Ben Bertoli is a 6th grade teacher in Indianapolis, Indiana. His passion for gaming and teaching led to the creation of ClassRealm, a teaching method that relies on gamification to motivate learning.
Born from his passion for Role Playing Games (RPG’s), Bertoli designed this teaching method to implement some of the mechanics of the RPG. ClassRealm is a platform for teachers to introduce gamification into their classrooms, encourage better behaviour patterns, and promote creative expression. Experience points (XP) are the backbone; you earn this by participation, by being kind to others, by completing assignments, earning achievements and joining in special events. Students can also form alliances with other ClassRealm citizens and the alliance with the highest combined level at the end of the year wins a pizza party.
Gamification is basically using the techniques and mechanics of games to promote participation in non-gaming activities. It uses the techniques from gaming to tap into our psychological predisposition for fun, competing, to excel and be challenged. Bertoli has had such great success with ClassRealm that teachers world-wide have started to implement it in their own schools. His students see school as a place where they want to be; where education is not a chore but an exciting and fulfilling part of their daily lives.
Education is something that has always fascinated me. As a pupil I found school utterly boring and a waste of time. Teachers had a lack of imagination and failed to hold my attention. I am more than willing to admit that my experience in the South African school system is very subjective and that there are countless people who feel otherwise about it.
Notwithstanding the negative experience I had as a pupil, I do feel that school has tremendous potential to shape children; to prepare them for real life and to hone their minds in ways best suited to their individual capacities. I’ve talked to a lot of people about how they have experienced school. More often than not, I only hear the echo of my own experience. Now and then there would be someone who says that school was actually meaningful and fulfilling to them. There is always one reason that runs like a golden thread through all these positive experiences – there was a good teacher in it. Someone who took a personal interest in them; who saw their vocation as a calling, who was creative and whose passion for education inspired them to want to be taught.
Ben Bertoli is such a teacher.
Join me as I take a peek into the life of this extraordinary man.
Video games are surprisingly helpful in school. They often promote reading, help students think through problems, and give players a sense of accomplishment to strive for. - Ben B
You have managed to achieve blending your gaming passion into your occupation as a teacher. How was this received by your peers?
Ben B. “For a few it took some explaining as the vast majority of my peers are not gamers. Other teachers have commented that the system looks fun and that they would like to try implementing it in the future. No one has blown it off as a silly notion or discouraged me in any way. It's great to be in such a positive environment where I am supported at every turn!”
How was this idea received by the gaming community?
Ben B. “The gaming community has been very positive about ClassRealm so far. There have been those who say it won't work, or it will be bad for students in the end, but they don't usually bash it without brandishing a few facts. The ones who tear the system apart are important. They may point out problems that I have yet to see or haven't even considered. The gaming community has been very helpful and I constantly turn to my gaming friends on Kotaku and real life friends for advice about the project.”
Gaming has received a lot of bad press; it induces violent, anti-social behaviour and is the general scapegoat for unexplained teen tragedies. With ClassRealm you are showing parents that there are positive aspects to gaming. How has the parents received the project?
Ben B. “I wish I had a more exciting answer, but in all honesty parents haven't had a problem with ClassRealm to date. Most either forget it's going on or think it’s a fun way to get students involved. Parents are going to be one of our main three groups we want to please so their input is vital.”
How was the idea to use the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) as a teaching tool formed?
Ben B. “Years and years of Pokemon. Haha. I'm kind of kidding. I was never one to really get in to MMOPRGs, but I do love classic RPGs like Pokemon and EarthBound that promote exploration and gaining levels. I play so many video games (probably too many) and they are always on my mind. My subconscious would be making gaming connections as I taught and after going over the basic ideas with my pal Courtny Cotten, who is now a big part of ClassRealm, I thought I would set up a system for my students.”
This method of teaching relies heavily on the student’s willingness to participate and excel, as opposed to the traditional methods that rely more on the teacher’s ability to convey the school syllabus. What changes have you noticed in your students because of this new method of teaching?
Ben B. “The biggest change is probably participation. I always had a core group of kids who wanted to participate, but I wanted to get every student involved. Students want experience points (XP) and they know that participation is a great way to earn them. They have also done better behaviour wise. Being kind is another way to earn XP or achievements, so they go out of their way to help others on a daily basis.”
When you wrote that first article for Kotaku in beginning March, you were just starting out with ClassRealm. How has the project evolved since then?
Ben B. “ClassRealm is constantly changing. I have changed the way I take in student data and the way I display it for the class multiple times since the article. Each change has made the system that much better and the students have excelled. The plan is that ClassRealm will never stop evolving. It has to adapt to education and education never seems to stay the same. Our new website looks to do just that.”
Do you think ClassRealm has the potential to become a permanent part of the education system?
Ben B. “As a ridiculously optimistic person, I really do. It's going to be an uphill battle, but I think once we get established we will impress enough educators, students and parents to become a part of many school systems. Of course this will take time and effort, but my team and I are willing to give it everything we have. “
With the ClassRealm website you have also created a platform for teachers around the world to bounce ideas off each other. This has the potential to develop into a resource centre for creative teaching. Do you have any plans for ClassRealm to develop into something like that?
Ben B. “I can't go in to specific detail on what exactly we have planned, but it will connect any and every teacher on the ClassRealm network. I have run it by many teachers and they feel it could be a game changer as far as creative lesson planning is concerned. I'm sorry that I can't say more, but it will be revealed in time!”
From what you’ve seen has there been any negative side effects from introducing gamification into teaching?
Ben B. “The biggest negative side effect is that the system I have in place now is time consuming for me as a teacher. I could see many other teachers not wanting to deal with the stress of keeping track of all the XP and achievements. The good part is that this is exactly why we are building the website, so teachers don't have to do things the hard way. We want to make ClassRealm a smooth and user friendly interface that any teacher can use.”
What changes would you like to see happen in the current education system?
Ben B. “As a first year teacher I still have much to learn. I'm still taking in the whole teaching world. I suppose there is one thing that I would want to see happen; pushing higher education students to greater potentials. I feel that most schools put their focus on students who are behind, which isn't a bad thing, but sometimes the students who are ahead are left out to dry. The curriculum isn't hard enough for them and school becomes a boring chore. We need to make sure these students are being challenged. As I mentioned before, education is a consistently changing system. It's one that is extremely important, so the changes have to benefit the students involved. I hope ClassRealm can become one of those changes."
Children are shaped by the world around them. With ClassRealm, Bertoli has invented a teaching method that promotes intrinsic motivation (motivation that comes from within) by extrinsic motivation (motivation that is influenced by external factors, in this case, gamification). He pulled this off by drawing from his passion for gaming. He is an example of someone that desired a change and then he made it happen.
I am a firm believer of only pouring my time and effort into those things I am passionate about. Passion infuses and permeates those activities with creativity and energy. Bertoli’s life challenges me as a gamer to give back into an industry that has given me countless hours of entertainment and joy. He leaves the unspoken challenge in my heart of how I will impact my world with that which I am passionate about.