacher

Mechanicsburg Exempted Village Schools

Mechanicsburg, Ohio

Wow! A bunch of new experiences all at once! Returning to the classroom after being in administration for the last 18 years is quite an adjustment. To say I was excited and apprehensive as the first day of school arrived is an understatement. While I cannot say the transition has been all smooth sailing, it has been a lot of fun! Zulama is a new curriculum to our school and I still feel like a novice. Yet, the curriculum set up is user friendly and the kids have been engaged in the lessons. There are discussions, projects and time to play games with each other.

I have been an avid gamer since the days of arcade Pac-man and yes, even Pong. My family used enjoyed playing board games when I was growing up. Little did I realize that both of these activities were teaching me things about socialization, strategy and patience. Zulama adds in the “extras” of historical background and writing in the curriculum. I still have to adjust to grading writing assignments (as a former math teacher), yet each activity has an assigned rubric that significantly helps students with clear expectations and me with feedback.

Wasserman1My pleasant surprises would include the socialization of the students and their willingness to help each other through trials during classwork and projects. They frequently discuss problems and ask their classmates for help. The atmosphere has been really positive. When they get ahead of their classmates (Zulama has the flexibility of being self paced), they frequently pull out a gameboard and sit down with friends to play. They share strategies and insights into gameplay and have started to talk about modifications.

What a ride! I am behind in grading and I have yet to figure out the nuances of Zulama’s gradebook, but for the most part it is easy to use. The kids and I both enjoy class and are currently learning about Egypt and the game of Senet. Do I play games with the students? Absolutely! I am challenged to play the current unit’s board game often and several students from my first period class are currently playing a MMO with me online. I look forward to continuing my education and experience with Zulama.

I need to close by saying thank you to the support staff at Zulama; they are great. Our tech coordinator Eric Griffith has be invaluable with support and grant aquisition. The administration has been very supportive of the program. Now, if I can just figure out how to write a SLO (Ohio teacher evaluation system), I will be ready to roll.

The Power of Games

The Power of Games

Beverly Vaillancourt, M.Ed
Educator, Instructional Designer

Welcoming you to a new fall semester with Zulama!

This newsletter is for both new and “veteran” Zulama teachers. It contains links to videos, articles, our monthly Google Hangout, and many more resources to augment your game-based learning strategies.

My name is Bev Vaillancourt, and I’ve had the privilege of meeting several of you at trainings. During my days writing state assessments I wondered if the focus of education had gone awry. But after working with you, I know the future of education is in very good hands. You, as a Zulama teacher, foster the excitement of kids wanting to be in school. You help them recognize that learning has a much broader purpose than the final exam. You are making an incredible difference in the lives of many kids.

14141108581_868ecdb15a_bMore and more, game based education is being described as a system, more specifically an complex ecosystem, that engages learning in a variety of meaningful ways. Learners in this ecosystem include everyone within a learning space who continually trade roles as teacher, student, mentor, facilitator, cheerleader, subject matter expert, and designer. Direct instruction, though an important educational strategy in its own right and in its own place, takes a back seat in this learning ecosystem built around the power of games.

Using games and game design to deepen content knowledge and develop 21st century skills will not cure the educational crisis occurring nationwide, but it will go a long way in mitigating chronic truancy, the educational divide between the academically skilled and those whose talents lie in non-academic arenas, and a lack of career and educational goal setting by too many who envision little personal growth beyond their high school years. An article in the Journal of Adolescence (Vaughn, M. G., et al., Prevalence and correlates of truancy in the US: Results from a national sample, 2013) reports that truancy rates in the United States have remained unchanged over the past ten years, with “overall, 11% of adolescents between the ages of 12–17 reported skipping school in the past 30 days… Studies have found that students who are chronically absent from school are more likely to drop out of school and less likely to be employed 6 months after the end of compulsory schooling.”

It is very hard to get a handle on the actual rates of chronic truancy, but several consequences are certain. It costs school districts in school aid dollars. It costs the individual in future earnings. It costs the individual’s self-worth and positive purpose. A lot of effort has focused on mitigating this national tragedy, with little change in results. It’s long past time to do things differently.

Enter the power of games and game design. We know from statements students have made that Zulama’s courses are the reason many kids come to school. They look forward to their game design courses and the collaboration that happens in the classroom. They also enjoy the ownership they have of their learning and the social interaction within a course where talents are shared instead of compared. Game based education and the game design courses offer kids bright horizons with rainbows of opportunities. They know it. They get it.

Games are the great equalizer. Everyone gets to play. Everyone has the opportunity to win. At times you need to depend on someone who you least expect to complete a mission and succeed. Other times, you are alone in your quest. Games are a community. There is power in games on many levels. Zulama teachers see that happening every day in every classroom. It’s an ecosystem very much worth engaging and empowering.

It is everything Zulama, for it is the paradigm shift that is absolutely necessary if we really are serious about preparing kids for the challenges of a future that are beyond any frame of reference. The power of games is the power of thinking beyond the obvious in search of a goal yet to be experienced. And, it all begins in your classroom, with your class, within your students.

Engaging the Struggling Student

Engaging the Struggling Student

Beverly Vaillancourt, M.Ed
Educator, Instructional Designer

“Games teach you how aspects of reality work, how to understand yourself, how to understand the actions of others, and how to imagine.” Raph Koster, A Theory of Fun for Game Design 

“Games help us band together and create powerful communities from scratch.” Jane McGongigal, Reality is Broken

Education expends a great deal of effort on struggling students. School systems, prompted by both federal and state directives, commit resources for testing students, compiling statistics, and managing curriculums and perhaps entire school buildings, all focused on the struggling student. Politicians recognized the importance of addressing the struggling student and commit additional resources to write laws and policies to deal with the social consequences associated with failed school systems. It’s an accumulated cost that defies calculation.

I’ve often heard comments about the skill and enjoyment struggling students show when playing video games, with the caveat that if they would spend more time on their school work and less time playing video games, their grades certainly would improve. I have to wonder if when we are talking about the struggling student if we really are not talking about students who are disengaged, along with parents who are equally disengaged, or perhaps more so.

What keeps a teen interested in school? One tenet I firmly believe is that every individual wants to succeed, though that success activity may not be what most view as success. Chronic truancy, a route taken by too many struggling students, is an activity that defines success, at least for some. The system has been thwarted, control gained over adults who are jumping through hoops to pull the student back into mainstream education, and admiration gained from others who view schools as negative places.  Success really is in the eye of the beholder.

Video games offer an alternative reality for kids who fail within traditional school settings. They succeed with games and succeed big. Importantly, they learn the value of iteration. Failure becomes a positive and highly social experience because strategy gained from the feedback of others playing the same game pays off. The warm glow of success becomes a welcomed experience. This is so very different from the social experiences of so many struggling students in schools.

The deep learning that occurs in games is voluntary, involves every modality, and is driven by high interest. Toss in perseverance to the max as the individual moves into higher levels of game play to meet both short-term objectives and long-term goals. Isn’t this learning process exactly what we hope happens in the classroom? Isn’t it all about engagement and not about an individual’s ability to learn in ways educational systems have decided they must learn? Wouldn’t it be quite the educational success story if educators could get struggling students as invested in school tasks as so many are in video games?

According to the Entertainment Software Association’s 2013 statistics, gamers make up 32 percent of all individuals under the age of 18. There is an average of two gamers / American household, while 51 percent of all American households include a game console. It may surprise you (maybe not) to learn that on average every American house has a PC, smart phone, or dedicated game console.

But what if education harnessed the power of games and technology to reach the struggling reader? Zulama is invested in the exciting paradigm shift happening across the country in education. This new paradigm couples the power of technology with best practices in how to foster deep and long lasting learning. It’s a paradigm that supports a deep dive into content and drives a belief in one’s ability to control their destiny through effort, perseverance, and engagement.  It is, in every way, an exciting time in education, and one that should and must alter how education views the struggling student.



Infographics courtesy of Institute of Play.