Going Virtual with Casual Games: Strategies for Teaching during a Pandemic


An Eight Part Series

Prelude: Key Principles of Online/Virtual Teaching

David Seelow, Ph.D.©

Introduction: Going Virtual

COVID-19 forced both K-12 schools and higher education institutions to suddenly go virtual. Teaching an online class that you have planned as an online class from the beginning of a semester or year is entirely different than suddenly being required to put your class online unexpectedly. The pandemic has made the latter reality more common. This past fall, my classes were scheduled to go online during the Thanksgiving break for the final two weeks of the semester, but that was upended because of a rise in positivity for the County of Albany. The entire New York City school system, largest in the country, also faced a sudden decision by the major to move classes online in response io an upsurge of COVID cases. When the transition to online instruction occurs suddenly a teacher or professor must have a flexible instructional plan, one that is dynamic and can respond to sudden changes outside the instructor’s control. Casual games can play a vital role in such flexible approaches to instruction regardless of your discipline. However, the use of any pedagogical method or instructional material first must be filtered through a few key realities of online learning.

Zoom In, but also Zoom Out: The Value and Limitations of Synchronous Instruction

Zoom has almost become a default instructional tool during COVID-19, but this default reflects a lack of online experience that many teachers now face in moving from the traditional classroom to various remote or hybrid teaching configurations. Teacher Education programs do not, as a rule, offer courses in online teaching and for most institutions online instruction is still a relatively small part of overall course offerings. I was fortunate to have studied distance education at the onset of the Learning Management Systems, and I have taught and designed online courses for over 15 years. However, my experience, I suspect, is uncommon.

Overuse of Zoom often presupposes that a traditional class can be converted straight over to a virtual environment, a common mistake. Online learning is fundamentally different than traditional learning and must be approached as such. Zoom, like its precursor WebEx, originated as a video conferencing tool for businesses. A business meeting needs to take place in a synchronous environment, but that is not usually the case with a class. Furthermore, even if students have a fixed schedule with a specific time and place for meeting that does not necessary translate when they are home. A dining room, kitchen or bedroom is not a classroom, and parents and siblings are not classmates, so you cannot assume or always expect every student to be present when you log onto Zoom. You need to be judicious in using synchronous delivery of instruction.

When Synchronous Learning Makes Sense

Synchronous learning does have some valuable uses. First, you can establish teacher presence. This is more important the younger the student. Students require that personal connection with their instructor to ground them. The other major benefits of synchronous delivery include:

  • Tutoring and 1 to 1 conferences (e.g. Math tutoring or composition/writing conferences; discussion of research topics, extra help).
  • Guest lectures/presentations (you can invite anyone from anywhere to visit your class and share their expertise and enthusiasm for a topic).
  • Mini Lectures and Demonstrations (even an adult Ted Talk is only 18 minutes), you must keep these short and address critical material.
  • Problem solving and small group learning (working on difficult problems in small groups, scatter these sessions at different time throughout the week)
  • Q&A- allow the flexibility of online learning to schedule times when you can simply answer student questions (personal questions can be reserved for virtual office hours).

Asynchronous Learning: The Gem of Online Education

Online learning’s chief advantage is precisely being online.  Your class is no longer tethered to a time or place; consequently, anchoring to a synchronous format loses the advantage of the virtual environment. A virtual class has all the resources of the World Wide Web in addition to the freedom of 24/7 learning for students. Students are accustomed to the 24/7 freedom and they already learn and teach each other through the web, whether online game forums, YouTube or TikTok and so on. Additionally, online learning’s de-centering of the teacher, tends to displace the testing mania  used in many traditional classrooms. Being online encourages ongoing formative assessments that genuinely benefit student learning.

Here I simply outline a few of the advantages virtual learning offers instructors and students.

  • No Text, No test (with the web at your hands there is no real need for a text book in most, if not, all classes). In my field of literature, there is Project Guttenberg, Bartleby, Poetry.org and many other free resources.
  • Timed Assessments- Just because you are outside the classroom walls does not mean you are without limits. You can set any Learning Management System to offer a timed assessment and adjust for Individualized Learning Plans. A timed writing assessment or problem solving challenge can be 60 minutes, but students are free to choose which 60 minutes during the week to do their best work, and those students who are entitled to 90 minutes do not need go to the Learning Center.
  • Recorded Lectures and Demonstrations- If you have taken any Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) you know the star lecturers break their lectures into many short segments allowing students ample time to digest and process the lecture, self-assess and move on at their own pace. Online lectures need to be around 5 minutes, not more than 8 minutes, but eight minute lectures a student can re-listen will go much further than one 40 minute classroom lecture where many students will check out early.
  • TED Ed- In addition to the various Ted Talks that can serve as an inventory of guest lectures, you have the short TEDEd lessons that address many subjects in in an engaging manner students can relate to.
  • Khan Academy– An acclaimed source of educational lessons and content
  • YouTube, TikTok etc.- Not only can students learn from experts- YouTube Education, but they can also learn and post their own videos on YouTube and elsewhere that demonstrates their learning. Students can become teachers. TikTok has been more problematic in terms of educational value, but may soon have an educational avenue too.
  • Free Lesson Plans or Curricular Ideas- In K-12, they are numerous sites where teachers share successful lesson plans and ideas. In my field, Edsitement (National Endowment for the Humanities) is a great one. College professors can draw on MERLOT and other sites for pre-evaluated teaching material and modules.
  • Collective Intelligence- Students’ classmates can now be extended across the globe as they are in MOOCs and this untapped potential for cross district instruction remains something to be explored.
  • Extended Discussions- Discussion is no longer time restricted and dominated by the few active students. Online, every student participates and their responses to questions are much stronger online because of the time allowed for reflection in an online environment.
  • Support 24/7- Support services like tutoring and learning centers are invaluable to students, and virtual learning offers versions of this support 24/7. For example, writing labs, like the well-known Purdue University Online Writing Lab, or the multimedia based Online Writing Lab that I created offer information, reports, handouts, practice exercises and more for students writing papers.
  • Connected Learning Lab– A rich resource for students that connects students to peers andmentors, encourages interest driven learning, diversity, authentic applications of material, and equity. The lab is based at the University of California, Irvine.

These are just a few of the many opportunities unique to online/remote learning.

The Value of Casual Games for Online/Remote Learning

Casual games have an immensely valuable role to play in any move to online/virtual learning, whether short or long term. Casual games are games that can be played quickly- a necessity for formal online learning, can be played online, are easy to stop and restart, inexpensive or free, and downloadable to a mobile device, i.e. smart phone or tablet (this allows ease of play from any location at any time). They can be single player or multiplayer games, restricted to your class, or open to a larger group, depending on your learning goal. Students already play many of these games for entertainment so the adjustment period will be minimal and the likely engagement level high. Of critical importance is understanding that the games you assign to students do not have to be specifically designed for an educational outcome, though many will be, to have significant learning value. This fact will become evident throughout the series. Finally, I stress that a virtual learning experience provides teachers with the space and time to explore critical components of learning frequently marginalized or left out off traditional education: social emotional learning, critical thinking, decision making, and wellness. COVID19 has made clear how important these neglected areas of formal education are to student success.

I will begin next week with Part 1 and discuss the story driven game Florence as an example of how to teach the importance of stories, the importance of empathy, and the ebb and flow of interpersonal relationships.

*** If you want consultation, or professional development help with online learning, course design, game-based learning, games in the classroom, comics in the classroom, film, or Language Arts/Literature contact me at: davidseelow@gmail.com.

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