Students are prepping the day before the VWBPE Tour

Students are prepping the day before the VWBPE Tour

I’ve always been told that ownership is a powerful tool in student learning, and I have always believed it.  However, the experiences and observations of the past two days have truly validated that assertion.  Today, our incredible (and I don’t use that word lightly) students in the WoWinSchool Project led a small group of educators from around the world on a virtual tour of World of Warcraft as part of the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education Online Conference.

I was approached about a month ago by conference organizers asking if I would like to host a virtual tour.  When I asked if I could have our students lead it instead, they graciously (and courageously?) accepted, and the Know Your Gnomes session was set.  I’m not sure our students fully grasped the implications until yesterday afternoon.  (Perhaps some of the best learning happens in the 11th hour?)  I asked them how they’d like to organize the tour and they decided forming two groups would be best, and probably the most comfortable for them.  They then began to organize themselves based on who felt most comfortable leading a discussion on what topics within those groups.  One would take quests, another would cover movement and navigation, while another would talk about communication and so on.

That’s when I sensed a bit of stress among them.  When it hit them that they would be talking to complete strangers from other countries about this program, they very quickly went from silliness to seriousness.  In fact, in my 10+ years as an educator, I’ve never seen such an abrupt transformation among students.  In their minds I think they were beginning to take ownership of the idea and realizing that they, in fact, would be the experts teaching the teachers.  It was incredibly powerful.

The VWBPE tour is underway and the kids have their "game-faces" on.

The VWBPE tour is underway and the kids have their "game-faces" on.

When I asked them if they’d like to do a trial run, they hastily agreed that it would be a good idea.  It was at this point, I think, that they began to rationalize what would actually take place during the tour.  The “what if” questions began gushing out.  “What if they don’t understand English?”  “What if they can’t get into Ventrilo?”  “What if I misspell something?”  I worked to put their concerns and questions to rest, honestly, not knowing the answers to many, and encouraged them to have some faith in themselves.  At this point they really put their “game faces on.” (Pardon the pun!)

This morning, they literally rushed to the lab and quickly began to help get set up.  Some logged in right away and began greeting the early comers to the session.  I can’t begin to tell you how suddenly professional kids, who are just ask likely to yell “Your Momma!” across the room, become when things got started.  We had participants from as far away as Israel!  It’s at this point that I should probably offer up an apology to the participants from VWBPE.  Your experience in this tour may have been good, but I know it was nothing compared to what I saw taking place.  The real magic was taking place in the lab at the school and I really wish you could have seen it.

You see, ownership is an incredibly powerful tool in student learning.  Teachers, your kids will amaze you if you tap into it, I promise.  I’d also argue that never before have so many opportunities existed for classroom teachers to really share with the world what their students are creating.  “Creative capital” is something that every child has and it behooves us as educators to tap into it, because in our ever-changing global economy, that’s where they’ll one day shine.

Students have split into groups are sharing with VWBPE attendees.

Students have split into groups are sharing with VWBPE attendees.

There are so many tools out there for classroom teachers to use, too.  Have the Skype chat to show off their work.  Have them create a wiki and share their creations.  Publish a book of their writing!  Trust me, show your students that the world is watching, and step back and watch them perform.  They’ll PWN the learning!


Diving Into Deadmines

rhahkzorMonday marked our first day back on the project following our Christmas break.  Though I was out sick with a cold, I was able to log in from home and work with some of the students in the project.  Four of our highest leveled players wanted to do their first dungeon run into Deadmines, and they wanted me to take them.  So, I logged into my hunter, Weyr, and met them at the meeting stone in Moonbrook.

As we jumped into the instance, things began to get interesting.  We ranged in levels from 12 – 15, so we were a bit low, but the kids were determined.  What really amazed me is that before we began fighting, the students were discussing strategy!  “Who is going to tank for us?”  “I can do heals.”  “You should get full mana before we start.”  Before we’d encountered our first foes, the students were thinking critically about what would happen and how we might succeed.  Another observation is that the students are readily adopting the game’s jargon and using it properly (tank, mana, aggro, heals, etc.).

Our first pulls were chaotic affairs.  Due to our lower level the Defias Miners and Overseers were coming out of the woodwork for a chance to beat on us.  Whether they realized it or not, students became acquainted with the concept of “aggro radius,” or the imaginary radius around a character at which aggressive creatures will come after you to attack.  After a few wipes, we made it to the first boss, Rhahk’Zor, a particularly hard-hitting and tough Ogre.  At this point, the students had decided that my pet dragon hawk was the best tank, so they discussed how we might beat the boss.

“I can heal as a Paladin and you can heal as a druid, so maybe if we both heal, we can do it.”  As a former science teacher, that sounds a great deal like a hypothesis to me!  So, we tried it, and Rhahk’Zor made short work of us.  The students were determined, and though our time was running short, they wanted to take another stab at it, again, with similar results.  “I don’t think I have enough mana to heal this fight,” one said.  “Maybe we need be higher level.”

Again, the collateral learning is huge here.  One, the students are using trial-and-error approaches to overcome a difficult situation.  The amazing part about it, is that they are doing this in a completely virtual environment in which they are not clear about the underlying rules and their mentor is working with them from his home 20 miles away.  The learning is completely non-threatening and the reward is clearly defined:  the satisfaction of beating the boss.  Another thing they’re learning here is teamwork.  They must rely on each others’ strengths and trust in their teammates.

I can’t wait to go back.


Reflections and Updates

WoW's Mini-Map

WoW's Mini-Map

Work, both with the project and outside the project has kept me extremely busy lately, and the new content and mechanics included with the 3.3 update have kept me busy in-game during my free time.  So, what’s going on with the project over the past week?

1.  Turnover.  Unfortunately, we’ve had several students decide to move on to other after school projects.  On the bright side, there’s still a waiting list of students interested in participating, so, those spots are immediately filled.  One thing that seems to be changing is that our core group of committed students seems to be growing.  To me, there are some interesting parallels to long-term guild membership dynamics.

2.  Emerging Leaders.  A couple of our students are beginning to emerge as leaders.  As they are mastering the game’s mechanics and learning the quests, they are increasingly being called on for assistance by their classmates.  So far, they’ve been quite willing to peer tutor.  It is becoming more and more apparent to me that this game can really foster that sort of relationship.

3.  Ownership.  The idea of ownership is critical, I think.  If our students take ownership of their role in the project, of their characters, and soon, their identity as a guild, I believe their engagement (and the potential for learning) will increase.  This is happening, but it’s slow.  This is more of a meta-game concept and will require reflective thought on their part.  The educators in the project, Peggy, Craig, and I, are actively pushing this sort of thinking.  In fact, I recently created a message board for our students as a means of providing a forum for our students and teachers to interact and also to document this journey.

4.  Collateral Learning.  I wish there was a way to easily document the collateral learning that’s taking place.  To really appreciate it, you’d have to have a good profile of our kids’ current knowledge and understanding.  This is what I call ninja teaching, because these students are learning and they don’t realize it.  Here are a few examples of things that fit this category:

  • Cardinal Directions – How many times have we reviewed this concept since we began?  Many of the students in my group could not have readily drawn a compass on paper and correctly labeled North, South, East, and West.  The quests they’re getting in-game are constantly using these to direct the players to specific destinations.  There is also a tie-in with overall spatial reasoning as well when students hit their “M” key to bring up their map and conceptualize that the arrow is their avatar, its orientation is the way they’re facing, and the symbols on the map (new with the 3.3 patch) are their desired destinations.  I suspect that soon these things will be more automatic for them.
  • Vocabulary – We’re not making any efforts to tone down the gamer lingo or game vocabulary.  Several times already, we’ve stopped game play to define terms, especially when asked, but otherwise we’re going for full immersion.  This also applies to the quests that the students are getting which are vocabulary rich.  Here’s an example of an early quest that many of our students completed.  I’ve highlighted some of the vocabulary that I don’t typically hear middle schoolers using:
  • “A Refugee’s Quandary – We drove the troggs out of Gnomeregan, but then it all went so horribly wrong! Now our home is completely irradiated, and we gnomes have been scattered all over Dun Morogh.  In my haste to get away from the radiation, I lost all my personal belongings and tools. It was the trolls that got them. They stole my chest, my box, and my bucket of bolts! They took them back to their camps southwest of Anvilmar.  I’m no adventurer – could you find my things and bring them here to me, please?”

  • Technical Skill.  Students are already troubleshooting and fixing technical issues on their own.  Early on, we had sound/volume issues due to access permissions.  One student found a solution, shared it with the class, and now the students know how to fix this.

So, we forge ahead with this our final week before the Christmas break!


First Contact


Earlier this week students from Cape Fear Middle School and Suffern Middle School had their first in-game contact with each other.  In some ways it was similar to the kinds of interactions you might expect if you put a random assortment of middle schoolers together at school dance.  There was a  little mingling, a few timid “‘Sup’s?” and a few silly emotes.  Then, they ran off to complete a few more quests before the day was over.  Could this be the beginning of a guild?  Yeah.  I think so.


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.


Explorers From Different Worlds

Yesterday, Principal Edie Skipper took her first steps into a virtual reality.  Around her, 13 – 15 year-olds were eagerly exploring new areas, taking new quests, and discovering the wonderful world of slash commands (like /dance).  Edie’s initial foray into Azeroth, however, was much more calculating and intentional.  Observing the differences in the way our students and their principal approached their first taste of WoW was incredible.  When it came to race selection, our students seemed more influenced by what their peers thought was popular rather than considering the story elements that contribute to each race.  No surprise there, really.  As for choosing a name, well, let’s just say the Sisters of Elune player community (a roleplay community), will be glad that we were “guiding the process.”   Edie’s actions were considerably more intentional than the students.  She spent a considerble amount of time perfecting the look of her Dranei mage and choosing a name she felt suited her new blue-skinned self.

The differences in approach, here, are fascinating to watch.  I’m no student of psychology, but there’s no wonder the field is focusing considerable energy studying the way we interact with and project ourselves into virtual environments.  If you haven’t explored it yet, Nick Yee’s Daedalus Project details some of his work doing just that.

The unfolding of this process and how a student approaches it compared to how their principal approaches it will be exciting to see.  Eventually, I believe the game will begin to put greater and greater pressure on the students to tighten up their game, their cooperation, and focus.  On the other hand, watching an adult educator’s approach, and how they support their own learning will make for an interesting comparison.


I Feel Like I’m Raiding With A Bunch Of Middle Schoolers

WoWinSchool Day 1 Reflections

dwarf_rudeI am reminded of the sort of cliche’ scene from a military movie where you see the new recruits arrive at boot camp and their drill sergeant, sputtering and screaming, has a short time to whip them into a cohesive fighting unit.  Yesterday was our first day of the WoWinSchool Project.  We had about ten students and expect a few additions in the coming days.  For the sake of time, because I have to be at work shortly, I’ll share a few reflections:

  • I was reminded today why I went into education.  The interaction with students was something I’ve missed since leaving the classroom to take the Instructional Technology Coordinator position for my district.  Working with this after-school program will fill that gap.
  • Throughout the development of this project, I’ve tried hard to keep my expectations in check.  Yesterday I was reminded why.  These are middle school kids.  They are not necessarily the most academically motivated ones nor the stereotypical teachers’ pets, either.  That has to frame everything that comes out of this experiment.
  • The number one challenge, yesterday, was encouraging students to be thoughtful about choosing their character’s class.  Normally, a player simply picks a class and starts playing, but thinking long-term, we’ll need balanced groups for grouping and raiding later as the students advance in level.  In the same way everyone can’t be the quarterback on a football team, everyone can’t be a mage or rogue.  We started by giving the students the game manuals (yeah, I know, no one reads game manuals), and asked them to spend about ten minutes reading about what each class can do.  Did they do it?  Nahh…  Perhaps a better approach would be to simply put all the needed choices in a hat and have them draw them out.  Then, you could let them trade as needed.
  • Having Arik, our high school senior, who’s volunteering with the program as part of his senior project, was a huge help.  The kids seemed to respond really well to him.
  • While we were explaining the project, the expectations, the idea of choosing your class and such, the kids were chatty, giggling, and largely not paying any attention.  Really, who can blame them?  They’ve been talked at by teachers all day.  However, once they got into the game, their attention transformed.  It was really remarkable.

So, going into day two, I remind myself of this:  learning is messy business.  The best laid plans become something altogether different when you’re in the trenches.  Remember, this is a grand adventure.  I can’t wait to see them form groups and run their first dungeon…


I Don’t Teach Lessons – I Give Quests

Dwarven PriestStarting next week, the WoWinSchool Project will become a reality.  We have a great group of students lined up to participate in the project and they are in for an exciting adventure.  From the beginning, I’ve suggested that World of Warcraft, and many other popular video games today, are at least at some level,  potential models for instructional design and delivery.  Today’s games are incredibly complex intellectual pursuits that our students consume with a ravenous appetite.  They are very focused on achievement and support the players’ progress with in-game help and game play that builds in complexity cumulatively.  And, this learning is highly individualized and customized in most cases.

Why can’t our lessons be like this?  I believe they can be.  How often do students struggle for a semester to learn a complex, vocabulary-intense subject like Biology only to fail at the end?  And when they fail, do they pick back up where they left off and attempt to re-master those concepts?  No.  They have to start back over at the beginning the next semester.  I wonder if World of Warcraft would have 11.5 million subscribers if it adopted a similar model?  If I worked hard to achieve level 79 and then failed a quest sending me back to level one would I keep playing?  I doubt it.  The game designers know that would be a disaster, and no one would pay for the game.

With the WoWinSchool after school project I’ve decided I won’t be giving students lessons on math, literacy, leadership, etc.  I’ll be giving students quests for those things instead!  Which would be more effective, to give the students an assignment in the classroom or give them quest, in-game, that revolves around the rich story world that Blizzard has created?  The outcomes, pedagogically, will be the same:  they’ll be writing, they’ll be doing math, and they’ll learn the 21st-Century skills.  The method of delivery, however, will be immersive.

Here’s how it may work:

  • The teachers working with the project will create characters and put them in a guild.  This guild will be known as something like “Keepers of Lore” or “Lore Masters.”  There has been much discussion in gaming circles lately that the next great virtual world/MMO will have to include player generated content.  This would be something akin to that.  We would have students interact with these characters as though they were NPC’s (Non-player characters), but they would, of course, be much more interactive.  We would give quests (assignments) that may involve out-of-game things such as creating machinima, writing a story in a forum, etc.
  • Their work could be rewarded with in-game rewards such as bags, companion pets, mounts, etc.
  • All of this would be handled in roleplay sort of environment perhaps even integrating existing themes current in the World of Warcraft storyline.  Students would also be encouraged to reply/respond in-character.
  • The Lore Master character would support the student learning throughout the process through in-game communication or even through responses in forums to student work.

So, what do you think?  Do you have ideas about how we might blur the lines between assignments and quests, between in-game and real-life learning?  If so, share your thoughts and comments!