Q & A with Courtney Calfee, FLVS Curriculum Specialist


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Innovation Spotlight – Conspiracy Code

There are progressive reforms out there in online education, people and organizations who are thinking outside of the box of what it means to engage our students in the online classroom. Florida Virtual School has implemented Conspiracy Code™: American History, a game-based course in American History. It is one of the first courses of its kind to be available to students on a large scale. I like some, was intrigued by the idea, but of course had my reservations. I was lucky enough to set up a interview with Courtney Calfee, FLVS Curriculum Specialist and one of the lead curriculum designers for the project. Below is the QA from our conversation.

What was the inspiration for constructing a course like this?

Florida Virtual School (FLVS) created a partnership with 360ed, a game development company, to design the game interface and a Learning Management System. FLVS also worked with the University of Central Florida to ensure the facilitation of Caine & Caine brain-based learning in instructional design. The interactive nature of gameplay allows for higher order thinking assessment and incentivized learning through engaging gameplay. Conspiracy Code™: American History was created as an appealing, interactive game-based program with the hopes of leveraging technology to effectively engage students and teach them social studies content knowledge and skills. The historical content is tied into game interaction and storyline to create a meaningful learning experience.

Describe what an example unit looks like, including instruction methods and assessment. What do the assessments look like? Are they authentic?

Conspiracy Code™: American History is organized into 10 missions that are mostly linear, but also organized thematically to allow students to identify changes over history and gain a deeper understanding of historical content. Florida Virtual School students collect historical clues which contain a chunk of information such as text, images, video, audio, primary documents, chart, etc. To check for understanding, the student receives a mini-game following each clue that requires them to select the appropriate images for the clue, answer a Wheel of Fortune- type game, put events in order, or perform another quick content knowledge check. Throughout the game, students are on the hunt to identify enemy agents by asking them historical questions. If the character tells historical inaccuracies, the player knows that this character is an agent. The player can then challenge the agent to a content knowledge duel, which if successful, will remove the agent from the game. Students submit their Conspiracy Logs to their instructors throughout the mission and answer higher cognitive level questions about the content to ensure understanding. Students collaborate in the Forum by participating in discussions on historical content. Finally, the students complete a discussion-based assessment with their instructor and complete an authentic mission project demonstrating mastery over the content.

What data have you collected that illustrates Conspiracy Code’s success?

Conspiracy Code™: American History is currently being tested with students to validate and measure learning gains through efficacy testing.  Florida Virtual School students should finalize course work and study activities through the summer months, and a report will be available by the end of the year.

How is this course culturally responsive or helps to serve the needs of all students? How is the course differentiated?

The students encounter a wide-range of characters throughout the course which allows students to see someone like them in the game. Students can take this course for honors credit and are encouraged to extend their thinking with culminating mission projects. Additionally, students are allowed to progress through the game at their own pace to allow time to digest the content and review content. The content is chunked into manageable pieces of history to help students digest information before moving on to new content. The Conspiracy Code™: American History mini-games help all students evaluate their understanding of clues before moving on to new material.

How do students collaborate with each other?

The students taking Conspiracy Code™: American History participate in a forum where they collaborate and discuss historical topics.

Regarding efficiency: How do you know that this is an efficient use of learning time?

The teachers provide constant feedback on their students’ level of engagement by conducting discussion-based assessments with their Conspiracy Code™: American History students. The documentation of the interaction demonstrates that the students gain a deeper understanding of American History than in traditional courses.

What are your plans for extending this type of course design to other FLVS courses? Will you keep the theme of “conspiracy” or branch out into other thematic games?

Future plans include a development of a middle school U.S. History course and a high school World History course using the same characters in different environments.  Currently, we also have an Intensive Reading version of the course being tested in lab settings for a blended model delivery.

How do you train teachers on teaching this type of course? How is the same or different from teaching other traditional FLVS courses?

We train teachers on Conspiracy Code™: American History by giving them hands-on experience in the course.  Our teachers are all very highly-qualified and knowledgeable in their own subject areas so they are already awesome teachers – we just need to train them to use their skills in a slightly different environment.

What has been your biggest learning experience as a course designer for Conspiracy Code?

The most rewarding learning experience has been to see how content goals and gameplay goals can be integrated and accomplished together.

Conspiracy Code™: American History is definitely appealing to a variety of learners and can serve as an engaging environment to learn important content. There are a variety of assessments, media and activities to check students understanding of the context, as well as learn the content initially. As the developers are reflective, they see some potential to reflect and improve upon the course. I think the next step is building authenticity for an outside audience in a course design, similar to Jane McGonigal’s Evoke project, as well as true collaboration to produce the assessments, more than simply chatting on a discussion board. Conspiracy Code™: American History is a great example of thoughtful innovation and commitment to exciting options for all students. Like Jane McGonigal says, “Gaming can make the world a better place,” so why not allow our students game to learn.

Culturally Responsive Online Teaching


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Online education can help solve the issues of equity and access for students across the United States. We have heard fantastic stories of student success in graduating from high school due to access to online courses.

Last year, Susan Sawyers wrote an article for USAToday showcasing how some students are using online courses to graduate on time. It’s a great window into the potential and echoes many stories we hear from students, families, and community members who are experiencing online education. A diverse population of students was able to take classes to retrieve credit for classes they may have failed in the past.


Distance learning environments are by no means immune to the problems arising from cultural differences. In fact, these environments may even be more prone to cultural conflicts than traditional classrooms as instructors in these settings not only interact with students who have removed themselves from their native culture, but they also interact with students who remain “physically and socially within the different culture, a culture that is foreign to, and mostly unknown, to the teacher.”

—Sedef Uzuner in Questions of Culture in Distance Learning: A Research Review

Geneva Gay recently printed a new edition of her book, Culturally Responsive Teaching: Research, Theory and Practice, and it explains the many of the dispositions and practices teachers need to have. The next step is to ensure this sort of practice occurs consistent in online course instruction. We need to remember that simply having access to great online courses does not mean they will be culturally responsive, nor does it mean the teachers themselves will be. We need to ensure we train our online educators with the tools and skills it takes to interact with students of diverse populations, especially as more students begin taking more courses online. Culture of course includes a variety of identifies and aspects, from race, ethnicity and gender; to religion, socio-economic status and place. I would also propose that teachers need to utilize the online culture that we know exists with these students. All students have cultural strengths and resiliencies; we need to ensure we are using all these strengths, including the culture of online learning.

Related articles


Previous edReformer Blogs

I have been blogging for Edreformer for quite some time now in a variety of topics from online learning, to standards based grade books, to project based learning. Edreformer describes itself as:

“A community of advocates, entrepreneurs, educators, policy makers, philanthropists and investors seeking to promote excellence and equity in education through innovation. EdRefomer serves as a catalyst for innovation in education by encouraging and promoting public and private investment in new learning tools, schools, and platforms.”

Here is a link all the my blogs, as well as the topics.

  1. Culturally Responsive Online Teaching: A Call to Action
  2. Supporting Student Voice and Choice Leads to Equity
  3. From Drop Out to Push Out in Online Learning
  4. Rethinking Time in Online Learning
  5. Why Standards-Based Gradebooks & What Next?
  6. Project-Based Online Learning-Natural Fit and Next Step


Why Standards-Based Gradebooks & What Next?


This post originally appeared on edReformer, a community of advocates, entrepreneurs, educators, policy makers, philanthropists and investors seeking to promote excellence and equity in education through innovatation.  edRefomer serves as a catalyst for innovation in education by encouraging and  promoting public and private investment in new learning tools, schools, and platforms. View Original >


With the rise of standards-based instruction, districts and schools have been seeking out the best tools to foster it. Standards-Based grade books have been created is response to this need. As with educational changes, there are exciting potentials and pitfalls. First of all, here is what works when using the standards-based grade book:

1)     Ensures targeted Assessment and Rubrics – When the standards are presented and transparent to the teachers on a continuous basis, teachers are bound to be thinking about their assessments and whether or not there are standards based. As a teacher inputting grades, one can be reflective in practice, thinking– “Is this assessment/ assignment really targeted toward the standard?”

2)     Continuity across Classes and Teachers – When the same content grade book is being used by all the teachers, then the inconsistencies will fade. Conversations will no longer have to happen about why a certain teacher leverages a certain standard or target more than others. Conversations can instead occur about the targeted instruction and assessment in the classroom.

3)     Leverage Summative Assessment – This is the big one, and the idea that may “upset the apple cart.” When teachers start putting in assignments in the standards-based grade book, teachers will encounter issues in weighting their assignments. All assignments, whether formative or summative may weighted the same, based on the programming of the grade book itself. Teachers will of course bring this concern to life. The response will be, “put in only Summative Assessment,” as that is what the grade should be. Formative assessment is practice, and Summative is the performance. Teachers will then protest “If I don’t count the worksheets and assignments I give out, then they won’t do it.” If I were there, I would answer, “You trying to ‘cattle-prod’ your students into doing work by giving leverage in the grade book instead of focusing on the real problem – Your students aren’t engaged.” The focus should be on creating relevance, inquiry and engagement in the Summative Assessments.

While the Standards-based grade book is helping to ensure better teaching and instruction, we need to make sure that fosters innovation in education. In general. there needs to be some flexibility in the creation and utilization of the grade book between the school and provider. In order to do that, here are some tips for not only those constructing the grade book, but also for the teachers using it.

1)     Make sure the Grade book allows for 21st Century Skills – If we value 21st century skills, then we need to teach and assess them. In order to leverage them as much as content standards, they need to be included in the grade. Collaboration, Technology Literacy and even Presentation Skill should be taught and assessed in a grade just as much as the content standards. They are learning targets and standards.

2)     Make sure there is place for Formative Assessments – In order to be transparent to parents and students, you need to be able to track and monitor ongoing formative assessments, that show work toward that standard. It can be worth nothing, as it should be, but there must be a place to have this data so that effective conversations can be had for all partners in the learning of the student.

3)     Keep Assessments rigorous – One of the pitfalls of standards-based instruction and assessment is that some of the assessments can only be geared toward standards that are lower on Bloom’s taxonomy. Carol Jago, current NCTE president talks about this in terms of the English class in her book Beyond Standards: Excellence in the High School English Classroom. Make sure you are targeting standards that have higher order thinking skills. Be targeted, but also aim “beyond standards” in the assessments

Standards-Based grade books can help ensure quality instruction and assessments for our students as long as there is a level of flexibility and rigor. Providers need to listen to their clients and clients need to provide good feedback to their providers. Teachers need to make sure they are not only aiming at a target standard in their assessment, but also aiming for rigor. They need to use the grade book to leverage their content as well as 21st century skills, and teachers need to be transparent with the work being done in the classroom.


Rethinking Time in Online Learning


This post originally appeared on edReformer, a community of advocates, entrepreneurs, educators, policy makers, philanthropists and investors seeking to promote excellence and equity in education through innovatation.  edRefomer serves as a catalyst for innovation in education by encouraging and  promoting public and private investment in new learning tools, schools, and platforms. View Original >


In online learning, we often tout how one of its best attributes is flexibility. We talk about how online learning will allow students to learn at their own pace, and how we will meet them where they are. A case of this was talked about recently on CNN, an echo of the other report in USA Today. Students were engaged in online class for credit retrieval. Students had to meet standard and complete course work using an online course. It has given students, who previously had felt hopeless, the opportunity to graduate on time. This is one instance where is seems time is truly flexible for the student to achieve.

However, the reality is that most online schools and course operate within strict time constraints. Courses need to account for a certain amount of hours and days, all in order to be considered part of the Carnegie Unit. This leads to some contradictory messages. On the one hand we say that online learning is truly flexible, but we also construct strict pacing guides and completion dates in order to ensure that students are doing work in a timely matter and also to ensure they are doing “enough” work. The effort is not of bad intent, but out of the need to cater to student needs and governmental policies.

study was put out a few years ago by Kathy Holmes of the University of Newcastle that examined asynchronous discussions, which we know are designed to facilitate conversation just like in the face to face classroom. In in a discussion took place for a course of 48 days for full time students and 18 days for part time students. For anyone who has taught online, this might seem odd. Most of the time discussion boards are used as quick assignments that occur over a few days. However over the course of this larger discussion the students were engaged had higher learning taxonomy. Holmes asserts ” Not only should instructors ensure that online learning tasks are sufficiently open-ended, engaging and unambiguous, but they should also be familiar with the intricacies of managing online discussions and with viable methods of augmenting student learning within this framework.” This example of what we want in online learning runs contradictory to the constraints of time many online instructors face.

In addition, iNACOL published a briefing around Competency Based Pathways, where a discussion is around the reform needed in online education in order to have true student-centered learning.

“Frequently, competency-based policy is described as simply flexibility in awarding credit or defined as an alternative to the Carnegie unit. Yet, this does not capture the depth of the transformation of our education system from a time-based system to a learning-based system.”

Online educators need to rethink how we use time. If we are truly student-centered, and want rigorous discussion, then time needs to become less of an immovable force.

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