How Blended Learning and Gamification Increase Student Engagement
Rob Schwartz, a teacher at a blended learning magnet school, shares how design missions validate "the individual over the content" and give students the freedom to fail.
A technology education teacher for nearly two decades, Rob Schwartz is in his first year at Sheridan Technical High School in Fort Lauderdale, FL, a blended-learning magnet school where he teaches an online technology course. In his previous position at Seminole Ridge High School in Palm Beach County, Schwartz created Brainbuffet, a classroom website, and oversaw students’ efforts to create a plugin to gamify the blogging platform WordPress. Now, students using WordPress can choose a screen name and an avatar and participate in digital design “missions.”
THE Journal: How does the online aspect of your school function?
Rob Schwartz: It’s an interesting format. The students attend the school, so they’re there physically, and it’s a 1-to-1 school so they all have their own laptops. But there are a couple of classes that they take that are delivered fully online, and I teach one of those. As they take my class they’re together in a classroom with a lab assistant. The idea is to help students become familiar with online learning. Our students graduate with both a high school degree and a two-year tech-centered degree from Sheridan Technical College.
THE Journal: What have you learned from this experience?
Schwartz: I love what technology does for us, but I’ve seen how critical it is to be in touch with the community that you’ve built at a school. I’m an online teacher, but I find myself going down there every couple of weeks to spend time with the kids, because I feel that it’s such a critical part of things. I used to believe that an online resource could replace a classroom, but now I’m beginning to think it only replaces the textbook. The classroom environment — especially if it’s a really collaborative, innovative, problem-solving focused environment — is so important. And it’s not impossible, but it’s much harder to create that culture online.
THE Journal: What can online teachers do to enhance student engagement?
Schwartz: I took a couple of online courses myself, and one thing I learned is not to just write things up and have the kids read; I’ll record a video. I trained in Adobe software (I’m an Adobe Education Leader) and I’ve created a lot of my own tutorials, because with the online classes I’ve taken, I can see when the professor is really excited about it, and that’s a lot more engaging for me. Nobody wants to engage with content; people want to engage with other people about content. When we learn, it’s a human experience. If we try to remove the humanity too much from it and turn it into just technology, we’re missing out on a really critical part of that experience of learning. My situation is different from a lot of online courses because the kids are there together in the classroom. So I’ll ask them to work with a partner, and have them bounce ideas off somebody and go through that whole problem-solving process — which to me is learning.
THE Journal: How did Brainbuffet evolve to its current gamified format, and what do you see as its value?
Schwartz: The first couple of years it was an absolute wreck — it would crash all the time — but this year we came out of the gate, everything worked, and it’s been incredible. You can require certain missions for the kids, then once they complete those, they might be presented with a choice in which they can focus more on, say, design. They’ll have a series of missions that will take them down that path and make them go deeper, but the student gets to choose the areas of emphasis. I think that’s the most important part of creating a successful classroom environment: letting kids have ownership of their own learning. I’m also a big believer in problem-solving. As educators often we’re so ready with the answers for the students that we don’t give them time to wrestle with the questions and bump into the answers themselves.
THE Journal: And technology is the conduit for that?
Schwartz: Yeah, and in the technology area I’ve gravitated more and more toward the design side because there isn’t a correct answer, which means there isn’t a wrong answer. It validates the individual over the content. When we’re emphasizing and validating content over people, I think that’s a huge mistake. With technology, and in particular technology related to design and problem-solving, we see it as a great thing when you fail because that means that you tried for something you couldn’t already do. In my class, it’s really hard to get an A if you haven’t failed. Innovation and failure are bedfellows. There’s no way to have one without the other.