Up Up and Away: How Superheroes Can Save Online Discussions

by David Noffs and Jacob Guerra-Martinez

Back to Krypton…

In the late summer of 2017, Jacob Guerra-Martinez a Learning Designer and game-design researcher in Northwestern University’s School of Professional Studies, pitched an audacious plan to a part-time faculty member in the School of Professional Studies. He wanted to gamify a discussion board so that graduate students could choose between being heroes or villains while debating and supporting opposing views. His mission was to save students from mundane discussions, and he called this idea Discussion Hero.

The previous year, I had developed a course on Learning Environment Design for graduate students in the field of Information, Design and Strategy. I had learned of Jacob’s work during the six-month long development process and had cited his research in my course during a discussion on gamification. We joined forces applying for and receiving an Educational Technology Teaching Fellowship (ETTF)  that allowed us to do further research on gamification of online courses and, in particular, online graduate courses.

During our ETTF, we met regularly to discuss goals and findings, and conducted surveys and interviews with learning designers and faculty exploring current trends in online gamification. We presented our work at the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) conference held in New Orleans in April of 2017.

We discovered that, while there had been many innovations in the area of online teaching, many teachers still struggled to find ways to get their students excited about participating in discussion boards, particularly in graduate and adult education. Some courses did this very well by utilizing a combination of rubrics, open ended questions, and furthering the conversation. However, even when all of these techniques were implemented, some faculty members found it challenging to get their students to post high quality responses to the topics presented. In addition, students were increasingly bored by the same, “post once, reply twice” format used almost universally by online instructors.   

Gamification is a strategy that many teachers are finding useful when it comes to student engagement, yet while many good ideas exist for assignments and overall participation in the course, there appear to be a lack of options in graduate and continuing education programs for those who wish to simply gamify their discussion forums. That is where Discussion Hero comes in.

Growing up in Smallville

When Jacob contacted me in the late summer of 2017, he told me he would like to develop a gamified discussion board called Discussion Hero. His idea was to turn discussion boards into debating boards and, as a result, encourage diverse points of view, questioning, challenging, and respectful debate through the use of hero and villain avatars. Discussion Hero would combine the traditional awarding of points with a gamified progress meter allowing students to visually see how they are performing on their discussion posts and competing to reach higher status on the discussion leaderboard.

Jacob had created an Excel spreadsheet to demonstrate his idea to me and we quickly set about proposing a Discussion Hero project to Northwestern University’s Provost’s office as a possible Digital Teaching Fellowship. We put together a proposal to develop an automated version of Discussion Hero for Canvas that would take a little more than a year to design, test, develop, and evaluate. In November of 2017, we learned that our efforts were successful and we were awarded a coveted Provost’s Digital Learning Fellowship.

How Discussion Hero works

The Discussion Hero activity begins with a teacher choosing a discussion topic or topics where Discussion Hero will be used. Students then choose their own avatar and role from lists made available in an avatar and role questionnaire (at the moment, simply a modified Canvas survey). There are currently only two roles students can choose between; Hero or Villain.

Next, students go ahead and join the discussion on whatever the topic is and participate in the discussion board with their role in mind. They are encouraged to have fun and always be respectful of each other.

Heroes are scored via a Hero Rubric using a progress bar. Heroes state their position/s and provide support for that position and other defenders of their position. Heroes start out as Bystanders, which is the first level, then earn points in order to upgrade their status to Sidekicks (think Robin of Batman and Robin) and finally, Superheroes. The more closely you adhere to the rubric, the faster you will attain Superhero status.

Heroes cannot exist without Villains. Villains are scored via a Villain Rubric also using a progress bar. They are the adversaries who challenge our heroes, making them stronger with each and every confrontation. Villains play a very necessary role in creating rich and dynamic discussions. The villain may take a controversial position on a topic or just a different perspective. Villains may be mischievous or just take on the “devil’s advocate” role as they debate the hero, questioning their assertions while providing counter information which they also need to support in some way. Villains start out as Bystanders, which is the first level, then earn points in order to upgrade their status to Minions and finally, Supervillains.

Welcome to Metropolis

Discussion Hero was piloted in my own course in the spring of 2018. It was used in a discussion during week seven of a ten week course. The results were extremely positive. Compared to the previous discussion, there was a 26% increase in participation, with many taking roles that were different from what they normally would assume, i.e.most students actually asked to take on villain roles. A survey was distributed to students at the end, with an overwhelmingly positive response. 67% of respondents claimed they were motivated to participate more than in a regular discussion, and over 90% of the class said they would like or be willing to use the activity in other courses. Many students stated that the role of the villain made them feel comfortable enough to state ideas they may have otherwise kept to themselves. One student stated that, “”In choosing a villain, I felt a bit more comfortable making pointed statements without seeming overly critical.” Still others said that they, “… enjoyed the low risk, competitive aspects.” Another commented that, “I loved the leaderboard, it was really inspiring and motivating for me!” And yet another student stated that, “I think the argumentative nature made the discussion posts more entertaining and interactive.”

Discussion Hero just finished another trial run this fall in a graduate course at Northwestern in communications. While the course is still running and data still being explored, the anecdotal evidence suggests students enjoy the chance to break out of their traditional academic personas and role play, taking different positions on topics. As one student said in the most recent cohort, “It’s time we upgrade those static discussion boards with living, breathing and encouraging (human) interaction.”

Despite the positives, however, challenges still lie ahead. One student refused to participate because it was not “adult” enough, and others bemoan the lack of instant gratification (it still takes manual updating of the leaderboard until programming is completed). Still others would like to see more flexibility in their roles. But despite these obstacles, Discussion Hero has come a long way in just over a year. Students and teachers will soon have a bona fide alternative to shake up those boring discussions here at Northwestern.



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