Teachers Playing World of Warcraft

There is a certain thrill for me watching adult learners exploring a totally alien environment.  Maybe it’s the mad scientist in me?  I’m having those very sorts of opportunities in August as Peggy Sheehy and I lead teachers from around the world through quest-based learning experiences in 3DGameLab.  Our group’s quests revolve around the concept of using World of Warcraft (or similar MMO’s) in the classroom.  Our first week has simply been a chance to orient folks to World of Warcraft.  Simply put, we just want them to play the game, immersing themselves in the fantasy world of Azeroth.

As we move into week two, we’re asking our participants to look at the game through the lens of education and instructional design.  World of Warcraft is an incredibly complex game.  This first week has reminded me of just how much I take for granted:  the jargon, game culture, and of course the technical side of things.  We have a range of prior knowledge among our participants from those who have multiple level 85 characters, the highest level in the game, to those who have never experienced any virtual world, much less a game-based virtual world.

One of the first quests for our explorer-teachers this week is to examine how the game’s designers essentially are instructional designers.  The game has to teach you how to play the game.  This requires a great deal of thought, planning, and testing on the part of the designers.   Blizzard Entertainment, the makers of World of Warcraft, have become masters of this, as their subscriber numbers (around 12 million) indicate.

We asked our teachers both newcomers and veterans alike to reflect on their first experiences in the game and to consider what lessons we might apply to our classroom instruction.  The first responses coming in are very telling:

After a couple of unhappy days, something happened that turned it around for me. People started helping me – not only that, but on two different days, very advanced players went on quests with me. What a totally different experience it was! I loved playing. It was so much fun, and I was learning a tremendous amount by following their lead and asking questions. It’s lonely to struggle by yourself, and many times I thought that this must be how students feel when they get stuck and are not allowed to work with anyone else.

This response really highlights the value of the social component, something that good games typically foster but too often our classrooms discourage.  Another teacher shared this observation:

Each quest would expand the area you could investigate. Each quest would introduce you to more and more challenging obstacles to overcome. Some quests taught you how to fish, earn money with a trade, and use different talents. You were not tossed in the middle of the pool with all your skills in place, you had to learn them one or two at a time. New skills built upon previous knowledge.

This mastery-based approach is not common in our schools, primarily because time for learning is a set constant.  The mentality is, “if you don’t get it, sorry, we have to move on.”  Keeping your experiences within your “regime of competence” is a concept also reflected by this educator:

WoW is good at starting you off small – just a few spells, easily defeated baddies, and quests that let you go practice your skills without aggroing mobs. The game is also good at keeping you within your skill realm. You won’t find any level 30 foes in the level 1 areas so you’re usually pretty safe from biting off more than you can chew.

On the concept of feedback to the player (what we might call assessment), one of our educators shared this observation:

I could see that I was making progress, and that was motivating. Also the frequent advancing in levels at the beginning stages. I was so happy when my level went up! I’ve rarely seen this technique done in education, but it could certainly be borrowed.

I was so impressed by the thoughtfulness and reflection of these educators I had to go ahead and share it.  There are many more educators who’ll be sharing their reflections on exploring World of Warcraft this week.

Are you a gaming educator?  What parallels can you make between game design and good instructional design?

Cataclysm, Students, and Twitter… Oh Yeah!


Image by The Ne Kow at Deviant Art (Twitter bird added)

One of our aims with the WoWinSchool Project is to encourage our learners to be good users of emerging technologies and social tools like Twitter.  Students are already writing volumes of text via their cell phones and Facebook, and though this often is, at best, overlooked in language arts circles, more often it is vilified and seen as the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it.  Far from the truth, it’s a medium of communication that we should explore and encourage with our students.

We’re using our Hero’s Journey course to do just that, and in the process students are having to think critically about characters’ point-of-view and effective word choice in a medium that values brevity:  Twitter.  If you are unaware, Blizzard Entertainment, the creators of World of Warcraft will launch their third major game expansion, Cataclysm, on December 7th of this year.  Since this is an epic and immersive story world, in the weeks leading up to this event, changes are taking place in the game to advance the story.

Our challenge to students is to tell that story, via Twitter, from an NPC’s (non player character’s) point-of-view.  Some have selected major characters like King Varian Wrynn, the leader of the humans, while others have chosen to tell the story from lesser character’s points-of-view, such as Kira Songshine, the traveling bread vendor.  Whether they chose major or minor characters, good or evil, was up to them.  In fact, one will be telling the story from the dragon Deathwing’s (the primary villain in the upcoming expansion) point-of-view.  Some will take a serious approach, others a more comical.  We’ve left that up to the students.  We’re simply providing feedback on grammar and Twitter etiquette.

The real magic is that anyone can watch this Twitter drama unfold over the coming weeks!  All you need to do is search #wowinschool, which will be included in each Tweet the students create.  We also encourage you to interact with the kids.  Ask them questions about the events they “see” unfolding around them.  Expect them to respond, “in-character.”  In fact, this may take on more of a journalism aspect depending on the level of interaction.

And, you can follow it all here:


WoWinSchool: A Hero’s Journey – Anatomy of a Typical Week

Though we’re nowhere close to having a complete, 36-week course available to share with the world, we do have about 1/4 of the course completed. (Also known as building the plane while in the air!)  So, what in the world does this look like?  How is the Moodle set up?  Though we’re not quite ready to offer guest access to the Moodle yet, I thought I’d give a sneak-peak of some examples of what we’re doing.  I took some screenshots from our course showing how we’re setting it up and put them into a presentation, uploaded to Slideshare.  To be able to read the text clearly, you may want to view full screen or download the presentation.

One feature we’ve added recently, and as instructors are having a blast with, is in-class achievements.  For example, we challenged students to successfully “friend” each of their classmates in the game.  The two students who successfully completed this on the first day assigned, were awarded the “Fast Friend” achievement.  We’re creating game-like achievement badges for unlocking these and then adding them to the students’ Moodle profiles.


So, What’s Next?

wowkidsLast year was largely an experimental year.  There were so many unknowns going into the WoWinSchool Project that our overall attitude was “Let’s see what this looks like,” and some aspects of the program were largely informal.  That’s not to say that we didn’t learn a great deal and that the participating students didn’t benefit from the program (and we from them).  Going in, we were unsure of even the simplest things like, “What happens when there’s a patch?” and “Will the network and firewall handle it?”

Those early hurdles are behind us and I’m very pleased to announce that we’re ratcheting the program up a notch for the coming year.  In the 2010-2011 school year, both Cape Fear Middle and Suffern Middle will offer a World of Warcraft-based language arts elective during the regular school day.  Development has begun on the course, the syllabus, and implementation plan.  So far, here’s what we’re thinking:

  • Though taking place during the regular day, the course will be hybrid, built online using the Moodle LMS.  This grants us the opportunity to be largely paperless (a good model for other classes!) and it makes the course granular and easily shared.
  • The course will involve a parallel reading assignment for students, probably a novel.  Cape Fear Middle will likely use Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
  • We are trying hard to get away from focusing on grades and are rather granting students XP (experience points) and levels for completing assignments.  Developing appropriate rubrics and scaling is a challenge.
  • The course will have an overall theme, probably based on “The Hero’s Journey.”
  • The course will be aligned to national/state standards and will supplement students’ regular language arts instruction.
  • Our goal is to thoroughly “mash-up” course and in-world experiences.

We have a tremendous amount of work to do to prepare and are excited about where we’re going.


Lore Keepers – Always Watching

weyrYesterday, several students met Lore Keepers.  Who are the Lore Keepers?  They are characters that the teachers in this project have created that will give assignments to the students.  Yesterday was my first attempt at using them to interact with the students.  First off, you should understand the setup.  The lab where we’re playing has a sort of side-by-side U-shaped arrangement of computers.  I was not playing in the same “U” that the students were, though I was sitting right across from some of them.  I logged in Weyr, leader of the Lore Keepers and began contacting students via private messages (/w).

Observation #1 – Students are either not reading or are ignoring WoW’s chat system.  (Considering trade chat, this could be a blessing!)  It took me sending five or more messages to about four different students playing Night Elves before I got any response.  Craig who was actively helping students, finally had to point it out to our first group to get them to respond.  Keep in mind, the students had no idea it was me.

Observation #2 – Most students have little to no concept of online chat etiquette much less roleplay.  No surprise, really, because that’s one of the goals of the project is focusing on digital citizenship.  Our kids desperately need this.  For those of you who are ever on X-Box Live, you know the kids I’m referring to!  Again, for all the students knew, I was some other player (and some thought I was the game itself).  Several of them communicated in very broken street-slang, text message style in their responses.  I even had one student use foul language.  Eventually, they decided to take my “quest,” though were quite reluctant.

Observation #3 – So far, they are not good at working collaboratively in game.   My initial quest was to simply have them form a group and bring me bean soup.  The soup was sold by a vendor in a building about 100 yards North of my position.  I promised a handsome reward and each of them had to give me at least one bowl.  This took the first group nearly 45 minutes to complete, and then, only two of them followed instructions and received a reward.  One girl, who was actually polite and encouraged her male counterparts to be polite received two rewards.

Observation #4 – Giving a new player a Netherweave Bag as a reward is like your grandmother giving you socks for Christmas.  They simply didn’t understand the value this early into their experience.  Noted.

At the end of the day’s session we closed with a chat and I reiterated our behavioral expectations.  As word spreads, there are students lining up to get into this program and I only have 15 slots and the students are aware of this.  Today, we’re taking an approach that will be a big turn-off to many of them:  silent play.  No, I’m not one of those teachers.  The idea here is to allow them to communicate all they like as long as they are using in-game chat.  We’re also using a seating chart today.

Their first real challenge is coming soon:  Deadmines.  Deadmines will be their first, grouped, dungeon experience, and to be successful, they’ll need to begin to work cohesively and in balanced groups.

For now, the Lore Keepers will continue to interact with the students.  Some will get rewarded, others will not.  I don’t think any of them are reading my blog, so my “secret identity” is safe for now.  Let’s see what happens.