To game or not to game that is the question?

SITEThis is the second post to feature a teacher from the field – this time a teacher friend of mine from the USA. I first met Steve Isaacs at the SITE conference in Jacksonville in March 2014. Often the tech subjects Steve writes about catch my attention and I plan to see his classroom/s in action later this year – so watch this space.


Steve loves games and game-based learning is something that sits comfortably with both his personal and professional beliefs about technology-enhanced learning. He presents scholarly papers with academic colleagues on research projects in schools that focus on game-based learning. Steve recently published a really useful article on the difference between gamification and game based learning … it’s well–worth a look.

Before you read Steve’s article I want to tell you a little bit about him.

Steve began teaching in 1992.  For the first six years of his career, he taught students with special needs in a self-contained class in Montclair, New Jersey.  He was interested in Special Education as he had worked at group homes for adults with developmental disabilities through his time at college. Technology was always a passion and in 1998 he pursued a job teaching technology courses at William Annin Middle School (WAMS) in Basking Ridge, New Jersey and that is where he still teaches.

William annin schoolAt present Steve teaches Video Game Design and Development as a half year 8th grade elective and Game Design and Digital Storytelling as part of the school’s exploratory cycle program.  Prior to these courses he taught a number of tech courses including programming, web design, communication technology, and a more traditional 7th grade cycle course.

video gameHe was excited about teaching game design since before he started at WAMS.  When he arrived at the school he offered an after school computer club where game design and development was the focus.  A few years later, he was asked to teach the 7th grade Gifted and Talented program and created a unit on game design (non-digital and digital) as part of that program.  Finally, he pitched the idea of a full semester elective in Game Design and Development and received support from his supervisor and principal to develop the course.

In this course, students have a wide variety of opportunities to learn about design thinking, iterative design, computer science, and other 21st Century skills.  Students learn to use a variety of tools to create games and through the quest based learning environment have many opportunities to choose their learning path to personalize the learning experience.

Steve says: “After a few years of teaching the Game Design and Development elective it became obvious that the course was being elected mostly by boys and that was concerning.  This led to my suggestion that we change the 7th grade cycle curriculum to serve as an opportunity for all students to have an experience in game design to provide context prior to choosing their 8th grade elective.  This worked out well and the number of female students has increased significantly“.


Gamification Blog P8Recently Steve began reflecting on this course and thinking about how to better incorporate narrative into the quests his students do to further enhance the game like approach to learning. He adds: “Gamification is sometimes referred to as ‘pointification’ as it can be a function of providing the same assignments and thinking that adding points and a leaderboard somehow make it gamified.  There is much more to creating an environment that really feels like a game”.

Providing choice through a quest-based approach helps students with the idea that they have control over their learning.  In such an approach Steve is keen to point out that the learning objectives must be clear and that they can be met through a choice based approach.  BUT, that takes thoughtful planning. In the course he teaches, the learning outcomes relate to design thinking, iterative design, collaboration, and computer science principles. These outcomes can then be met no matter which path students take.

In a last comment he reiterates: “I believe that it is important to provide opportunities for students to further personalize these kind of courses by allowing them to find their passion.  In the case of game design, this can gamestarhappen through the formation of design teams where each student finds the role that best suits them”. A really crucial point.

Steve also holds a very successful weekly Twitter chat using #edtechbridge. I have written about this forum in my book and have joined in a number of times …. although for Sydney tweeps the time difference gets a bit tricky (10am Aust. time on a Thursday). The Twitter forum is quite unique for a number of reasons – we really don’t have anything like it in Australia. Steve started the forum with Katya Hott. They had worked together on a number of projects in their real jobs as educator and Katya as a tech developer with a big interest in education. Steve elaborates: “This relationship has served both of us very well as I was able to give feedback regarding the product(s) Katya was working on and I always felt respected and acknowledged for my role in the process.  This allowed us to develop a true relationship where we could call on each other”.

katyaA short while ago Katya and Steve presented their collaborative work at SXSWEdu … a conference I really want to go to sometime soon – on the topic of bridging the Entrepreneur / Educator divide. They realized that their relationship was unique, but incredibly valuable to the edtech development process. Too often education adopts technologies made for business or entertainment and re-purposes it for the classroom. The partnership was certainly a step towards bridging the two worlds.

After a problem solving session at the conference they both vowed to take a critical look at this issue and committed to a weekly Twitter chat to bring stakeholders together.  Steve adds: “This has been a wonderful experience and I have truly enjoyed the interactions and collaboration that has come out of this group.  Our current goal is to facilitate the development of true relationships that continue outside of the chat and has resulted in working relationships among educators, developers, researchers and students”.

twitterWhat an outcome! Many thanks Steve for sharing your passion and I look forward to reading more from you in the coming months. Keep up the great work both in the classroom and outside with #edtechbridge. Follow Steve on Twitter

I wonder if you know of any schools or teachers that are teaching Video Game Design or Game Design and Digital Storytelling courses like Steve in Australian schools? Are you game?