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Microcore: Using Online Playable Cases to Increase Student Engagement in Online Writing Environments

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This case study explores a type of educational simulation, an alternative reality game we call a playable case study (PCS), and how its use influenced student engagement in an online writing classroom. The goal of the simulation was to help students create professional communication artifacts and experience real-world professional communication situations. This article reports the effectiveness of the playable case study as a tool specifically for online writing instruction (OWI). The context of our research was a PCS called Microcore. Acting as interns for a company, students are asked to investigate a serious problem that occurs and present a solution to ensure similar problems do not occur again. Forty-seven students in two sections of an online professional writing classroom responded to pre-and post-survey questions and prompts that gathered their perceptions about writing, understanding of workplace communication, and levels of engagement. Responses were coded and analyzed for thematic trends. Results suggest that playable case studies like the one reported here may be effective in countering primary OWI difficulties, including disengagement; lack of social presence; faltering self-efficacy; and unclear, unproductive perceptions about writing assignments. Students responded positively to the simulation and appeared to develop more realistic views about workplace communication.
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Microcore: Using Online Playable Cases to
Increase Student Engagement in Online
Writing Environments
Jon Balzotti, Kevin Haws, Amy A. Rogers, Jason K. McDonald, &
Matthew J. Baker
This case study explores a type of educational simulation, an alternative reality
game we call a playable case study (PCS), and how its use influenced student
engagement in an online writing classroom. The goal of the simulation was to
help students create professional communication artifacts and experience real-
world professional communication situations. This article reports the
effectiveness of the playable case study as a tool specifically for online writing
instruction (OWI). The context of our research was a PCS called Microcore.
Acting as interns for a company, students are asked to investigate a serious
problem that occurs and present a solution to ensure similar problems do not
occur again. Forty-seven students in two sections of an online professional
writing classroom responded to pre- and post-survey questions and prompts that
gathered their perceptions about writing, understanding of workplace
communication, and levels of engagement. Responses were coded and analyzed
for thematic trends. Results suggest that playable case studies like the one
reported here may be effective in countering primary OWI difficulties, including
disengagement; lack of social presence; faltering self-efficacy; and unclear,
unproductive perceptions about writing assignments. Students responded
positively to the simulation and appeared to develop more realistic views about
workplace communication.
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Keywords: Authentic Learning, educational simulations, Online Writing Instruction,
Playable Case Study, Student Engagement
IntroductionIntroduction
Educational studies have long stated that student interest, engagement, and motivation are
necessary for active, lasting learning. As Sullivan (2011) argued, “students who are
engaged and motivated learn almost effortlessly. Those who are not almost always
struggle, resist, and often fail” (p. 120). These ideas are echoed by Meyer (2014), who said
that authentic learning in online classrooms requires engagement in the situation at hand—
solving realistic problems and encouraging deeper engagement in assignments. However,
engagement is particularly difficult to maintain in online writing classrooms because of the
unique challenges that both students and teachers face. These include uncertainty related
to assignments and tasks, feelings of detachment and isolation, and unclear expectations
(Cunningham, 2015; Kebritchi et al., 2017). Additional studies express concern that a lack
of social presence, engagement, humanity, and training affect the learning value of online
writing courses (Gouge, 2009; Hewett & Bourelle, 2017; Hewett & DePew, 2015). Further,
students in online writing environments “often perceive the content knowledge they learn
as independent bits of information rather than as parts of larger related constructs,”
leading to a failure to integrate and transfer writing skills (Boiarsky, 2004, pp. 252–53).
How to remedy this issue of engagement, along with other difficulties associated with
digital learning, is still deeply debated by online writing instruction (OWI) researchers.
Hewett and DePew (2015) argue that there is very little in terms of OWI practices “that
might possibly be called ‘effective, let alone ‘best’” (p. 34), with ideas and local
developments that don’t transfer broadly to other institutions. They further argue for
innovations in online writing instruction that work to address issues of transfer. Other
scholars have similarly insisted on the necessity of improving the quality of online writing
instruction in overall design structure and focus, and offer largely broad suggestions for
how to do so (Greer & Harris, 2018; Kebritchi et al., 2017). For example, Cunningham (2015)
advocated helping students feel like they are communicating with actual others, addressing
an often-missing sense of community in writing. Stella and Corry (2016) recommend a
greater emphasis, structurally, on engagement, while Greer and Harris (2018) desired
structure to be less reliant on systems and more focused on individual users. Hewett et al.
(2011) asked OWI faculty what the most important principles, theoretical or pedagogical,
are for OWI. Responses included “audience and purpose,” “writing as a (social) process”
(pp. 49-50), and more face-to-face interaction with students. These findings reflect Hewett
and DePew’s argument that OWI scholarship could use innovative practices that address
the needs of online writing (OW) students.
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In this paper we report our study of how online writing instructors can address these and
similar issues through the use of serious games. Girard et al. (2013) defined serious games
as “digital games, simulations, virtual environments, and mixed reality” that are concerned
with education over entertainment through responsive narrative and story (pp. 208–210).
Often, such games take the form of some type of simulation, which Gredler (2004) defined
as, “open-ended evolving situations with many interacting variables. The goal for all
participants is to each take a particular role, address the issues, threats, and problems that
arise in the situation, and experience the effects of their decisions” (p. 571). The use of
simulations as instruction has been a staple of both business and medical education since
the 1950s (Gredler, 2004), and in the Internet-age their use has spread widely to other
domains in higher education (Chernikova et al., 2020). Recently, a form of mixed-reality
simulation known as an alternative reality game (ARG) has emerged as a new educational
platform that focuses on student engagement in the classroom. ARGs are, a genre of
transmedia storytelling, comprised of interactive elements. . .To engage with an ARG,
players . . . solve puzzles and [find] clues to reassemble the fragments of a story”
(Bonsignore et al., 2014, p. 1). Over the past six years, we have developed and researched
the effects of a form of alternative reality game we call a playable case study (PCS). The
PCS is a unique contribution to the area of educational simulations through its combination
of authentic tasks, fictional (yet realistic) storylines, transmedia forms of interaction (both
computer-assisted and non-digital activities), that can be integrated into classroom
instruction with minimal technical know-how or preparation on the part of the teachers
involved (citation masked for review). In this paper we describe the PCS, called
Microcore
,
and report our investigation into the following research questions:
1. In what ways does a professional context simulated through a playable case study
impact students’ writing and engagement in an online course?
2. What are the effects of the playable case study on student learning and how students
approach professional writing and communication?
Literature ReviewLiterature Review
The Growth of Serious Games in Education
In the last two decades, since the development and gradual proliferation of serious games
for education (Whitton, 2008), researchers and subject experts have considered the
utilization of computer-based interactive games for writing instruction. Findings in
education and technology studies have suggested that serious games can promote
engagement and responsibility for one’s own learning (Anastasiadis et al., 2018; Bagley &
Shaffer, 2011; Finseth, 2015). Some even claim that these types of games may even teach
more effectively than traditional methods in classroom instruction (Girard et al., 2013;
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Kebritchi et al., 2017; Silvia, 2008; Sitzmann, 2011). Alexander (2009) recommended that
instructors consider using complex computer games as primary ‘texts’ in composition
courses as a way to engage with students” (p. 37). In a similar manner, Moseley (2012)
argued that the field has reached a point where games can reach new audiences of
learners because of the different types of educational engagement and effectiveness they
can provide.
However, a restrictive belief has persisted in the academic field that the “social motive of
schooling . . . is fundamentally different than that of work. And schooling cannot represent
the activity of workplaces, even in simulations” (Russell & Fisher, 2010, p. 164). Some
researchers have even claimed that only professional contexts can help students learn the
professional communication genres they will need in the workplace, even if school
contexts are simulating the professional context (Freedman et al., 1994). Although not new,
this belief became more widespread with the advent of the Internet and alternative
teaching methods. But as more time and research has been applied to the topic, the
conversation has shifted more toward advocating for the affordances that simulations,
serious games, and similar strategies provide, along with their intrinsically motivating
aspects in classrooms (Chaudhuri, 2020). However, certain divergent views have stated
that simulations are not more motivating under all circumstances, contradicting the
findings of Chaudhuri and others (Sailer & Homner, 2020). Thus, the research surrounding
serious games is still in development, though many researchers lean toward the positive
benefits that the technology can have in classrooms.
Serious Games as Tools of Engagement
One aspect of serious games that has not been sufficiently investigated is how they can
function in and potentially counter the challenges of online writing instruction (OWI). The
inherent problems with OWI—namely, expectations on feedback and structure,
disconnection and lack of identity, and passive or nonexistent engagement (Kebritchi et al.,
2017)—need to be addressed in this digital age. Simulation-based serious games, in which
students are placed in new environments outside of school, could be a new solution to this
problem of online engagement. Games such as SimCity have been used in traditional, in-
person classrooms (Bagley & Shaffer, 2011), as have more directly educational simulations
like the VirtualPREX Classroom Simulation (Dalgarno et al., 2016), and MyCase (Russell &
Fisher, 2010). Russell and Fisher (2010) noted that such experiences create conditions in
which students can experience in a vicarious way what it is like to participate as a member
of a given community. These sorts of serious games are designed to transport participants
into a fictitious story environment, where they are expected to learn to succeed in specific
circumstances, interact with strangers, and deliver products in a way that mimics the real
world.
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hen students take online courses, there is an even greater need for engagement, since
students have a far greater degree of control over their choices and amount of conscious
participation (Stella & Corry, 2016). Serious games like ARGs, simulations, and playable
case studies have been reported to increase overall engagement through a greater sense
of interaction and control over learning, immersion, and complex, compelling narrative and
real-world situations (Bonsignore et al., 2014; Gredler, 2004; Hansen et al., 2017; Russell &
Fisher, 2010). Therefore, for serious games to be effective online teaching tools, they must
sufficiently engage students.
The Workplace Communication Simulation Microcore
Against this backdrop of research, we have developed a new form of educational game
called a playable case study (PCS). The goal of the PCS is to allow students to participate
in realistic and engaging environments that simulate some aspect of the professional
practices for which they are being prepared. Given the need in many workplace settings for
professional writing (Williams & Beam, 2019), the PCS environment meaningfully integrates
writing into other professional assignments that students will perceive as applicable
outside of school. This allows students to demonstrate skills associated with critical
thinking and argumentative writing in simulated environments that have real-world
affordances (Hansen et al., 2017). The PCS genre is modeled on a type of serious game
called an alternative reality game (ARG), that is characterized by gameplay taking place in
both computer-simulated environments as well as players’ everyday lives (Hansen et al.,
2013; Kim et al., 2008). This blend of environments encourages a gaming ethos known as
This is Not a Game, “meaning the simulation strives against interface forms that
participants perceive to have been fabricated. Interactions take place in the context of
authentic digital or face-to-face modes of communication as much as possible” (Winters et
al, 2020, p. 128). These immersive stories as the core of the simulation require the
participants—here, students—to be a part of something that feels authentic, active, and
personalized. This design creates ownership of learning, interest, and engagement through
narrative, which stimulates knowledge acquisition and comprehension (Abrahamson, 1998;
Hidi, 2006; McDaniel et al., 2000; Meyer, 2014). The most effective learning requires a
developed sense of challenge and individual involvement in order to remain situationally
interested in computer-based assignments (Finseth, 2015; Tulis & Fulmer, 2013). The open-
ended approach of the PCS is designed to achieve effective learning and imitate the
business world through rigorous challenge and intellectual demand. This article focuses on
a PCS—known as
Microcore
—developed for advanced writing courses.
MethodMethod
Game Description
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Microcore is a fictitious startup tech company, specializing in revolutionary medical
nanotechnology that is on the verge of breaking into the market. Acting as new interns for
the company, students are asked to investigate a serious problem that occurs—a test pig
explodes due to malfunctioning nanomachines—and present a solution to ensure similar
problems do not occur again. Using style guides, pre-recorded but interactive video
interviews, clickable images, and other tools shown in Figures 1 and 2, participants
investigate the incident and draw conclusions to present to company management in the
form of a business proposal.
Figure 1Figure 1
Microcore features. These include information about the (fictional) team, the library of
materials—style guides and templates—an email system, and a virtual crime scene photo
with clickable items.
Figure 2Figure 2
Microcore corporate Intranet. Progress through the five virtual days and daily tasks are
shown on the left. Student (bottom-right of central image) is interviewing fictional
character, Caroline, by selecting options from the Question Bank. Notes can be taken on the
right
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As shown in Figure 2, there are five total “days” in the PCS, each giving participants a series
of tasks to complete before moving on to the next day, as well as providing new
information to assist them in their cumulative goal of determining the cause of the problem
and recommending a solution in the form of a written proposal. It is not mandated what
solution should be presented. The open-ended setup is meant to encourage greater
creativity and engagement. As Sitzmann (2011) noted, “high interactivity and the
opportunity to make choices while participating in simulation games may result in trainees
[participants] feeling empowered, ultimately enhancing [their] self-efficacy” (p. 495) and
personal investment in their own learning and end product. Participants in
Microcore
have
a company contact named Bob, who provides instruction on how to navigate the website
and assigned daily tasks. In the course of their investigation, participants interact with
several other employees at the company who present differing viewpoints, priorities, and
interpretations of events, which students evaluate and consider to come up with their final
solution and recommendation. This interactive element utilizes principles of ARG combined
with the open-ended, ever-evolving component of simulations to create the playable case.
According to the College Composition and Communication Committee (CCCC) for Effective
Practices for Online Writing Instruction, “an online writing course should focus on writing
and not on technology orientation” and “appropriate composition teaching/learning
strategies should be developed for the unique features of the online instructional
environment” (CCCC Executive Committee, 2013). This principle was echoed by Greer and
Harris (2018), who stated that instructors should ensure they are prioritizing student needs
above the technology to be truly effective. Serious games should first and foremost be
about education.
Microcore
was created to function similarly, and thus meets the CCCC
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requirements and expectations. If students connect with the PCS and it counteracts online
writing instruction issues,
Microcore
could serve as a reliable technology and method of
teaching in digital classrooms. OWI needs effective best practices—ones that aim at
engaging and at creating authentic skills, self-efficacy, and investment in personal learning.
Participants
During the Fall 2018, we used the
Microcore
playable case in two advanced online technical
writing courses at a major western university. Populating these sections of advanced
technical writing were students of both sexes, between twenty and twenty-five years of age,
in their junior or senior years of college, and in pursuit primarily of technical degrees. These
academic pursuits varied from neuroscience and civil engineering to public health and
communication disciplines, allowing for a wide spectrum of intellectual diversity. Of the 50
students enrolled in both sections, 47 students agreed to complete both questionnaires
about their experience using the simulation tool and allow researchers access to those
responses. All students in the two classes participated in the simulation, so we could not
include a control group. All policies of the university’s institutional review board (IRB) were
followed for the administration and analysis of the survey described in the next sections.
Data Collection and Coding
The aim of the technical writing course is to instruct students on how to produce clear,
effective communication commonly used in professional environments, with the students
learning genre conventions and creating a variety of technical documents, including
literature reviews, presentations, and business proposals.
Microcore
aids in this teaching
as it asks students to create a business proposal, as well as other smaller documents such
as press releases and memos. The students in both sections of technical writing were
required to take part in the playable case for the class, which was conducted and played in
November 2018 over a two-week period. This was the penultimate unit, after the unit on
writing instructions and before the final one focusing on literature reviews, so by this point
students had over half a semester of exposure to the course and online environment. The
instructor who ran
Microcore
for both sections has previous experience with the technical
communication course and OWI. However, this was the instructor’s first opportunity to
teach this specific course online.
Our research team collected two sources of data on the students’ experience with the
online PCS: (1) pre and post surveys and (2) student written work in the form of online
chats, emails, and class writing assignments.
To introduce students to the
Microcore
PCS, they filled out an electronic pre-survey, which
asked a series of questions regarding views on communication, the writing process, and
self-efficacy. Then, after the PCS was completed two weeks later, students were asked to
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complete a post-survey, which asked similar questions to the pre-survey. Both surveys were
written in-character from the perspective of a company contact in the HR department to
allow for authenticity and a more pronounced sense of verisimilitude.
The questions in the surveys can be divided into two parts, based on type. In one part,
students were asked open-ended questions about applicable prior experiences (for
verisimilitude), perceptions about communication and how to solve problems therein, and
writing processes. In the second part, students were given prompts and asked to select
their level of agreement (Not Sure, Strongly Disagreed, Somewhat Disagreed, Neutral,
Agree, Strongly Agree). This scale was developed from Donald O. Prickel's research in 1994
on adult basic writing and its use in correlational analysis. Higher scores indicate higher
self-efficacy. These modified Likert scale prompts dealt with self-efficacy in workplace
writing, confidence in personal capacity to function well in a more professional setting, and
feelings of engagement.
While care was taken to ensure consistency across the pre- and post-survey questions,
some questions were adjusted in the post-survey after we could ensure that students had
experience with workplace communication. For example, general questions about
communication problems and the writing process were asked in the pre-survey because
previous exposure to workplace communication and the proposal genre could not be
guaranteed for all participants. The questions were then specifically applied to workplace
communication and proposals in the post-survey.
The student responses were collected and organized onto a multi-tab spreadsheet, with IDs
being provided to students in order to deidentify the data. Two researchers followed the
coding process described by Blakeslee and Fleischer (2010), including identifying themes,
identifying categories within the themes, and coding for the themes. Specifically, with the
pre-survey responses next to the post-survey ones, two researchers developed coding
schemes for the data, searching for relevant changes in wording and ideas between the
two sets of responses. These researchers had no predetermined changes for which they
were specifically looking. Rather, as they went through each question and compared pre-
and post-survey responses, themes became distinct between the responses before and
after the PCS. They tested a code on one set of questions, found the code to be effective
as an overall trend in the responses, and then repeated the process for the remaining open-
ended questions and prompts. For the Likert-scale prompts discussing self-efficacy and
engagement, the researchers calculated the numerical difference in responses between
pre- and post-survey responses.
Comparing responses between the surveys for our open-ended questions suggested trends
in expanded understanding of the social demands and humanity of workplace
communication, in developed nuance in the scope of resolution required for solutions to
miscommunication, and in greater sense of purpose and meaning with the
Microcore
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proposal project. For the Likert-scale prompts, we found an overall positive increase in
online student engagement and confidence with writing assignments and business
communication.
FindingsFindings
Understanding of the Social Dimension
Student definitions of what it means to communicate professionally saw a pronounced
change between the pre- and post-surveys, with students identifying a social dimension to
communication. Many of the responses to the question before the PCS were impersonal in
tone and generic in content. After the PCS, students appeared to see a human- and
audience-focused element in workplace situations, coloring their responses and offering
more professional answers. Table 1 reports student responses to the open-ended question,
“What is the goal of professional communication” that illustrates this finding.
Table 1Table 1
A Subset of Student Responses About Professional Communication
Pre- and Post-Survey: What is the goal of professional communication?Pre- and Post-Survey: What is the goal of professional communication?
Student
ID
Pre-Survey Response Post-Survey Response
344 “To allow people to communicate in a
structured way that can be standard across
many companies and industries.”
“To express your feelings, thoughts, and concerns to
others in a professional manner. This often entails
following a pattern or style that has been developed
within [a] company.
529 “The goal of professional communication is to
discuss matters of importance and work
through the everyday challenges of a work
environment.
“The goal of professional communication is to be clear,
approachable, and open in your interactions with others
via email, phone, and face-to-face conversation.
636 “The goal of professional communication is to
ensure cooperation and efficiency in
professional environments.
“To ensure that all levels of an organization interact in a
professional manner and without misunderstandings.
152 “Communicate clearly any and all details
pertinent to business.”
“To clearly communicate information so that recipients
of the information can completely understand what is
going on.”
Students at first appeared to see professional communication as something technical,
objective, and aloof. After the PCS, original definitions and conceptions about
communication seemed to expand, with students adding elements of socialization and
humanity being prominent. They latched onto the social dimension, with their answers
reflecting real-world interaction and complication possibly better than could be achieved in
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a traditional, lecture-based classroom environment. There was greater awareness of
audience and its social necessities in professional communication. Post-survey responses
included expanded ideas and terms such as collaboration (“team, “coworkers,
“leadership,” “all levels of an organization,” “interact,” and “help each other”), clarity (“flow of
information, “no ambiguities or misunderstandings” and “limit miscommunication”), and
personality (“open, “approachable, “timely, and professional”). This theme was almost
entirely consistent, with only two of the post-survey responses not mentioning the
involvement of others or demonstrating any substantial changes between pre- and post-
survey responses.
Varied Solutions
Microcore
was built to present its users with workplace communication problems, which
we specifically asked students about to determine if their methods of addressing such
problems would change. A theme emerged between the two surveys of greater nuance in
their scope of what it means to resolve communication problems, with larger-scale fixes—
beyond just themselves—being necessary for successful solutions to these kinds of issues,
as reported in Table 2.
Table 2Table 2
A Subset of Student Responses About Communication Problems
Pre-Survey: How do you solve communication problems you encounter? Post-Survey: How do youPre-Survey: How do you solve communication problems you encounter? Post-Survey: How do you
solve communication problems in the workplace?solve communication problems in the workplace?
Student
ID
Pre-Survey Response Post-Survey Response
152 “By trying to understand the disconnect and
fixing it.”
“By communicating. Try different methods of
communication, go to other employees, managers, etc.
344 “I prefer to speak with people and figure out
what went wrong and discuss how to fix it
moving forward.
“You have to determine what is causing the problem, and
then develop a method that will allow all people within
the organization to communicate effectively and then
implement it.”
404 “I consider who I am communicating with,
what we are discussing and how to best
deliver the information I need to share. If there
is a problem, I first look to see what I can
change on my end to ensure that proper
communication is re-established.
“Accountability. Documentation. If I need to speak with
someone I reach out in more than one way. If something
needs to be clarified I seek out the necessary authority
and ask for help. I do not simply ‘wing it’ to prevent
uncomfortable conversations.”
560 “When communicating through writing, I
revise to make sure I am clear and concise.
For large projects, I have others review my
writing. I ask for clarification if I do not
understand the others’ communication.”
“Communication requires a shift in company culture.
Individuals should understand the importance of working
on a team and that each member has a valuable role
which can’t be completed unless everyone cooperates.
Rules will be set in place until communication is more
fluid in the work environment.
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Students seemed to develop a more nuanced perspective about miscommunication and
what it takes to fix communication problems, along with varied solutions to address such
issues. The responses in the pre-survey offered simple, general solutions that often simply
involved discussing the miscommunication with someone via an unspecified dialogue
method. However, after the PCS was completed, students offered more precise and varied
solutions to communication problems and took personal responsibility for the issues they
encountered. We found a pronounced trend of needing to implement solutions to prevent
future problems (“setting specific regulations,” “approachable leaders,“rules set in place,”
and “build trust and foster communication between team members”). Previously,
responses largely suggested that a communication problem, once addressed just by the
students, would not thereafter be a recurring issue. This viewpoint appeared to evolve. Even
responses that did not seem to change as much had some greater degree of nuance
expressed through wording, including the importance of speaking “directly,replying in a
“timely manner,and trying “different methods of communication” if one method does not
work to ensure that the needed information is conveyed.
Greater Sense of Purpose
Having addressed workplace communication, we wanted to determine the effect of the
PCS on students’ writing process. Post-survey responses indicated that students
experienced a level of enjoyment and a sense of realism and purpose with the writing
process. One student wrote, “The nature of these documents [proposals] being centered
around events and actions to be taken in response was something new and something I
very much enjoyed. Another stated, “It was more enjoyable [than other writing
assignments]. I was actually engaged in the process and was curious about what was
going on.” Proposals were unfamiliar to students, but students were engaged in the
process of writing them.
Despite the “playable” nature of this case, students appeared to take it seriously. As one
student wrote, “I felt that the writing assignments during the
Microcore
internship were
actually meaningful and are . . . like what I could potentially be writing down the line of my
future career. Another wrote about how the nature of the information they presented was
important: “My proposal could get someone fired. That is life changing. It also could be a
mistake for the company, should any of the proposal [sic] turn out to be incorrect
information or a bad process.” It seemed to feel real, with some even comprehending that
their proposals—their suggestions of company action—could have drastic, real-world
consequences, from company expenses to the firing of employees. This developed sense
of purpose was reflected across most of the responses, with only three expressing
superficial differences such as mentioning the templates and style guides that were
provided with the PCS.
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The students’ expanded definitions and conceptions about professional communication
and writing indicate an overall positive, rounded change in perspective that reflects a
developed sensitivity to a professional context. The students appeared to identify social
themes, explore larger intricacies, and develop real-world investment from the
Microcore
PCS.
Self-Efficacy and Engagement
Students responded to Likert-scale prompts before and after the case that assessed their
self-efficacy and confidence in solving workplace problems with writing and professional
communication skills, asserting the place writing has in their future careers,
communicating in a workplace environment, understanding how writing functions in the
workplace, and navigating people and tasks in the business world. They responded as
shown in Table 3.
Table 3Table 3
Student’s Self-Ratings Regarding Their Writing Self-Efficacy
Average Pre- and Post-Survey Responses Regarding Self-Efficacy.Average Pre- and Post-Survey Responses Regarding Self-Efficacy.
Prompt Pre- survey
average
Post-survey
average
I am confident in my ability to solve workplace problems with writing. 5.25 5.8
Writing is critical to my future career. 5.55 5.8
I am confident in my communication skills in a workplace environment. 6.05 5.8
I understand how professional writing functions in a workplace environment. 5.75 5.9
I am confident in my ability to navigate people, tasks, and difficulties related to
communication in a business environment.
5.55 6
In four of the five responses, students reported increased self-efficacy after participating in
the PCS. In particular, students reported greater confidence and self-efficacy in solving
workplace problems with writing and professional communication skills, asserting the
place writing has in their future careers, understanding how writing functions in the
workplace, and navigating people and tasks in the business world.
This generally positive response count continued with the final section of Likert-scale
prompts, in which we assessed student engagement and recommendation for this method
of instruction. This was especially important to determine if this method of OWI would be
able to counteract one of the inherent problems—lack of engagement—associated with
online learning. These results are shown in Table 4.
Table 4Table 4
Mean Student Responses to Questions of Engagement
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Post-Survey: Select the appropriate level of agreement with each of the following statements.Post-Survey: Select the appropriate level of agreement with each of the following statements.
Prompt Mean Post-Survey Responses
I found this digital internship to be interesting. 6.05
I was engaged with the assignments I was given. 5.75
The resources provided to me were helpful in understanding my assignments. 5.7
I would recommend the Microcore internship to others. 5.55
In response to all questions, students on average agreed that the PCS was interesting and
engaging. Further, students on average agreed that they would recommend the case to
others. Despite these positive responses, many of these students had feedback to offer in
the post-survey on how to better improve the internship experience in the simulation, which
suggests some opportunities for improving the simulation. However, based on the large-
scale trend toward positive change in student responses, it would seem that
Microcore
is
able to generate sufficient engagement with online students.
DiscussionDiscussion
Our intent with this survey study was to test the PCS to see what kind of impact it would
have in online writing instruction. In response to research question one, results from the
study indicate that the simulated environment of the
Microcore
PCS positively impacted
students’ writing and engagement with course topics related to business communication.
The majority of students who participated in this study reported increases in self-efficacy,
reported feeling engaged and invested in the material, and reported enhanced
understanding of the social elements of professional communication. In response to
research question two, students reported more nuanced and varied solutions to
communication problems. Their responses indicated expanded understanding of the social
demands and humanity of workplace communication, a stronger sense of nuance in how to
resolve miscommunications, and a greater sense of purpose related to the importance of
professional communications. In the discussion that follows we offer some commentary
on these findings.
In pre-survey responses, students’ definitions of professional communication were general
and detached. However, with the completion of the PCS, students seemed to describe a
greater level of humanity and social interaction necessary for effective technical
communication. As Finseth (2015) stated, “technical writing does not happen in a bubble”
(p. 258), and she advocates for technical communication instructors creating game-based
classrooms to “keep a keen focus on the importance of audience” (p. 247). She observes
that interactive games could theoretically enable students to gain this sense of audience
because such games allow for audiences other than the instructor. This study applies
Finseth’s (2015) theoretical claim and provides some empirical evidence that suggests that
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a playable case study enhances students’ attentiveness to audience, as supported by the
students’ responses to the pre- and post-survey questions. Specifically, the themes and
changes in audience-focused word choices—repeated across the responses we received—
suggest that students came to better consider their audiences, which we presume
occurred through their interactions with the PCS’s characters and personalities.
Pre-survey resolutions to communication problems were often simple and limited to
students’ reliance on their own selves and on one-and-done solutions, but these views
changed in the post-survey, where they provided greater depth and variety of answers, with
the need for systemic alterations and follow-ups. Students appeared to grasp that writing
and interaction within a workplace is not isolated—even a simulated work environment—
and responded accordingly. Students commented on the complexity of workplace
communication, as shown in Table 3, and reported a decrease in their perceived
preparation for workplace communication. This decrease may signal students’ willingness
to better prepare for a more complex communication environment. Freedman et al. (1994)
argue that students must be embedded within workplace contexts and not educational
contexts to understand communication genres and their complexities. They argue that
students must learn genres by gaining “sense from the inside” (p. 221) or organizations.
However, more recent research provides some qualitative evidence that online simulations
encourage students to transfer genre knowledge from the classroom to the workplace
(Meyer, 2014; Russell & Fisher, 2010). Furthermore, Farashahi and Tajeddin (2018) argued
that simulations were the most effective method of teaching problem solving skills in
business settings when compared to case studies and lectures. The present study provides
additional support that online simulations, PCSs in particular, help students gain some
sense of the complexities of the workplace environment and the communication that
occurs therein. These findings suggest a potential value of the playable case format we did
not anticipate at the beginning of our research. It seems the simulation helped attune
students to some of the detail and nuance that accompanies expert performance in
professional fields.
With the final open-ended questions, we aimed to see if student approaches and feelings
about
Microcore
writing projects were distinct from those of other school assignments.
The findings in this study provide empirical support for the connection between objectives
and engagement as the students participating in
Microcore
reported a greater sense of
enjoyment with the final proposal product and work they did, compared to other school
assignments, along with a developed sense of personal responsibility. The
Microcore
case
clearly defined the students’ roles and responsibilities, which seemed to contribute to a
greater investment in their own learning and proposal they were creating. This aligns with
other research on the use of educational simulations in a variety of settings to improve
student engagement (Bigdeli & Kaufman, 2017; Shin et al., 2019; Veermans & Jaakkola,
2019). The majority of students also reported increases in self-efficacy and pronounced
engagement with the PCS. Only one statement saw a dip in self-efficacy: “I am confident in
my communication skills in a workplace environment.” This change may be due to having
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perspectives changed on what exactly business communication entails after being
exposed to the complexity and intricacy of the workplace. Thus, this decline could reflect
students’ more realistic understanding of the complexities of real-world workplace
communication.
Our findings offer intriguing insights into student perceptions about communication and
writing within the confines of online classes. Whitton (2008) suggested that there are three
integral components with ARGs in order for them to be effective: exposition, interaction,
and challenge. Sitzmann (2011) agreed with Whitton, stating that these narrative and
design elements create a digital space for “engaging and engrossing” (p. 493) content. The
Microcore
PCS meets these criteria with a clear fictitious setting that places students in an
important and interactive role, which expects them to produce a final product: a proposal—
a genre with which few students had any prior experience. This sense of challenge is
important for immersion, engagement, and active learning and retention (Dorn, 1999;
Meyer, 2014; Tulis & Fulmer, 2013). Students on average seemed to find
Microcore
to be
engaging and worthy of recommendation for similar classes, suggesting promise for the
use of PCSs in OWI.
Based on these findings from our surveys, it seems that the PCS positively impacted online
student writing, self-efficacy, and engagement, with visible upward trends from the
responses we received. Vogel et al. (2006) similarly found that “those using interactive
simulations or games report higher cognitive gains and better attitudes toward learning
compared to those using traditional teaching methods.” They do mention that, at the time,
this claim was considered to have an insufficient research base to be entirely stated with
confidence. However, this conclusion was independently reached by a number of other
researchers (Meyer, 2014; Russell & Fisher, 2010; Sitzmann, 2011). Our results seem to
align, with students reporting cognitive gains in demonstrating clearer and more nuanced
approaches to communication and reporting better attitudes through their increases in
self-efficacy.
Implications
This study has implications both for online writing instructors and for OWI researchers.
Self-efficacy and the development of writing skills both happen slowly (Bruning et al.,
2013), so serious games are not one-and-done solutions. But based on research from a
number of scholars investigating other serious games and the preliminary results found in
this study, the possibility exists for playable case studies to help online writing instructors
develop greater engagement with students and help them authentically learn and practice
their writing skills. Sitzmann (2011), Girard et al. (2013), and others seem to reflect this
claim with traditional classrooms and ARGs and educational simulations. As we found with
this study,
Microcore
also appears to alleviate struggles typically found in
online
courses:
lacking identity, disassociation and disengagement, and lacking control and interactive
elements. A “social presence” (Cunningham, 2015, p. 35) is needed in every classroom to
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create sufficient interest, personal and situational. This effort to engage learners through
narrative, to build connections through stories—as Abrahamson (1998) advocated—can
create a sense of community and allow for increased retention and confidence within a
program (see also Meyer, 2014). Trends in student responses suggest that playable case
studies like
Microcore
could be useful to online writing instructors in rounding out student
perceptions on writing assignments, increasing engagement and self-efficacy overall
(though this will vary from student to student), and having a positive impact on the
mentality of their students in regard to writing. Finally, it seems that the simulated
environment of the PCS may be useful in attuning students to the importance of situational
discriminations, as well as give them some initial practice with doing so.
Future Research
Future research could compare responses to the PCS between traditional and online
classrooms to determine if the method is better suited to one or the other. Also, it could be
beneficial to compare this PCS to others in the field to see how students of various
locations and levels of ability respond to each in order to best engage writing students.
Wouters et al. (2013) suggested that serious games (like the PCS) are not inherently more
motivating than traditional methods of instruction, concluding that serious games are
more effective when they are supplemented with other instructional methods than they are
when used as [the] sole instruction method” (p. 260). Future research can investigate this
across an entire semester of an online class to determine if these researchers are correct
in their claim.
ConclusionConclusion
This study examined student perceptions of a playable case study delivered through an
online technical writing course. Students who participated in this study reported increases
in self-efficacy, reported feeling engaged and invested in the material, and reported
enhanced understanding of the social elements of professional communication. Their
responses to survey questions also indicated expanded understanding of the social
demands and humanity of workplace communication, a stronger sense of nuance in how to
resolve miscommunications, and a greater sense of purpose related to the importance of
professional communications. We believe, based on our results from this study, that the
possibilities with the PCS are vast for online writing courses, serving as effective and
authentic workplace-communication practice for students.
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Suggested CitationSuggested Citation
Balzotti, J., Haw, K., Rogers, A., McDonald, J. K. , & Baker, M.J. (2022). Microcore:
Using Online Playable Cases to Increase Student Engagement in Online Writing
Environments.
The Journal of Applied Instructional Design, 11
(3).
https://dx.doi.org/10.51869/113/bhrmb1
Jon BalzottiJon Balzotti
Jon Balzotti’s research explores emerging technologies and design-based
research for on-the-horizon tools, applications, media, and environments,
attempting to discern which are of value for learning and can be implemented
large-scale. He is an associate professor of English at Brigham Young University.
Kevin HawsKevin Haws
Kevin Haws is a former graduate student in the English department at Brigham
Young University studying rhetoric and professional communication.
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Amy A. RogersAmy A. Rogers
Amy Rogers is a graduate student in the department of Instructional Psychology
and Technology at Brigham Young University. As a former school counselor, she
hopes her degree will allow her to design effective instructional materials and
experiences that help bridge the gap between research and practice.
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Jason K. McDonaldJason K. McDonald
Dr. Jason K. McDonald is a Professor of Instructional Psychology & Technology
at Brigham Young University. He brings over twenty years of experience in
industry and academia, with a career spanning a wide-variety of roles connected
to instructional design: face-to-face training; faculty development; corporate
eLearning; story development for instructional films; and museum/exhibit design.
He gained this experience as a university instructional designer; an executive for
a large, international non-profit; a digital product director for a publishing
company; and as an independent consultant.
Dr. McDonald's research focuses around advancing design practice and design
education. He studies design as an expression of certain types of relationships
with others and with the world, how designers experience rich and authentic ways
of being human, the contingent and changeable nature of design, and design as a
human accomplishment (meaning how design is not a natural process but is
created by designers and so is open to continually being recreated by designers).
At BYU, Dr. McDonald has taught courses in instructional design, media and
culture change, project management, learning psychology, and design theory. His
work can be found at his website: http://jkmcdonald.com/
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Matthew J. BakerMatthew J. Baker
Matthew J. Baker received his PhD in rhetoric and professional communication
from Iowa State University. He is an assistant professor in the linguistics
department at Brigham Young University where he teaches courses in editing and
publishing.
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