Massively successful multiplayer online games like League of Legends and Starcraft 2 have one thing in common: no, not ruined marriages with messy divorces, but avatars. Avatars, like those blue aliens in that ‘3D-glasses’ James Cameron movie, are character representations; they offer people the chance to jump into the shoes of someone else. Someone they want to be; somewhere they can escape to. They give people a Second Life. How can we use such avatars in an educational setting?
Here is one approach. Similar to the ‘name card’ system known the world over, students are handed a 2-sided index card in their first class of the semester. The index card is their classroom avatar; it shares interesting information, sets challenges and tracks their progress, just like a videogame avatar. Featured on the front side are: a picture, class name, current level, progress bar (attendance!), a short bio section, skills, challenges and masteries.
Picture: Artistic students may love it; others may hate it. Give students room to breathe over their pictures; it could be a simple self-portrait, a cool logo or The Blob. Creativity is rewarded in videogames so let’s start with the picture.
Class Name: Teachers in the English-teaching community are used to giving their students nicknames like Elvis, Frank and sometimes all four Beatles. A lot of teachers simply call their students by their real names. Just as in the virtual world, teachers can give students the choice to choose; if they want to use their real names, so be it, but let them be adventurous if a name like ‘Maximus Decimus Meridius’ comes up. Just call them Max.
Current level: If desired, students can be given levels to strive for. Rather than ‘level 1’, ‘level 2’ and ‘level 3’ teachers can get creative. ‘Ringo’, George’, ‘John & Paul’, perhaps.
Progress Bar: As well as keeping track on those oft-misplaced attendance sheets, teachers can help students keep on the attendance track themselves. Based on a 15-week course in the example, the progress bar can easily be modified for different course lengths.
Bio: The first class of the semester is all about breaking the ice. Why not ask students to write a short bio to share with their classmates? It could be real or imaginary, but engaging either way.
Skills: What are students good at? A videogame avatar highlights a player’s skills; students can jot down their own skills here. Playing guitar? Writing poems? Singing until the wee hours of the morning? Here’s the chance for them to express themselves.
Challenges: One important question to ask students at the beginning of a semester is, ‘what do you want to learn in this class?’ Teachers can use a classroom avatar to record a student’s goals for the semester. Sensible goals; not the invention of an invisibility cloak.
Masteries: Has a student attended 10 classes in a row without bursting into song about a late bus driver? Did students ignore those constant cell phone vibrations in their pockets and somehow manage to stay awake for the whole class period? How about homework; was it handed in on-time every time? Did a student jump fully into all group activities with the majestic abandon of an Austrian skydiver? If so, a teacher can reward those students with a ‘completed mastery’.
There’s two sides to every good story and that’s probably also true of a good classroom avatar. On the reverse side are: homework results, participation results, a field report (progress update), team history and an overview (final report).
Homework Win/Losses: Sliced into 15 separate slices (or number of homework assignments) for a 15-week class, students can color in a slice for a completed part of their homework pie. At the end of the semester the count can be totaled into wins and losses. Some you win, some you lose; students can hopefully win all of their homework battles with a visual incentive.
Participation Win/Losses: Some educational institutions have ‘participation’ as a required component of a student’s grade. If they sleep in every class they won’t be getting many slices of this pie. Even if a teacher’s place of teaching does not necessitate participation scores, it may offer students some incentive to fill up that pie chart.
Field Report: A short sentence on a tri-weekly basis to sum up the student’s progress. ‘Good job!’ may be enough, but a ‘Good job! Impressive homework’ would provide extra gravy and a sauce sense of achievement.
Team History: It is easy for teachers to lose track of which students have been paired or grouped before in previous classes. Watch that problem disappear now that students write down their ‘pair’ and ‘group’ history. Make it a part of the ‘Cooperation King’ mastery and students will want new people to work with as they chase that most elusive of classroom masteries.
Overview: A final report, or summary, of the student’s semester. It should be positive to build their confidence for the next semester (or final exam!). Like any well-constructed sandwich, pack it with lots of positive ingredients (feedback) to mask the taste of the stuff no one likes (criticism).