Category Archives: EDU 292

These posts were all written for Cynthia Carter Ching’s “Learning in a Digital Age” graduate seminar in winter 2013.

Digital Learning in First-Year Composition

In Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, Collins & Halverson (2009) argue that we are in the middle of America’s second education revolution. The first coincided with the Industrial Revolution, when education shifted from apprenticeships to compulsory education. Today, Collins & Halverson claim we are shifting away from compulsory education toward lifelong learning; in the process, we are reevaluating the purpose of schooling and the nature of knowledge.

Counter to the traditional view of school as a place to acquire the knowledge one will need to be successful in life, Collins & Halverson argue that 12 nine-month sessions are not sufficient to teach a child everything she needs to know because there is simply too much knowledge in the world: “there are as many scientists, researchers, and authors alive today as lived in human history up through 1950” (64). Consequently, Collins & Halverson and other digital learning scholars argue for a new approach to schooling, one that privies customization and learner control, games and simulations, and a broader definition of literacy.

As a college composition instructor, I find the extended concept of literacy particularly interesting; in the following paragraphs, I explore the existing and potential connections between digital learning theory and the composition classroom.

Redefining Literacy

The New London Group (1996) led the charge in redefining literacy in their seminal article, “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies.” They argue that all meaning is multimodal, that everyone engages in multiple literacies, and that educators should help students navigate and critique those various modes and literacies. More specifically, the New London Group suggests we teach students to be designers of linguistic, visual, audio, gestural, spatial, and multimodal meaning. Thomas & Brown (2011) similarly emphasize the need to communicate across multiple modes, but they also highlight the importance of context. Learning in the 21st century, Thomas & Brown argue, “goes far beyond a simple transfer of information and becomes inextricably bound with the context that is being created” (94), which is to say that meaning “arises not [only] from interpretation (what something means) but from contextualization (where something has meaning)” (95). The emphasis on contextualization points to the social nature of this redefined literacy. As Jenkins (2009) explains, new media literacies should be “seen as social skills, as ways of interacting within a larger community, and not simply as individualized skills to be used for personal expression” (32).

At times, digital learning scholars present these concepts as though they are new and unique to networked communication. But, as Lunsford (2007) reminds us, critically understanding context and selecting appropriate communication styles for a given purpose and audience are tenets of classic rhetoric. Further, what’s “new” about the digital age is actually quite old—multiple modes, contextualization, and the social nature of communication harken back to the age of orality, when communication was delivered through your voice and your body, and your message was directly influenced by the real-time reaction of your audience; the shift toward literacy and the emergence of print culture resulted in a view of reading and writing as individualized and private (Ong, 1982). Networked computers have simply closed the gap between reader and writer and reminded us of the interactivity of communication.

Lunsford argues that this 21st century understanding of literacy means college composition instructors should return their focus to classic rhetoric, bringing delivery and performance to the forefront and viewing writing as a multimodal, socially situated activity. As one might expect, this suggestion invites an avalanche of questions: How do I teach “multimodal” writing? Does it mean I need to ask my students to create videos and websites? I only have ten weeks to teach this class; what do I have to give up if I start incorporating multimedia assignments? How will students learn to write an academic essay? How do I make writing “social”? Doesn’t that lead to plagiarism?

One way of prompting students to think about (new) definitions of literacy without completely revamping the first-year composition curriculum is to acknowledge and explicitly discuss with students the existing connections between digital learning theory and composition pedagogy.

Digital Learning = College Composition 

Gee (2007) argues that playing video games is “multimodal literacy par excellence” (18), and he constructs a list of 36 learning principles to prove his point. Several of those principles—especially those dealing with transfer, active/critical learning, and exploratory progress with multiple routes for success—align with composition pedagogy and can thus act as frameworks for a first-year writing course.


While difficult to measure, transfer is a foundational assumption in the composition classroom. Most first-year composition (FYC) courses purport to prepare students to be successful writers in college by helping them develop and acquire academic literacy. In this way, FYC is intended to operate like a training level in a video game, where students practice the academic writing they will need to be successful in their future courses. Gee argues that transfer only happens when two problems or situations are designed similarly, and the learner is made “overtly aware” of how the problems “share certain properties at a deeper level” (126). Conversations about genre conventions, understanding assignment prompts, and the writing process (invention, revision, editing) all aim to make transparent the commonalities across academic writing situations and to prompt students to think about how they can apply the lessons in FYC to other academic writing situations. Writing across the curriculum initiatives further support the notion of transfer: FYC may be the training ground for academic writing, but the skill must be fostered throughout a student’s college career. I propose we overtly ask students to consider the ways in which writing skills transfer across rhetorical situations, across college courses, and across academic and non-academic composing tasks.

Active/Critical Learning

Gee argues that good learning is not only active (students learn by doing), but also critical (students assess and challenge the tools and systems through which they are learning). Good writing classrooms similarly promote a student-centered environment. Instead of lecturing about good writing practices, teachers ask students to engage in various aspects of the writing process in class. In my class, for example, there is a brainstorming day for each assignment; I ask the students to work independently or in groups to experiment with different invention strategies. There is also designated class time for editing and revising, and several days are devoted to peer review. Additionally, students write multiple drafts of each assignment and their revisions are guided by peer or instructor feedback. The emphasis on multiple drafts and revision individualizes and makes active the learning process because each student focuses on developing and improving unique writing skills.

Critical learning is probably less common in writing classrooms, but there is certainly room for it in composition pedagogy. In my class, students write reflective memos after each assignment, which explicitly requires them to critically reflect on their experiences with writing the paper and to critique the structure of the task.

Exploratory Progress with Multiple Routes for Success

Gee argues that good video games punish learners for “being too quick to want to get to a goal without engaging in sufficient prior nonlinear exploration” (52), and the same is true for writers. Students who want to write their papers in one night following a template are disappointed in FYC; the writing process asks them to slow down and take time to explore the topic (invention), then to play with the arrangement and organization of their ideas (outlining), before finally composing a first draft, which they are later expected to revise and rewrite. Throughout the recursive process of writing, new ideas and new relationships between old ideas come to light. Admittedly, not all students in FYC achieve this kind of nonlinear approach, but good writing instructors nudge students in this direction.

Gee also explains that exploration allows players to “choose strategies that fit with their style of learning, thinking, and acting,” which not only motivates the players, but also pushes them to reflect upon their “styles of learning and problem solving” (78). In most FYC classes, students are presented with multiple invention, outlining, revising, and editing techniques and are encouraged to choose the ones that best fit their learning styles. They are also given the freedom to select their own paper topics within the constraints of the assignment prompt (e.g., students are asked to write a personal narrative but given freedom to select any topic within that genre). Finally, they receive individualized feedback from their instructor that takes the student’s unique approaches and goals into account (see Brannon & Knoblauch (1982) regarding the importance of providing feedback based on what the student is trying to achieve rather than an “ideal” text defined by the instructor).

Digital Learning ≠ College Composition

Of course, while these learning principles mirror FYC philosophy, not all instructors promote them, and even when instructors ask their students to explicitly engage in and reflect on this kind of learning, it doesn’t always happen. The greatest hindrance to success is lack of motivation because in order for transfer, active/critical learning, and exploration to happen, students need to be deeply invested in the project.

Gee argues that this investment can happen through identity projection. In a video game, players project their identities onto their avatars; in a classroom, Gee recommends students imagine themselves as experts or professionals. For this to work in FYC, students need to find being an “academic writer” something worth imagining. In my experience, this is difficult because many students are convinced they are “just not good at writing,” which I believe is partly due to the fact that they do not have a clear picture of what an “academic writer” looks like. Lack of projection is a problem because, in authentic writing situations, projection defines the relationship between author, narrator, and audience. The voice one adopts and the argument one offers are all projections of the author onto the narrator (and some projections are more “true” than others); the relationship between narrator and audience is similarly a projection because the narrator one creates and embodies is determined by how one imagines the audience.

When the professional “academic writer” does this, she is typically projecting a confident, well-informed narrator who has something to contribute to the conversation occurring between other scholars in the field, and she is projecting an audience of academic researchers who recognize and appreciate the gap in the conversation that her research fills. When the college-student “academic writer” does this, she is generally writing an essay for her professor that goes just beyond demonstrating her comprehension of the topic by adding a clever argument that connects the course topic with something else. In FYC, we do not ask students to project themselves as either: instead, we approximate projection by asking students to pretend like they are writing for a real audience and go through the motions of adopting a voice and style that are appropriate for the given purpose and genre. However, because the student submits her work for a grade, and is rarely asked to contribute to a conversation in any authentic sense, her “real” audience is her writing teacher. Consequently, the writing task is approximate at best, and the power of the learning strategies (no matter how good they are) is lessened.

In recent years, composition instructors who recognize this problem tend to respond by asking students to publish their work on The Internet. Unfortunately, this strategy creates a new problem: there is no guarantee that anyone other than the teacher will actually read the student’s paper, and there is no way of knowing if someone does. So instead of asking a student to write for a specific audience, the potential audience has become so broad that it is no longer a productive rhetorical exercise. Furthermore, there are ways for students to bury their online publications so that no one they actually know is likely to read it, which brings us back to the issue of motivation. The student is only going to publish the work in an authentically public way if she wants her online community to read it, which only happens if she really cares about the project and is truly projecting her own interests into the exercise.

Another solution composition teachers attempt is to make the students write for each other, creating a community within the classroom. This strategy positively aligns with digital learning theory, which tells us that participatory communities “offer powerful opportunities for learning” because they “depend on peer-to-peer teaching,” which results in participants being “motivated to acquire new knowledge and refine their existing skills” (Jenkins, 10). However, these communities are only authentic when people participate “according to their skills and interests” (10). If students are writing and reading each other’s work only because they are required to do so, and they don’t actually care about what they or the other person wrote, the community becomes inauthentic and ineffective.

A Possible Solution: Transparency

While there are clearly problems with digital learning approaches when the learning environment is inauthentic, explicitly discussing the connections between digital learning theory and composition is a productive approach to FYC. I imagine this working like a writing-about-writing classroom, where students read articles and engage in discussions about what “writing” means in their academic and personal lives and how technology shapes those definitions and perceptions. I also imagine them writing to authentic audiences, either by composing for communities in which they already participate or by recognizing that their audience is the teacher. This strategy opens the door to productive conversations about how rhetorical skills can transfer to academic and non-academic writing situations, it asks students to critically analyze their personal experiences with composition, and it allows for legitimate exploration as students analyze the ways in which they want to improve their own rhetorical skills. Writing is a very real and relevant activity in our students’ lives; if we want our writing classrooms to also be relevant, we need to acknowledge and seriously value the strategies and tools they use both in and outside of the classroom.


Brannon, L. & Knoblauch, C.H. (1982). On students’ rights to their own texts: A model of teacher  response. College Composition and Communication, 33(2), 157-166.
Collins, A. & Halverson, R. (2009). Rethinking education in the age of technology: The digital revolution and schooling in America.  New York: Teachers College Press.
Gee, J. P. (2007). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Lunsford, A. (2007). Writing Matters: Rhetoric in Public and Private Lives. U Georgia P.
Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge.
New London Group. (1996). A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures. Harvard Educational Review 66, 60-92.
Thomas, D. & Brown, J. S. (2011). A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Angry Birds: A model for learning

Renown literacy scholar James Paul Gee is the author of What Video Games have to teach us about Learning and Literacy, which outlines 36 principles for good learning. Gee derives the principles from what he’s observed as a gamer and from interviews with gamers, and he argues that the same things that make a video game good could (and should) be applied to school learning. Gee specifically focuses on immersive role-playing and first-person-shooter games, but many of his learning principles about basic skills, practice, and rewards apply to much simpler games, including Angry Birds.

Basic Skills

Two of Gee’s principles about basic skill acquisition are prominent in Angry Birds: the “Bottom-Up Basic Skills Principle” and the “Discovery Principle.” The bottom-up basic skills principle states that skills are not learned in isolation; instead, the learner discovers the skill as she engages in the activity. As Gee puts it, “by the time new players are aware of what are basic skills in a given type of game … they have already mastered them” (140). That said, throwing learners into an unknown environment without any overt instruction is not advisable. As Gee explains, humans “need immersion in actual contexts of practice, but they can find such contexts confusing without overt information and guidance” (114). This is where the discovery principle comes in—overt instruction exists, but is kept to a minimum, allowing the learner to experiment and explore.

In Angry Birds, the overt instruction happens every time we are introduced to a new bird:


Notice the subtlety of this “instruction”—there are no words, the image doesn’t fully demonstrate the bird’s capabilities, and once you press the check, you don’t get the image again. You learn the rest through actually playing the game. As you experiment, you find out that the red bird is good at breaking wood, but not anything with metal around it, and the blue birds are especially adept at breaking through ice. The “training” for the yellow bird makes it look like the bird will change directions when you tap your finger, but it actually speeds up in the direction that it was already heading and thus very good for breaking through dense structures.  

Situated Practice

As you continue playing the game, you learn more about the different birds’ abilities, and you are introduced to more birds. You are also forced to adopt more sophisticated strategies, which is all facilitated through practice. Angry Birds’ approach to practice is particularly indicative of Gee’s “Practice” and “Regime of Competence” principles. The key to the practice principle is that engaging in a task over and over is not boring because the learner experiences ongoing success; she needs to feel like she is moving forward and not simply repeating the same skill. Part of what makes practice enjoyable is illustrated by the regime of competence principle, which states that the learner is operating on the outer edge of her abilities such that the task is challenging, but not impossible. (Gee 65-68)   

Practice is built into every aspect of Angry Birds. The first levels only involve the red bird, and often multiple red birds, so the player repeatedly practices positioning the slingshot so that the bird hits the structure at the desired angle. Furthermore, players are encouraged to play the levels multiple times either because they were not successful on the first attempt or because they only earned one or two out of the three possible stars. This repetitive practice is further reinforced because most levels take less than a minute to play, so it is not a big commitment for the player to repeat a level and experiment with different strategies. This repetition does not seem dull because success is constant; players are rewarded with points any time their birds hit a structure or a pig, they are rewarded by the three-star system, and they are rewarded by the potential for earning new high scores when they repeat levels.

The regime of competence is similarly ingrained in Angry Birds, and is especially noticeable from level to level. For example, I learned from the first few levels of Angry Birds Rio that aiming my bird at the base of a structure was sure to knock it down and it meant I earned more points because I received points for breaking up the structure as well as for releasing the birds from their cages.

However, when I tried the same strategy a few levels later, it didn’t work, partly because the base was made of metal, which the red bird can’t break through.

After several unsuccessful attempts, I finally tried shooting the red bird high over the structure, and found that, in this instance, a dive-bomb was better than attacking the base. 

Charles Mauro, president of Mauro New Media, argues that practice in Angry Birds is particularly enjoyable because the designers cleverly managed response time. Instead of making the flight of the birds fast, players watch a slow progression along a clearly marked trajectory, which gives the player time to think about error correction. In my case, it meant I attempted to shoot the red bird at the base in a variety of ways because I hoped a different angle would produce better results. There is also a time delay between when your last bird hits the structure and when the screen comes up to allow you to retry the level or continue to the next one. Mauro argues that this delay gives the player “time to structure an error correction strategy.” In my case, it meant I considered the structure more closely, ultimately deciding that I needed my bird to dive-bomb into the middle of things.

It didn’t take much for me to try a new strategy and I was certainly capable of finding a solution, but it took longer to pass this level than any of the others in that first episode. Success was well within my regime of competence, but the game was forcing me to experiment until I was willing to shift my previous assumption that there was one “best” way to bring down a structure.


Rewards are a crucial part of motivating players to practice skills within a game and to continue playing the game when they are brought to the edge of their regime of competence. Games also cater to players with various skill sets, which is precisely what Gee’s “Achievement Principle” is about: from the beginning, there must be intrinsic rewards for all learners, and the rewards should be customized to each learner’s level, effort, and growing mastery (64).

Angry Birds most prominently accomplishes this through points and through the three-star system. The points are important because even if you don’t hit the pigs (or cages in Rio), you can still earn an incredible amount of points by hitting the structures and making things explode, which makes the levels satisfying even if you don’t win.

When you do win, you pass the level with one, two, or three stars, thus allowing players of various skills to play through the entire game. Interestingly, the points and stars are separate reward systems—as you’ll notice below, I earned almost the same amount of points for a one-star win as I did for a three-star win on another level.

So what makes players go for three stars? In the case of Angry Birds Rio, the answer is bonus levels. After I completed the first 15 levels, I had earned 26 stars; bonus levels were available for 30, 50, and 70 stars. 

Immediately, I replayed a couple of levels and earned four more stars. A better player might have been closer to the 50- or 70-star levels, and probably would have felt the same nudge to go ahead and get those few remaining stars required to claim the reward. I should also note that I didn’t feel bad for being at the lowest level—I was pleased to be able to unlock a bonus at all.

For the players who easily collect stars for level completion, Angry Birds offers additional challenges—players can hunt through the levels and collect special rewards that are tracked in the Awards Room. 

Closing Thoughts

Angry Birds is a lot of fun to play, and Gee’s principles show that what makes it fun is that it both requires learning and rewards learners at various skill levels. I find this interesting in part because I don’t think many people would call what they do when they play Angry Birds learning. But what’s even more interesting is that I could have done this analysis on any game. These principles aren’t specific to Angry Birds or to first-person-shooters or to video games; they are generalizations about the way humans learn, generalizations that prove that learning even the most menial task can be quite fun if it’s framed with ample rewards and an appropriate balance of instruction and discovery that pushes learners to the edge of their individual competence levels.

Unfortunately, Gee argues, in school, “many so-called advantaged learners rarely get to operate at the edge of their regime of competence … [and] less advantaged learners are repeatedly asked to operate outside their regime of competence” (68). The solution is not to create an Angry Birds-type game that teaches math or grammar. The solution is to apply Gee’s principles to school learning; one way to start is to create a reward system that acknowledges and incentivizes learners at various skill levels.

Typing to Learn: A Technobiography

My mother is a something of a Jill-of-all-trades. She teaches piano lessons, does occasional work for a friend in real estate, and runs the books for an automotive shop. She also rides a Harley and plays in two rock bands, but that’s another story. She trained as an accountant in college, and for as long as I can remember she has done freelance CPA work, which means she’s had an office in the house. When I was little, the office was equipped with a desktop computer and one of those printers that printed on that fabulous green-white-green-white lined paper. I used to sit on the floor and peel off the perforated edges.

As often as I could possibly manage, I would retrieve a hot-pink floppy disk from the filing cabinet and climb into Mama’s deep purple, faux-leather office chair. Concentration. I loved that game. It was memory and wheel-of-fortune all at once – you had to remember what pictures were on the other sides of the cards you’d already selected and when you found a match they disappeared, revealing a series of images that represented syllables and inevitably included an awl. The goal was to guess the phrase before you made all the cards disappear.


There were disks with other games, too. Bubba enjoyed Oregon Trail, and I guess I did at first, but I always wound up dead from dysentery and I came to take it as a personal offense. Mama also bought us a learning game called Treehouse – I remember her being so pleased to have presented her children with such a technologically advanced educational activity. I enjoyed the speed typing games and vocabulary builders, but I was inevitably drawn back to that hot-pink floppy.

Of course Mama’s desktop wasn’t the only technology in my childhood. We had two televisions, one in the living room and one in Mama and Daddy’s bedroom. When one of those got turned on, it was an event. Every Tuesday night, Daddy and Bubba would watch “SeaQuest” while Mama and I watched “Murder, She Wrote.” On Sunday nights we watched whatever made-for-TV movie was on the basic network (we never had cable). Commercials were spent running around to get a snack or go to the restroom, and someone would holler “SHOW” real loud when it came back on and we’d scurry to our seats. Not having cable never seemed to be an issue at the time, but as I got older I realized that I missed out on some cultural references that are still a big part of my friends’ lives today.

We moved to a suburb when I was in fourth grade (1994), and that’s the first time I remember technology in school. We had typing class once a week in the computer lab, and I took a lot of pride in getting high-speed scores. Beyond that, though, I don’t recall using computers as part of my elementary education.

By the time I was in middle school we obtained a “family computer” that took up residence in the kitchen, I assume because Bubba and I needed it for homework. I don’t recall typing up assignments or conducting internet research, but I think it must have happened. I remember writing a paper about alpha-male gorillas, and I’m not sure how else I would have learned about them. (I also got “gorilla” and “armadillo” confused and thought gorillas were living under the house for a while.)

What I remember using that computer for was chatting with friends on AOL. I would sit for hours and chat—I was right at the age when girls stereotypically become big phone-talkers, but synchronous chat completely replaced the telephone. For whatever reason, I never ventured into other online communities like chat rooms, though I knew they existed.

As I got older, technology became an increasingly central part of my life.  My parents bought me a cell phone when I was 16, and I have had one ever since (I have never owned landline). I continue my parents’ tradition of avoiding cable, but I have always owned a TV and I frequently watch shows through Hulu and Netflix. Facebook made its entrée into society my freshman year of college, and it quickly replaced AIM as my way of communicating with friends. I have moved around a lot since then, and Facebook has become a crucial part of maintaining distance relationships.

The ways in which I use technology for entertainment and communication feel completely natural, but even more natural is the way I use computers as tools for writing. My early enthusiasm with typing class and speed-typing games seems to have established a connection between writing and the computer that is irreversible. I rarely write by hand, and in fact feel uncomfortable doing so for anything longer than a grocery list. But something even stranger has happened—I feel as though I think best when I am typing. I nearly transcribe interesting meetings or classes, and I always “type through” ideas in a freewrite style. It is as though my learning style is tied to typing—instead of being a visual or auditory learner, I am a textual one, but not in the sense that I need to read to learn. I need to producewords to learn. And whether it is a symbol that represents a word or letters pressed by my fingers, to me, words exist on the screen.