Teaching Fails

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Powerpoint slide reading "Crowd-sourced in-class project", featuring the Wikipedia globe logo.
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When Wikipedia Fought Back

In this short essay, the author explains what went wrong when he asked his students to tackle an ill-conceived project—an in-class Wikipedia edit—and what he’d do differently next time.

In the fall of 2018, at my last institution, a smaller, teaching-focused university in the Pacific Northwest, I tried—and failed—to use Wikipedia in my survey of digital media course.

The assignment? I urged my students to attempt to edit our institution’s entry on Wikipedia. I had them first read Wikipedia’s own “simple” rules for editing entries (though these by no means are necessarily user-friendly or transparent to beginners, in retrospect). With these rules in mind, I tried to offer some guidance, and we spent the first twenty or so minutes of class creating profiles and discussing how, exactly, to add text, images, and links to Wikipedia entries. It was part of a larger unit on wikis and collaborative digital tools. I was excited. I figured that even if we just succeeded in adding some small bits of information to the page, that would be a success. Students, however, were technically going to be graded on a self-reflection forum post afterward, so it was not necessary that they “succeed” at the process. That helped lower the stakes, but provided enough motivation for students to at least attempt the assignment.

Like many of my colleagues, I had the best of intentions. I was going to lean in, darn it, to my students’ own learning habits (Wineburg 2018). Inspired by scholar-teachers smarter and savvier than I, I was going to have one of those collective “a-ha!” moments we all yearn for, when, in the silence of an air-conditioned, sun-lit space, the scent of marker lingering in the air, you turn, excitedly, from the whiteboard to gaze upon the newly enlightened faces of your students, who burst into applause.

That did not happen.

As I planned the in-class exercise the night before class, I realized too late that we might get pushback from Wikipedia’s infamously irascible and mysterious volunteer editors (Dougherty and O’Donnell 2015).

“But we’re just adding some innocuous info,” I thought—details like the names of buildings and programs. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

First Mistake

I soon learned, about 25 minutes into the whole affair, that, in fact, a great deal can go horribly wrong when you forget that the thing you’re toying with in real time—in our case, again, our university’s Wikipedia page—can fight back. Wikipedia, my friends, is very much alive.

It started innocently enough. One of my more engaged students raised her hand.

“Umm, Dr. Mari, I think Wikipedia doesn’t like how we’re all in this page editing it together right now.”

I strode over—surely, of all the pages in the wide world of Wikipedia, ours wouldn’t have some kind of odd editing cap on it, right?

And yet, lo, it did! “Hmmm,” I said. And then I improvised.

“Pair up with Joon,” I said.[1]

And sure enough, things continued well enough for a bit. My students added some benign, or so I thought, facts about our volleyball team, the names of our new degree programs, some of our campus ground’s highlights, and so on.

But then, one mischievous student decided to get a little… silly.

Second Mistake

“What if I just make up something dumb and put it in here?” he asked me.

“Like what?”

“Well, what if I add myself to the list of famous alumni?”

I thought about this for a second. On the one hand, I didn’t want to encourage the accumulation of garbage information in the world and turn my class into a fake news farm. I’d rather not become the subject of a cautionary tale in a journal somewhere.

But… we had just talked about how Wikipedia has a strong internal editing culture—as controversial and problematic as it can be—and I did want to show the students, instead of just prattling on about it.[2] I pushed aside the voice in my head that was saying, “wait a second here, sir.”

“Sure,” I said instead. “Try it and see what happens.”

And so he added his name, and the names of a few friends, for good measure. Within moments, it was deleted. I pulled up the editing log—a veteran Wikipedia volunteer editor, working under a pseudonym, had already corrected the record.

“There, everyone,” I pointed to the projected screen behind me, “just like I told you. This isn’t the Wikipedia of my time as an undergrad, a decade ago. Things have changed for the better and this engagement is part of why Wikipedia…” (see Ayers et al. 2008).

Various hands began shooting up, like baby asparagus shoots.

“Maybe this thing is working after all,” I thought, perhaps a touch too proudly. “Maybe I’m pretty good at this.”

It wasn’t, and I’m not.

My students’ careful and fact-based links, edits, and other changes were being erased and wiped clean, in rapid succession, by the original editor, but also now by several others. The word must have gotten out: we didn’t stand a chance!

We still had more than half of class left to go. But within minutes, all my poor students’ work was gone, vanished. They looked up, over the edges of their phones, laptops, and tablets.

They were not pleased.

I took great pains to try to connect what had just happened with our reading from the week, which had included articles both critical and supportive of Wikipedia and its potential as a kind of refuge, a stronghold of fact-checked information, and some of the irony of that.

I am not always fast on my feet with this kind of extemporaneous pedagogy. I have a stutter, and often need my slides and notes to guide me, as I talk fast and mumble more the more nervous I get, especially in front of twenty skeptical students. There’s almost always something else I wish I had said or added after these kinds of moments when teaching, especially with digital tools. I often write long notes afterward via email or post to our class page, debriefing disastrous assignments.

But in the moment, I just… sort of embraced the “successful failure,” to borrow from our friends at NASA (Leinfelder 2020).

I stopped talking. My students had questions: would they still get credit? Even though all their edits had been erased? What were we going to do now?

“Yes,” I told them, “you’ll get credit. We can talk more about this next time.”

Then I ended class early, thinking hard about power dynamics and hidden infrastructures and black boxes (Jemielniak 2015). In this case, “black boxes” are unexamined, taken-for-granted technologies that are not well understood outside of small circles of experts (Anderson and Kreiss 2013). Wikipedia has come a long way, and I need to be more thoughtful about how I unpack it, contextualize it in time and culture (Cummings 2009; Jemielniak 2015), and contrast it with other “legacy” sites such as Craigslist and Reddit (Lingel 2020, Lagorio-Chafkin, 2018). Wikipedia is not so easy to use as a teaching tool. I need to be less so-sure of myself.

But I think it worked out OK, for a first attempt working through an exercise like this with students. Later, on their course evals, at least one of my students mentioned that day as one of their favorites, because it made them think about the people behind the software curtain. That helped, but now I know—Wikipedia can fight back. Watch out!

I’ll be ready next time. And for next time, I’ll be more mindful of the power of “black boxes” that are a heady mixture of software and hardware, people and intention, momentum and gatekeeping. I will equip my students to better face these hurdles—and overcome them—by reading more critical accounts of the site and how it works.

Maybe we’ll write an entry about it, while we’re at it.

Notes

[1] Students’ names have been changed for the purposes of this essay.
[2] And as an avid fan of Stephen Colbert, I had enjoyed watching what happened when his team edited entries in the late aughts for fun—and to make a point: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Wikiality_and_Other_Tripling_Elephants.

Bibliography

Anderson, C.W. and Daniel Kreiss. 2013. “Black Boxes as Capacities for and Constraints on Action: Electoral Politics, Journalism, and Devices of Representation,” Qualitative Sociology 36, no. 4: 365–382. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-013-9258-4.

Ayers, Phoebe, Charles Matthews, and Ben Yates. 2008. How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part of It. San Francisco: No Starch Press.

Cummings, Robert E. 2009. Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press. http://site.ebrary.com/id/10314047.

Dougherty, Jack, and Tennyson Lawrence O’Donnell. 2015. Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/j.ctv65sxgk.

Dougherty, Jack, and Kristen Nawrotzki. 2013. Writing History in the Digital Age. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Jemielniak, Dariusz. 2015. Common Knowledge?: An Ethnography of Wikipedia. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Lagorio-Chafkin, Christine. 2018. We Are the Nerds: The Birth and Tumultuous Life of Reddit, the Internet’s Culture Laboratory. New York: Hachette Books.

Leinfelder, Andrea. 2020. “Lessons from a ‘successful failure:’ Apollo 13 astronaut, flight director recall famous mission.” Houston Chronicle, April 10, 2020. https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/APOLLO13-ANNIVERSARY-15192303.php.

Lingel, Jessa. 2020. An Internet for the People: The Politics and Promise of Craigslist. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Wineburg, Samuel S. 2018. Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

About the Author

Will Mari is now an assistant professor at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, where he teaches media law and media history and continues to research the history of technology and news work.

Jiu Jitsu and Calvary defense playing cards, in addition to Raid attack playing card.
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Gamification Fails: Negotiating Points, Badges, Levels, and Game Play in the Basic Writing Classroom

A composition and rhetoric professor finds that gamification does not readily enhance motivation and learning.

Bringing “game” metaphors and practices to education is nothing new, and much has been written about the ways that small rewards for achievement, progress toward a larger goal, and rapid feedback on success or failure have the potential to motivate students, build excitement, and turn the work of learning into something fun. Over three terms of teaching a two-term, credit-bearing, first-year Basic Writing course called “College Reading and Writing,” my colleagues and I noticed that many of our students have been less motivated to complete work than their peers in our regular First-Year Writing course. Our placement model emphasizes prior experience and outcomes in high school English or writing courses, so we know these students come into the university with less experience with relevant homework-intensive or writing-intensive coursework. Reasons vary, but many of the students have a complicated relationship to reading and writing, at least in school environments. In some cases, they are encountering meaningful homework expectations for the first time in years. This engagement gap has limited student learning or growth in all sections of the course. It challenged me in ways that came to a head in late Fall 2017.

I have occasionally paid attention to the gamification literature, but this teaching challenge led me to revisit it. Serious about gamifying my classes for Spring 2018, I looked more closely at some practical advice and reports on gamifying, particularly within English. What I found were two overlapping approaches: gamification and game-based learning. With gamification, one establishes Experience Points (XPs), badges/levels, and, often, leaderboards. Game-based learning typically embeds learning within game-like structures. Much of what I have read emphasizes the merits of linking XPs and levels to game play.

I wanted more of my students to invest in the day-to-day work of the course by making more visible the contributions that homework, attendance, in-class work, and the formal writing assignments made to their grades by visibly rewarding productive behavior each day—and over time.

Gamified Basic Writing

I went “all in” on gamification for Spring 2018. I borrowed heavily from ideas in Tanya Sasser’s (2015) blog “Remixing College English” and John Hardison’s (2013) “22 Power Cards to Revolutionize a Class Discussion,” in addition to the idea of “coopertition” (cooperation within competition) that I learned about from my youngest child’s experiences with FIRST LEGO League. In keeping with the recommended practice in a gamified learning environment, I worked out an achievement constellation that linked learning outcomes levels to Experience Points (XPs) and that included bonus badges with XPs.

Also following recommended approaches, our XP numbers were big: 100,000 XPs for Class Engagement, 100,000 XPs for Learning Outcomes, and nearly 20,000 in possible Bonus XPs for a range of activities. I developed nine Attack and Defense playing cards (Figure 1) for team-based discussions (battles) to encourage productive, cooperative competition and inject “fun” into the work. In addition to regular in-class Involvement XPs, game-based play could earn students extra Involvement XPs. And I packaged each major paper in the course as part of a larger mission that involved publishing an edited collection organized around the topics we engaged in our readings.

Jiu Jitsu and Calvary defense playing cards, in addition to Raid attack playing card.

Figure 1. Sample attack and defense game-based playing cards (front and back).

Our “Achievements & Badging Constellation” awarded Engagement XPs for Attendance, Homework, and in-class Involvement, as well as Peer Review and Conferencing (Figures 2 and 3). Both Engagement XPs and Learning Outcomes XPs were linked to grades in the course. Each component in Engagement contributed to the overall Engagement XPs, which counted for 45% of the course grade. 80,000 Engagement XPs translated to an 80 (B-) in engagement. Learning outcomes were similarly broken up, and the 100,000 Outcomes XPs counted for 55% of the overall grade.

Guide to course achievements and badge constellation.

Figure 2. Achievements and badge constellation.

Guide to course achievements and badge constellation.

Figure 3. Achievements and badge constellation.

The achievement constellation established clear pathways to level up as students accumulated XPs in different categories. Starting the class as Noobs (a game term for a novice or newbie), students could quickly level up and move through Striver, X-Factor, and Hero levels before potentially earning Yoda status. The constellation even defined course learning outcomes in terms of levels (Novice, Journeyman, Advanced Journeyman, Master), with XP allocations to match. These levels were aligned with rubrics that defined elements of performance at each level.

To keep the earning visible, each class meeting began with students “claiming” earned achievements: 1,000 Attendance XPs if present and 1,500 Homework XPs if their homework was submitted. Each class ended with 2–3 minutes for students to complete an Attendance and Involvement card (Figure 4). The card served as a second check on Attendance in the event of a technical issue in the LMS and, more importantly, a tool for students to claim Involvement points or to propose them for peers. Students could nominate themselves if they made a notable contribution, nominate a peer for “helping hand” points if the peer was especially helpful, and nominate up to three peers for making notable contributions in class. Students were encouraged to own their involvement and to recognize peers’ involvement. Between class meetings, I reviewed submissions and awarded earned achievements in the LMS.

Sample attendance and involvement card featuring a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt: We are afraid to care too much, for fear that the other person does not care at all.

Figure 4. Attendance and involvement card.

Teaching Fail #1

Most students quickly grasped much of the constellation, but too many seemed unmotivated by the potential to earn XPs. Most troubling for me were unclaimed Attendance and Homework XPs. I was certain that the visibility of XP earning at the start of class, coupled with the experience of periodic announcements that some students had leveled up, would encourage students to earn these basic XPs. Rather than mark students down for absences, I was awarding points when they showed up! Rather than assume homework would be done and mark students down when it was not, gamifying flipped it and made more visible the contributions that work made to the grade. However, the system did not magically improve attendance or homework completion, two basic prerequisites for success in any college class setting.

XPs were not an epic fail. Some students reported enjoying earning XPs, and the thrill of leveling up activated their competitive nature. One student, a Star Wars fan who quickly got my Yoda badge humor, requested a Sith Lord badge instead. When she leveled up to Yoda status, I made Sith Lord badges and awarded them to her, and a second student asked for the same when he leveled up. Others saw the constellation and points as a juvenile and unnecessary motivator. And other students reported that it was good to “know where you stand” on points in any category. Of course, regular grading/evaluation does that without requiring a new system of evaluation that students then need to learn.

XPs were not a big success. Not enough students altered their behavior. I did not design a study of gamification, but my sense is that the gamified class may have shifted 15% of my students marginally in the desired direction on Engagement factors. That’s something. But given the amount of recordkeeping and the time invested in building out the constellation and creating dozens of badges, I hoped for homework completion or attendance rates much more in line with those I see in other courses. Measured in this way, the gamified model did not achieve my goals.

Teaching Fail #2

I thought a gamified class required game-based play in some class sessions. I invented active reading battles, mocked up source selection games, and imagined a potluck group of sentence combining and source integration games I called “X-apalooza.” My students were mostly ready to take the journey with me. They tried to play!

Active, critical reading games typically involved teams of students preparing interpretations of ideas in our texts, making arguments for or against an idea, and challenging each other with competing textual evidence. Winners earned points in each round; overall winners earned game play XPs that added to each team member’s overall Involvement XP tallies. Group discussion games involved practice “passing an idea around” by picking up on a comment and responding by agreeing (with an addition), by challenging (with evidence), or by extending in a new direction (with more textual evidence).

In the action, students regularly forgot to throw the possible Attack and Defense cards (Figure 1) as they engaged in authentic conversation. Team back-and-forth got heated as competition put XPs at risk, but my official rules of the games inhibited a more free-form involvement, and the cards were just another thing to figure out in order to do the work of learning in the writing class. We didn’t need playing cards with provocative actions like Jiu Jitsu, Raid, or Grenade to work together, or to challenge peers. Within a couple weeks, we abandoned playing cards because they got in the way of the content: discussion of readings, sharing of draft ideas, examination of annotations, and more.

We retained modified team-based competitive activities and regularly had energetic interactions. We modified rules when it made sense to do so. Winners still earned bonus Involvement game play XPs. Even without XPs, though, I think the team-based competitions that encouraged sharing, challenging, and defending improved the energy in the room—and perhaps the learning.

One game I came to enjoy was the annotation battle. We worked on categorizing our annotations in the readings to build a greater awareness of the ways active readers mark texts. They make notes to understand, to ask questions of the text, to draw relationships (to self, to world, to text), and to challenge ideas in the texts. We used codes to name annotations—Understand, Question, Relate, Challenge—and new reading homework required annotating and coding annotations. Teams would review their annotations to prepare, make decisions about annotations to present, and share them in game play. Other teams would engage with the annotation, the relevant passage in the text, and the proposed code. They earned points by finding problems or by extending the idea in the annotation. The presenting team earned points for a solid presentation or a strong counter to a challenge.

Students who might have been more content to sit silently practiced advancing ideas, probing peers’ interpretations and offering textual evidence as a key component of the work. They were in the spotlight, playing for their team, helping a teammate, and trying to outdo another team. In-class coopertition, possibly coupled with in-class Involvement XPs, was moderately successful.

Teaching Fail #3

Uneven homework completion quickly put our timeline for the first mission in jeopardy. I was sure that publishing a “book” of student texts would motivate, but not all students had bought into the mission. (I do not know that any really did!) I quickly had to decide whether to abandon the broader goal of publishing an edited collection of our work. Pushing a death march to mission completion would put hard-working students’ performance partly in the hands of peers who were proving to be less than reliable teammates. We abandoned the broader mission concept to focus more on individual writing and practice engaging in class discussions. We made the right choice. In hindsight, I think that a formal, finished paper might function as a kind of mission in a gamified writing course.

Final Thoughts

While gamification is still fairly “hot” right now, the scholarship is actually mixed, likely because the mechanisms are quite complex. Some report ways that XPs, badges, and levels can enhance learning and motivate learners. Dicheva et al. (2015), in a review of 34 articles on gamification, find that most studies articulate a belief that well-designed gamification can improve learning. Ultimately, though, they find limited empirical evidence of positive effects on learning and claim that the impact on learning “remains to be demonstrated in practice” (Dicheva et al. 2015, 83). They call for more systematic empirical studies of elements of game systems. Subhash and Cudney (2018), in another review of the literature, observe that studies often identify “improved engagement, motivation, and attitudes” as key benefits of the gamification approach (197).

But improved motivation may be difficult to get—and sustain—via gamification. Hanus and Fox (2015), in a longitudinal study of relationships among motivation, effort, and performance in communications courses, explore the relationship between reward systems and both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. They draw on cognitive theory that suggests possible negative relationships between rewards like XPs or badges and intrinsic motivation, with possibly negative effects on learning outcomes. Results from their controlled study reveal that the badges, leaderboards, and game-based competitive play in a gamified course were associated with reduced intrinsic motivation and lower exam performance relative to a control course.

I was attempting to combat low intrinsic interest through a combination of game-like activities and XPs and levels. Where I might have preferred intrinsic motivation, I turned to gamification and a points model to motivate behavior more than attitude. I did hope that our missions and in-class games might prove fun in ways that could be interesting, and I observed generally positive attitudes toward classwork, some positive movement in desirable behaviors, and learning. Game-like structures in class likely aided some of that movement, and for some students the XPs and levels were motivators.

Intrinsic motivation might best be addressed by means other than gamification. In the writing class, this might involve a choice of reading or writing topics. Two-thirds of the way through the classes, after we had built a reservoir of community capital, I offered students just this option: We could continue on the path outlined in the syllabus, or we could opt for a different set of writing assignments. The syllabus outlined one final significant paper project that would occupy the remainder of the term, and I proposed doing two paper projects that would move a bit more quickly, have the same feedback mechanisms, and invite more variety. We had a discussion and made a collective decision on a path forward with two projects. I offer no evidence that behaviors changed markedly following that decision, but we were on a journey we decided to take. At the end of the term, my students reported liking the projects we took on. In some respects, I suppose we settled on a kind of mission.

I’m not gamifying my writing classes this year. There are no XPs, no leveling up, and surely no playing cards. But the work I did to gamify classes last year has affected my teaching. I’m more attentive to the smaller moves that my students make, to the value of more regularized feedback, and to the building blocks of my in-class activities. As I reflect on my teaching fails with gamification, I can imagine myself sprinkling gamified elements back into the class. XPs and levels might seem juvenile for some. For others, though, they are tokens marking another homework assignment completed, another class attended, and another meaningful in-class contribution. If earning XPs and leveling up can change those behaviors at the margins, why not put those elements back into the course?

Bibliography

Dicheva, Darina, Christo Dichev, Gennady Agre, and Galia Angelova. 2015. “Gamification in Education: A Systematic Mapping Study.” International Forum of Educational Technology & Society 18, no. 3 (July): 75–88.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/jeductechsoci.18.3.75

FIRST LEGO League. 2018. “What is FIRST LEGO League?” Accessed August 17, 2018.
http://www.firstlegoleague.org/about-fll

Hanus, Michael D., and Jesse Fox. 2015. “Assessing the Effects of Gamification in the Classroom: A Longitudinal Study on Intrinsic Motivation, Social Comparison, Satisfaction, Effort, and Academic Performance.” Computers & Education 80 (September): 152–161.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2014.08.019

Hardison, John. 2013. “22 Power Cards to Revolutionize a Class Discussion.” Getting Smart (March). Accessed August 17, 2018.
http://www.gettingsmart.com/2013/03/22-power-cards-to-revolutionize-a-class-discussion/

Sasser, Tanya. 2015. Remixing College English. Accessed August 17, 2018.
https://remixingcollegeenglish.wordpress.com/

Subhash, Sujit, and Elizabeth A. Cudney. 2018. “Gamified Learning in Higher Education: A Systematic Review of the Literature.” Computers in Human Behavior 87 (May): 192–206.
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2018.05.028

About the Author

Michael J. Cripps is associate professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of New England where he directs first-year writing, teaches a range of first-year and upper-level writing courses.

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