HistoricLee Relevant

An Education in History Education

Category Archives: digital humanities

Gamification and a Better You

[x-posted at Videogames, Learning, & School Design]

Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I have been unable to hit the gym this semester. It’s on the way home, it’s free, and I know I’d have more energy if I went. I know all of these things, and yet, I still can’t muster up the motivation to go.

Ah, there’s the key word: motivation.

Enter gamification.

Gamification centers on the idea that one can apply game design principles to any problem. Need to motivate students to learn. GAMIFY IT! Need to quit smoking? GAMIFY IT! Need to hit the gym more frequently? GAMIFY IT! (If you’ve seen Dexter, Season 5, then this refrain will sound familiar.)

Brian Wang and Dick Talens have not only gamified the gym experience with Fitocracy, but they have done so with enormous amounts of personal success, going from fraught with flab to muscles of many, from sitting all day to fitting in your clothes. They argue that the characteristics of high-intensity gamers are almost identical to those of body builders:


They’ve been trained to focus for weeks at a time on a single goal. They know how to clearly identify obstacles and form step-by-step plans to overcome them. They’re obsessed with improving specific skills but judge success only by overall progress made in the world they’ve decided to conquer — as realistic or fantastical as it may be.

Gamification has its detractors and critics, notably Iam Bogost, with his post, “Gamification is Bullshit.” But, Bogost’s ire seems not to be directed at serious thinkers and pedagogical theoreticians but rather at a corporate edutainment industry hellbent on making profits, not learners. Shawn Graham’s “Gamification, Bullshit, and Teaching History,” at Play the Past, is taking up Bogost’s challenge, and we would do well to remain similarly skeptical of techno-educational fads but also take account of the potential benefits of innovative pedagogy.

Maybe an system of external rewards and online badges will get me into the gym at least once this semester, but it’s this notion of externality that also kinda makes me hate going to the gym: the super-amped, jacked guy that gazes longingly at his deltoids in the mirror. If I go to the gym, ultimately, it’s because I want a better quality of life and not necessarily a better looking body…but I guess that wouldn’t hurt either.

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Reading Digitally, History That Is…

Last night, I spoke to an APUSH student over the phone during one of our scheduled discussion-based assessments, and she told me that she had abandoned the online, digital, PDF textbook in favor of an analog version that I gave to her a few weeks ago.  “It’s just hard to read online,” she quipped.  A recent Scholastic/Harrison Group report presents an ambiguous and murky picture concerning the role of digital texts in the lives of students and suggests that the push for digital textbooks in K-12 classrooms may be premature, at best.  (The report fails to address the efficacy of digital texts versus analog texts in the transmission and retention of knowledge.)  As Florida (a MAJOR textbook market) gets ready to move toward universal digital textbooks, I have begun thinking about literacy as it relates to digital texts and, more specifically, how that translates into historical thinking and the reading of history.

David M. Berry argues that “we should be thinking about what reading and writing actually should mean in a computational age.” He suggests that the burgeoning third wave of digital humanities should address the epistemic issues associated with the digitization of knowledge, and I think my student’s complaint about her required digital textbook is where the theoretical rubber meets the real-world road.

I argued previously (at length) that full online delivery of content at the high school level may not be the best way to move forward, and digital textbooks are part of the reason why I believe we need to be more critical about distance education.  [The following will be edited with links and references once I am able to locate the links and references in question…please help in the comments if you know what I’m talking about.]  Many studies have shown decreased performance amongst students who read content online versus those who read analog versions of the same.  I’m excited about the possibilities in store for historical knowledge and historical literacy in the digital age, but we have to navigate these waters with an eye toward our charges and their best interests, not in technology for the sake of technology.

More importantly, we have to begin looking toward the future (and I think this is what Berry is getting at in the above post).  How does an increased reliance on digital archives, digital textbooks, digital activities, etc. affect how students learn, know, and understand history?  Are new narratives being constructed?  How is the brain adapting to these changes?  What happens to the critical disposition of learners in a digital environment?  How does digital sociability affect the telling of stories and students’ perceptions of evidentiary reliability?  And, at the most basic level, how does reading a digital history text differ from an analog version of the same?  How does the brain change or adapt (if at all) to this new input?

I think I may have found a research topic, friends.

My Small Contribution to Digital Humanities

I just finished reading Stephen Ramsey‘s post “On Building,” and I began to think about how I plan to “build” in the field of history education.

First, blogging strikes me as a positive first step in building for the digital humanities.  If done regularly and well, it requires a rudimentary knowledge of backend administration (or at least the willingness to putz around to figure it out), and it teaches a person how code tags work.

Blogging: check.

Second, in the last four years, I have become increasingly fascinated with the statistical correlations between AP exam scores and other data.  A major study in Texas suggested that even a “failing” grade of a 2 on one AP exam correlates with a significant increase in college graduation rates.  I have used this study to highlight over and over again, to both students and parents (and even to other teachers and administrators), the work ethic that AP tends to foster in students.  After hearing the results of this study for the first time (and because of National Board’s emphasis on student data collection and analysis), I began collecting data on all my AP students.  After three years, I began to notice statistically significant correlations between midterm multiple choice score and AP exam scores, and this allowed me to zero in on students in the “danger zone,” helping them with their shore up their knowledge of a certain historical period or practice a specific skill necessary to pass the AP exam.  I would like to continue this work (somehow) in my PhD program, and Ramsey’s post further confirms my notion that this should not be an outlier behavior amongst history educators.

Data mining: check.

Now, I just need to learn how to code…