For Joe Bisz, game-based learning is rooted in good, old-fashioned pedagogy, and it’s his mission to help other teachers adopt it to generate positive outcomes for their students. Bisz co-founded the CUNY Games Network (along with recent Daily Edventures interviewee Robert Duncan) and has helped make the program so successful that members have been invited to give more than 100 presentations at faculty professional development events over the past few years. Bisz says, “Administrators and teachers alike have become impressed by the positive results game-based learning can bring to students, not just at the K-12 levels, but also in higher education.”
Having made a significant impact in game-based learning pedagogy, Bisz is now developing an online learning management system (LMS) and social network for faculty, staff, and students. And he’s applying what he’s learned through games to the new project. “It has the standard features of a light LMS,” Bisz says, “but users can also create avatars and ‘level-up’ by earning ‘experience points’ for completing homework.” The system allows teachers to evaluate homework tasks by a course’s learning outcomes (skills), and award badges for positive behaviors, with a leader board to track top performers. Bisz adds, “We’ve taken some of the mechanics of games and social media and created an ‘achievement system’ that we believe will increase student motivation, as well as make it friendlier for students and faculty to take distance learning classes.”
Today, Bisz shares not only his insights on game-based learning, but his belief that professional development is one of the keys to transforming the education landscape.
Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?
In 2007, my colleague Carlos Hernandez and I won a CUNY grant to test the use of the board game Diplomacy in the writing classroom to increase student motivation and critical thinking. This lead to a series of larger and larger grants and research in the field of game-based learning pedagogy, including my co-founding the CUNY Games Network, a professional development group that connects educators interested in games, simulations, and interactive teaching.
What has changed as a result of your efforts?
After seeing our group’s presentations, several schools have started their own games-based learning interest groups and workshops for the purpose of faculty professional development. Faculty report feeling energized and more creative by our hands-on “turn your lesson plans into games” workshops, and that they’ve carried some of their old zest for play back into the classroom. We’ve also received scores of reports about students who once struggled with content now understanding it better when that content was delivered through games-based learning techniques.
How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?
I don’t think any of what I’ve done would have been possible without the support of CUNY’s grant and faculty development programs. Many faculty have good ideas that their colleagues would benefit from hearing about, ideas that are perhaps even solutions to problems of student motivation, retention, etc. But without the time and support to share or research these ideas further, nothing will come of them, and so the university’s greatest resource—its faculty—will be underutilized. Therefore, if schools want to address pedagogical problems, they must find ways to support faculty through financial compensation, especially release time, and lower what is often an enormous and debilitating amount of red tape involved in receiving such compensation. In addition to monetary payment, verbal encouragement from administration—that sense that your bosses believe in you and are paying attention to you—can become that extra push you need to publish your novel ideas (or start an intercampus think tank!).
How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?
I’ve taught many online, hybrid, and web-enhanced courses, and have instructed faculty in this area. I’ve created my own educational games, or incorporated outside games into my lesson plans, including simple student organization question games, electronic PowerPoint games, pen-and-paper riddles and term searches.
But my biggest project right now is the development of an online learning management system (LMS) and social network for faculty, staff, and students. It’s called College Quest, and was funded by a Title V E-learning grant, and created with my business partners Tam Myaing of Neuronic Games and Professor Francesco Crocco. The software is currently being piloted at CUNY Borough of Manhattan Community College. We are currently seeking high schools and colleges interested in using the software, as well as other funding sources.
What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
In my remedial classes and occasionally at the intro-level, I run across students with learning disabilities or special needs that seriously impede their ability to understand the subject matter, no matter how motivated or enthusiastic they are. There is only so much I can do for these students since I wasn’t trained in this area. Many of them will fall through the cracks. Ideally, schools would have stronger programs and safety nets for identifying and helping students with these needs, instead of simply giving them extra test time, though of course this would require additional funding from the local, state, and federal governments.
What is your school doing well?
CUNY possesses a great deal of faculty development programs, lectures, and workshops both on an intercampus level and at the local campus level. These programs can often make working at CUNY a vibrant and enlightening experience for faculty, who, after all, just want to keep on learning themselves!
What conditions must change to better support education?
Despite the existence of such programs, there is still a culture of austerity surrounding paying faculty for their additional work and not wanting to grant release time. Worse, often in order to save the college money, faculty are obligated to join a never-ending stream of programs and committees that go beyond the scope of their teaching work and for which they are not paid. This leads to faculty having no time or energy for the multitude of valuable professional development programs that CUNY offers. Also, beyond operating philosophies, there are managerial problems. Budget departments at multiple campuses are stretched to the limit from not enough staff, which causes miscommunications, delays, lost paper work, or other aggravations for faculty trying to access grant budgets, which can cause faculty to avoid special projects completely. Additionally, faculty are discouraged from even attending a conference when the wait time for reimbursement can be six months or even close to a year. Once, a program I belonged to asked a CUNY Vice-Chancellor to step in and “request” the local campuses to hurry up and process our payments, but even this pressure from the very top did not speed things.
What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?
I know you’re expecting me to say “technology” here, but I won’t. The single best opportunity for innovation in education is to gather teachers together in professional development programs that are pedagogy-centered, so that they can hone their teaching techniques to better serve their students. This is already happening in pedagogy-centered interest groups managed by campus Centers for Teaching and Learning. I once participated in CUNY’s Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL) intercampus faculty seminar. Once a month for an entire academic year, about eighteen faculty from different campuses would meet for two hours, and two of us would present research on a high-impact pedagogy that we’d adopted. We were asked to draw connections among our pedagogies, collaborate with a seemingly dissimilar partner, perform many active listening brainstorms, etc. and we were paid a modest sum for our time. It was the most powerful and interesting pedagogy training I have ever belonged to—although I had heard of many of my colleagues’ pedagogies by name and description before, never had I been asked to understand and connect them to my own teaching in so full a way. I felt like I was on top of all the new developments in teaching, and really seeing the potential of the particular teacher’s toolbox we each bring to the classroom. Yet I believe the program was cut afterwards for lack of financial support. Of course, faculty read journals and attend conference presentations all the time about pedagogy, but these experiences lack the immersive, active learning component that a months-long “training seminar” can provide.
What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?
Treat students as if you were their “coach” rather than their teacher. They are not your enemies, even if the rules of the education game demand that you reward and penalize them for academic behavior. If a student acts out, do your best not to take the behavior personally. Students pick up on petty teacher behavior, and conversely, on a teacher who is “tough” simply because his or her rules are tough but who is always forgiving on a personal level.
Secondly, no matter how overwhelmed you are with your teaching load, do your best to meet your colleagues in faculty research groups, etc. Not only can such interactions lead to powerful collaborations and your growth as a teacher and scholar, you will be fueled by the experience, and walk away with more energy for teaching.
What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?
We’ve seen the negative impact that high-stakes testing can have on students at both the high school and the college level. Supposedly administrators cannot do without them, yet after a test receives a decade or so of criticism, it is thrown out and replaced by another. Currently at CUNY, there is a drive to replace remedial education with a “test prep” approach that is completely unfair to our students, who will simply be that much more unready once they enter an intro-level class.
Yet the trends I believe most affect student learning negatively are the trends that are thrown at faculty. Teachers, community college teachers in particular, usually have high workloads, but they are still required to debate, assess, and incorporate a myriad of new tests, advisement methods, assessment procedures, and campus strategic initiatives, all of which take time away from our biggest charges: our students. Can you imagine a land where there were no “trends” thrown at faculty that involved extra committees and the like, except for short seminars where faculty presented their best pedagogical ideas, so that our only job, aside from publishing in our field of interest, was to actually teach our students and learn more about teaching our students? And I think to myself, what a wonderful world…
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
After a certain age, I would give them access to the Internet because of the democratizing effects of so much available knowledge. Of course, skills are needed to discern what one is reading, but to the self-motivated, they can see the collected knowledge of the world, and perhaps contribute to that knowledge.
About Joe Bisz
Joe Bisz is a part-time educational games designer and an Associate Professor of English at CUNY Borough of Manhattan Community College. Not so long ago, he received a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and English Literature from Binghamton University. Since then he has sailed his theoretical ship into a few ports of the world, including gender and sexuality studies, Popular Culture and Sci-fi, and game-based learning. His critical work has been published in Transformative Works and Cultures and Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture, and his creative writing in a dozen journals and anthologies including Diagram.
- Birthplace: New Jersey
- Current residence: Brooklyn
- Education: Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing, SUNY Binghamton
- Favorite childhood memory: Taking trips with family.
- Next travel destination (work or pleasure): GLS Conference in Madison, Wisconsin
- Favorite book: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
- Favorite music: U2
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