Teacher as the Game Master

Paper, pencil, and dice games are fundamentally simple.  Players track information for their imaginary characters using sheets that keep track of  vital numbers like health, charisma, dexterity, and strength.  With a roll of a few special dice, the outcomes of combat or encounters with story characters are determined and drive the game play forward.  Likewise the Game Master/Dungeon Master sets the backdrop, spins the initial story, spurring the players on  to adventure and uses their own dice rolls to randomize outcomes within a set of parameters.  Game sessions are engaging, imaginative, and far from canned experiences which makes them incredibly compelling.

So, what if a teacher were to take the best elements of the role of a game master to create an adventure in learning for their students?  What if that thematic unit you’d planned for October were not only immersive but also playable?  That’s the topic of one of my recent presentations.  Take a look!


 So, what do you think?  What tips and experiences do you have?



It’s The Teachers That Make It EPIC

ninjaThree weeks ago, I launched the SCS EPIC Academy pilot with a group of educators in Surry County Schools.  In case you missed my last post on EPIC Academy, it’s a fully-online, game-inspired, approach to professional development.  Through a quest-based learning approach, teachers and administrators can select challenges that interest them, complete them in at a pace that’s right for them, and explore these topics to a depth of their choosing.  Follow a quest chain to its culminating “Epic Quest” and you’ll unlock an official SCS Badge.  That’s the elevator speech version, anyway.


So, what’s the response so far?  To date, 40 district educators are active in the system.  I just shared with them their collective accomplishments just a moment ago.  Together, they have:


  • Accumulated a total of 7880 XP!  (That’s 7.8 CEU’s!)
  • Completed 217 quests.
  • Acquired 91 achievements.
  • Submitted 201 quest ratings (for an average rating of 4/5 stars).
  • Shared 681 educational resources via Pinterest.
  • Discovered one ninja and her secret quest chain!
  • Unlocked 2 official SCS EPIC Academy Badges!


Beyond the numbers, however, our teachers are sharing some incredibly thoughtful reflections (especially on a game-inspired approach to learning).  Consider this reflection by one our guild members, tarheelgirl:


Considering the seductiveness of autonomy in gaming is a new thought process for me. What would it be like to set parameters and then allow students to chose a series of experiences to “test” their abilities? I am also drawn to the idea that children need to experience (really feel) success before they will be motivated to keep reaching for it. If you have never had chocolate….then you do not crave it and certainly will not walk on the treadmill to earn yourself a Hershey bar. If kids never feel academic success, then how will they know what they are striving to attain. Quick, easy success early on in acquiring a new skill could lead for more applied interest.


And, this thoughtful response from teacher_heather:


How will students learn to grow and change if they don’t learn to fail first?  I couldn’t help but think of when I used to play Mario as a kid.  I remember I would get so angry if I didn’t get past Bowzer to rescue the Princess.  I would take note on what I did wrong, fix it, and finally rescue the Princess!  Of course after hours of playing, I would get bored and voila!  I would find a secret tunnel that would lead to another land and find a few hidden treasures along the way.  If we give kids something to work towards through gaming, mixing math, science, etc. along the way and let them know that failing is okay, they would be more willing to do their best.  I would have to say the same for teacher’s professional development.


To say I am proud to be working alongside such professionals would be an understatement.


sortinghSo, what else is going on?  I am encouraging players to set personal goals for themselves this week and gave them some examples:  “I’m going to reach 300XP by week’s end.”  “I’m going to unlock my first badge this week.”  “I’m going to write a new blog post tonight.”  I’ve also challenged them to explore ways that we can use 3DGameLab’s newest feature, Teams.  Personally, I keep going back to Hogwarts, there.  I just need a sorting hat.


Lastly, the secret quest series.  To date, one player, iluveducating, has discovered the ninja, and has embarked on her quest to find the three hidden keys.  As a “game designer” (yes, air quotes, there… term used very loosely), I’m torn between dropping serious hints, and simply letting it unfold over time.  I’m leaning toward the latter, though it’s taking self-discipline!


In March, I’ll be presenting the pilot for the first time to our Board of Education and will also be doing a session at NCTIES 2015!  Stay tuned!



EPIC Teaching Academy

Most of my past projects have focused on leveraging games and gamification in the K-12 classroom with students, however, a project specifically for teachers is long overdue.  EPIC Teaching Academy, turns the attention to educators and their professional development.  Though, I’ve tossed these ideas around for awhile and even built a loose framework, my new district, Surry County Schools, is truly the right-place, right-time to launch this project.  There’s been incredible support.

The EPIC Guild BannerSo, what is EPIC?  It’s really the result of some conversations and observations over the past several years in my primary role as a provider of teacher professional development.  The catalyst was a conversation two years ago at EdCamp Raleigh.  There, a group of educators from across the state including Bill Ferriter (@plugusin), Bethany Smith (@bethanyvsmith), and many others talked about what we, as educators dislike about professional development and what we really want in  our PD.  It was an incredible conversation, as most are at EdCamps.

Of course, I have my niche passions within the education arena, so instantly began to see opportunities to leverage a playful, game-like approach as a solution to many of the problems the group had with typical professional development.

EPIC Teaching Academy is program I’m developing, using 3DGameLab as a platform, that will offer players (yes, players) the opportunity to explore professional development topics of their choice to a depth of their choice.  These learning quests will increase in complexity and commitment as players progress through successive quests as they progress toward unlocking an official badge showing their mastery of a particular topic.  These badges can be shared through the educator’s website, social media, and/or badging system like Mozilla’s Backpack.

Of course, my ultimate goal is to move beyond simple gamification toward truly game-like experiences.  Perhaps a hidden Easter Egg (a la Ready Player One)?  Perhaps we’ll divide schools into teams like a local Hogwarts to host some fun, competitive learning experiences?  Likewise, a hope is that our educators, through this experience, will gain a greater understanding of the merits of an approach like this, ultimately paving the way for student badging.  Here, my friend, Dr. Bron Stuckey (@bronst), has offered some great starters and inspiration!

Tomorrow I’ll begin recruiting district teachers to participate in a pilot beginning in February.  Along the way, I hope to collect some data, pre- and post-, of their attitudes toward professional development overall and of the EPIC experience.

Here’s a presentation that I’ll be sharing that explains the program in a bit more detail:


 Time for some fun!


UPDATE (2/2/15):  The pilot launched today!!  Out of 50 available slots, 47 were filled.  There are a good mix of elementary, middle, and high school teachers along with media specialists, administrators, counselors, and others.  40+ quests are available to our teachers at launch and two official badges:  one for Twitter as a tool for growing your PLN and one for professional blogging.  There are 30+ Achievements and numerous Awards, too.  In total, nearly 2.0 CEU’s worth of content is out there for them to explore.  Lastly, yes, I was able to develop a hidden game-with-the-game with clues and activities hidden throughout!  More updates to come as we move forward!



Wow!  I’m embarassed that it’s taken me this long to update my blog.  As some of you know, I’ve experienced some pretty major life changes of the past several months.  In August I took a position as Director of Academic and Digital Learning (Cool title, huh?) with Surry County Schools, the school district in the home town where I grew up.  This change also resulted in I and my awesome (and supportive) family moving across the state!  We’ve finally settled into a home and have truly hit the ground running!  God has opened some incredible doors, is providing awesome opportunities, and is forging new relationships for us.  It’s pretty incredible.


Want to Take Your Students to Saturn? Strap on The Oculus Rift!

riftdk1For over a year, now, I’ve been following the development of and talking to educators about a piece of technology, that, in my view, could have a huge impact on learning experiences for our students.  It’s the Oculus Rift.  The Oculus Rift is a head-mounted virtual reality display that provides a stereoscopic, 110 degree field of view with responsive head-tracking.  In other words, you put this thing on, and you’re looking around inside a digital world.  Of course, virtual reality has been the promise of science fiction for years, from Star Trek’s holodecks to The Matrix.  Despite previous efforts in years past, the technology simply couldn’t deliver on science fiction’s vision for virtual reality.

All that’s changing, today, though, as technological advances in display capabilities, coupled with motion sensing, and of course, faster computers with better graphics, are making the dream of immersive digital experiences a reality.  Though marketed primarily as a gaming device (and what an awesome gaming peripheral!), I believe the Rift holds some pretty awesome potential in the classroom.oculus-bms

For several months, now, I’ve been talking about the technology and the ways I think it could impact learning.  For example, imagine taking students in a virtual time machine back to ancient Egypt at the height of its glory.  As you walk with them through busy streets and markets, filled with the sights and sounds of the time, imagine that your tour is interrupted by characters (played by others in this multiplayer experience) who sweep you and your students up in a playable (and educational) mystery adventure!  Remember the 60’s flick, Fantastic Voyage, in which a team of doctors enter a spaceship and are shrunk to microscopic scale and explore a man’s body?  Wouldn’t it be great to take your Anatomy class inside the eye or the brain?  Better yet, imagine a set of tools that would allow your students to easily build and prototype models and concepts and to experience (and share) them in an immersive 3D world? As described in this article, some developers are already looking at the Rift’s potential in education, and that’s exciting!

Flying through space with the Oculus RiftThe technology is on our doorstep and I suspect will be mainstream within five years.  Rumors are flying regarding when the Oculus Rift will be released in a consumer model, but it’s already possible to purchase a developer kit.  After riding the fence for months wondering whether to wait for the consumer version or buy a developer kit, I finally decided to take the plunge and it arrived this week.  Within minutes I was exploring a cozy home in Tuscany and moments later, flying through the solar system in the Titans of Space demo.  I even explored one of our Minecraft servers with a version of Minecraft (called, Minecrift) and walked amongst our students’ creations.  The technology is amazing.  But, I’m a fan-boy and a geek, so I had to see if my non-gamer co-workers would react the way I did.  I fired up Titans of Space and called them down to my office.  The response was unanimous, “Oh…. WOW!  Oh…. This is amazing!!”  The next day I took it out to one of our schools and let a science teacher try the same demo.  “My students need to have this experience.  This is incredible!”

So, how long until we have these in the classroom?  Let’s look at some barriers.  The better your graphics card and processor, the better experience you’ll have.  Most of our classroom computers aren’t powerful enough to support the Rift, at least not with fluid frame rates.  For a classroom implementation in the next year or so, I’d suggest a station-based approach in which three or four Rifts are paired with powerful desktops or perhaps a strong gaming laptop.  (Our WoWinSchool Alienwares could handle some of the low-end demos fine.)  Another issue, though one that the developers are likely to overcome in the consumer version, relates to the seemingly imperceptible differences in the time it takes between your head’s movement and the display’s updated image response.  With prolonged use this can cause what’s been dubbed VR sickness, a queasy, dizziness akin to motion sickness.  As one of my co-workers, who rode one of the virtual roller coasters can attest, it’s very real!

Today, I’m not the only Oculus Rift fan in the district.  Everyone who’s experienced it has had a similar response. Experiencing the immersion, educators are quickly making the connections to learning.  The four walls of the classroom are less of a barrier than ever!


Another Collision…

You know, aside from the gas money, I don’t mind my commute to and from work each day.  The morning commute, especially, is a time when I can think, listen to music, and talk with my Dad.  Today, I had a particularly interesting time of thought and meditation sparked by a song on my Spotify “Video Game Music” playlist.

As I pulled out of my daughters’ elementary school, I tapped shuffle play and waited to see what’d come up.  The first song, a haunting and sad melody called “Lament of the High Born,” from World of Warcraft was the first track, but it was the second track that set my thoughts in motion.  The song was “Baba Yetu,” an incredible, vocal track entirely in Swahili from the opening of the Civilization IV introduction.  I’ve listened to this song countless times, either while actually playing Civilization or in this playlist.  Listen to it yourself:

I listened closely to the vocals, with no idea what the lyrics were about, but began to think about some recent conversations Elizabeth and I have had about Randy Alcorn’s book, Heaven.  As the the sounds of the singers filled my little car with passionate and moving words, I thought of the verse in Revelation that describes this scene:

“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9-10, NIV)

I imagine what Heaven will be like.  I know it won’t be this boring and misguided vision we’ve been sold over the years of monotony, clouds, and harps.  My God is a redeemer.  He’s not just a redeemer of people, either, but a redeemer of art, music, culture, and so much more.  I began to imagine what it might be like to be a part of a great celebration in Heaven.  Perhaps there would be a Southern Gospel performance, afterwards, perhaps Switchfoot might lead the crowds in worship, and maybe the next world perform a song such as “Baba Yetu,” teaching us the lyrics in Swahili.  (It’s not like we won’t have time to learn new languages!)

I was then reminded of some of C.S. Lewis’ writings on Heaven:

“In the truest sense, Christian pilgrims have the best of both worlds. We have joy whenever this world reminds us of the next, and we take solace whenever it does not.”

Heaven will be a place of ongoing celebration.  A place of purpose.  A place of meaning.  My imagination continued to think about how this massive crowd might worship Jesus and celebrate that real, unending life He bought for us, as the song came to a close.  “…every nation, tribe, people, and language.”  Diversity unified.

I hit pause and let that simmer for a mile or so.  How awesome.  And then, I wondered… “I wonder what that song is really about?”  So, I looked it up on Wikipedia and found the lyrics in Swahili and English.  Again, I’ve heard this song countless times, but today was the first time I ever investigated the words.  Look for yourself:



Baba yetu, Yetu uliye

Mbinguni yetu, Yetu amina!

Baba yetu Yetu uliye

Jina lako e litukuzwe.

Utupe leo chakula chetu

Tunachohitaji utusamehe

Makosa yetu, hey!

Kama nasi tunavyowasamehe

Waliotukosea usitutie

Katika majaribu, lakini

Utuokoe, na yule, muovu e milele!

Ufalme wako ufike utakalo

Lifanyike duniani kama mbinguni. Amina.

Our Father, who art

in Heaven. Amen!

Our Father,

Hallowed be thy name.

Give us this day our daily bread,

Forgive us of

our trespasses

As we forgive others

Who trespass against us

Lead us not into temptation, but

deliver us from the evil one forever.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done

On Earth as it is in Heaven. Amen.



…I see what you did there, God.




Found this on Imgur…  It pretty much sums up why simply punching in and out will never be sufficient for me…



Now, go do something awesome.


A Hero’s Journey: From Azeroth to Tyria (Guild Wars 2)

The WoWinSchool Project continues to amaze me.  What began in 2009 has grown, evolved, and continues to engage students in unique and exciting ways.  The keys are tapping into relevance and creating a space in which what our Heroes learn relates to the context of their experiences.

The curriculum that Craig Lawson and I wrote for the program and released in June of 2011 has resonated with other pioneering educators around the globe.  This year has been no exception.  With the more affordable, dynamic MMO’s entering the market and game-based learning gaining the attention of district-level decision makers, more Lorekeepers (teachers) are taking up the banner and guiding a new generation of student-heroes into this adventure in learning.

The adaptability of the learning quests in the curriculum makes it suitable for games beyond World of Warcraft.  In Pender County Schools, our programs have made a significant transition to a new world.  The subscription fees associated with WoW have, historically, made it cost-prohibitive for many would-be additions to the program.  As our allotment of 60-day subscription cards began to dwindle, I began to research viable alternatives that might allow us to continue our momentum.

I experimented with Rift and Star Wars: The Old Republic, and though they have merits, both, at the time, were subscription-based, and in my experience, didn’t provide the epic-level experience we’d had in WoW.  I began following the developments of ArenaNet’s Guild Wars 2 and held out hope that this might be the one.  A month after release, I was convinced.  Around this same time, LeVonda Vickery from the REACH School in Oregon, contacted me regarding her desire to use our curriculum with Guild Wars 2.  So, I wasn’t the only one thinking about the possibilities!  Guild Wars 2 would take us and our program forward, providing our heroes with deep, story-driven content, while adding a huge layer of community-driven experience I felt had always been lacking from World of Warcraft.

We conducted a test to see how well it would fit with a group of five students in Cape Fear Middle’s SAGA class.  Their feedback was very positive and the game performed acceptably on our newest Dell desktops (with integrated graphics) and beautifully on our Alienwares.  After discussing with our school-based Lorekeepers, we agreed.  “It’s time to move to Tyria!”

All of our 30+ Heroes have now embarked on a new adventure in Tyria.  GW2’s emphasis on character and story during character creation really sets the stage for focusing on a player’s role in the bigger picture of world events.  The unique level-adjusting system means that players who have outpaced their guild mates in level can go back to support their lower-level friends while still being challenged.

GW2’s focus on guilds also creates unique opportunities for our student guild, The Legacy, to engage with the larger server community.  The perks that guilds earn for gaining influence points (by working together in the game), allow for students to have a greater say in the direction of their community takes.  A great example of how we’re taking advantage of this is with our recent guild emblem contest.

Already, more schools have joined or expressed an intent to join the program in the near future.  The Legacy Guild is growing!  Exciting possibilities are on the horizon!


Everything I Need to Know About The Future of Education I Learned from Science Fiction

The future is coming.  Are you ready?  I am and I’m excited about what it holds for education!  As if it weren’t already clear that I’m an unabashed (and rather proud) geek, you might suspect that my favorite genre of literature is science fiction.  And, you’d be mostly right, though the number one spot is also shared with fantasy literature (big surprise, huh?).  Last week I wrapped up Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  It was a blast!  A mashup of 80’s pop culture and gaming with a healthy dose of dystopian cyberpunk, it really is this 80’s kid’s dream novel.

When consuming media, though, I find it difficult to take off my educator-glasses. So, as I’m reminiscing about the days of the blips and beeps of the mall arcade and the tabletop PacMan at the local Pizza Hut, I’m also paying close attention to what Cline says about education.  I highlighted several passages because they got me thinking…  Want to know what school will be like in the future?  Maybe science fiction holds the key!  Then, I reflected on other science fiction I’d read or seen in the movies.  What if?  Here are some possible futures:


Virtual Worlds for Learning – from Ready Player One by Earnest Cline (2012)

"Then, one glorious day, our principal announced that any student with a passing grade-point average could apply for a transfer to the new OASIS [the virtual world in Cline's novel] public school system.  The real public school system, the one run by the government, had been an underfunded, overcrowded train wreck for decades... ...every kid with half a brain was being encouraged to stay at home and attend school online."


This is a future that both excites and worries me at the same time.  However, look at the pressures our public schools are facing.  Imagine a system that was free, accredited, and offered experiences like these:


"...since the buildings were just pieces of software, their design wasn't limited by monetary constraints, or even by the laws of physics.  So, every school was a grand place of learning, with polished marble hallways, cathedral-like classrooms, zero-g gymnasiums [way cool!], and virtual libraries containing every (school-board approved) book ever written."

What person wouldn’t want to experience a learning environment like that?  Aside from the physical and monetary constraints on today’s schools, consider this, more personal statement by Parzival, the main character in the novel:


"Best of all, in the OASIS, no one could tell that I was fat, that I had acne... ...Bullies couldn't pelt me with spitballs...  No one could even touch me.  In here, I was safe."

Ever wonder why students are drawn to video games and virtual worlds?  Do you think, given the option to customize the appearance of their avatars that they’d hesitate to choose this kind of schooling over the traditional brick-and-mortar alternatives?

In later passages Parzival explains his experiences exploring ancient Egypt, touring a beating human heart (a la The Fantastic Voyage), and visiting Jupiter’s Io to watch a volcano erupt as Jupiter loomed on the horizon.  Imagine being able to have these sorts of experiences with your own learners!  Sleeping in class?  I doubt that would be an issue.


Personal Tablet Computing – Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985)

It’s interesting that I actually read Ender’s Game after I’d first used an iPad.  So, as I read passages like the one below, I was amazed at the author’s vision of learning in the future:


"Ender doodled on his desk, drawing contour maps of mountainous islands and then telling his desk to display them in three dimensions from every angle...
The bell rang. Everyone signed off their desks or hurriedly typed in reminders to themselves. Some were dumping lessons or data into their computers at home. A few gathered at the printers... Ender spread his hands over the keyboard near the edge of the desk and wondered what it would feel like to have hands as large as a grown-up's... Of course, they had bigger keyboards - but how could their thick fingers draw a fine line, the way Ender could..."

Already, tablet computers like the iPad are becoming frequent sights in our classrooms.  Their ability to provide technology-enhanced learning, individualized to a learner’s needs is powerful.  What might the future look like if every student had access to these devices to support their learning?  In some places, that future is already here.


Game-Based Learning – Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985)

Consider the Battle School from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.  Through rigorous game-based simulations, students in Card’s world learned standard curricula as well as military strategy.  Schools around the world are starting to pay attention to video games and how they can be effective tools for teaching.  (This blog has examples!)


Digital Learning/Research Assistants – Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson (1992)

Imagine what classroom learning might look like if each student had a personal, digital assistant to help them as they learned, adjusting to their specific learning styles, and helping them as they researched online.  In Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash, the main character, Hiro, has a computer program dubbed “The Librarian” who takes the form of an avatar and helps him as he researches a mystery that’s plaguing hackers in cyberspace.  Consider this interchange between Hiro and his assistant as they piece together information that each of them has collected:


"He believed that Babel was an actual historical event. That it happened in a particular time and place, coinciding with the disappearance of the Sumerian language. That prior to Babel/Infocalypse, languages tended to converge. And that afterward, languages have always had an innate tendency to diverge and become mutually incomprehensible - that this tendency is, as he put it, coiled like a serpent around the human brainstem."
"The only thing that could explain that is - "
Hiro stops, not wanting to say it.
"Yes?" the Librarian says.
"If there was some phenomenon that moved through the population, altering their minds in such a way that they couldn't process the Sumerian language anymore. Kind of in the same way that a virus moves from one computer to another, damaging each computer in the same way. Coiling around the brainstem. "
"Lagos devoted much time and effort to this idea" the Librarian says "He believed that the nam-shub of Enki was a neurolinguistic virus"

When I consider these elements I think about my iPhone and that quirky little personality that resides within, Siri.  The thing that makes Siri amazing is not that it can recognize your speech or conduct basic information gathering for you, but rather that it’s the beginning stages of tools that can make sense of what we are saying/asking.  This is beyond speech recognition.  This is semantics.  What if each of your learners had one of these?  This wouldn’t supplant a teacher, but would foster individualization and differentiation.  At the same time, this we can always direct students to Siri for those “Bloom’s Basement” sorts of questions.


If you haven’t read these novels, you really should.  Not only do they have interesting predictions about the future (and the future of learning), they’re great reads!  There are probably countless other examples from science fiction.  Perhaps you’ve got some?  Leave a comment and share!