Daniel Stanford

How a Spreadsheet Helped 90 Percent of My Students Earn a Pulitzer

If you think keeping traditional students motivated is a challenge, try getting experienced, brilliant college professors to do their homework with nothing but passion and positive reinforcement at your disposal. That’s where I’ve found myself for the last few years as the lead designer and facilitator of the DePaul Online Teaching Series.

On the one hand, I love that I don’t have to evaluate the DOTS participants. The program is designed to introduce faculty to new tools and techniques and get them inspired about what’s possible as they make the transition to online teaching. As a result, the atmosphere of every workshop meeting is positive and supportive. On the other hand, this means I have to get creative when it comes to assignment design and maximizing participation.

Just before our December 2012 cohort began, I was desperately seeking a simple way to give faculty a big-picture view of everything they could accomplish during DOTS. For years, we’d been giving faculty clear assignment instructions and checklists to help them stay on track, but we lacked a single place in the course where they could see all of the assignments at a glance. This left many faculty feeling unclear on just how DOTS was going to help them get a jump start on essential course-building tasks. The pieces were all there, but with no way to see how everything fit together and track their progress, the assignments felt disconnected and faculty weren’t particularly motivated to share their latest triumphs.

To solve this problem, I wanted to tap into two commonly used elements of game design that increase player motivation: progress indicators and competition. I’ve been a fan of applying game-design principles to education since my grad-school days, but figuring out how to make them work under tight deadlines has always been a challenge. In addition, I knew anything I used in DOTS needed to serve as an attainable model that our faculty could use themselves.

My initial fantasy was to create beautiful badges through Mozilla’s open-badge initiative, manually review every assignment each participant submitted, and then award badges and display them on some dedicated, private website that didn’t yet exist. I researched open badges, but realized quickly that it would take far more time than I could afford to invest, particularly for a new experiment that the DOTS participants might wholeheartedly reject.

So I went back to my essential requirements. I needed a way for each participant to see all of the assignments at a glance, view his or her progress, and stay motivated by seeing how that progress measured up against the rest of the class. And, ideally, I wanted the identity of each participant to remain confidential so that no one would feel humiliated for falling behind.

In the end, I decided I could accomplish all of these things with a simple online spreadsheet. You can see a noneditable copy of the final spreadsheet here.

I began by listing “code names” for all of the participants in the leftmost column. Because we had a large group of English faculty in our December cohort, I decided to use the names of famous authors. Then, across the top row, I created color-coded levels of achievement that also incorporated the literary theme. In each module, as participants completed new tasks, they were given the same set of instructions:

  • Open the spreadsheet.
  • Find their code name and locate the next empty cell in their row.
  • Select their latest achievement from the drop-down menu in each cell. (See Figure 1.)
  • Revel in their latest accomplishment and daydream about how they’ll spend their billions when they reach J.K. Rowling status.

Figure 1

Because I wasn’t sure if the participants would actually use the spreadsheet, they weren’t required to prove they’d done something before adding it to the spreadsheet. In the end, I was surprised to see how many of the participants regularly updated it and how many reached the highest levels. It was a pleasant surprise, to be sure, but I’m now considering how to up the ante for our next cohort. One option would be to require that faculty show off their work on a designated discussion board for all their peers to see before they can check off an item on the spreadsheet. This might reduce some of the anonymity of the code names, but it should provide an added incentive to encourage sharing and peer feedback—something I’ve always had trouble fostering in the past.

At first, I was a bit embarrassed that my candy-colored Google spreadsheet was such a far cry from the sophisticated digital badges and personalized achievement pages I had envisioned. When I mentioned this to a friend who works in software development, where a rapid cycle of feedback and revision is the norm, she said, “If you’re not embarrassed the first time you show something new to other people, you’re waiting too long to share it.” It’s a mantra that could easily be applied to any attempt at innovation in education. My little experiment exceeded expectations and even got some faculty thinking about how game principles can be applied in relatively simple ways to motivate learners without increasing instructor workload. It was an achievement that made me feel like I’d “leveled up” myself, although J.K. Rowling status remains, for the moment, just a distant, purple dream somewhere on the horizon.

Daniel Stanford

About Daniel Stanford

Daniel Stanford holds an MFA in Computer Art from the Savannah College of Art and Design with a concentration in Interactive Design and Game Development. Since 1998, his interest in interactive media and education has led him to take on a variety of professional roles—from website designer and graphic artist to teacher and online-course developer. His work as an instructional designer has received multiple awards from the Instructional Technology Council and he has been both a course reviewer and finalist in Blackboard’s Exemplary Course competitions. Daniel is currently Director of Faculty Development for Faculty Instructional Technology Services at DePaul University where he oversees multiple faculty-development initiatives, including the DePaul Online Teaching Series, which won the 2012 Sloan-C Award for Excellence in Faculty Development for Online Learning.

3 thoughts on “How a Spreadsheet Helped 90 Percent of My Students Earn a Pulitzer

  1. Interesting post, Daniel. I like how you made what would have ordinarily been a boring spreadsheet come alive using game design principles. But I have to take issue with your choosing J. K. Rowling as a barometer of success. What about the Nobel Prize for Literature? :)

  2. Thanks, Joe! The use of J.K. Rowling for the top level was actually something one of the participants did. I’m sure his intention was to add a little levity to the “levels” and not to imply that we should all aspire to write the next Harry Potter. One of the challenges with giving all students editor permissions is you open the door to all sorts of changes you might not have expected. From this experience, I could probably write another blog post about the pros and cons crowd sourcing and turning over control to your students.

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