When students step into Daniel Harrold’s English class, they enter another world, setting off on quests that take them deeper into the structure and meaning of great classical literature.

A senior English teacher at Baldwin High School in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District in the South Hills, Harrold is changing the landscape of education and the way students learn through digital technologies and gamification strategies.

A rising star in this emerging field, his approach has won him recognition as one of 100 educators across the country selected for the PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovators Program, a professional development program for K-12 tech savvy innovators who are flipping the traditional classroom.

“Technology is allowing teachers to finally start shifting centuries-old learning paradigms and engage students of varying talents and interests in a new way,” says Harrold.

With a degree in English teaching and a Master’s in Instructional Technology from Duquesne University behind him, Harrold is now working on his Ph.D. dissertation, studying the value of gamification and game-based learning on student learning habits as it applies to grades 9-12.

Daniel Harrold in his classroom. Rob Larson photo
Daniel Harrold in his classroom. Rob Larson photo

Students are still required to read the classics like “Beowulf,” he says, but when they come to class, they delve into the literature in a more engaging way.

Gamification and digital concepts are proving especially effective for the lowest and highest performing students who are often lost or bored in traditional learning environments, his own research shows. Students in the middle—and those who simply prefer the traditional setting—seem to perform the same in a digital setting, he says.

“Did it magically make school better for everybody? No,” Harrold says. “There are some who just don’t get into the work. The idea is to move the class away from this ‘gotcha method’ of teaching. It’s all about how it connects to your life.”

When students come to Harrold’s Software 3D Game Lab, they plug in their laptops and log in with a character name, level and rank. Each class goes off on a mission that must be completed. Units are structured as quests with questions that gauge understanding, exploration, synthesis and tests.

Harrold uses lab software developed by GoGo Labs, a startup out of Boise State University.

“I deliver video lectures and students respond, proving they’ve seen and understand the content,” he says.

The most important part of the lab is the synthesis element. Students create or make something, usually a project that illustrates their mastery of the material.

If they’ve read “King Arthur,” they might apply the principals by writing a script and acting in it or making a video. Some of the projects are open ended while others are more specific. As in gaming, students have the freedom to find their path through the process.

“Kids really thrive when they have ownership of their learning and agency in what they are doing,” says Harrold. “If a student knows they have a choice between assignments, they’re much more excited about it.”

Tests are given as individual assessments, which may be a paper or essay. If they achieve mastery, they receive points. Students have the freedom to fail, but unlike traditional testing, they learn from their mistakes rather than being penalized, he says.

“We need to work on creating these kinds of environments. If we do, I think we as educators we will be blown away by what students can do.”

Corey Wittig. Photo by Rob Larson
Corey Wittig. Photo by Rob Larson

Digital Library Learning Labs

Schools aren’t the only ones benefitting from the success of digital learning platforms. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is in the midst of expanding on the success of its digital learning labs, which provides programming to underserved communities.

Corey Wittig’s title at CLP proves just how far digital learning has come in recent years. As the director of digital strategy and a “digital learning librarian,” Wittig runs The Lab at East Liberty’s public library, a highly successful program tailored for teenagers in grades 6-12 and ages 12-18.

On drop-in days, East Liberty is buzzing with 15-20 students who arrive and quickly plug in on the provided computers. They not learn about software and hardware, but gain skill sets working with music, video, literature, story telling, photography, print screening and more.

The open lab environment has become a popular draw for these teens that may not have access to digital learning programs. It’s an exciting place to hang out, says Wittig. Library staff and volunteer mentors circulate the lab, assisting teens as they work on individual projects.

“They’re really learning to interact more intelligently with the world and each other through the lab,” says Wittig.

And this is just the beginning. CLP will roll out an expanded lab program in coming months with neighboring public library branches. Community partners like Hip Hop on Lock and Pittsburgh Filmmakers have signed on.

“We’re the library, we’re open to everybody, says Wittig. “There’s a large underserved population of kids who need opportunities and access to a support system. For us, the program is a real leveler.”

It’s one a big support system for learning and engaging in the community, he adds.

What would Fred Rogers say?

The growing importance of creative play in learning is a hot topic in education today. Digital and non-digital learning was a theme addressed at the Fred Forward Conference held in Pittsburgh in June.

Digital strategies, particularly for the very young, are a controversial topic in education circles, says Michael Robb, director of education and research of the Fred Rogers Center.

“We come to it from the perspective that games can offer a lot in the hands of a skilled teacher,” he says.

There is a distinct difference between the passive use of screen media, such as sitting a child in front of a screen, and actively engaging with an educational program with adult supervision, notes Robb.

To address this, the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning have issued a joint position statement that “when used intentionally and appropriately, technology and interactive media are effective tools to support learning and development.”

Gaming strategies also allow teachers to expand their reach in the classroom and individualize learning for each student. Games are both social and collaborative; they are also built better for assessment.

“You get a good snapshot of exactly what the child is achieving,” Robb adds.

The Fred Rogers Center and Common Sense Media provides professional development for educators, teaching them ways to use these tools for the maximum educational benefit.

Teachers are learning to align games with early learning and course standards across several subject areas including math, literacy, the arts and alphabet knowledge, says Robb. “These are meaningful experiences that are developmental appropriate that serve curricular goals.”

“There’s a place for the teacher in learning how to harness technology effectively,” he says. “Teachers can actually serve as a model for families in that regard.”

This Learning Innovation article is part of a multimedia collaborative in partnership with WESA, WQED and Pittsburgh Magazine. Made possible through a grant from the Grable Foundation, the project focuses on Pittsburgh’s leadership  to remake learning and create educational opportunities designed for our times.

The goal is to prepare our young people for college and the work force by building on the basics and connecting students with hands-on learning experiences that develop relevant skills.

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Deb Smit

Deb is an award-winning journalist who loves ancient places and cool technologies. A former daily newspaper reporter and Time-Life Books editor, she writes mostly about Pittsburgh. Her stories have appeared in Fast Company, Ozy and Pittsburgh Magazine.