Profiles in IT: James Alexander—Gameful theorist

James Alexander
(Image courtesy the Center for Academic Engagement)

James Alexander is a senior software ambassador with the Center for Academic Innovation. He works with faculty to pair technology tools with their teaching need. His approach to education often includes gameful pedagogy, which focuses on curricula design to support student motivation. He originally joined CAI to work on the development of GradeCraft — educational technology software that builds gameful courses. James is also an ardent video game devotee and co-host of the Black Movie Podcast. This interview focuses on his approach to helping faculty leverage technology to enhance the student experience and success.

How do you approach technology adoption conversations with faculty?

I have a person-first approach to helping faculty find new technologies. Unless they come to me with a specific application in mind, I always start with who they are, what they do, the problem, and finally introduce applications as the response to that information.

How does the instructor’s personal style guide your approach?

Obviously you’ll need to know who they are to work with them, but what I try to feel out is what kind of instructor they are. Are they excited about using new technology or are they hesitant? Did they reach out to me of their own accord or were they recommended to me and why? What’s their comfortability level with new, potentially unproven, and maybe even incomplete technologies? Answers to these questions can help me get a better understanding of the person and remind them that I am here to learn more about them and to help them not sell them something.

How does a faculty member’s history affect your decision making?

Everyone I work with is an expert in something that I am not, so I want to hear what they have already been doing and what they have already tried before incorporating something new. This can include technologies or pedagogies that have worked and some that haven’t. This helps me get a feel for what they might be interested in doing next and primes me for the next part.

How do you conceptualize their problem?

Unless they are into new tech just for the sake of new tech, which I should have figured out by this point, they are likely talking to me because they have a problem. Sometimes that problem is as straightforward as “my students need an easy way to study for the exam” or as complicated as “I want to figure out a better way to deliver my course so students stay engaged, but not overwhelmed,” or as nebulous as “I want to try something, but I’m lost on where to start.” Hearing it directly from them helps me conceptualize how big of a solution I should be thinking about, even if I have an idea of what their problem might be already. An additional key piece I consider is why they think or want an application to solve this problem and why now. This all leads me to the final piece of the puzzle.

How do you arrive at a technology solution?

The key thing about this process is to take everything I’ve learned at this point and determine if introducing a new application is actually what will help this particular faculty in this particular situation. Even though I’m a technology maximalist in my personal life, I’m generally a technology minimalist when it comes to courses. I may recommend faculty decrease the amount of tech in their course to meet their needs rather than increase it. However, if there is something that can help them I should know at this point, what that is, how responsive they will be to it, and what impact it could have on their course, project, or program. I use that information to introduce the application and connect it directly to their needs.

That’s my general approach to helping people identify and connect with applications. It is a conversation-heavy approach, but my goal, even more than getting people to use Center for Academic Innovation applications, is for them to know that I’m here to support them however I can.

Editor’s note: Check out James’ CAI interview from September 2021. James talks more about his work with CAI, exciting partnerships, GradeCraft (a tech tool for instructors and students), how technology has helped students through the pandemic, and his favorite video games (Super Mario Bros, Final Fantasy VII, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and the Super Smash Brothers series).

Author: D. Stephanie Dascola, ITS Communications

Stephanie is a marketing and communications specialist senior on the ITS Communications team. Contact her at sdascola@umich.edu.

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