GradeCraft turns college courses into video game experiences

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What if your college class could be a little more like a “choose your own adventure" book?

A professor at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor is working on it.

Barry Fishman, a professor of learning technologies in the schools of information and education, has created GradeCraft, which allows students to chart their own course through a class, picking from a variety of assignments and working toward individualized goals.


"It's a mindset change," Fishman, who co-developed the tool with Caitlin Holman, a doctoral student, told Fusion.

Students might have some mandatory assignments, but they also have options. One student can choose to do assignment A, another can pick assignment B. If students successfully complete an assignment, they can "unlock" another assignment the way a traditional video game unlocks levels.

"You may have a range of choices in a gameful course and that can feel a little bit scary at first," Fishman said in a university YouTube video about the system, "but once you get past that, you feel more empowered, more in control of what's going on and you know at many more steps how you're doing and what you need to do next in order to accomplish your goals."

Notice his use of the word gameful. Fishman doesn't like the term "gamify," preferring, instead, the phrase "gameful design."


"[Gamify] is a layer of glitz you slap on top of whatever system you're using that is meant to make things more fun," he told Fusion, adding that he thinks learning should be engaging, not necessarily fun.

Call it whatever you want, GradeCraft helps professors and students keep track of everything with a grade predictor, which lets students see how they're doing, how many points various assignments will yield, and what they need to do to succeed.


And if they "fail" an assignment, that's ok, too. They can do more to make up the points, the same way a video game allows players to go back and try again.

Traditional college instruction, Fishman said, sees failure as setback, and creates "very brittle learners."


"We were trying to design a system that incentivizes risk-taking," he added.

"I was used to coming into a class, being told what to do and following those rules," student Tessa Adzemovic said in the video. "Here you really have to take your own initiative."


That's exactly the point, say the professors using the tool. They argue that the work students do is better and that actual learning (as opposed to cramming) occurs when a student has choices.

Of course there have been challenges, Fishman acknowledged, noting that "changing how you teach is definitely a struggle." But the professors using the tool say they'll use it again, he said.


On Friday, the university announced that Fishman's team will receive nearly two million dollars to grow and scale the project. Right now, the tool is only available at the University of Michigan to about 2,000 students. The team plans to expand that to 20,000 students within the university and then, within the next year, make the service available to other colleges and even K-12 schools.

More schools seem to be embracing video gaming as a serious sport and learning tool.


This year, Robert Morris University in Illinois became the first school to offer athletic scholarships to students who excel at playing "League of Legends," a science fiction battle game that asks competing teams to destroy the other team's power base.  The University of Pikeville, a private school in Kentucky, followed suit in January.

Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.