Monday, June 15, 2015

How MOOCs led me to Harvard

Ramón Talavera Franco

In a way, MOOCs have led me to Harvard. A few days ago, I presented the first draft of a game designed for learning Spanish during the 2015 Heritage Language Research Institute sponsored by National Heritage Language Resource Center (NHLRC) and the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), at Harvard University. This Institute “brings together researchers from language sciences and education to focus on fostering new research in heritage language and to promote the heritage language agenda in academia and society at large” (NHLRC, n.d.).

I’m interested in Spanish heritage learners' linguistic variations, syntax, socio-cultural language norms, and pedagogy theories that explore best teaching practices for this particular linguistic group. Therefore, I often attend conferences and symposiums regarding this topic. Harvard hosted the 2015 Heritage Language Research Institute and I decided to go and dive into new learning.

During the third day of the Institute, a project proposals discussion opened to those attendees who wanted to talk about their own research. The projects were mainly focused on research about linguistics and pedagogy. Since I don’t have any project on the matter, I didn’t contemplate the idea of being one of the presenters. However, I changed my mind.

For several weeks, I’ve been designing a game to teach more “standardized” Spanish to Spanish heritage learners. I started to conceptualize this game several months ago but it wasn’t until I started the MOOC MITx: 11.127x Design and Development of Games for Learning that I sat down and worked on the project. This MOOC helped me to: a) learn how to apply game-design prototyping principals; b) learn what kind of material might help teachers understand instructional games before using them with their students and
c) analyze the kind of assessments that my game will need in order to collect information about students' learning outcomes. This MOOC is just an introduction of a big picture in instructional game design, but it provides the necessary tools and guides to continue learning on our own.

The project that I have been working on recognizes students’ previous Spanish language skills and builds upon them. Spanish heritage learners have learned Spanish mainly at home with their parents or grandparents, and they have learned a specific linguistic register used in their home environment: Spanglish, code-switching, Mexican Spanish, Colombian Spanish, etc. However, Spanish heritage learners hardly ever have received grammar classes nor have they developed writing, reading, speaking and listening skills to the fullest.

To motivate them to learn Spanish, I want them to read short sentences written in more standardized Spanish and “translate them” into the variety of Spanish that they know. Because I want them to have fun, I’m designing a game environment with different game elements and techniques that motivate students to play the game.

My knowledge about game elements and techniques was acquire from three different MOOCs:
 • Gamification--by Professor Kevin Werbach from University of Pennsylvania (Coursera)
 • Gamification--by Victor Manrique (Iversity)
 • Introduction to game design--by Dr. Eric Klopfer (edx)

Although these three courses helped me build knowledge about game-design and gamification, the Gamification MOOC by Dr. Kevin Werbach provided me with a clearer understanding of the different game elements and techniques that are necessary when designing a game or gamification product. I totally recommend it.

In addition to the MITx: 11.127x Design and Development of Games for Learning MOOC, these three MOOCs helped me create a Spanish for heritage learners game prototype that is in its initial stage. With the understanding that prototyping and play testing techniques need several iterations to ensure game elements functionality, constant feedback from possible users is needed. When I found an open spot in the 2015 Heritage Language Research Institute to present my prototype, I decided to take the risk. I confess that I was shy to ask for permission to present this idea (given the high quality of the presentations before me) but “he who does not speak god does not hear”.

In minutes, I had to prepare my presentation. I used a Gamification Prezi presentation (designed months ago) to explain game elements and techniques to the audience who were not much familiar with game design, and I had to run home (I live near Harvard) to print copies of the prototype draft. Had it not been for the different MOOCs taken on this issue and an ongoing interest and research on the topic, I would have never been able to take the opportunity to make a presentation at Harvard, and receive valuable comments from the audience. MOOCs pulled me out of a chair and placed me in front of an audience that I never thought it might be possible for me to address.


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