A Lively Database Instruction Game Gets an Upgrade with Digital Badges

A high school librarian improves her popular Search App Smackdown! challenge with badges and breakouts.
Several years ago, I designed a game called “Search App Smackdown!” as a strategy to teach using databases in a fun, active way. Smackdown! is a vehicle for building relatively easy but vital skills that reinforce the value of databases. Why “Search Apps”? This moniker for databases emerged years ago when our students got used to using vendor-provided search widgets for various databases. The name stuck.

“Get ready to rumble!”

Fast and furious, Smackdown! involved pupils working on teams that compete in a classroom game using the essential databases they need as high school freshmen. The goal: to answer the most questions in each round of the game. I designed the questions to push kids to explore and use various features of these targeted databases. The flipped approach made class time lively and fun, as students actively applied their new knowledge. But those who didn’t do the flipped lesson dragged their teams down. We may call it “flipped instruction,” but to kids, this still translates to “homework.” Those who skipped the lessons hurt their teams’ chances to win. More important, they weren’t ready to use the databases with any level of know-how. So, despite the overall success of the original version, I started thinking that I needed to level up my game—literally! It was time for a new version of Search App Smackdown!The basic database how-tos were short and to the point, making this instruction perfect for video format—and for flipping. Each night students watched brief videos about each database to learn important points of navigation, content utilities, and special features so they could be prepared for the live competition the next day.

Perfect timing!

Since our school was switching our learning management system (LMS) from Moodle to Canvas, I decided this was a good opportunity to move Search App Smackdown! online. By recreating the game in Canvas, I could eliminate the problem of the occasionally-flopped flipped instruction. Plus, Canvas lets instructors set prerequisites and requirements for each unit—features that work perfectly for game design. The biggest advantage to our new version of Search App Smackdown! was that we could incorporate digital badges and digital breakout boxes. These tools had the potential to really take our game up a notch by transforming Smackdown! into a self-paced digital contest.

Digital badges

Digital badges are visual representations of student success. Also called microcredentials, they demonstrate levels of proficiency in any skill you care to measure. Obviously, Smackdown! badges represent entry-level proficiency in using our selected databases. We consider them learning benchmarks. Although our database vendors supply fabulous search widgets, many still haven’t developed digital badges to award to learners. So I created my own, using the database logos. This helps reinforce brand recognition for students, allowing them to quickly locate the right databases when working independently in our LibGuides. Our badges, which signal mastery of game levels, are integrated in Canvas using Badgr. (Learn more about digital badges on Badgr or Credly.) I set each badge to be automatically awarded when a Canvas module (i.e., game level) is completed. Modules are only complete when players have successfully used the database to solve the clues and win the breakout code for the level. Viewing their badges page in Canvas, learners can instantly see what they’ve achieved—and what challenges await them. The built-in leaderboard shows their standing in the game.  

Building game levels

In Smackdown! version 2.0, each database is its own self-contained unit containing four parts: a brief introduction, called “What is…”; an “Explore” page; a “Quick Quiz”; and, finally, a “Challenge” page (right). The introductory “What is…” page tells students what the database does, why they need it, how to access it, and what’s cool about it. The “Explore” page (below) contains the brief (less than four minutes) video instruction that provides crucial info on navigating the database and its unique utilities and features that make it awesome. These can be made very quickly using Screencastomatic or any other preferred screencast tool. Next comes the short, “Quick Quiz” (sample below) that checks whether students have grasped key points about the database from the video. Learners must score five out of five (100 percent) to unlock the Breakout Challenge for that search app. These first three instructional steps only open in order and can be completed in as little as five minutes. Then, the fun part of the game, the Breakout Challenge, opens.

Breakout boxes

The Challenge for each search app is built using a Google Form designed to be a digital “breakout box.” (below; Learn more about breakout boxes at Breakout EDU.) Breakout challenges can be designed using physical lock boxes (i.e., real boxes and real combination locks) or digital ones. Google Forms are perfect for creating digital breakout boxes because they can be set to require specific answers and can be embedded in Canvas. Competitors use the database to solve the clues and “unlock” all of the locks to prove their superior skill and win the digital badge for that search app. Some locks are broken with letters; others with numeric combinations (below). When the last one is broken, players get the “Breakout Code” to win the badge for that level. Clues are given for each lock (right):

Final round: Task Challenge

The final part of the game is the Task Challenge (below). For each lock, the learners have four task cards, each describing a specific research problem. The challenge is to determine which search app can best achieve that task. A number is assigned to each database. Pick the right ones, and you’ve broken the lock! Our larger instructional goal remains the same as when we debuted the Smackdown! years ago: teaching our students to use databases to access quality information, be ready for college-level work, and develop solid research habits. We want our databases to be their “go-to” for a class question, a project, or personal interest topics. To develop this habit, it helps for learners to value databases’ pre-vetted information and tools that make reading, saving, and citing easier and offer research shortcuts. Like all games, Search App Smackdown demands a lot of planning and online design. It’s worth it, though, for students to have fun while learning something essential. And their librarian has fun, too!
Brenda Boyer, Ph.D. is the Kutztown (PA) High School librarian and a part-time instructor in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University.

Smackdown! 2.0 Quick-Start Guide

·         Select the databases ·         Choose a video-making tool (e.g., Screencastomatic, Screencastify, QuickTime, etc.) ·         Create the database instructional videos (keep ‘em short <four min.) ·         Use a Canvas (or Moodle, Schoology, or other LMS) course shell to contain the game ·         Set up a module for each database containing: ·         An introductory “What is…” page ·         An “Explore” page where you embed the video ·         A “Quick Quiz” to check they get the basic about the database ·         A Breakout Challenge (embedded Google form) containing different “locks” (and the final Breakout code that wins the badge) ·         Database Questions that are the clues to the lock combinations ·         A “quiz” that asks for the Breakout code ·         Create and set up the digital badges to be won on completion of each module (e.g., Badgr, Credly, or other badging system) ·         Set your LMS settings so that completion of each module becomes a prerequisite for opening the next module.

Smackdown! & Meeting AASL Standard IV.A.

Learners acton an information need by:

  • Determining the need to gather information
  • Identifying possible sources of information
  • Making critical choices about information sources to use.

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