It’s a Good Time to Go Gameful

Rachel Niemer, DEI Director of Digital Pedagogy and Learning Communities

This week, Campus Technology announced the winners of this year’s Innovator Award, and the GradeCraft team is honored to be recognized in the Teaching & Learning category. The award is a wonderful recognition of the hard work we have put into growing the community of gameful learning instructors and building a tool that can support instructors’ creative implementations of gameful pedagogy.

Receiving the award has given our team an opportunity to reflect on all that we’ve accomplished this year and think about where we are headed as we continue growing gameful pedagogy at U-M with an assessment system design that supports student engagement. A year ago, we had just received funding from the Third Century Initiative and wrapped up our first term piloting GradeCraft more broadly across campus. Additionally, we joined the Digital Innovation Greenhouse in order to continue scale up our team to create more motivating courses for 20,000 students in the next three years.  Since then, we’ve doubled the number of courses that use GradeCraft and developed a Community of Practice (CoP) that meets monthly. As we continue growing gameful pedagogy at U-M with an assessment system design that supports student engagement, we look forward to collaborating with new partners and encourage anyone interested in learning more about GradeCraft to check out several ways to get involved:

Community of Practice

CoP participants range from those who have yet to go “gameful” and those who have integrated gameful principles into their teaching while managing courses with Canvas to established GradeCraft users.  This group is open to everyone at U-M who is interested in thinking about the interplay of gameful design principles and learning, and we’d love to see the community grow larger. To learn more about how Gameful Learning CoP is integrating gameful principles into teaching and to keep abreast of Gameful Learning CoP events, join the MCommunity Group.

Gameful Pedagogy Website

To help instructors understand the fundamentals of gameful learning and decide whether gameful learning is right for them, we recently launched a gameful pegagogy website. Through this portal, instructors interested in pursuing a gameful teaching pedagogy can find resources on getting started (re)designing a course using gameful principles, an extensive FAQs, and a repository of syllabi from other gameful courses. Check out the site and let us know what other resources would be helpful, and if it’s a good time for you to go gameful, let us know!

Gradecraft dashboard


In addition to expanding the reach of the Gameful Learning CoP and impact of gameful pedagogy,  we also aim to continue to increase the number of GradeCraft users on campus. We invite anyone who is interested in using GradeCraft and is an instructor-of-record at U-M to reach out to us. We’ll work with you to set up a GradeCraft site and consult with you on any course re(design) questions you may have.  


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The Global Learner Experience: A DEI Design Jam

Adam Levick, Market Research and Analytics Analyst
Onawa Gardiner, Marketing Specialist

One of the amazing advantages we have working at DEI is being surrounded by highly motivated students attending one of U-M’s many top ranked programs and eager to help shape the future of education at U-M and abroad. On February 5 we invited students from across U-M to join us in partnership with the Student Organization for Computer-Human Interaction (SOCHI) to dive into the question:

How do we provide learners around the world with an online experience where they can easily identify and enroll in U-M learning opportunities (including MOOCs)?


Three people discussing in front of a whiteboardThe core of a design jam is to give students the opportunity to explore a real world design problem from a user-centered perspective and give them the opportunity to brainstorm and create a solution. Three teams of students explored this question, identifying what kinds of needs our system should support and then sketching and wireframing what different solutions might look like. Additionally, student teams delved into how to assess users’ needs, align the varying projects’ core value to U-M learning opportunities and, finally, how to organize the information in order to provide the best experience for the most diverse range of users. Throughout the event DEI staff engaged with students to discuss the broad range of open learning opportunities offered by faculty in partnership with DEI. Engaging with the teams throughout the event also allowed us to answer questions about the kinds of users we serve and the many benefits those users receive through engaging in open learning experiences. In turn this sparked many ideas and designs from the teams.

At the end of the Design Jam each team gave a presentation. Their presentations highlighted how groups of individuals with unique perspectives improve our ability to explore new opportunities in academic innovation. Some key themes that emerged include the benefit of creating pathways through U-M experiences, giving top students the chance to be highlighted, and the value of connecting key skills to opportunities.

The Design Jam showcased how a broad range of learners can collaborate to address challenges in creating cutting edge education technologies while thinking innovatively about the future of the higher education.  Students had the opportunity to partner with new teammates while participating in a directed learning experience with multiple pathways to success.

Multiple people discussing around a conference table
Design jams and events, like the upcoming AIM Innovator Series talk with Christi Merrill on March 11, continue our commitment to exploring new approaches for the 21st century education as a part of the Academic Innovation at Michigan (AIM) series. We plan to host more events as we engage the U-M community in efforts to transform 200 courses by 2017 and shape the future of learning and redefine public residential education by unlocking new opportunities and enabling personalized, engaged and lifelong learning for the U-M community and learners around the world.

GradeCraft + DIG

Barry Fishman, Professor, Learning Technologies, School of Information & School of Education – @BarryFishman
Cait Holman, PhD Candidate, School of Information – @chcholman
Rachel Niemer, Director of Digital Pedagogy and Learning Communities @rkniemer


We are thrilled that GradeCraft, our game-inspired learning management system designed and developed here at U-M, has officially become the fourth project to be housed within the Digital Innovation Greenhouse (DIG). What does this mean for GradeCraft, and for DIG? When GradeCraft received a Third Century Grant, we knew we would need to grow our team in order to reach our goal of creating more motivating courses for 20,000 students over the next three years. In response, we have hired a new project coordinator, and increased the size of our development team. We also wanted to do more to integrate with the incredible community at the University of Michigan working to reimagine what teaching and learning supported by technology might look like. The opportunity to join DIG as a partner application felt like the perfect next step to accomplish that.

Joining DIG enables us to share our experiences regarding what has (and perhaps more importantly, hasn’t!) worked in building our platform, growing our community of practice, sharing our pedagogical philosophy, and integrating with the organizational and technological landscape at Michigan. It also means that we can learn from our fellow DIG team members’ experiences as they pursue a similar journey with Student Explorer, the Academic Reporting Toolkit 2.0, and ECoach. GradeCraft is a slightly different take on what it means to be a DIG application because we continue to be primarily developed by a team led by Barry Fishman and Caitlin Holman in the School of Information, and supported by external software developers. It’s exciting to start imagining how this community will work to change what it means to design and develop learning technologies and bring them to scale–particularly those that push the boundaries of understanding how learning analytics data can be employed to design transformational educational experiences.

Faculty discussing gameful pedagogy.We have big plans for the next year. We’re reaching out to instructors all over campus who have expressed interest in gameful learning and are working with them to consider how to redesign their course experiences to support more student autonomy. We are building a new website dedicated to answering instructors’ questions about gameful pedagogy and sharing good practices for implementation we’ve observed over the last four years. We are reaching out to students to form a team of GAME ambassadors who can help their peers navigate choices within their coursework. If you are interested in using GradeCraft in your classroom, joining the ambassador program, or nominating someone to be an ambassador, please get in touch! We also invite you join us at our open office hours Friday mornings at the DEI’s weekly Digital Donuts event – every Friday morning, 9AM-12PM at 500 E. Washington Street!

Digital Innovation Greenhouse Welcomes GradeCraft

Gradecraft, a learning management system dedicated to supporting the gameful classroom, has officially become the fourth project within the Digital Innovation Greenhouse (DIG) portfolio. This incorporation is another step towards continuous innovative growth to shape the future of higher education within the Office of Digital Education & Innovation (DEI).

GradeCraft will be able to harness existing DIG resources around software development, infrastructure expertise, and user experience design to scale up technology through the Greenhouse’s extended resources in order to increase the application’s reach to over 20,000 students at U-M over the next three years. Alternately, GradeCraft will add another layer of expertise to DIG with the introduction of new programming languages and project management expertise, including coordination with external software development resources. These additional capabilities will further support the core functions of the DIG Gradecraft project team as they focus on software development, user experience design and user community mobilization as pathways towards furthering future digital collaborations at U-M.

GradeCraft joins ECoach, Student Explorer and Academic Reporting Toolkit 2.0 (ART 2.0) as the fourth portfolio project within DIG. ART 2.0 focuses on fostering increased student engagement through the dissemination of personalized information to better inform student decision making. Student Explorer leverages course performance data to provide students and advisors with real time updates on course progress, while ECoach provides personalized feedback and advice to students in large, introductory courses.These projects highlight just a few of the many ways DEI is partnering with faculty innovators to investigate, design and use learning technologies to to develop tools to facilitate personalization at scale at the University.

GradeCraft was designed by Professor Barry Fishman and doctoral student Caitlin Holman as a web application to support learning environments to better support students’ intrinsic motivation. Developed in partnership with DEI and the Learning Analytics Task Force,  GradeCraft has been used by over 2,000 students across 40 courses to date, and was awarded a $1.88 million grant from the Transforming Learning for a Third Century (TLTC) program through the Third Century Initiative.

The Digital Innovation Greenhouse (DIG) is comprised of a team of software developers, user experience designers, behavioral scientists and multi-disciplinary student fellows that work with user communities in order to provide resources for homegrown educational software innovations on campus and scale up these digital enterprises to maturity through collaboration across U-M’s digital ecosystem.

Are You Ready for Gameful? Sign Up for Winter 2016

This article was originally posted on 11/04/2015 on the GradeCraft Blog

Marie Hooper, Coordinator, Digital Learning Initiatives

As we approach the end of the Fall 2015 semester, we are gearing up to bring GradeCraft to more courses on the University of Michigan campus. We have begun to schedule a first round of consultations with instructors who are interested in making their courses gameful and are looking to add more courses to our list for the Winter 2016 semester.

When considering using a tool like GradeCraft in your classroom, it is important to first examine some of your key philosophies to determine whether or not a gameful course design will work for you and your students.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the gameful environment is allowing students to take the focus off of grades by building up their score from zero points rather than through the traditional system where student grades start at 100% and can only decrease. Our experience and data indicate that the point-based system  encourages students to take more risks in their learning by allowing them to fail with fewer consequences than the traditional system. This does not mean, however, that courses are easier. Rather, the intent is to create an environment where students are more engaged with the course material and become more self-motivated and resilient to failure.

Another key feature of gameful design is providing multiple pathways to success. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways –  offering an array of assignments or tracks for students to choose from, enabling students to select different modes of completing the same assignment (for instance writing a paper versus creating a video), or even designing their own assignments.

GradeCraft helps to support the logistical issues that come from giving students choices over their assignments and more transparency in the grading scheme. It also allows students to visualize their progress in a course and strategize about their choices in order to plan for their future. If you are still not sure you are “ready” for gameful course design, we have put together a short guide with questions to ask yourself which can be viewed here.

Our goal is to build a campus-wide community dedicated to reimagining course design to support autonomy, belongingness and competence. If you are a University of Michigan professor and are interested in what it may take to make your class gameful, we would love to meet with you! Please sign up here and we will be in touch with you to schedule a meeting.

Design Based Research

The Digital Education & Innovation Team


“When you begin thinking about design, from the very beginning you should think about designing for scalability and sustainability. A lot of times we use our classroom-based or context-based or design-based research to learn important things about learning and teaching, but we aren’t really thinking what will happen when the project ends…Design-based research is a way forward, a way to take research in a very practical sense from the laboratory to the real world and create things of meaning and value that will live in the real world and inform the work that we have to do as academics building better futures.” – Barry Fishman – Professor, School of Information & School of Education

Through our work with faculty, administrators, faculty and students at U-M, we’re often asked about how work that starts in the DEI Lab, the LED Lab, and/or the Digital Innovation Greenhouse can translate into making an impact at U-M and within the world. Our partners are often curious about how to design projects in the earliest stages to ensure this successful transition later on. We asked Barry Fishman, Chair of the Digital Innovation Advisory Group and creator of GradeCraft, to share his perspectives on these questions, including how he approaches these challenges within digital education and innovation at U-M.

View this video for more insights from Barry Fishman:

Why gameful? Why GradeCraft?

Cait Holman, PhD Candidate, School of Information – @chcholman
Barry Fishman, Professor, Learning Technologies, School of Information & School of Education – @BarryFishman

The next time you see someone playing a videogame, stop and watch for a moment: they are engaged in what they’re doing. They may have an intense look about them, and it doesn’t seem like what they’re doing is what we’d call ‘easy’ – they lose a round, they get frustrated, but they keep playing. They come back. They try it again. When they finally win they may start all over again, playing the game in a completely different way, looking beyond linear progress for additional opportunities – things like secret routes, new interactions, and different ways to collaborate with a community of other players. There is something about the experience of playing these games that makes them spaces where people of all ages and interests are willing to work hard, persist past failure, and learn how to succeed. Gameful learning is a new pedagogical approach that takes inspiration from the engagement we see in videogames, and uses it to reimagine what traditional learning environments could be like – particularly, what role students can play and how the design of assessment systems supports student engagement.

First, a disclaimer: gameful learning is not about making school easy…or even fun. This is about designing environments where students are encouraged to focus less on their final grades, and more on the craft of learning; where they are motivated to face down the very real struggles of mastering challenging new material, but persist day after day and are able to see progress; where they take responsibility for their learning, and make self-aware choices regarding how they can best learn and be assessed on their development of content mastery. We know from psychological research that this mode of self-driven, creative, resilient drive to progress, termed “intrinsic motivation,” is best supported when individuals feel like they have meaningful control over their work (autonomy), are facing challenging but doable work (competency), and feel connected to the people around them (belongingness).

So how do we create these environments? We begin by flipping the frame from an assessment system where everyone starts with 100%, because that is a lose-as-you-go scheme, where each new grade decreases a student’s class average (the current normative model for grading systems), to a 0-based, earn-up model, where each assessment increases the student’s cumulative points and represents his/her progress towards mastery. Then we build a series of optional assessment pathways so that students have autonomy over how to engage with course content. These can take a variety of forms – sometimes the content lends itself to students developing deep personalized specializations, as an offshoot of the core content studied collectively. At other times it means students complete different forms of assessment around the same content – with some choosing to take an exam, while others might write an essay or do a group project.

These changes introduce a logistical challenge: students need to know how the range of choices build towards their course grade. In gameful systems, instructors typically create more assignments than students actually to need to complete to earn an A in the course. This can be as many as 1.5 – 2 times the number of assignments in a normal course. In our early experiments with gameful grading systems, we observed a huge amount of excitement from students, but also a lot of confusion. We realized we needed technology to support students in gameful courses, and so we created GradeCraft, a platform to pair with (or replace) a traditional learning management system and allow students to visualize their own progress and plan for their future. You can see a short video about GradeCraft and how it supports gameful instruction here. Follow us at @gradecraft.

We’ve spent the last three years growing the pedagogy and GradeCraft in parallel, iteratively designing GradeCraft to support the best practices we’re discovering in the classroom. This work has been developed in partnership with DEI and the Learning Analytics Task Force. Now we’re thrilled to announce that, thanks to the generous support of the University of Michigan Third Century Fund, we have the opportunity to continue to grow the gameful learning community here at Michigan, and make GradeCraft available to all.

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