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A TechCHAT With Toolwire’s Douglas Beckwith

Doug Beckwith Ph.D., J.D., Toolwire’s Lead Solutions Architect, is heavily involved in developing simulation-based learning games such as Toolwire’s Writing Games and Virtual Medical Internship game-based simulation. He recently discussed utilizing simulation games to build student skill sets with Education World. 



How did the 2014 initiative to engage and motivate Oakland Unified School District high school students by immersing them in real world “virtual internships” through “Healthcare Experience and Real World Training” (H.E.A.R.T.) LearnScape pan out? Did the results meet your expectations? Describe some of the interactive health care simulations as well as the response from students.


At their core, internships provide students with the opportunity to learn by doing. Students with little or no work experience have the chance to immerse themselves in a field that interests them. There is often something magical, transformative, and even life-changing about good internships. That’s what the “virtual internship” experience is all about.


Despite the fact that careers in health care are growing more rapidly than almost any other industry, it’s very difficult to provide high school students with internship opportunities to get first-hand exposure. The Virtual Medical Internship provides students with an opportunity learn about careers in health care and medicine through a game-based simulation. The Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) recently completed its first semester using the Virtual Medical Internship modules. Supported by a grant from the James Irvine Foundation as part of their Linked Learning program area, the Virtual Medical Internship includes three episodes mirroring Medical Pathways internship rotations.  


The first episode takes place in the hospital’s Podiatry Clinic.  Students practice communicating effectively with hospital administrative staff, nurses, and doctors. In addition, they learn best practices for protecting patient confidentiality in a hospital environment, and they learn how to prep and clean up examination rooms with an emphasis on orderly, safe, and sanitary procedures.


In the second episode, set in the Radiology and Diagnostic Imaging Clinic, students support doctors and medical staff by scheduling appointments and responding to ER scenarios, such as an incident involving a patient with a knife blade broken off in his chest.


The final episode involves shadowing a Medical Resident in the Emergency Room. An unexpected disaster caused by a gas explosion in City Hall requires students to synthesize and demonstrate all of their communication, critical thinking, and professional skills in order to provide support during the onslaught of incoming injured patients and their families. 


Although we are still distilling the feedback, overall, we’ve been very pleased. We have developed great rapport with the district administrators, and everyone involved with this project was thrilled to learn that this product was recently recognized by the Serious Games Association as one of the top education games of 2015.



You’re launching 80 new game-based learning products this year. Discuss some of them. Are they mostly for specific districts or are they national releases? What content areas are they covering and how are they filling a gap in the EdTech landscape? 


During my tenure as a college dean, I searched for games that combined personal development skills with content-based learning opportunities, but they simply didn’t exist. With conviction, I believe that Toolwire’s education games fill an important gap in the educational technology landscape. We’re working with instructional designers and content experts to meet the demand for game-based learning across many different courses and subjects.


Toolwire games cover a spectrum of content areas such as student success skills, critical thinking, psychology, and environmental science. All of these games are available for use by any district or higher education institution in the United States. The Virtual Medical Internship mentioned earlier is available to any school district or community college medical pathway program anywhere in the United States. The James Irvine Foundation, which supported this product through a generous grant, has exclusive rights to distribute and use the Virtual Medical Internship product in California. 


We’re also particularly excited about the Writing Game Series that recently launched. While game-based learning is a tried and true method for teaching students hard skills and math content, creating effective games for writing and English language arts (ELA) has been a more challenging pursuit. Many college students start their freshman year in need of remediation in writing and English language arts, and this often proves to be a major barrier to their ability to succeed. Gaming can be a critical tool for helping students develop the essential writing and ELA skills needed to complete their degree.


Providing a “virtual internship” experience at a fictional television news station, Toolwire’s Writing Games challenge students to review, practice, and demonstrate college level writing skills in authentic workplace scenarios. Each game takes about 20 minutes to complete and targets one to three specific learning objectives. Community colleges are adopting these educational tools to engage first-year students. We also have a few higher education partners using these games in courses designed for high school students seeking to earn college credits.



How has utilizing game-based simulations with live characters filmed in real locations enhanced these tools? What is the response, and describe why seeing real people and places is better for the learning process. Give specific examples. 


When building learning games of any sort, especially for high school and college students, the first question I always ask is “How do we create an authentic experience that students can relate to?” Toolwire’s interactive use of live-action video is central to producing authentic, emotionally charged experiences that are believable, relevant, and engaging for students.


Developing authentic educational gaming experiences isn’t easy. As the saying goes: “Don’t try this at home.”  For the OUSD project, for example, we conducted extensive field research in order to make sure that the games would be authentic and factually accurate. This groundwork included in-depth student interviews about actual students’ previous medical internship experiences.  


One of the students we interviewed described in detail all of the things she saw during her medical internship. Her eye-opening and sometimes shocking experiences impacted her deeply and inspired her to want to be a doctor. Through live-action video, our goal is to capture the immediacy, the facial expressions, and the human emotions in order to expose students to these kinds of impactful workplace experiences.   


If effective, our games can guide students to powerful teachable moments and inspire them to see the bigger picture in life. Seeing that impact is incredibly motivating. 



With each standalone game targeting one to three specific learning objectives, and taking 10-20 minutes to complete, it seems like functionality could be limited. In what ways do users interact with these games as stand-alone practice units beyond episodic prompts and questions? How do they further enrich the learning experience? 


A defining feature of Toolwire’s Writing Game Series is a new instructional design architecture strategically developed with Millennials and busy, working adults in mind.


This new approach provides a platform with a broad range of functionality that focuses the learning experience more precisely.  These interactive learning experiences deliver teachable moments and learning opportunities as quickly and efficiently as possible. Even in this discrete form, our contextualized, role-playing games require students to review, practice and demonstrate the proficiency inherent in the learning objectives of the game. All we have done is slice the “learning pie” into smaller, more digestible pieces. 


The Writing Games have been extremely well-received by educators and were recognized recently by the Serious Games Association as one of the top education games of 2015. In particular, we’ve received considerable feedback supporting this move towards shorter games.



Writing games make up a large part of Toolwire’s portfolio, many of which require users to participate in a fictional “Live!News” broadcast. What made you use this device as a foundation for the writing games? Does it work in terms of motivation and engagement? Discuss some of your favorite writing games and why you think they work well. If possible, include some user feedback that you could expand upon. 


I don’t remember the exact statistic about Millennials and Gen X-ers getting most of their news from the Internet and mock news shows such as The Daily Show, but I do remember that the percentage is greater than 50 percent. Today’s younger learners are comfortable with important information being presented to them in informal and comic ways. As a result, we decided that presenting composition in an interactive, satirical news format might resonate well with today’s students. From a pedagogical point of view, reporting the news requires accuracy of content and presentation. One of our overarching goals was to help students realize that effective writing contributes to credibility.


Also, immersing students in a news broadcast setting presents natural opportunities for supporting characters in roles as bosses, colleagues, and interns. In these games, bosses serve as role models and provide guidance and constructive criticism in the form of feedback to the employee. Through interactions with colleagues, students learn tips, techniques, and strategies for being more effective writers. And having an office intern creates natural opportunities for students to teach what they’ve learned to someone else. In other words, a professional office setting for role-play learning offers great potential for all sorts of interactions.


My favorite games in the series are about writing effective thesis statements and solid, meaningful supporting paragraphs. In my nearly 30 years of teaching composition in one form or another, I know that many students entering college today have no understanding of what a thesis statement is, why one is necessary, and how to develop credible and academically appropriate supporting paragraphs. If students don’t understand what a thesis statement is, why are we surprised that their essays are far too often meandering mash-ups lacking any point of view or logical support?


The challenge with teaching composition is that we cannot simply tell students about thesis statements and why they are important. Students need safe, low-risk environments to practice, get feedback and learn from their mistakes in order to demonstrate their understanding before we ask them to write essays. Pedagogically, our philosophy is that learning by doing is the best way to learn. For a variety of reasons, including pressures on time and resources, learning by doing has gotten pushed out of the student experience. Our goal is to bring it back. 


From an instructor’s perspective, what is so great about these games is that students dynamically receive feedback from characters within the game. If we’re successful, hopefully we can save instructors some red ink the next time they have to grade a paper by hand. 



How have educators responded to provided assessments, customer support, and the products overall? Include reactions to usefulness in the classroom, and within the context of lesson planning. 


Overall, Toolwire’s education games have been very well-received by educators. I attribute the positive reaction to a variety of factors.  


For one, I believe that many of the instructors we’re working with were already game-based learning believers, and we were successfully able to field products in high-demand courses and subjects. On numerous occasions, we’ve heard a similar refrain from instructors – they’ve been waiting for games like ours for a long time.


Also, reliability and ease of use are extremely important to educators. I believe that instructors appreciate how easy our games are to play. Instructions for game play are clearly described in writing and orally by characters in the games. Animated graphical elements clearly explain what to do next. Suffice it to say, I am not an experienced gamer in my personal life, but these games have been designed so that even I can play them with the greatest of ease.


When considering technology, most educators want tools that do not add to their already demanding workload. That is why we designed our Writing Games to include auto-grading and specifically developed exercises that enable students to practice and receive feedback in ways that don’t require instructors to grade more papers.   


Ultimately, one of the areas I’m most passionate about is working with educators to integrate games into [the classroom]. When instructors are interested in a game, one of the first things we do is offer to help them map game modules to their existing learning objectives. In this process, we often pass along best practices for using games that we’ve seen from other educators. We’re also creating faculty success resources, such as our Best Practice Guide for Writing Instruction, and we’re hosting monthly webinars to promote best practices for using games in the classroom. 


In terms of faculty feedback, our “Best Practice Guide” contains a section towards the end with a number of initial instructor testimonials. From these, a primary theme is that faculty appreciate how these games provide a safe and engaging platform for students to practice and demonstrate foundational composition knowledge and skills. That makes me very happy to hear. When we set out to build these games, one of our primary goals was to demystify the writing process and support students who are struggling. I think we are achieving that goal.



*Editor’s Note:  On ToolWire’s website, they refer to the H.E.A.R.T. LearnScape as the Virtual Medical Internship.



Article by Jason Papallo, Education World Social Media Editor

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