Gaming | September 2012 Digital Edition

World of Warcraft Invades Language Arts Class

Schools across the country are mapping their curriculum to the fantasy RPG World of Warcraft, proving that students can learn a surprising amount from dwarves, elves, and orcs.

This article, with an exclusive video interview, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's September 2012 digital edition.

When the final bell of the day rings at 2:35 p.m. at Suffern Middle School, Peggy Sheehy takes off her hat as instructional technology facilitator for the Ramapo Central School District and becomes the World of Warcraft (WoW) director for the Suffern, NY, institution. As she wraps up the school day in her glassed-in office, Sheehy watches students file into the library and seat themselves in front of computers. Sheehy (the "lorekeeper") manually logs them into the online game, where players take on roles of heroic fantasy characters in a mystery world.

"Okay, heroes, where are we today? What are we working on?" Sheehy asks the group of middle and high school students (who "come back" to middle school) participating in the after-school WoW club. While they're completing quests and interacting with players around the world, the students are plugged in at a deeper level, learning from a special curriculum, which blends the game with common core standards and focuses on, but is not limited to, language arts development.

"We realized that students were spending hours on end playing video games, but we couldn't get them to do 15 minutes on their English homework," says Sheehy. "We started making connections between virtual gaming and classroom instruction." Already experimenting with the use of avatars to help shy students participate in class and to help develop new classroom leaders, Sheehy was part of the founding group that formed the Cognitive Dissonance WoW guild (an alliance formed within the game itself) in 2007 to further explore the game-education relationship. She says WoW was selected solely because of its wide popularity among students.

It didn't take Sheehy long to pick up on WoW's hidden curriculum, which included learning folklore through literature, vocabulary building, and socialization and digital literacy skills. Collaborating remotely with Lucas Gillispie and teacher Craig Lawson at Pender County Schools in Burgaw, NC, on the World of Warcraft in School Project, Sheehy set out to demonstrate the value of commercial, off-the-shelf games for curricular integration.

Within WoW, players choose characters (like dwarves, elves, and orcs) and take on the role of heroes as they fulfill quests, form guilds with other players, earn points, battle enemies, and make their way through what seems like the never-ending world of Azeroth, the imaginary world in the WoW universe. Much of the game centers around quests, or tasks that challenge players to explore new locations, find hidden items, or attack characters controlled by the game, and rewards them with experience or in-game money upon completion.

Sheehy and Gillispie interact directly with a four-school student guild in the game, representing only a tiny fraction of WoW's roughly 10 million players, but Sheehy says that other schools have taken the curriculum--freely available online under a Creative Commons license--and adapted it for their particular environments.

One recent WoW project in the curriculum found students using the game as a basis for their English class work and reading assignments for The Hobbit. Students read the book on their own time, and then look for parallels between hero Bilbo Baggins and their own WoW characters. Sheehy also has students write short stories based on their characters to explore topics like empathy and failure.

"This allows them to get engaged with the character and the book, learn vocabulary, and relate the experience to their own lives," says Sheehy, whose class will read Beowolf next and use a similar WoW exercise for learning. "It brings the language arts to life for kids who aren't always ready or willing to read a book."

Sheehy says the game's design lends itself to use across multiple middle and high school subject areas. "The more engaged I became with the game and its design myself," says Sheehy, "the more I knew that I wanted to wrap it around my curriculum and get my students using it."

A Quest of Their Own
At Pender County Schools, instructional technology coordinator Gillispie teaches an elective WoW class for eighth-grade students. Initially developed using Moodle's open-source software, the game-based class relies on Boise State University's 3D GameLab platform (see sidebar). Gillispie also maintains a WoWinSchool wiki for teachers, students, and parents.

In the Lab

The World of Warcraft (WoW) platform that Peggy Sheehy and Lucas Gillispie use to help manage their educational programs was developed by the educational technology department at Boise State University in Idaho, which is just now wrapping up its beta testing phase. Used for creating quest-based games and known as 3D GameLab, it's an online platform for educators who want to engage in and design quest-based learning that's tied to curriculum standards.

According to Boise State's website, 3D GameLab is the first meta-game platform to help teachers turn their classrooms into living games. Gillispie says the platform's developers contacted him a couple of years ago after hearing about his work with WoW in K-12 schools. 

"They said, 'Hey, we think we may have something you might be interested in,'" Gillispie recalls. "I took a brief tour of the 3D GameLab and I was completely floored. It was exactly what we were trying to develop."

What motivated Gillispie to use 3D GameLab as the platform for his WoW class was the ability to accrue experience points and attain new gaming levels, badges, and achievements. Having successfully completed its closed beta testing phase, the platform is expected to move into open testing within the next few months.

"Once this free resource (so far, Boise State hasn't charged for its use) is opened up to the public, it's going to open up a lot of opportunities to schools to use gaming in the classroom," says Gillispie. "It's going to be awesome."

Like Sheehy, he started the venture as an after-school club four years ago, but has since integrated WoW into the school's language arts schedule. Lesson content is broken down into small, digestible chunks called "quests" that correlate with the class curriculum. Gillispie calls this "gamifying the curriculum," and says students receive experience points and badges for their achievements.

"Gamification is fast becoming the buzzword in education," says Sheehy, who cites Karl M. Kapp's book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-Based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education, as a resource for teachers looking to learn more about the hot topic. "In my view we are not only striving for engagement, but also for purposeful play." WoWinSchool, for example, goes beyond just play and provides a place where students are co-learning with teachers, where students have mentoring opportunities (both giving and receiving), peer leadership, and autonomy in their learning paths.

One quest, for example, instructs students to use the internet to read the mission statements of several large corporations. Students analyze the statements and then apply that knowledge to develop mission statements for their individual player guilds in WoW. Students include information about why the guild exists, its purpose, and its key goals. "This is just one very simple and effective way to tie WoW back into the curriculum," says Gillispie, "and to engage students in a way that goes beyond simply writing out sample mission statements."

Gillispie also uses WoW to teach students how to write riddle poetry. Again, students do preliminary research online to find examples of such poems, and then write their own based on the mythos of the WoW universe. "They use the characters and settings in the game world to come up with their own riddle poetry examples," says Gillispie. To make the assignment more interesting, a follow-up quest finds students visiting "crowded" areas of the game and challenging other players to decipher the riddles.

"Students recite their poetry to a virtual, public audience to see if anyone can guess the answers," Gillispie explains. Winners receive a small reward for their efforts, and the students who wrote the poetry complete a follow-up, reflective writing assignment summarizing the experience and what they learned from it. Gillispie hasn't done any formal measurements to compare "pre-WoW" and "post-WoW" performance, but says elective participants--all of whom also take traditional language arts classes--have shown growth on periodic, formative assessments.

"They're all showing growth and improvement in writing, vocabulary, and sentence structure," says Gillispie, "and taking their experiences with the game right into their regular language arts classes, where they now have more interesting and relevant things to talk and write about."

Sheehy, whose after-school WoW club participants range from special needs to gifted students, says feedback from teachers, parents, and students has been positive since she launched the initiative. Due to limited funding for the WoW club--which is not free to use--she selected students who would benefit most from participation. She says the benefits go beyond the language arts and vocabulary skills that students take away from the virtual gaming experience. "They're also learning social, leadership, and empathy skills," says Sheehy, "all of which are very difficult to teach in a traditional classroom setting."

The concept of failure is an especially relevant topic that teachers can expound on with WoW. "Failure is simply part of the process and part of the cycle of learning in this game," says Sheehy, who points out that students who earn a failing grade in a traditional classroom have to take it again the following year or over the summer. Not so with WoW. "In games there is a continual cycle of challenge, attempt, fails, and retries until you are successful. The kids get this."

More Gamification Ahead
As she looks around at the K-12 educational world and at the teachers who are experimenting with gaming in the classroom, Sheehy fears that the whole movement will be impacted by poor implementation and planning. "I'm afraid that gamification will become trendy, and that teachers are just going to try to slap leaderboards and points together with tired, old curriculums," says Sheehy. "It won't work. There's a lot more to this than just badges and achievements."

Gillispie concurs, and says that for gaming to truly make its mark in the K-12 classroom it must go beyond the typical "linear approach to instruction." To achieve that goal, Gillispie says educators "should first examine the cognitive processes and decision-making that take place during the gaming experience, and strive to incorporate that experience into the curriculum."

Editor's note: This article has been modified since its original publication to correct a factual error. The September 2012 Digital Edition states that Lucas Gillispie is a teacher at Pender County Schools. He is instructional technology coordinator. Craig Lawson taught the class. [Last updated October, 2012] --Stephen Noonoo