Posted by: Serena | 31st Jan, 2008


The proverbial ‘million dollar question’: how to get students interested, inspired, and engaged? Because I know absolutely everything and am in no way subject to error of any kind, I will answer this question. Ha.

I was lucky enough to happen upon Bryan Alexander’s gaming learning circle at the ELI conference. There’s nothing quite like listening to a group of higher-ed instructors discuss video games. What’s being used on their campuses? Medical simulations, textile design games, a game created by faculty to teach foreign languages, playing World of Warcraft (for research purposes, of course), Rock Band demonstrations for music departments… the list goes on.

As a student (perhaps a “damn idiot” one), it’s always a little surreal hearing professors debate over how best to reach students. The main question seemed to be “how can we use games to get students actively involved in their learning?” On one level, I’m genuinely impressed that these instructors are brave enough to approach this problem. Not every professor would be comfortable even considering the use of computer or video games for in-class instruction. (For some professors I’ve encountered, even using the internet to teach—or any technology more advanced than a VCR—is a daunting prospect.) Side note: Why does Microsoft Word want me to capitalize ‘internet’? What if I said ‘TEH INTARWEBZ’? Aha. It’ll take that. Thank you, Microsoft.

Gaming can be highly addictive. We’ve all heard of people allowing World of Warcraft to destroy his career, relationship, and even financial stability. Hell, I even know a few students who almost failed out of college; a result—at least partially—of excessive gaming. If we assume that displacement operates fairly logically, this becomes a simple matter, or so the world’s educators hope. Gaming is addictive. We want learning to be addictive. So if we combine the two, learning will magically take off in a way we’ve never dreamed of.

Well, yes and no.

While there are obviously many complexities to this issue, I think the most important—and often overlooked—question to be asking is not “How can I use this to hook students?” but “How can we do this together?” We’re not fish; we’re (mostly) discerning, intelligent individuals who can certainly tell when professors are introducing a classroom activity simply as an attempt to ensnare us. It’s surprisingly difficult to trick someone into learning things, especially when they know exactly what you’re up to. The way to do it (a method that rock star Gardner Campbell seems to have mastered in his usual effortless and more than slightly enviable way) is to be just as passionate about whatever technology you’re using as you want your students to be. Passion, inspiration, engagement… these are all highly contagious. If you decide to use games in the classroom, fine, but make sure that you’re so thrilled with these that you actually lose sleep at night playing them.

You’re not casting a line out to us… you’re jumping in with a big, noisy metaphorical splash.

And along these lines, I thought I’d write up a handy numbered list for all you teachers out there who have nothing better to do than read some crazy college student’s blog. Side note #2: Microsoft also does not like the word ‘blog’. For all you XP and Vista (oh no!) users out there, what you’re reading right now is merely a figment of your imagination. There’s no such thing as a blog. Back to the list!

1. Care! Care so much that every waking moment is spent obsessing over course content, student discussions, and all the possibilities for what’s next.

2. Engage your students! Class discussions are the best way to reinforce and expand learning. Students should be interacting with one another in the classroom, not just you. Have students create content for each other.

3. Give them more creative freedom. Consider assignments that allow students to exploit their own strengths. A piece of artwork or a video mash-up, for example, can demonstrate the same degree of learning as a traditional paper. (Often, these are even more effective.) Allow for flexibility in your assignments and encourage students to suggest their own ideas for how the content should be handled.

4. Take your class outside the classroom, both physically and figuratively. Play with different learning spaces, like outdoor areas or different types of rooms. Also try different setups within the classroom. Never have discussions with the entire class facing the front of the room. And encourage students to apply learning from the class to other areas of their life or coursework. Have them blog, tweet, photograph, film, paint, type, innovate.

5. As unbearably cliché as this sounds, don’t be afraid to try new things. Yes, sometimes it will fail miserably. Sometimes it will be a waste of time. But there’s also the chance that you and your students will discover something incredible. Don’t just try until you find one thing that works… keep trying.

This list is a work in progress, and I’m sure that I’ll think of more things to stick on there. Maybe it will help someone, or maybe it’s just repeating things that are already common knowledge. A common metaphor used at the ELI conference was “trying to get the fish to realize it’s wet.” (It’s convenient that this ties in so well with my earlier metaphor, isn’t it? I think fish metaphors work much better than iceberg metaphors.) This needs to be taken further.

The wet fish is no good if it thinks it’s wet alone.


**One last note on the fish metaphor. Jump in only after ensuring that the fish are actually fish and not, for example, giant maneating sharks. Because that would be unfortunate. Metaphorically speaking.


[…] post by Serena. I’m going to have to return to this soon and discuss what she has said, its good […]

Love your list. It was great meeting you at ELI and I’m looking forward to learning more from your writing as the semester goes on.

[…] Splash Frown Town Evasion […]

@Gene Roche – Thanks for reading! As I said, I’m not sure how helpful it is (maybe all you professor-types already know this stuff), but hopefully it accomplishes something.

Love the list. I have a question, though. What if you want your students to be creative, think in new ways, etc. and you offer them this opportunity, suggesting a video mashup or flickr essay or podcast or whatever and they don’t bite (to keep with the metaphor)? What then? I find when faced with blank stares, my bubble gets burst and it’s hard to go on.

I guess keep trying, but still . . .

Anyway, enjoyed meeting you.

@Laura – I enjoyed meeting you too!

And that’s a really tough question. There are always going to be students who are resistant to that kind of thing, no matter what you do. Obviously simply being passionate about what you’re teaching–while a basic requirement for being successful–is not going to work universally for every single student.

None of your students are going for it? Have they expressed any specific reservations about it, or are they just uninvolved? (Do they understand exactly what these various options entail?) Have you shown them examples of really successful mashups or podcasts? Maybe if they are exposed to more of this, they’ll be more comfortable with using it, and also be more inspired to work with it.

Without knowing the specifics of the class, both in terms of content and student perspectives, I’m not sure I can think of anything else for you to try.

Don’t give up! Discovering what works (as you probably know better than me, a lowly student) takes time. I’d like to know more specifics about your class… maybe then I can think of more ideas, if you’ve already tried my earlier suggestions.

What a fine post! Excellent advice for instructors everywhere.

And it was keen meeting you.

@Bryan Alexander – Thanks! It’s not every day that I meet an ELI celebrity 😉

I’m reading via Gene’s blog. Just an aside, but: “Internet” should be capitalized, as it is a proper noun–most of the time. I think the rationale is that it’s possible to have ‘an internet,’ being a network of networks (as opposed to an intranet, an internal network-within-a-network, say)–so the Internet is capitalized when one is referring to the world’s largest network-of-networks by its name. 🙂

Thanks, too, for your enlightened & expressive perspective.

@John – I stand corrected! Who would have thought that Microsoft Word would get something right?


As the saying goes, even a stopped watch is right twice a day!