“Judge & Justify” Games for the University Classroom

On Monday, October 22, 2018, Anthropology professor Krista Harper and I hosted a gathering of University of Massachusetts Amherst instructors: Game-Based Learning Community of Practice: Make a Game for your Class.

The session was built on the premise that games emerging out of the loose heritage of the popular card game Apples to Apples (we chose to label this category of games “Judge & Justify”) had many features that could be adapted into productive and engaging in-class learning activities.

Session Outline

  • The participants played a few hands of Cards Against Anthropology, a game about assessing appropriate (or wildly inappropriate) responses to issues that can arise in anthropological fieldwork.
  • Krista and I presented on the heritage of Judge & Justify games, the affordances & constraints of this family of games, and ways to assess students who engage with games like this. See our presentation (pdf).
  • Participants split into 5 groups of 2-4 and spent about 30 minutes developing game prototypes based on their own instructional goals. See the game design handout we provided (pdf).
  • The groups presented their game prototypes, along with the game materials (card examples, rules text, etc.) that they had produced.

Session Outcomes

  • The 14 participants, split into 5 groups, produced 5 solid game prototypes: sample game components, assessment plans, and all.
  • In the anonymous evaluations filled out by participants, all expressed that they were “extremely satisfied” with the experience.

The Games and their Instructional Goals

  • Assessing symptoms and patient history to diagnose conditions.
  • Deciding on appropriate behaviors in the context of service learning and cross-cultural group communication.
  • Curing “monstrous” varieties of cancer.
  • Improving student critiques of their peers’ animation work.
  • Examining modern artifacts and well-known heritage sites through an “objective” descriptive lens.

What’s Next and What Could Be Improved?

  • There is an opportunity for a longer-form (half-day?) game design workshop focused on helping instructors build out near-complete game designs for their classes.
  • We briefly discussed how Judge & Justify game activities like this could be adapted for online and remote learning spaces, but I felt like I gave it short shrift.
  • We could have given more explicit prompts for what participants could do next after the workshop ended: offers for individual consultations, future events, etc.

Session Materials

If you have trouble accessing these documents, email me at sam dot anderson at umass dot edu.

Thoughts on “Making Digital Learning Work”

A new report called “Making Digital Learning Work” (authored by Arizona University and the Boston Consulting Group) summarizes case studies on “digital learning” efforts taking place at Arizona State University, Georgia State University, Houston Community College, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, Rio Salado Community College, and the University of Central Florida.

Higher Ed futurist and commentator Bryan Alexander had a good take on the report. If you don’t have time to read the whole report(or just the executive summary), Bryan’s piece is more informative than what follows from me, and I’ll not duplicate his expert read, which I largely agree with.

I have 2 of my own responses:

The meanings and definitions of words and concepts in the report shift around in ways I find pretty questionable.

There’s a lot of good and potentially information here, but unfortunately, much of the information is obscured by the inconsistent use of various terms and names. The same term can be variously used to describe a student, a software product, an academic program, an individual course, or a major institutional initiative. Now, part of this confused verbiage comes from this report being comprised of case studies of 6 different schools, most of which have multiple initiatives going on at once.

Unfortunately, I’m also concerned that this confusion is being fostered deliberately in order to make positive findings about specific applications or contexts seem more all-encompassing or broader in impact.

For example: In almost every part of the report, the term mixed-modality is used to refer to an individual course that offers a mix of online and face-to-face elements. Then, midway through the report, under the heading “Mixed-modality learners experienced improved retention and graduation rates.” studies showing that students who take a mix of fully online and in-person classes sometimes do better than students taking only in-person classes are discussed.  Findings like these “further reinforces the value of mixed-modality models.” In this subtle drift of the usage of the term mixed-modality from “course” to “learner,” the positive messaging around a specific usage is seemingly rhetorically stretched to all usages.

Conversely, I noted instances where positive results from large-scale or holistic initiatives are used to bolster more limited (but similarly-named) applications. I noticed this particularly around the term “adaptive,” where the successes of large-scale course and curricular re-designs (referred to as “adaptive courses”) that incorporated adaptive courseware as well as major learning space and enrollment changes were used almost-but-not-quite interchangeably with discussions of the courseware specifically.

The report views the harvesting and exploitation of student data as a near-universal good.

There’s obviously much that can be gained by exploring the data that students produce; but in a post-Cambridge Analytica world, we can’t pretend that this is a morally neutral act anymore.

I’m moved to contrast this report with a recent Chronicle of Higher Ed piece by Chris Gilliard, a professor of English at Macomb Community College: How Ed Tech Is Exploiting Students. I found Gilliard’s whole piece very convincing, and the final lines particularly powerful: “When we draft students into education technologies and enlist their labor without their consent or even their ability to choose, we enact a pedagogy of extraction and exploitation. It’s time to stop.”

How Does Media Literacy Backfire? (and What That Question Misses)

danah boyd of Microsoft Research (author of It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens), recently gave a talk at the big tech/media/culture conference SXSW called “What Hath We Wrought?” (46 min, 14 min of Q&A) that’s been getting a lot of notice in among scholars of the intersections of media, tech, and education.

boyd shares their concerns about “weaponized critical thinking” and how the trappings and surface-level takes on the concepts of media literacy can have harmful effects, both intended and unintended, for how young people interpret the media narratives they receive,  and how educators ask them to question those narratives:

I found this talk to be a useful review of the recent media landscape, how it is being exploited and (mis)interpreted, and some of the motives people have for that exploitation. Stay or skip to the end (about minute 54) for a fascinating history lesson about the origins of Twitter!

boyd’s talk isn’t the complete picture. Since this talk, there have been a number of responses and critiques:

Renee Hobbs of the Media Education Lab (affiliated with the University of Rhode Island) shared their concerns that boyd was oversimplifying and misunderstanding the actual work of media and information literacy in their response, Freedom to Choose: An Existential Crisis.

Benjamin Doxtdator, a writer on education and society, argues for a deeper look at how the existing power structures of society and state, and the major tech platforms like Google and Facebook (not to mention Microsoft, the company boyd works for) may play a far greater role in creating a rich medium for misinformation than individual bad actors or poorly understood pedagogy in No, ‘cognitive strengthening exercises’ aren’t the answer to media literacy

Maha Bali, a professor at the American University at Cairo, responds to all 3 of the above. In all honesty, if you don’t have time to engage with boyd’s talk or Hobbs’ and Doxtdator’s responses, this is the article to read to get up to speed, since it both serves as effective summation and a reflection on how many of these responses, and any overall solution, must incorporate the interpersonal, the attitudinal, and engagement with the core structural issues of injustice & oppression. Bali is encouraging us, I think, to not miss the forest for the trees, in Too Critical, Not Critical Enough


Domains 2017

In an attempt to give an exhaustive account of my experiences at Domains 2017 (June 5-6, 2017), I fear I have very early exhausted myself. The conference was such a remarkable and singular experience for me that I felt the need to honor it with as thorough a documentation and compilation as I could. That effort almost resulted in this post never being completely finished or published, so I have decided to let it go and simply post it.

What follows are an accounting of compiled notes and memories from the presentations, projects, and discussions I experienced in roughly chronological order.

Where possible, I use the heading for each of the following to link to the presentation materials, tool, or topic concerned.

Odds and Ends

Rather than drop these scattered notions to the bottom, I place them here because I want to remember them in particular.

  • A growth and empowerment-focused lesson plan for teaching the web:
    • 1st assignment: highly structured, step-by-step, copy and paste “about me” page.
    • Final assignment: blank slate expressive “about me” page to replace the former.
  • Appeal to students (originally from Seth Godin?): “Google your own name. Are you happy with what you find there?”
  • Pushing course blogs to the front page of a Domains site helps attract more courses. Spotlight students to attract other students. If an institution’s Domains front page just looks weird, clunky, and silent, there won’t be nearly as much realized potential.
  • A particularly good FAQ for a Domains site: http://create.ou.edu/faq/
  • Consider partnering with Civic Engagement and Service Learning: http://cesl.umass.edu/


Tim Clarke, Muhlenberg

A little web server on a hyper-local WiFi drive. Some fascinating potential for contexts like:

  • Field schools and other “remote” scholarly work.
  • Threatened communities.
  • Art installations.
  • Work with undocumented persons.
librarybox componants
I believe that I connected to the device on the uppermost left side of the table.
librarybox screencap
My phone connected to Tim Clarke’s LibraryBox.








Adam Croom has done a more recent write-up (The Offline Web) on his thoughts and experiences around LibraryBox/PirateBox.

OU’s Webfest

Keegan Long-Wheeler, OU

Oklahoma U’s faculty development series on the web. Faculty are encouraged to “visualize what you know about the web” right at start and again at the end, and mindfully compare their two views. The facilitators started with the ground-floor, concrete level bits and pieces of the web: files, servers, FTP. The aim seemed to have been pure demystification, letting faculty touch and see the “real stuff” that made up the web.


Martha Burtis, Director of the Digital Knowledge Center at the University of Mary Washington

Emphasis mine: “The building of sites is absolutely the core activity of Domain of One’s Own. When the project first started one of the things I would frequently say when talking to students about the web was that I wanted them to realize that the web was not something that happened to them but they were happening to. And I still believe this is an important message for our students to hear to and understand.”

Please read it. The other specific thought that occurred to me: Breaking something can make you realize you had power over it, and fixing it can show you that you can control that power. The trick is how to shape an environment where folks can come to those two realizations.

Reclaiming the Web as a Democratic Project: Domain of One’s Own as Transformational Resistance

Lora Taub, Associate Dean of Digital Learning at Muhlenberg

We should build a student advisory board for UMass Create! We need student voices, and we need to bring students together. Something like Muhlenberg’s Domains and Donuts (see below): A specific, bounded time for Domains users to get together to work and support each other.

An Annotation-Powered User-Innovation Toolkit For Educational Technologists

Jon Udell of hypothes.is

Much of the important elements of this presentation are covered in the linked post, but I never pass up an opportunity to highlight one of the projects mentioned: the Digital Polarization Initiative.

Just a Community Organizer: Visualizing Community for Domain of One’s Own

Marie Selvanadin (Georgetown), Tom Woodward (VCU), Yianna Vovides (Georgetown)

Georgetown Domains currently hosts ~700 sites, ~65% of which are students. Yianna Vovides‘s take on how the focus of the domains project has changed for them: “We started with faculty and realized our primary audience was students.”

They went to departments already using portfolios or with interest thereof. They got the director of Gen Ed and the dean the College of Liberal Arts on board. They first cohort included four first year experience classes and four 400 level courses. They held workshops for the faculty cohort the semester before and met before the semester started.

They curate and spotlight sites (student site, course sitefaculty blog) on their domains site home page. They noted that they ask permission before they spotlight someone’s domain!

Tom Woodward of VCU also presented some clever and (relatively) simple ways to scrape and display usage across WordPress sites installed on a domains instance, capturing screenshots of the site home pages. He also showed a method for pulling out a timeline of posts. In response to a concern I raised about how that usage data, once collected, could be used against users, the presenters responded (in what I hope is a reasonable paraphrase): The more ways to look at something, the more facets reveal themselves, and the more developed and productive discussion to be had about usage.

We Are Not DoOOMed! Strategies for Centering Assistantship in a Domains of One’s Own Community

(This was a two-part session, and I unfortunately missed most of part 2.)

Jenna Azar (Muhlenberg) & Jarrett Azar (Muhlenberg). Jenna runs the Digital Learning Assistants (DLA) program, an undergraduate student-staffed, student and faculty-serving support service focused on domains. Jarrett is a Class of 2020 student and a DLA (yes, they are parent and child, which is great!).

Dorm and a Domain

The DLA program unofficially started with a  “Learning in the Digital Age” first-year pre-orientation cohort: the option to move in 3 days early, to get a “Dorm and a Domain.” 

The pre-orientation was and exploration of tools and apps, framed by conversations about being a learner and citizen in a digital age. This ranged from using a local Snapchat filter to advertise a dance party to readings of Freire, Vygotsky, & hooks.

While they hoped this pre-orientation cohort would produce Digital Learning Assistants, they didn’t make it a requirement.

In fact, it sounds a lot like UMass Amherst’s Innovate@ Symposia, except for incoming undergrads rather than instructors. That said, here’s Muhlenberg’s Domain of One’s Own Faculty Learning Community

Digital Learning Assistants

Each DLA can choose to focus on 1 of 4 areas (based on my imperfect notes): mapping, publishing, storytelling, archives. There were 8 DLAs in the first year of the program, offering open hours in Spring 2017 after more focused spin-up in Fall 2016. These open hours operate a lot like UMass Amherst’s Instructional Media Lab, in that they are helping students and faculty teach themselves, not going in and solving problems themselves.

Domains and Donuts

Every other Friday, the DLAs came together to do domains work, with a healthy supply of donuts on hand. This was open to faculty doing domains work, too. It wasn’t exactly a drop-in support and service space, more of a drop-in community support space. In other words: “I’m going to install this thing on my domain and I’m pretty sure I’m going to break it, so I came here to have folks to talk about it with.” I like a lot of things about this model. It emphasizes peer support, it’s a specific community time and destination rather than a nebulous office, and it has donuts! We’re doing some similar stuff at UMass IT Instructional Innovation with our Techspresso Retreats, but I think we could consider the benefits of the specific topical focus and the peer/community support concept of Domains and Donuts.

Finally, a quote to remember from Jarrett: “You learn who you are by what you decide to share.”

Small Steps Go a Long Way: Designing Learning Tools with WordPress

Tanya Dorey-Elias, Alan Levine. Thompson Rivers U

“All these tools have got to be about giving people back control.”

Tanya Dorey-Elias started by noting that we were on unceded native (or aboriginal, in .ca terms) land. I’ve increasingly seen this practice in conference panels and other framing of North American spaces, and I appreciate it every time. My own lack of confidence in bringing that up in similar contexts just indicates a lack of research on my part about the land I’m on at any given time.

Tanya started with an amazing exercise and framing metaphor about boots, the context in which they are used, and how this connects to other technologies. Happily, she wrote this up and frames this much more powerfully than I could.

Alan Levine highlighted some SPLOTs: “SPLOTs are the demented spawn of a shotgun marriage, between the drive to simplify open web expression and the refusal to require participant data.” He specifically showed off Tru Writer

For this online writing tool, no account or name needed. Just go in and use it. The default “ID” is Anonymous. Part of the purpose of tools like this is due to (as I understand it) much more restrictive/protective Canadian laws around how personal information can be collected and stored, but also to challenge the narrative that trackable online identities are always appropriate. For example, making a space for sharing stories not usually told about experiences with abuse: http://whenineededhelp.com/

‘Just Make it Work!’ Workflows & Tools to Make You Look (Mostly) Competent When You’re One Person Supporting 22,000 WordPress Sites

Tom Woodward, Virginia Commonwealth University

This presentation was about the trevails of running a huge multisite WordPress site similar to blogs.umass.edu. Tom’s excellent presentation is linked in the title, so I’ll pull out my big takeaway: The blogs.umass.edu multisite and UMass Create web domains should be mutually-supporting tools for our population. We shouldn’t ignore one for the other, but should highlight the difference in affordances and constraints.

Automating Analytics for Your Domains Project

Peter Senz,  Brigham Young University

BYU Domains has 5800 users, which is the largest current DoOO instance with Reclaim Hosting.  BYU started their pilot in 2015. By end of the year they had 1000+ sies. Started with “techie” groups. They went “live” as a full service in Jan 2016. Peter shared that his CIO is a little disappointed in the “5800 sites” figure; he wants 10,000! The majority of use is from students (about 65%).

The usage isn’t as centered around classes, but mostly around individual users. For example, at least 30 of the sites are students selling their photography.

How do they de-provision accounts?
  1. Check for Active User (“eligible to register” student or employed faculty/staff) in the general IT information system.
  2. If they aren’t active, show a notice on the site dashboard (cPanel).  warning with a link to their site migrations page, as well as the RH individual hosting purchase form. Side note: RH is getting a burst of BYU folks transferring out of BYU to Individual Accounts.
  3. Send a monthly email for 6 months.
  4. After 6 months disable the account, 1 month later delete account.
How do they auto-provision accounts?

When a new user logs into the BYU domains page:

  1. The system checks if they’re an Active User (see above).
  2. If so, a WHMCS (domain) account and a WordPress account are auto-created.
  3. A welcome message is sent to them with an invitation to log in and choose a domain name (including support info).

No IT staff have to take action throughout this process, though they contracted an outside developer to build the above two processes.

Why so many users?

He mentioned a few potential factors:

  • The IT staff does lots of presenting to classes about digital identity and sovereignty every semester. Presentations aren’t focused on the technical, but more values-driven.
  • They publicly kick out the faculty member from the class when they present to students; make it clear that it’s “about students.” They make sure a given class presentation aligns with the syllabus, too.
  • Students are used to jumping between multiple online spaces for their scholarly work. Specifically, the Center for Teaching built and runs an LMS, and IT also supports Canvas and Moodle.
  • Finally, almost everyone uses their personal email rather than their BYU email to register or access services at BYU. The sense of the “one-stop-shop” or “walled garden” just isn’t there for most of the BYU population.

Beyond the LMS

Tim Klapdor, Charles Sturt University

TIm’s talk was more strategic and aspirational, framing the original purposes of the LMS, what it has become, and how a more distributed system, with individual learner domains as the nodes, could actually promote a more useful and enriching environment, especially for the kinds of “distributed, life-long learners” that make up an increasing amount of students.

A collection of other fine folks’ takes on Domains 2017:

Critiquing Domains 17

Domains 2017 #notaconference

Gleanings from the Fields of #Domains17

Thrill Ride

Inspiring More DoOO Power Users – A #Domains17 Perspective

#domains17 – MBFWL

..and finally, from Oklahoma U’s Adam Croom: Small is Beautiful. Metaphors and Other Musings from #Domains17

Sigh: “Historically black colleges must pay more to issue bonds than institutions of comparable financial strength, study finds.”

From Inside Higher Ed: The Cost of Being an HBCU

“The only factor that couldn’t be ruled out was the race associated with the colleges involved, Mayew said.

The typical investor for these bonds “is a rich white person,” he noted.”

Here’s the journal article itself.

Video: Deep Work with Cal Newport

I recently finished Deep Work (2016) by Cal Newport, a writer and computer science professor at Georgetown.

I read a lot of “productivity lit,” and while Deep Work definitely falls into that category, it offers a lot of practical framing for how individuals and organizations can structure their work environments to help produce better, more meaningful outcomes.

Where I gather (not having read it) that Carr’s The Shallows focuses more on “here’s how the social and technological environment we have created is making us produce distracted, surface-level, ultimately-automatable work,” Deep Work trends towards “… and here’s what you can do about it.”

I recommend reading the book if you’re interested, but this 30 minute interview with Newport (embedded below) hits most of the high notes; the interviewer is engaged and knowledgeable, and they both share a number of specific practices and stories about how the topic relates to their work.

Here’s the audio version via iTunes.

Newport also writes a fine blog, Study Hacks, which goes into detail on specific tactics for deep work and related topics.

Visiting with Game Designers in Budapest

Virtual class session with CEU

I (virtually) visited a Political Ecology and Environmental Justice graduate class in Budapest to help them with their game design projects a few weeks back. I thought it was a great session, and I hope the students got useful feedback from me and my co-panelists.

My full write-up and recording of the visit are on my department’s site: Designing Games for Political Ecology and Environmental Justice

A few personal notes:

The best/worst part about visiting a class in Budapest from Massachusetts:

  • We thought we had figured out the time zone scheduling, but were nearly undone by only realizing at the last minute that the daylight saving switch happens weeks apart for our two countries.

What I could have done better:

  • Tell the students up front how hard I find it to present creative work for critique, and that I would have been considerably more anxious in their shoes.
  • Used less design jargon.
  • Couched my suggestions in less declarative terms.

“Collaborative Overload”: Professional Team Performance Through a Management Lens

From the Jan/Feb 2016 Harvard Business Review: Collaborative Overload.

Emphasis mine:

“Research we’ve done across more than 300 organizations shows that the distribution of collaborative work is often extremely lopsided. In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees…As a recent study led by Ning Li, of the University of Iowa, shows, a single “extra miler”—an employee who frequently contributes beyond the scope of his or her role—can drive team performance more than all the other members combined.

“But…[w]e find that what starts as a virtuous cycle soon turns vicious. Soon helpful employees become institutional bottlenecks: Work doesn’t progress until they’ve weighed in. Worse, they are so overtaxed that they’re no longer personally effective…In our quest to reap the rewards of collaboration, we have inadvertently created open markets for it without recognizing the costs. What can leaders do to manage these demands more effectively?”

(I should stress in the extreme that I don’t put myself in this category; this isn’t a “woe is me” post. I do feel that I recognize this happening to numerous colleagues.)

The article suggests several solutions, like detailed time and communications tracking, surveys and feedback, and other data-gathering, followed by instituting processes, technologies, and even physical space changes to support the changes the interpretation of the data suggests.

Also, from a sidebar on inequities around the expectations and views of women’s collaborative work:

“In an experiment led by the NYU psychologist Madeline Heilman, a man who stayed late to help colleagues earned 14% higher ratings than a woman who did the same. When neither helped, the woman was rated 12% lower than the man. By improving systems for measuring, recognizing, and rewarding collaborative contributions, leaders can shift the focus away from the gender of the employee and toward the value added.”

I’m not sure exactly how the system vaguely described here could help reduce systemic implicit bias, but it would likely be better than the “impressions” suggested by the colleague ratings above.

Qualification 1: I work in higher ed, and most, if not, all of the research mentioned here seems to have been focused on private industry. Different environments, different interests, different temperaments. I would suggest that the pressures on these organization are increasingly similar, however.

Qualification 2: At least some of these authors admit that they help organizations develop solutions to these problems, so it’s in their interests to portray these challenges in ways that they can “solve.” That said, I didn’t see anything in the article that suggests they are arguing in bad faith.

“Do Black Students Benefit as Grad Rates Increase?” (Often: No)

From the new report: Rising Tide II: Do Black Students Benefit as Grad Rates Increase?

Emphasis mine:

[Andrew Nichols]: Our data show that almost 70 percent of the schools we studied increased graduation rates for black students from 2003-2013. However, those gains lagged behind those of white students, so more than half of institutions (53 percent) failed to narrow the completion gap between black and white students.

Worse still, almost a third of the schools (73 schools) saw graduation rates for black students either decrease or stay the same. And an alarming number of institutions, 39, experienced both declining graduation rates for black students along with widening gaps.

Fortunately, our data was not all doom and gloom. Fifty-two institutions that raised overall grad rates stood out for also substantially improving black student success. These institutions increased the graduation rate for black students by at least 9 percentage points, which is twice the average increase for all institutions in our sample. They also reduced the graduation rate gap.

These institutions prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that what institutions do — or don’t do — matters a great deal. And most important, they provide real-life examples of what other institutions can do.

10 Tips for Building a Student Blog Network

From Laura Gibb’s Anatomy of an Online Course: 10 Tips for Building a Student Blog Network, this is a great mix of logistical streamlining and helping students achieve ownership.The great part about learning and teaching how to use blogs is how transferable the knowledge is; this isn’t like learning how to navigate a piece of proprietary ed-tech, the relevance of which will likely vanish as soon as the class is done (if not before).

The great part about learning and teaching how to use blogs is how transferable the knowledge is; this isn’t like learning how to navigate a piece of proprietary ed-tech, the relevance of which will likely vanish as soon as the class is done (if not before).

That’s why I particularly love the first two tips: Start students blogging right away, and Encourage students to customize their blogs. This foregrounds the notion that the students’ blogs relevance extends beyond individual assignments into tools students can use to construct and express their online identities beyond the in-class experience.