This article was originally posted on O’Reilly Radar on November 7, 2011

In a related post, I talked about what the notion of gamification as applied to education might mean on three levels. In particular, I described the lessons that might be learned by the field of education from the different types of gaming encountered in World of Warcraft and Minecraft — two very different online multiplayer games. In this post, I look at the technology roadmap that can support these three levels of application in real schools.

Level 1: Leveling up and questing

The first level is one where leveling, questing, and leaderboards can help motivate students to engage more with their schoolwork. Like a gamer who chooses his or her own path and pace to “level up,” a student will choose his or her own path and pace to learn a standard curriculum and be able to prove advancement to that next level through performance on tests.

The technology to be successful at this level exists today — the obstacle is cost, and the payoff is more students demonstrating success on state tests, closing the achievement gap. To work, this model calls for a mobile device with plenty of bandwidth for every student and software that lets the student level up at his or her own pace. The software can be an online course or something more sophisticated and engaging. The idea is that with software support to allow personalization for each student, teachers will have more time to spend with individual students and small groups to help them succeed with whatever unique challenges they are working on that day.

Despite the numerous challenges to achieve this level in reality, this is actually the easiest of the three levels.

First, this level is easy because objective standards of “better” exist — higher scores on standardized state tests. A school can try various online classes or drills, or adaptive software with its particular students, and standardized test scores will provide the data regarding what worked best for them.

Second, this level is easy because the technology infrastructure degrades gracefully — it still works even if students don’t have a device of their own. The first gains will come from just allowing students to work at their own pace on shared school computers. Since real schools are likely to have an uneven and years-long transition from the shared computer labs that most schools have today to ubiquitous computing environments, schools can make every penny count by creating an IT roadmap that supports self-paced leveling. In short, this will involve transitioning to cloud-based services as quickly as possible and increasing computer-to-student ratios and bandwidth as budgets allow.

Third, this level is easy because there are already processes in place for evolving the definition of “better.” For more than 40 states, current standards are being replaced by the Common Core Assessments developed through an initiative by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors’ Association. The Common Core Standards that are being developed to support these standards not only raise the bar for existing basic skills, but create assessments for higher-order thinking skills. By following their IT roadmaps, schools will be able to swap out current online tests for more sophisticated online tests over time, with no new technology architecture needed to participate in that continual improvement. If they have chosen cloud-based software that is easy to opt into and out of, they can experiment with new applications at will to see which ones best help their students perform on these increasingly sophisticated tests.

Level 2: Group collaboration

The second level is more like the World of Warcraft gameplay called “raiding” — group collaboration to achieve a shared goal. In Warcraft, that could involve downing a boss while in school it could be a collaboration on a book about local ecology. To the degree that work (or play) happens digitally, leaders (or teachers) can get rich insight into everyone’s contributions and participation.

This level is hard. First of all, there is no agreement on what these collaboration and communication skills should look like. Second, there are, consequently, no assessments for these skills available. Third, there is no software developed to interpret collaboration based on the digital tracks left by students working together online. Fourth, there are no standards for how to balance student privacy with such data collection.

For all these reasons, the full burden falls on the teacher to create shared goals for students; create collaboration environments; and observe, analyze, and measure their skills. Fortunately, the same technology architecture that supported the comparatively easy first level of personalizing learning (above), can support the teacher in these tasks. By using project management tools and shared authoring tools, such as Google Docs and wikis that generate histories as students edit their shared work, a teacher can get pretty good first-order information on the timeline and magnitude and quality of each student’s digital contributions. That’s a big improvement over trying to be everywhere at once to observe each group’s work.

Also, the same assessment groups that are working toward improved digital assessments for basic skills and higher-order thinking are also targeting 21st-century skills. If structured carefully, these digital assessments will also flow seamlessly into an IT roadmap for schools that is moving toward a ubiquitous computing environment.

Level 3: Play

The third level is less like traditional gamification and more about play. Rather than using Warcraft dynamics, it focuses on open-ended exploration — more like the game Minecraft. It already shows up in education through inquiry and the arts, and is more focused on developing questions than finding answers.

This is the expert level. This level confounds traditional approaches of measuring success — how do you measure the value of a question, or a journey, or artistic expression? If there are no outcomes that we know how to measure, then is the activity even a valid one for schools?

Still, teachers, critics and experts evaluate art all the time. Perhaps the artistic tradition of portfolios will serve the role of capturing open-ended student work that isn’t readily reduced to performance on a test. The student work itself, including student reflections on the journey of creating that work, may in its entirety be interpreted and understood by an audience of teachers, college admissions arbiters, employers, friends, family, experts and critics.

I’ve written previously about the notion of a student digital backpack wherein students and families own their data and which can include everything from test scores to rich digital portfolios. Although the need for standard privacy and data-sharing policies is as yet unmet, and the structure of such backpacks may not yet be fully conceived, the good news, once again, is that the technology degrades gracefully. An IT roadmap that includes cloud-based, student-controlled portfolios today will support a migration to systems that provide privacy management and evolving mechanisms for demonstrating achievements, performance, and student work in the future.

It is a fairly small technical shift, though a potentially significant conceptual leap, for schools to change from the current kinds of planning that tends to include lots of locally maintained servers and fixed computer labs to planning for mobile devices and cloud computing provided as a service to schools. Regardless of the hardware, software, and bandwidth a school currently has available, planning for this emergent infrastructure will provide critically needed flexibility over the next decade.

There are many examples that highlight this need, but the lens of gaming and gamification make a point that can be overlooked when discussing the use of technology in education: we learn best by doing, we learn best in authentic situations, we learn best socially, and we learn best playfully. These elements can be seen in the best classrooms, regardless of whether technology is involved — from gold stars for recognizing achievements, to students collaborating on a meaningful community project, to young people engaging in open-ended inquiry. The risk is that as we move to more digitally supported and mediated teaching and learning, these best traditions and practices might be lost. Thoughtful roadmapping of technology that supports both Warcraft-like and Minecraft-like student work can help keep these practices central.