Tagged professional development

Two women smile in a library room.

The Help Desk as a Community-Building Tool for Online Professional Development


COVID-19 safety measures have forced professional development programs to pivot to online environments, which affects how participants interact and collaborate. When the University of Rhode Island hosted their annual, week-long teacher professional development event as a fully-online program, the staff of the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy provided an online, real-time help desk service, knowing that some participants would benefit from targeted, individualized support. Using evidence from the help desk incident log and post-event qualitative interviews, this research deepens understanding of what teacher professional development can look like in online environments. Through the provision of personalized, real-time assistance that created a relationship between the participant and the staff member, those who used the Help Desk reduced their feelings of isolation, increased a sense of connectedness, and demonstrated agency as co-learners in a professional development learning experience. By providing intrapersonal, technical, and navigational support, the help desk deepened a sense of community connectedness in an online professional development program for educators who faced a dramatic pivot to online learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Closures and physical distancing measures due to COVID-19 have shifted the way we interact, forcing many organizations to eliminate programs in teacher professional development (TPD) or move them to online platforms for the first time. In this shift, educators have faced some obstacles and adjustments. Although online learning is not a new model for digital literacy education, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how and to what extent educators are expected to utilize online platforms for learning and community, bringing with it challenges to and opportunities for growth.

Given this backdrop, we look to understand how current research in TPD translates for fully-online experiences, exploring principles of community-building to understand the affordances of online learning. Importantly, our work seeks to understand the possibility of successfully applying known, effective in-person practices to online learning and professional development. This study documents a key feature of the 2020 Summer Institute in Digital Literacy (SIDL), a TPD program affected by COVID-19 restrictions. In its eighth year, SIDL was held completely online for the first time, gathering around 150 participants—mostly from the United States but including more than two dozen from 10 countries around the world. Educators, school leaders, researchers, librarians, and media literacy advocates come together annually for the week-long intensive program to learn about digital literacy, practicing skills and instructional techniques that support student learning via digital platforms (Hobbs and Coiro 2019; 2016). When pandemic restrictions emerged in March, program planners decided to use a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning, using a learning management system plus video conference meeting rooms, along with flexible scheduling

Because of the intensive nature of the program, with its focus on hands-on media production activities and the activation of digital literacy competencies, they also decided to add an online help desk component to act as a support mechanism. The help desk would rely on a dedicated Zoom video conference room and text service (Google Voice) staffed continuously to offer hands-on, real-time support throughout the six-day, 42-hour event. By visiting the Lounge/Help Desk, participants could hang out and engage in informal dialogue but also get questions answered or receive individualized coaching.

In this study, we aim to better understand the value of the SIDL Lounge/Help Desk as a component of a teacher professional development program. Through the provision of personalized, real-time assistance that created a relationship between the participant and the staff member, we wondered if it could replace the “elbow-to-elbow” support that the program embodies when implemented in face-to-face learning contexts, where faculty and participants work side-by-side to create to learn (Hobbs and Coiro 2016).

Literature Review

The academic scholarship most relevant to this work focuses on the characteristics of professional learning environments that address the identity of teachers as learners and the role of help desks in community-building for both face-to-face and online learning contexts.

Teachers as co-learners

COVID-19 restrictions have required educators to adopt online teaching methods not as an option but as a necessity, and the suggestion that “what works in effective traditional learning environments may or may not work in online environments” has proven true in the forced remote learning of the 2020 pandemic (McCombs and Vakili 2005, 1582). In these unusual circumstances, teachers must “unlearn” traditional concepts in order to be receptive to new approaches that work better in online settings. While some teaching and learning habits are useful, they can also be detrimental, especially in unpredictable and unstable moments in time. Not only must educators learn new forms of social engagement, they must also “unlearn habits that have been useful in the past but may no longer be valuable to the future” (McWilliam 2008, 263).

One of the most dynamic settings where a teacher can embrace the identity of the learner is a TPD program. Ann Lieberman (1995, 592) argued for teachers to be actively involved in their own learning, noting that “the ways teachers learn may be more like the ways students learn than we have previously recognized.” When teachers actively learn from each other, they may create communities of practice where participants share, reflect on, and build new knowledge (Darling-Hammond et al. 2017; Desimone 2009).

During professional development, educators are placed in student roles, where they may enter into a “troubling zone” that can be also described as a discomfort, and it is this discomfort that helps to build a critical inner reflection leading to openness and empathy (Fasching-Varner et.al. 2019).

In online learning contexts, the ability to critically reflect on the identity of the learner is crucial for the design of effective TPD (Baran, Correia, and Thompson 2011). A profound learning opportunity can be created by the temporary disequilibrium caused by switching from “expert” to “learner” (O’Mahony et al. 2019). An aggregate review of how to improve TPD for online and blended learning confirms this, stating that teachers must have “the opportunity to reflect on the roles that they ascribe to themselves and their students in (online) environments” (Philipsen et al. 2019, 1157). This empathy for learners creates critical awareness that can be used during times of acute situational adjustments, such as with COVID-19.

Help desks as spaces for online community building

Online learning creates many opportunities for communities to form. Smith (2013) notes that community is variously developed by place, interest, and communion and is built through tolerance, reciprocity, and trust. But community doesn’t make itself: Connections are made through interaction, thus enabling people to build those communities (Smith 2013).

So what does one do when interaction becomes virtual, such as occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic? Coryell (2013) contextualizes collaborative and comparative inquiry in cross-cultural adult learning by framing learning as participation (partaking in knowledge), rather than learning as acquisition (possessing it). In referring to Sfrad’s (1998) work, she argues that in learning-as-participation mode, learners recognize knowledge as an interactional journey (Coryell 2013).

Community cannot exist without shared experience, and TPD programs must activate a sense of community if they are to be successful. A sense of community informs the formation of collective identity, which “is demonstrated when group members work interdependently with a shared purpose and responsibility for collective success” (Vrieling et al. 2018, 3).

Help desks may be spaces that support collaborative learning. In the field of information science, computer help desks located in universities have been studied to understand their organizational or technical functions, with focus on staffing, training and other issues. Some researchers have explored how help desk activity is used to create, manage, and share knowledge (Halverson et al. 2004). But there is limited research on collective identity, participation, or co-learning in help desk scenarios. Only one study is especially relevant to our work: it looked at what kind of learning takes place between those who need support and those who offer it. In this help desk research, a consistent sequence of four phases emerged to support communication, learning, and engagement in a face-to-face help desk. The phases included the processes of introduction, knowledge establishment, conceptual change, and agency. Findings showed that these interactions (consisting of two professionals of different expertise) activated metacognition, a type of reflection, leading to learner agency and personal fulfillment (O’Mahony et al. 2019).

With this understanding of community-building via help desks, we can consider the unique opportunities and challenges of online learning environments, including for TPD. As a result of the rise of social media, digital interaction has become normative for most people around the world. Yet for many educators, online learning has been thought to be inferior to face-to-face learning. For example, researchers who conducted a meta-analysis of various TPDs and how they affect student outcomes found that TPDs with online components yielded lower student achievement than programs that were entirely face-to-face. Yet, in that same study, several online learning practices were associated with gains, including having space to “troubleshoot and discuss implementation” of digital tools (Hill et al. 2020, 54).

To prepare teachers for online learning, online TPD may be a powerful treatment. But an understanding of the full potential of online TPD is still in development. Based on participant comments regarding collaborative and face-to-face engagement in Collins and Liang’s (2015) study of online TPD, little advancement in both the approach and implementation of these programs seems to have occurred. They report:

A number of individuals expressed they did not find OTPD as effective or meaningful as traditional face-to-face protocols…hardly anyone mentioned the online environment as engaging or encouraging participation through support or collaboration. A high number explicitly expressed that interaction was lacking … and many reported that even though they appreciated online delivery and its accessibility … they still missed the dialogue and collaboration of face-to-face PD. (Collins and Liang 2015, 28–29)

Online learning pedagogies are still primarily viewed through a prism of limitations when it comes to community-building. But scholars and practitioners are beginning to reimagine the use of technology and digital devices for collaborative learning. Bhati and Song (2019) conceptualize the creation of a dynamic learning space (DLS) in combination with mobile collaborative experiential learning (MCEL) as a means to encourage “high-level learning” and personalization. To our knowledge, approaches that level up these experiences by using the collaborative value of peer-to-peer synergy—proven instrumental to successful social learning—have not yet been studied.

Research Methods

The purpose of the paper was to understand the role of the help desk in online TPD as a form of informal learning and community building. Because this is a form of exploratory research, we asked: How did adult learners experience the value of an online help desk in the context of teacher professional development?

Participants and program context

The Lounge/Help Desk was fully-integrated into the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy (SIDL), the six-day, 42-hour TPD program, which included 135 participants and fifteen staff members. SIDL is an established program with a long history (Hobbs and Coiro 2019; 2016) but 2020 was the first time the TPD program was offered as a fully online program. Thus, many features of the program required adaptations that were new to the event organizers, faculty, staff, and returning participants.

The SIDL Lounge/Help Desk was conceptualized as an informal gathering space, where participants could go to get help—but also to interact with other participants and staff. Describing the Help Desk as a lounge was also intentionally designed as a means to reduce the stigma of asking for help. Participants were reminded of the Lounge/Help Desk every day. Each morning of the six-day program, participants received an email with the links to the learning management system, where links to video conference Zoom rooms and the Lounge/Help Desk were provided. The first and second authors were responsible for staffing the Zoom room Lounge/Help Desk, and the third author served as their supervisor.

The Lounge/Help Desk was both a synchronous and asynchronous communication channel for program participants and faculty, open to join at any time throughout event hours (9 AM–5 PM). Participants joined the Zoom Room or sent texts or emails, and these were handled throughout the day as the TPD program was in operation. Program faculty also participated in the Lounge/Help Desk, joining the online Zoom room for 1–3 hour shifts. In cases where the staff could not answer questions, one member would reach out to program organizers via a private Signal chat, which was used as a backchannel tool, in order to gain information needed to answer questions or solve problems.

As Lounge/Help Desk staff members, we gradually came to recognize that we were teachers in the TPD program and that our role was truly educational. We were not just providing a transactional service: Through our interaction, we were demonstrating the depth of community building that is at the heart of the SIDL program (Hobbs and Coiro 2019). People came to the Lounge/Help Desk needing different kinds of personalized support. Some were clearly beginners in their use of technology, while others had considerable expertise. But each of these individuals were people that we had a chance to interact with and learn from; during other components of the program we sometimes encountered them, particularly in small breakout groups and informal discussions. Indeed, it was the awareness of our own experience as co-learners with the participants that inspired our interest in this research project.

Data collection and analysis

Incident Log

During the program, we logged every visit to the Help Desk in an incident log to identify each time a participant visited the Zoom room or interacted via Google Voice text messages. During the real-time TPD program, this practice helped event organizers to understand participant pain points for particular learning activities that involved digital media and technology. It also functioned to help staff contact participants when reaching out to those whose questions could not be resolved in real time. The log documented: who contacted the help desk; who assisted them; what the question or problem was; and how the resolution occurred. The incident log was not initially designed for research, as we merely imagined its function as a tool for formative assessment during the program implementation.

During the program, the Help Desk Zoom room was accessed 76 unique times by 41 different participants. Fourteen text messages were sent to Help Desk staff. In our first phase of data analysis, the first and second authors used data from the incident log to categorize our encounters with participants. We worked independently to develop categories to account for the variety of interactions in order to increase divergent interpretations and reduce confirmation bias. By reviewing the categories created by each researcher using simple description, we identified emerging themes like: “emotional support needed after confusion caused by new platforms,” “tech glitches,” and “wanting to be told what to do.”


After the event, we reached out to 41 participants who had used the Help Desk and eight agreed to participate in a research interview; one male and seven females. In terms of race and ethnicity, six participants were White, one Black, and one Latina. Seven participants were from the United States, while one participant was from Great Britain. The average age of the participants varied from 40 to 65. The demography of the research participants closely represents the SIDL demography, with the majority of participants white, female, and based in the United States.

The interview was conducted through Zoom and included ten scripted questions regarding the participant’s experience using the Help Desk. Participants were asked to describe what led up to their decision to access the Help Desk, the emotions they could recall at play before, during, and after its use, and how the experience compared to other help desk services they may have experienced in the past. Interviews were conducted three weeks after the event. The University’s institutional review board approved the research and participants gave permission for audio recording.

In the second phase of data analysis, we analyzed both the transcribed interview data from the individual interviews and the incident log data collected during the TPD program. The interview data helped to more deeply contextualize the documentation in the incident log. For example, interviews suggested that areas first coded as “tech glitches” may also relate to “confusion,” and that participants who we initially perceived to be “needing to be told what to do” were navigating the social loss of community interaction.


Three themes emerged from this work which give insight into how informal learning was experienced in the context of using a Help Desk during an online teacher professional development program. Participants came with a variety of very specific questions and problems during the week-long program. Of the 76 visits to the Help Desk, many were easy to answer, requiring only a few minutes. Examples of these include finding a link to a Zoom room, recalling a password, or noting the day’s agenda and schedule. These were often merely a matter of visiting a web page and clicking a link.

But some questions required some additional form of co-learning as Help Desk staff needed to answer a question by modeling a learning process with a participant. Some of the questions that participants asked could not be easily answered by Help Desk staff. For example, one participant needed help learning how to edit a post on Wakelet, a digital curation tool, while another wanted a tutorial on ThingLink, a visual annotation tool. Neither staff member was familiar with these digital tools but both were able to demonstrate co-learning with participants to answer their question or solve their problem. Another participant struggled to find a solution to the microphone on her laptop, which suddenly stopped working. In each case, the Help Desk staff demonstrated through inviting the participant to share their screen, using coaching that enabled participants to solve their own problem with scaffolded support from a member of the staff. For questions that Help Desk staff could not solve on their own, they explained and modeled how they reached out for help from the larger faculty team. In those cases, staff were able to find answers within an hour or two of the request being made. Considering the nature of the help provided in the context of the participant interviews, we found that many of the Help Desk encounters created a rich interpersonal relationship between participant and staff member that functioned to reduce isolation, deepen a sense of community, and increase learner agency.

Co-learning as a journey borne of isolation

The Lounge/Help Desk reinforced the perception that the TPD program was a co-learning journey that involved the participants and the staff as collaborators. Many participants (and program faculty) were experiencing online TPD for the first time; it was a new experience for everyone.

While describing initial feelings and the scenarios leading up to accessing the Lounge/Help Desk, participants mentioned experiencing “confusion,” “nervousness,” and “anxiety.”[1] For example:

  • “Before [coming to the help desk], it was confusion and a little bit of…I wouldn’t go as far as to say panic, but close.”
  • “I was a little lost a couple of times in terms of where I was supposed to be going.”

In the TPD program, the novelty of a fully online event was made even more intense by the expectation that participants would be practicing the use of new digital tools, including Pathwright LMS, Adobe Spark, Padlet, and many other platforms. This may have exacerbated concerns that participants naturally have in new learning scenarios, except that, instead of being able to organically turn to the person next to you and ask questions, participants were, in that moment, alone.

Interview data clearly reveals that awareness of a sense of isolation was a precipitating incident. Participants noted feeling confused about “where” to go and when, unsure of which “Zoom room” they belonged in. At various points during the week, there was uncertainty regarding task details and/or deadlines for completion. These are common in learning environments, and the accessibility of the Help Desk acted as a bridge in lieu of the missing opportunity to “turn to your neighbor,” thus helping participants keep involved and engaged.

Some veteran SIDL participants (attending for a second or third time) hesitated in reaching out to the help desk out of concern for others, downplaying their own need for support. Feelings of demoralization and inadequacy were also referenced in the moment of realizing help was needed.

  • “[Y]ou think, ‘should I know the answer to this—is this something I can figure out myself?’ … my hesitancy was that people might need [the Help Desk] more than I did.”
  • “Everybody sort of doesn’t want to take time away from other people or you don’t want to bother people. So there’s always that, but I felt more comfortable using it after I used it the first time…”
  • “The feeling before I joined the lounge was ‘I’m “supposed” to be doing this, but I can’t.’”

One participant said that she felt much more comfortable coming to the help desk when she realized she knew one of the staff members. Clearly, such relationships and bonds can support not only successful learning but also continued community development.

Co-learning as a journey to connect

The decision to share Google Voice numbers with participants offered additional options to connect with the Lounge/Help Desk staff through calling or texting. One participant noted this as particularly helpful; as a non-native English speaker, it was easier for her to write her question. Because the help desk was continuously available during the six days of the program, it created a sense of immediacy, efficiency, and effectiveness, as participants saw how the help desk embodied the empathy of the program’s tagline: “Everyone Learns from Everyone,” a phrase that made adult learners feel welcomed as peers (Hobbs and Coiro 2019). For example, participants noted:

  • “The people there were very helpful and compassionate … about leading me through where something was and actually, one time, the assistant was confused as well. They didn’t quite know where to go. So we were learning together—how to navigate the site. So it felt like a very welcoming place.”
  • “I was very reassured. I was helped immediately; I wasn’t kept waiting … and I felt as though my concerns were being dealt with.”

Many participants had experienced help desks at their workplace or school. There, they encountered a generally asynchronous system: submit query, wait for response, hope for solution. But the SIDL Lounge/Help Desk was different. Participants who reached out for help mentioned appreciating the immediacy and liveliness of the help desk interaction. The help desk was an online “place” for congregation; after all, it doubled as The Lounge. Participants noted:

  • “Having a real person to talk to is a bonus. It’s better than either a chatbot or talking with somebody online—having somebody to actually talk to and have working through it is definitely a good thing.”
  • “When you contact a regular help desk, you feel like you’re just lost—your request is out there; you may or may not hear from anybody. That wasn’t the case here.”

During the interaction, some participants realized their initial confusion was a result of inattention. In being able to focus and talk through a concern and visualize it on a shared screen with the help desk staff, participants gained awareness of what they had overlooked. As they worked together, the missing piece of information would often be noticed by participants themselves. The sense of pleasure in solving a problem transformed the sense of isolation into a shared experience.

Co-learning as a journey toward agency

Interview subjects described the calm and confident feelings they experienced upon resolving their questions or concerns through the help desk interaction. Important to supporting this sense of agency was the ability for both the staff and the participants to share their screens. Screen-sharing enabled help desk staff to model the iterative process of learning to use digital platforms and the shared experience of confronting and solving a problem together built trust and independence for the participants. For example, participants noted:

  • “I could see things that I needed to see and know that I wasn’t missing anything.”
  • “Afterward, I had very clearly seen where to go. So it was a sense of relief that now I could do that by myself.”
  • “I learned that it wasn’t as complicated as I thought it to be. And that there was more than one way to approach the issue we were having.”

Almost all interviewed noted how their own struggles aligned with what their students may experience with online learning. In fact, contrary to Collins and Liang’s (2015) suggestion that honoring the adult is part of effective PD (the idea that while learners, they are first and foremost experienced adults and professionals), we found that participants who could embrace the role of learner—complete with the requisite insecurities, needs, problems and questions—gave them the opportunity to deepen empathetic connections to their own learners. This is one way to understand how an online help desk can provide value to adult learners in the context of teacher professional development.

We found that three forms of support—intrapersonal, technical, and informational—all contributed to increased participant agency as co-learners. Intrapersonal support occurred as participants entered the Lounge/Help Desk with strong feelings, the full range of feelings that manifest when something does not work as expected or when obstacles occur. Emotions varied from frustration to panic. Sometimes, these feelings emerged from intra-actions related to self-imposed expectations; in other cases, external pressures like time constraints were activating strong emotion. Feelings often coincided with information structure and technical scenarios, as when one is distracted or flustered and forgets simple things like how to log in. The ability to acknowledge and validate participant concerns in real-time provided an immediate sense of relief to participants—even when a solution wasn’t immediate.

Technical support included both hardware, software, and online platform glitches, as well as password problems. During the week-long program, a variety of forms of basic IT support was provided, such as updating software, changing passwords, checking settings, and restarting computers. In one instance, the Help Desk assisted a participant who was experiencing prohibitive technical problems (e.g. a poor network connection) by emailing PDF copies of online content. Participants learned more about their digital devices from the transparent way in which these forms of support were modeled by staff.

Navigation support was provided to participants in helping them find what they needed using the learning management system, which was unfamiliar to them. Help desk staff demonstrated how to find specific information, and in the process, they recognized that some of the challenges that participants were experiencing was the result of errors made by program staff, including mislabeled or broken links or poorly expressed language or wording. The help desk participants enabled the TPD faculty to recognize weaknesses in their own explanations of program activities. For example, in one instance, a set of Zoom links were presented using a red font color, which led them to be easily overlooked on a page full of text, even as the red color was intended to make them stand out visually. Help desk staff thanked participants for calling attention to the problem—but participants were equally grateful, expressing feelings of relief as they realized the problem was not “their fault.”

By supporting participants emotionally, technically, and navigationally, feelings of community emerged, because despite the lack of face-to-face encounter in this fully online TPD program, participants felt taken care of. As one experienced participant put it:

all the things that I think made Summer Institute special for me (in-person in past years) … were present this year … And the Help Desk was part of that. So the Help Desk was an even bigger part because without it, SIDL couldn’t have flowed—somebody could get lost.

Through the provision of personalized, real-time assistance, those who used the Lounge/Help Desk reduced their feelings of isolation, increased a sense of connectedness, and demonstrated agency as co-learners in an online professional development learning experience.


Our findings provide strong support for the ability of help desks to function as vital components of online teacher professional development programs. SIDL’s Lounge/Help Desk enabled participants to move through an arc of learning-as-participation that not just supports but enhances learning. Rather than conceptualizing the help desk as a merely transactional experience, at the 2020 Summer Institute in Digital Literacy, it functioned as a meaningful part of the overall learning experience.

Of course, this study has several limitations: the small sample size and potential respondent and research bias must be considered as limitations, given the researchers’ own roles as staff during the TPD. We aimed to minimize this limitation by developing the initial analysis of the incident log separately in order to increase divergent interpretations and minimize confirmation bias. We recognize that our ideas of community-building in TPD are framed through an American, Westernized cultural lens, though effort was made to review work from across the globe. The research reviewed for this study is gleaned mostly from abled/neurotypical interactions of spoken or auditory communication, potentially limiting outreach and input.

This research makes a unique contribution to new knowledge by re-framing the online help desk as a novel feature of teacher professional development. Because the online help desk was available throughout the TPD, it functioned to engage participants much like in face-to-face interactions, qualifying it as space to troubleshoot and discuss implementation, a category found to be successful in creating student learning gains from teachers’ TPD learning (Hill et al. 2020).

Key features of the Help Desk design were critical for its use as such an informal learning space: it was called the Help Desk/Lounge, and it was designated specifically as a hangout place online, thus reducing the stigma of being perceived as a place for “people who need help.” For those educators with insecurities about their digital competencies, there was no shame associated with visiting the Help Desk. Thus, it connected and strengthened the program’s core value of “Everyone Learns from Everyone” (Hobbs and Coiro 2018).

The potential to build personalized engagement is another feature needed for a help desk to be part of successful TPD. As designed and implemented, the Help Desk provided the situational context needed to question and solve problems immediately and in real time, running in parallel to the formal program. It also exposed pain points in the event and platform infrastructure, offering a form of continuous evaluation of the TPD experience and enabling event producers to make adjustments during the event itself, further enhancing the program’s overall quality. This tailored approach, so aligned with teacher needs and experiences during COVID-19, enhanced the TPD’s sense of relevance for participants, a requisite dimension of effective training (Stein et al. 2011). The Lounge/Help Desk contributed to this sense of relevance by engaging one-on-one with individuals on the emotional, technical, and navigation challenges they were likely to face as educators heading into an unparalleled 2020-21 school year. The process of engaging with a help desk that offered individualized support offered participants the opportunity to develop understanding of possible hiccups that may be encountered in their own classes and the confidence to troubleshoot these problems themselves. This finding aligns with research that demonstrates the value of helping educators critically reflect on how they approach their work and consider their roles in the educational dynamics of learning (Baran et al. 2011).

While some researchers claim that TPD support must come “from an educational technologist or an expert within the field” (Philipsen et al. 2019, 1155), we found that a help desk intentionally staffed as a peer-supported environment was effective in modeling how to investigate problems together. In such paradigms, trust helps to bridge the implied power dynamics between the helper and the “helped.” Because the help desk staff positioned themselves as participants and partners in the process, they offered the support for collaboration so valued as a critical ingredient for teacher learning (Bates and Morgan 2018; Darling-Hammond et al. 2017) As Bates and Morgan (2018, 623) point out, “a co-learner stance” ultimately contextualizes and personalizes support, guaranteeing “that actual problems are addressed.” The question moves from an individual, isolated/ing concern to a social learning opportunity, something Vygotsky (1978) addresses as essential to meaning-making.

By viewing an online help desk as a shared learning experience with value as a programmatic feature of TPD, we will need to consider how it could be adapted in post-pandemic times, as teacher professional development returns to be provided in face-to-face contexts. The help desk offers the value of providing that “in the moment” experience for individualized grappling and reflecting on problems, helping to meet the needs of every learner. Because the online format was new to everyone involved, including the help desk staff, the co-learning journey in finding answers offered value to faculty, staff and participants alike. Although it was intended to provide individualized support for those experiencing technology problems, the Lounge/Help Desk actually became a part of the overall TPD experience, enabling it to be a programmatic feature that extended the value of the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy as a genuinely collaborative learning experience.


[1] The quotations in this section come from research interviews with 2020 SIDL participants (names withheld) and were administered by Salome Apkhazishvili and Serene Arena in August, 2020.


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About the Authors

Salome Apkhazishvili is a media and communication researcher from the country of Georgia where she coordinates the media and digital literacy program for the conflict-affected youth in the South Caucasus. She is a Fulbright communication graduate from the University of Southern Indiana. Apkhazishvili is a communications officer at the European Communication Research and Education Association Children, Youth, and Media section and a staff member of the Media Education Lab.

Serene Arena is a communication design expert focused on language use and collaborative development in communication and social systems. She has a Masters in Civic Media from Columbia College Chicago, where she studied social power dynamics and informal social spaces as foundations for community and personal identity.

Renee Hobbs is a professor of communication studies and director of the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island’s Harrington School of Communication and Media. She has offered professional development to educators on four continents and authored 12 books and more than 150 scholarly publications on digital and media literacy.

A canvas slide reads "Twitter for Academic Purposes: How to Guide Students", lain over a photo of hands writing in a notebook in front of a laptop.

Twitter for Academic Purposes: How to Guide Students

Sarah-Elizabeth Byosiere

This article presents a semester-long, low-stakes, scaffolded assignment I developed for a master’s-level course titled Companion Animals in Society at CUNY Hunter College (Fall 2019). The ultimate goal of the assignment was to provide students with a comprehensive guide to developing skills and understanding in science communication, as well as furthering their professional development online, specifically by using Twitter.

Read more… Twitter for Academic Purposes: How to Guide Students

Adult and child working on iPads.

Digital Game-Based Pedagogies: Developing Teaching Strategies for Game-Based Learning


In this paper, we discuss pedagogical strategies for supporting digital game-based learning in K–12 classrooms, based on a study of 34 teachers. We identify nine strategies, digital game-based pedagogies, that represent common characteristics in exemplary teaching with digital games, and discuss how a professional development session may have aided in the teachers’ use of these strategies. To create effective digital game-based learning environments, we argue, teachers need to be provided with professional development sessions that focus on the cultivation of pedagogical skills.


Researchers and enthusiastic practitioners have long been arguing for the effectiveness of digital games as a means for teaching subject-specific skills while also motivating and engaging students (Gee 2008; Annetta 2008; Squire and Jenkins 2003). As games require players solve complex problems, work collaboratively, and communicate with others in both online environments and the physical spaces where gameplay takes place, they are said to support students’ development of twenty-first century competencies (Spires 2015).

Recognizing the teacher’s role in designing and facilitating learning environments that support digital game-based learning (DGBL), including adapting content to suit the needs of diverse learners, is a critical component of effective DGBL. As McCall makes clear, “by itself…a…game is not a sufficient learning tool. Rather, successful game-based lessons are the product of well-designed environments” (2011, 61). Chee, in his book on using digital games in education, argues

It is vital to understand that games do not “work” or “not work” in classrooms in and of themselves. They possess no causal agency. The efficacy of games for learning depends largely upon teachers’ capacity to leverage games effectively as learning tools and on students’ willingness to engage in gameplay and other pedagogical activities—such as dialogic interactions for meaning making—so that game use in the curriculum can be rendered effective for learning. (2016, 4)

On this view, the focus shifts from the games, game systems, and game content to “what teachers need to know” pedagogically (Mishra and Koehler 2006, 1018), including how to create space for digital games in the curriculum, organize classroom activities around the use of games, support students during both gameplay and their engagement with DGBL activities (Sandford et al. 2006; Allsop and Jessel 2015), and, as we have argued elsewhere, assess student learning (Hébert, Jenson, and Fong 2018). Groff, Howells, and Cranmer make clear, “game-based learning approaches need to be well planned and classrooms carefully organized to engage all students in learning and produce appropriate outcomes” (2010, 7).

In this paper we discuss our attempt to articulate a series of digital game-based practices carried out by teachers as they used a digital game in their classrooms. Specifically, we detail nine strategies—what we are calling digital game-based pedagogies—that were common in all classrooms we observed, and utilized to varying degrees of success. As most of the teachers in the study attended a professional development (PD) session, we also draw connections between the content of the PD and these pedagogical strategies. We begin with a literature review of pedagogy and professional development in relation to DGBL, then discuss the structure of the study, and last detail the digital game-based pedagogies identified from that significant qualitative work.

Related Literature: Digital Games, Pedagogy and Professional Development

When learning is reduced to knowledge transmission and a game offered as a medium for merely learning content, the role of the teacher is similarly narrowed to an intermediary, offering the game to students and stepping back in order to let learning through gameplay take place. On this view, the game and its design are a central focus, including “integrating learning objectives with[in] th[is] delivery medium” (Becker 2017, 156). Many studies of game-based learning focus on how a game is designed, with researchers either attempting to streamline best practices for designing games (Aslan and Balci 2015; Arnab et al. 2015; Alaswad and Nadolny 2015; Van Eck and Hung 2010) or discussing the design process of a specific game for use in the classroom (Tsai, Yu, and Hsiao 2012; Barab et al. 2005; Sánchez, Sáenz, and Garrido-Miranda 2010; Lester et al. 2014). We argue that simply focusing on how a game is designed is problematic as it places responsibility for student learning in the hands of designers who “may never have had direct or lived experiences of classroom teaching, [and who] are advocating on behalf of the learning and literacy offered by games without having to take into account the real and varied challenges faced by today’s diverse learners” (Nolan and McBride 2013, 597–98). It also has the potential effect of further exacerbating the divide between games and classrooms, positioning the game as a silo that operates outside of curricular decisions and pedagogical practices.

Absent from these discussions is the pivotal role of the teacher in the classroom. In fact, terms in the literature that might signal a discussion of teaching, such as instructional approaches, instructional methods, pedagogy, pedagogical approach, digital pedagogy, game-based learning techniques, and curriculum development (Charsky and Barbour 2010; Egenfeldt-Nielson, Smith, and Tosca 2016; Becker 2009; Clark 2007; Rodriguez-Hoyos and Gomes 2012; Shabalina et al. 2016) are typically used in DGBL research to refer to the design of the game and accompanying materials that support learning (e.g. quizzes, assessment guides, and other paper and pencil tasks) instead of the actions of a classroom teacher. The assumption here seems to be that games can support student learning despite the role of the teacher, and, importantly, without considerations of the larger classroom environment and curricular structures put into place for digital game-based learning. Baek, for instance, has noted that games must be “mapped into curricula for their maximum effective utilization” (2008, 667). Similarly, Raabe, Santos, Paludo, and Benitti have argued that for DGBL, “the planning of the class is the most important stage and must involve the participation [of] teachers in choosing the content that should be supported by the use of the game…according to the goals [of] learning to be achieved” (2012, 688).

Teaching and pedagogy as they relate to DGBL have been taken up in some of the literature. Nousiainen, Kangas, Rikala, and Vesisenaho discuss teacher-identified competencies around pedagogy essential to game based learning, including “curriculum-based planning”⎯understanding how games can be used within the curriculum, how students can be involved in the curricular design process, and how to “plan game-based activities for supporting students’ academic learning and broader key competencies” (2018, 90). Moving away from pedagogical strategies specifically, Marklund and Taylor outline the roles teachers shift between during DGBL, including: the “gaming tutor,” as teachers aid students with more technologically focused elements of gameplay (e.g. manipulating controls); the “authority and enforcer of educational modes of play,” as teachers monitor student progress toward learning goals and direct play when necessary; and the “subject matter anchor,” as they draw out connections between the game and course content, including calling students’ attention to certain aspects of the game or breaking down complex concepts as they pertain to the game (2015, 363–365). Similarly, Hanghoj offers a series of “next-best practices” for teachers’ use in supporting DGBL, suggesting that teachers might “set the stage” by “providing relevant game information” for students, “recognize and challenge the students’” game experience by articulating different interpretations of a game session,” and “support students in their attempts to construct, deconstruct and reconstruct relevant forms of knowledge—both in relation to the game context, curricular goals and real live phenomena” (2008, 235).

One means of helping teachers consider their role in using games to support learning in the classroom is through professional development that might focus on teaching strategies, alongside creating a classroom ecology for DGBL. And yet, much like the research on DGBL more broadly, professional development for using games in classrooms rarely addresses pedagogy. For example, Ketelhut and Schifter’s research on developing PD for DGBL outlines the types of platforms (e.g. face-to-face, online, blended) used and how they compared to one another rather than discussing the content of the PD and its connection to pedagogy (Ketelhut and Schifter 2011). And while Chee, Mehrotra, and Ong’s PD centered on a particular teaching method⎯dialogic pedagogy⎯the authors examined teacher dilemmas rather than explicit pedagogical strategies reviewed in the PD sessions. At the same time, their findings call attention to the importance of pedagogy as teachers work to shift their teaching for DGBL. They state, teachers were “mostly accustomed to subject matter exposition followed by assigning student[s] worksheets to complete,” but with the digital games, had “to work in real time with the ideas that students were contributing, based on their gameplay experiences” (2014, 429). Consequently, this required shift in pedagogy “unsettled them” (2014, 429).

There are, of course, exceptions. The Software and Information Industry Association’s report on best practices for game use in the K–12 classroom recognizes the significance of pedagogy for DGBL, arguing that teachers should receive at least a half day of PD in order to become familiar with the theoretical underpinnings of DGBL, learn about the specific game they will be using in class, obtain practical information about creating game accounts and manipulating the game mechanics, and gain a better understanding of the “roles and responsibilities of teachers and students” (2009, 25) during gameplay. And Simpson and Stansberry provide an overview of working with teachers on the “G.A.M.E.” lesson planning model, which involves various stages: taking the perspective of the game designer to better understand how and to what extent games are engaging as well as asking students to contemplate their gameplay, “reflect[ing] on the decisions made and evaluat[ing] the consequences” (2009, 182).

As this review demonstrates, there is scant empirical research related to digital game-based pedagogies, and an important and critical need for more discussions of and research on this topic. In the next section, we discuss the study, which examined teachers’ pedagogical practices for DGBL in K–12 classroom spaces and the relationship between these practices and a professional development workshop.

The Study

Timeline of the Research

The project took place over an eight-month period, during the 2015–2016 school year, with data analysis completed at the beginning of the 2016–2017 school year. While the project was initially intended to run over a single school year, a work-to-rule ban on extracurricular activities put forth by the Elementary Teachers Federation in the province delayed the start date of the project by four months. The professional development session took place February 10–11, 2016, followed by observations from February 22–May 16. Interviews overlapped with observations, with teachers whose classes were visited in February beginning interviews in early March, and ran until the end of June. Data analysis also took place synchronously, and was completed in October 2016.

The Game

Two educational games were used in this study: Sprite’s Quest: The Lost Feathers, and Sprite’s Quest: Seedling Saga, aligned with the grade seven and grade eight Ontario geography curriculum respectively. The game was designed by Le centre d’innovation pédagogique in collaboration with the Ontario Ministry of Education and selected as the focus for this study by our funding partner, the Council of Ontario Directors of Education. Both versions of Sprite’s Quest are 2D, platformer games intended to aid in the development of physical and human geography concepts. The games also have accompanying student activity guides and teacher manuals available through an online platform. While the games can be downloaded by anyone through the Apple App Store or Google Play,[1] access to the web version of the game, along with the student activity guides and teacher manuals, is granted through individual boards of education through the Ministry of Education’s e-learning Ontario site. As this article focuses on the professional development element of the project, we do not provide a detailed overview the game, the activity guide or the teacher manuals here, but have elsewhere (Hébert, Jenson, and Fong 2018). None of the teachers had used Sprite’s Quest prior to this project.

Research Question

This study sought to identify pedagogical practices that supported DGBL. We asked: What teaching practices were common to teachers observed in the study?

Participants & Professional Development

Participants were recruited by the funding partner in conjunction with participating school boards. Altogether, 34 teachers (17 female, 17 male) from 10 school boards and 25 schools across Ontario, Canada took part in the study. Sixteen of these teachers taught straight grade 7 classes, seven grade 8, and one grade 9, while a number of teachers, especially those in smaller schools, taught split classes, with one grade 6/7/8 teacher participating, one grade 6/7, and eight grade 7/8. Twenty-eight teachers attended a professional development session that occurred at a university over a two-day period; teachers were released for that time from their classrooms. The two full days were organized and run by the authors (see Appendix B for a detailed schedule of the session). The professional development consisted of three main components:

Becoming Familiar with the Games: Walkthroughs and Content

First, as noted, none of the teachers had seen or played Sprite’s Quest before, and were given time to become familiar with the two versions of the game during the PD session. Because the teachers did not have time to play either of the games in their entirety during the PD session, we produced “walkthroughs” that were reviewed during the PD session. Walkthroughs are textual and visual overviews of key elements of a game. They were made available to teachers throughout their play sessions, during lesson planning, and while teachers were using the games in their classrooms. Second, we drew attention to how the games provided geographic content. For example, we looked at how fact bubbles pop up during play, questions are presented at the beginning of each level, and background information is offered about the geographic location (e.g. the Himalayas) through which the sprite moves. Teachers were also instructed to encourage students to make note of the facts and the answers to the questions and to pay attention to the background of the games when using them to support student learning.

Exploring the Teacher Manual and the Activity Guide

Given that teacher manuals and activity guides for these games were available and in fact had been produced to support the implementation of the game in classrooms, we wanted to ensure that teachers had the time to examine them closely and to draw connections between these resources and their curriculum. To this end, we led teachers through a guided examination of the resources, reviewing the overall structure of the games as they aligned with the sections of the student activity guide and the teacher manual. We also summarized the information made available in the teacher manual and student activity guide and provided the summaries as a supplementary electronic handout.

Discussing Curricular Connections and Collaborative Lesson Planning

There were three key concepts in the games related to physical and human geography⎯place, liveability, and sustainability. The teacher manual and the PD session emphasized these, including drawing direct connections to the Ministry of Ontario grade 7 and 8 geography curriculum. Further, the PD supported collaborative lesson planning which focused on creating learning goals, success criteria, and expectations for and evaluation of students. Finally, teachers were provided time to complete a unit plan, begin constructing individual lessons for the unit, and create assessments to use during the digital game-based unit which they then shared with the whole group.

The remaining six teachers participated in the study, but did not attend the PD session. The teachers who did not participate in the PD session were selected at random. In lieu of PD, they were invited to attend a two-hour meeting at their board office. At the meeting, the teachers were introduced to the study and told how to access the teacher and student activity guides. And they were given time to play the games, but only while the researchers were speaking individually with teachers to organize some of the logistics around classroom visits.

Data Collection and Analysis

This qualitative study included observations of all teachers as they taught the DGBL unit, field notes based on observations, videos, and still photos taken during classroom visits, and interviews with teachers after the unit was completed.


Researchers visited each teacher’s classroom two to three times during the delivery of the unit, for 45 minutes to 1.5 hours per visit, documenting how they adopted the three central elements of the PD, demonstrating how familiar teachers were with the game, how the teacher and student activity guides were used, and how lessons and assessments created in the PD were taken up. Researchers also made note of the classroom environment created to support DGBL and practices within it. This included, with respect to teachers’ practices in particular, lesson content and connections to the game, how class periods were structured and facilitated by the teacher, teacher focus on student learning including asking questions of students during play and guiding their play toward learning, connections between the game and the curriculum as well as cross-curricular connections outside of geography, and teacher knowledge and understanding of the game. For student activities in the classroom, our observations centered on time students spent on/off task, if, how, and in what ways students were engaged with the game, and conversations among students about the game and/or geography more broadly. Detailed field notes were taken along with videos, audio recordings, and still photos. Field notes were analyzed thematically using NVivo (Clarke and Braun 2017; Nowell, Norris, White, and Moules 2017).


Teachers were interviewed at the completion of the study. They were asked to provide information about their curriculum, including lesson sequencing, assessments, time required to plan, and decisions they made about whether or not to use any of the game’s resources located in the activity guides; gameplay, including student experiences and learning, such as interactions with one another, individual students who excelled or struggled, whether students were making connections between the game world and the world outside of the game, and how the room was organized for gameplay; and the PD sessions, including whether they would participate in future PD, feedback on the sessions, and how the PD sessions impacted their use of the game and whether or not they would use it in the future. Interviews ranged in length from 25 to 80 minutes. Common themes were identified that would aid the researchers in their understanding of teachers’ experiences. Interviews were analyzed, thematically, using NVivo. (See Appendix A)

The next section extrapolates from the data and analysis described briefly here and offers a framework for digital game-based pedagogies, based on our nearly 100 hours of classroom observations and over 34 hours of interviews with teachers. The intent is to demonstrate, based on evidence gathered, a pedagogical framework that can be taken up and used by others who might expand on and modify it to best suit divergent contexts.

Digital Game-Based Pedagogies

Having analyzed the data, it was possible to identify with some clarity, approaches to teaching with games⎯or digital game-based pedagogies⎯particularly supportive of DGBL. While the content of the PD and the skills teachers developed within it, including familiarity with the game, their use of activities and the teacher guide, and their adoption of the lessons planned during the PD, was an initial point of interest during observations, what became apparent was how teachers used this knowledge to shape their pedagogical practice. A teacher, sitting off to the side during gameplay, might have demonstrated knowledge of Sprite’s Quest by answering a student’s question when approached, but that teaching practice was less meaningful than that of a teacher who illustrated their knowledge by circulating around the classroom during gameplay, asking questions, directing students’ attention to elements of the game, and providing practical tips on how to navigate specific levels. That teachers used activities from the teacher guide was important, but among those who did, what type of learning activity was selected and how the lesson was structured around that activity told us more about impactful DGBL than simply whether or not an activity was used. And the quality of the lesson and assessment content and the pace of the unit created around the game impacted the nature of the DGBL experience. Consequently, through our observations, we began to identify a set of practices⎯pedagogical strategies that best supported DGBL in the classroom.

What follows are details of these nine digital game-based pedagogies, grouped according to three general categories: gameplay, lesson planning and delivery, and framing technology and the game.

Category Pedagogical Strategies
Gameplay Teacher knowledge of and engagement with the game during gameplay
Gameplay Focused and purposeful gameplay
Gameplay Collaborative gameplay
Lesson Planning and Delivery Meaningful learning activities
Lesson Planning and Delivery Cohesive curricular design: Structured lessons
Lesson Planning and Delivery Appropriate lesson pacing and clear expectations
Framing Technology and the Game Technological platforms not a point of focus
Framing Technology and the Game Game positioned as a text to be read
Framing Technology and the Game Connections to prior learning and to the world beyond the game environment


1. Teacher knowledge of and engagement with the game during gameplay

Teachers demonstrated knowledge of the game in group discussions and one-on-one conversations with students. They regularly spoke of their own experiences during gameplay, including aiding students in challenges with overcoming obstacles in game. Teachers talked with students about how to focus play on the learning task at hand, including what to pay attention to during gameplay. Teachers were also engaged with gameplay. For example, they circulated to ask students questions, direct student attention to various facets of the game, and connect the game to the learning activity.

2. Focused and purposeful gameplay

During gameplay, teachers directed student focus to a specific learning activity. In this respect, gameplay was always purposeful, targeted at the completion of a particular learning activity. For instance, students might play a few levels of the game, directed by the teacher to pay attention to the climate, or to compare regions with respect to vegetation.

3. Collaborative gameplay

Teachers facilitated whole class discussions that focused gameplay, and connected game content to the curriculum more broadly. The teacher encouraged students to play together or to complete learning activities collaboratively. For example, one teacher asked students to work in groups to respond to the question of whether they would like to live in China (one of the locations featured in Sprite’s Quest) based on their experiences playing the game, and another, to respond to discussion questions.

Lesson Planning and Delivery

4. Meaningful learning activities

Teachers assigned learning activities that involved the application of higher-order skills such as analysis or creation. For instance, one teacher asked students to produce a travel video for a specific geographic region in the game, another, to debate the merits of restricting mountain access in a particular region, and a third teacher, to construct an argumentative paragraph about whether hotels should be permitted to privatize beaches. If students were asked to jot down facts or information obtained through gameplay, it was in support of an additional, higher-order learning activity. In some instances, these materials were extracted from the student activity guide, while in others, they were created by teachers.

5. Cohesive curricular design: Structured lessons

Gameplay was integrated into the curriculum by the teacher. An introductory lesson that rooted play to learning preceded gameplay and a learning activity followed play. For example, one teacher facilitated a lesson on garbage disposal practices around the world, before asking students to play a level of the game that focused on garbage disposal in a specific region. The teacher also created a follow up activity wherein students composed a letter about disposal to a government official in the region of the world.

6. Appropriate lesson pacing and clear expectations

Teachers provided students with concrete time frames for the completion of tasks. Often, periods were structured in such a way that multiple activities were to take place. For instance, a 5-minute introductory activity might be followed by 20 minutes of structured and targeted gameplay, with the final 15 minutes of the period allotted to small group discussions around a learning activity. Teachers regularly reminded students of time to complete tasks.

Framing Technology and the Game

7. Technological platforms not a point of focus

Some teachers chose to use the electronic activity guide or board-based platforms for the completion of learning activities. In these cases, the activities, rather than the technology, remained the point of focus. When technology malfunctioned (e.g. students had difficulty logging into the board site or material was not uploading to the activity guide), teachers continued to place emphasis on the significance of the learning taking place, asking students to share resources to complete the activity, or directing them to an alternative materials such as pen, pencil, and paper. In so doing, teachers maintained the pace of the lesson.

8. Game positioned as a text to be read

Teachers framed the game as a text that students could reference in support of their learning in the classroom, extending DGBL beyond learning during play. To do so, they facilitated connections between the game and other material such as videos viewed in class, textbooks, class discussions, so on. For example, to respond to an activity question, one teacher guided students in using material learned both in the game and the textbook to support their answers.

9. Connections to prior learning and to the world beyond the game environment

Teachers connected gameplay to prior learning and to material examined outside of the game context. They reminded students of learning during previous play sessions and of subject-specific and cross-curricular learning during class discussions. For example, one teacher connected a level of the game that explored waste management to a recently completed assignment examining the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Another teacher connected learning around a water-locked region in the game to a historical lesson about expedition. Teachers also drew parallels between game locations and the local community. For instance, a teacher engaged the class in a heated debate, comparing garbage collection and pollution in certain areas of the game to garbage collection in the school and pollution in the local city and surrounding area.

Possible Impact of Professional Development on Teachers’ Digital Game-Based Pedagogies

What we offer in the previous section are descriptions of exemplary pedagogical practices that support DGBL. Not all of the teachers who participated in the study engaged with these practices in the way described above. In fact, 26% of the teachers were what we would label as highly successful in engaging in the digital game-based pedagogies outlined in this article. Another 29% were somewhat successful, at times adopting some of these pedagogical strategies and not others, creating meaningful learning activities and highly structured lessons that were adequately paced, for example, but then failing to connect the game to prior learning and the world beyond the game environment, not requiring students to collaborate with one another, and not positioning the game as text to be read. And the final 45% were labeled as unsuccessful, adopting DGBL in the classroom in a more haphazard manner, offering pedagogical practices that did not reflect the digital game-based pedagogies detailed in this text. (See Figure 1)

Figure 1: Pie-chart showing teacher alignment with the digital game. The graph indicates that 45% of teachers were unsuccessful, 29% were somewhat successful, and 26% were highly successful
Figure 1. Teacher alignment with digital game-based pedagogies.

Given the significance of the digital game-based pedagogies and the extent to which these practices were common across the classrooms we visited, we wanted to determine if there was any connection between these practices and whether or not teachers had received PD.

In the category of strong alignment, 29% of teachers who received PD employed pedagogical strategies that matched that criterion, compared to 17% of the teachers who did not receive PD. For moderate alignment, 32% of the teachers who received PD were grouped in this category compared to 17% of the teachers who did not receive PD. And finally, 39% of the teachers who received PD were weakly aligned with these practices compared to 66% of the teachers who did not receive PD. (See Figures 2 and 3)


Figure 2: Pie-chart showing alignment for teachers who did receive professional development. The graph indicates that 39% of teachers had weak alignment, 32% had moderate alignment, and 29% had strong alignment.
Figure 2. Teachers who received PD.


Figure 3: Pie-chart showing alignment for teachers who did not receive professional development. The graph indicates that 66% of teachers had weak alignment, 17% had moderate alignment, and 17% had strong alignment.
Figure 3. Teachers who did not receive PD.



The limitations to this research are: 1) it was not possible to spend more than three to four hours in each classroom given the geographical scope of the project and the number of participants, however, the study could have benefited from observation of the entire unit as it was delivered; and 2) we did not have a powerful enough number of participants to generate meaningful quantitative comparative data, and certainly that could be of interest in future. There is very rich data, of course, that due to word limits we were not able to detail further. However, we hope to have highlighted the importance of pedagogy for creating environments conducive to DGBL, calling attention to best practices around structuring and conceptualizing gameplay, planning, and delivering content, and framing both technology and a game. While these pedagogical strategies were not the focus of our professional development session, it is clear from our observations of participants’ teaching after the PD that the session impacted their teaching as it pertained to these best practices. More broadly and considering gaps in the practices of teachers involved in our study, these digital game-based pedagogies provide a framework for better understanding not only what good teaching with games looks like but also areas where teachers require additional support.

We have argued that very little research on digital game-based learning examines teacher pedagogies and that even fewer studies of professional development for teachers on DGBL either focus on pedagogy or study the impact of professional development on teacher practice. By observing thirty-four teachers in their classrooms after providing a professional development session, we identified a common set of digital game-based pedagogies that supported digital game-based learning. While our professional development session did not explicitly address these pedagogical strategies, either through discussion or modeling, we did recognize areas in which the content of our professional development session overlapped with some of the strategies teachers employed. This research can inform future PD that attempt to better understand the impact of modeling and discussing these digital game-based pedagogies within professional development sessions. This work, importantly, offers a potential framework for providing teachers with the practical skills required to support students in digital game-based learning in classroom spaces. It also signals a need for future studies that focus specifically on pedagogies that best support DGBL.


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Appendix A

Interview Questions

  1. How long have you been teaching?
  2. Do you have a master’s degree?
  3. Have you done any administrative work?
  4. Have completed any additional qualification (AQ) courses? If so, which courses?
  5. When did you complete your Bachelor of Education (BEd) degree?
  6. What subject did you major in in university? What are your teachables?
  7. Can you please give us some information about your school? What is the student population? The socioeconomic status of students?
  8. Can you please tell us a bit about your class? How many students do you have on IEPS? With behavioural issues? Do you have any support for these students in the form of EAs or pull out programs?
  9. The students in your class on IEPs and/or those on the autism spectrum? What are they normally doing? Do they often play games in the classroom (when other students are not?)
  10. What types of things did you have to wrangle to do this project? (e.g. booking labs or computer carts, speaking with other teachers, requesting exclusive internet use in the school)
  11. Did you use iPads? Computers? When students completed the activities, did they use iPads and computers? iPads and paper? Just iPads or computers? What was the reasoning behind this choice?
  12. Did you look at any of the teacher resources? The activity guide? What parts did you use? Was anything helpful particularly? Would you like to have seen something that wasn’t included in the guides?
  13. Walk us through your lesson sequencing – what did students do? What was the pace? What was the culminating activity? Did they complete a final project?
  14. How long did you initially plan for? How long did you end up spending? What changed (if anything)?
  15. How did you evaluate the unit?
  16. What was your best and worst day with the game? What would you change about the worst day with the game?
  17. We weren’t there every day. How many times did things not work (internet down, couldn’t access computers, lab not available, etc.)
  18. Can you please talk about a few students who exceled with the game? A few who didn’t do well? A student who you had a set of expectations about (thought they would love or hate the game) and who acted contrary to your expectations?
  19. Did you get the sense that students were making connections between the game and the real world?
  20. What did you notice about student interactions with one another?
  21. How did you organize the room for the game play?
  22. Given everything that happened with this project, would you consider doing something like this again? Why or why not?
  23. Would you have used this game in the classroom if it were not for this workshop/project and why?
  24. Would you use Sprite’s Quest in your class in the future?
  25. Can you talk a bit about your experience with the workshop? What you liked, what you didn’t like, what you would change, what you found helpful…
  26. What kinds of supports would you need in the future to make using games in the classroom possible?
  27. What is your teaching philosophy? What is your responsibility to your students?  What is your relationship with the parents of the students in your class like?

Interview Questions [PDF]

About the Author

Cristyne Hébert is Assistant Professor, Assessment and Evaluation in the Faculty of Education, University of Regina. Her research focuses on assessment and evaluation, new media and technologies, and curriculum in teacher education and K-12 education in Canada and the United States.

Jennifer Jenson is Professor, Digital Languages, Literacies and Cultures in the Languages and Literacy Department, Faculty of Education, The University of British Columbia. She has published on digital games and learning, gender and videogames, and technology policies and practices in K-12 education. She currently is the lead researcher on a large, international research partnership grant, “Re-Figuring Innovation in Games” (www.refig.ca) that is examining inequities in digital game industries and cultures.

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