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Changing the Game

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Barry Fike teaches public speaking and rhetorical analysis at Seaver College, so it would make sense that standing before a class and lecturing would be easy for him. But Fike avoids that traditional instructional model and instead incorporates collaborative games and activities in his teaching methods.

“I don’t want to talk the whole time,” Fike explains. “I want students questioning, probing, and disagreeing with each other. That’s how you learn.”

Fike is one of a growing number of Pepperdine professors using new techniques to teach the current generation of students who are digital natives, having grown up with video games and other interactive media. Recognizing that today’s youth do not learn the same way as previous generations, University faculty are bringing interactive games, both digital and analog, into the classroom, to provide the types of educational challenges and motivation their students understand. Board games, puzzles, game terminology, and technology-based experiences are among the approaches.

“It’s not that students aren’t capable of learning through the standard lecture format, but they may not be engaged in the material,” remarks Mark Chen, who teaches an introduction to games and learning course at the Graduate School of Education and Psychology. “Games make the material interesting and students play an active role in their education rather than being lectured at.”

The term for this form of education is gamification, the process of turning an activity or task into a game to engage participants and solve problems. The word “games” does not mean that students are not doing serious work, says sophomore Caroline Rubach, who took Fike’s public speaking course last year. The entire class was set up as a game with different levels of achievement that students could reach.

“The game-based learning absolutely helped me. I was able to see my goal, work towards it and achieve it. That was an ‘A’ that I feel I confidently earned. I was more aware of what I learned throughout the gamification process,” Rubach recalls.

Religion professor Chris Heard became interested in gamification several years ago as a way to express his grading philosophy. As in video games, students begin Heard’s course with zero points. With each assignment and test, points are earned. Heard allows his students to retake tests multiple times in order to learn from their mistakes and earn better scores.

“There is no permanent failure in a video game,” Heard says. “Students are used to the idea that you can go back to an easier level and play over and over again to propel yourself to the next level.”

That is the primary reason people play games, believes Chen. It’s not the reward, but that the activity itself is fun and engaging.

“We can learn from the intrinsic way games are fun and try to make classes like that,” Chen says.

Pepperdine offers several resources to assist faculty with how to implement game-based learning principles. The University’s Information and Technology Department presented its first Faculty Professional Development Program centered on gamification last spring. The seven-week, six-session training was held online and in person and focused on student engagement, motivation, and new assessment methods. Nine instructors participated. Two additional one-week faculty workshops were offered over the summer to help professors integrate technology into their classrooms, and to help online instructors enhance their digital classroom experience. Online resources as well as curriculum ideas were presented.

Workshop organizer Landon Phillips (’08, MA ’15), multimedia specialist in Pepperdine’s Technology and Learning Group, taught the workshop along with Heard. Phillips hopes to offer additional group trainings. He also provides one-on-one consultations to faculty to help determine ideal technologies for each individual’s teaching style and curriculum.

“Educators used to be gatekeepers of information, and students learned through books and teacher lectures. Now people have access to the world’s information in their pocket. Being a gatekeeper doesn’t work anymore. We, as educators, are figuring out how to use technology to our advantage,” Phillips says.

In addition, the virtual and experimental Gameful Design Lab, conceived by Chen and partially funded through Pepperdine’s Waves of Innovation program, supports gameful learning initiatives for postsecondary instruction and provides a space for designers and researchers to make and study games and gaming practice.

Gamification has spread from Pepperdine’s campus to other areas, as well. Both Chen and Phillips have made presentations on gamification at multiple educational conferences nationwide. “Gaming is a cultural phenomenon,” Chen comments. “It’s not a frivolous activity.”

One of Chen’s former GSEP students, current EdD candidate Kip Glazer, has taken the gamification strategies she learned at Pepperdine and is sharing them with teachers in the 23-school Kern High School District where she is the instructional technology coach. Glazer promotes a curriculum where students design their own games.

“Creating a game is one of the best benefits of game-based learning because you have to negotiate the rules of the system, select the correct platform to make the idea reality, and then see if what you have envisioned is successful for players,” Glazer explains. “Where students take ownership of being the creator, that’s where game-based learning really works.”

Heard believes that classroom lecturing will decline in favor of more interactive experiences, but that gamification will need to be implemented properly in order to be effective.

“We are at a point now where people who grew up with video games are in positions of power and are influencing academic trends,” Heard says. “We are giving students a different way of interacting with the material that is more hands-on for them. Only good can come of that.”