The ‘Angry Birds’ Guide to Online Lesson Design

(This post is part of a series called “The Connected Class Community”).

Angry Birds smashing UC Berkeley's Sather TowerA popular reason for exploring gamification in online learning is because we want to increase student engagement with the content. Games are nothing if not engaging, and the very best games can give educators deep insights into how to get and keep users’ attention. After all, video game makers have been resarching what makes a computer game fun much longer than educators have been putting instruction online. As I was playing Angry Birds on my Android smartphone, I started to recognize the excellent pedagogy at work in the design of the game. This article attempts to identify and apply the best teaching practices evident in Angry Birds to tie together a few strands of current instructional design concepts. Ready? Let’s get smashing!

What is Angry Birds?

At this point, it would help if you, dear reader, had a basic understanding of how Angry Birds works. The object of the game sounds utterly moronic when you write it out, but here goes:

Angry Birds is a game where you aim a giant slingshot to catapult various colored birds towards a castle filled with green pigs. The object is to destroy the building and crush all the pigs.

No matter how dumb it sounds, Angry Birds has become a worldwide phenomenon because the gameplay is so engaging. Here is a video of a few typical levels:

If at all possible, I highly recommend you play Angry Birds for yourself so you can get a sense of what follows.Pay attention to your own levels of frustration, motivation, and excitement as you play. These will help you understand the connection between the way the game works and its effects on the user.

It’s available for pretty much any computer and smartphone you have, and/or Chrome users can play it right in their browser for free.

So What Does This Have to do with Course Design?

The study of gamification in online learning provides an excellent blueprint for online course design, as successful video games strike the perfect balance of motivation, skill building, and assessment. The runaway success of Rovio’s Angry Birds could be expressed in light of the above criteria for an effective online course. Online courses (and the software that power them) needs to help teachers and students keep the end goals (read: learning outcomes) in view at all times. A good learning management system needs to support good lesson design by providing an integrated interface for

  • Defining intended outcomes based on content standards or other explicit professional proficiencies
  • Identifying what mastery looks like– what can students “make” or “do” that will show they have mastered the desired content outcome?
  • Breaking the task of mastery into discrete, daily skills that can be taught over the course of one lesson.
  • Scaffold the discrete skills to keep students in the zone of proximal development and progressing towards greater and greater mastery of the content.
  • Communicating the expected outcomes to students so they can take ownership of their progress towards mastery.
  • Assessing students often on the mastery of discrete skills.
  • Not allowing progress beyond one skill if it has not been mastered.
  • Promoting synthesis and transference of discrete skills into general proficiencies.
  • Assessing students based solely on their mastery of explicitly stated skills.

Many of these activities do not need graphics-intensive software (like a video game) to work– they are a lot more about sequencing information and structuring learning activities so students are assessed on the exact skills and knowledge they’re being taught. In other words, they require good instructional design.

Defining intended outcomes:

In the game, the object  goal is to effectively destroy all of the pigs and their buildings by mastering the destructive capabilities of the various angry birds. Each level is a scaffolded mini-lesson that moves the learner a step closer to that ultimate goal.  In your course, the intended outcome might be something like “be able to write a five paragraph essay” or “know and communicate how osmosis works”. Without clearly defined outcomes, you will have a hard time measuring whether students are learning. Once you have a clear idea where you’re going, you can backwards-plan individual learning activities that help students get closer to the intended outcomes every day.

Lesson for educators:

Make sure you have clearly identified your educational objectives before you start designing learning activities! They help you stay focused on whether your learning activities are really building the skills that you want to assess.

Identifying what mastery looks like:

Each new level introduces one new skill at a time, and the player cannot pass the level until they have mastered that skill. You might ask– what “skills” am I learning playing Angry Birds? Some of the skills and knowledge required include…

  • learn the unique destructive properties of each type of bird
  • learn  these properties can be used to destroy the various building materials and structural configurations in each level
  • analyze each new structure to develop a strategy for destroying it with the given quiver of birds
  • master the relationship between the force and angle of slingshot pull to the flight trajectory of the birds
  • to achieve true mastery, users must destroy the structures using as few birds as possible. Users are encouraged to earn extra points for “above par” achievement.

Each level is designed to teach and assess one specific skill along the path to mastery.

Lesson for educators:

Make sure you have clearly identified your educational objectives before you start designing learning activities! They help you stay focused on whether your learning activities are really building the skills that you intend to assess.

Breaking the task of mastery into discrete skills lessons, and scaffolding lessons to keep users in the Zone of Proximal Development:

Each level constitutes its own “lesson” where the user learns (at least) one new skill towards the intended outcomes in each level. The very first lesson concentrates on basic launching with a simplified target and the simplest avian projectile in the game: the red bird. This helps the user get a feel for the game’s controls and environment because, at that point in the game, that’s what the new user needs to feel oriented. As the levels progress, new kinds of birds are introduced, each with different flight trajectories, destructive properties, and mass characteristics. The skills build upon one another– the player develops a repertoire of choices that they could apply to the challenge of demolishing the buildings. The user must use his/her creativity and recall of the various mastered skills to effectively pass each level. This ensures that users are at an appropriate level of challenge at all times throughout the game’s progress, and have authentic motivation for recalling previously-learned material.

Lesson for educators:

This emphasizes the importance of communicating the expected learning outcomes of each lesson explicitly to students. They should be able to walk out of your class meeting and say “today, I learned ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’ in class”. This builds their metacognition and helps them recall previous learning that might be applied to new situations.

The path towards mastery is a series of tests, not a series of “tells”.

Lecturing is one of the most common activities that a teacher does, no matter how much evidence mounts that lecturing is

  • an ineffective use of the teacher’s time and expertise
  • not correlated with mastery of material
  • a task that can be just as effectively performed by a video recording

In Angry Birds, you may noticed that the skills are not explicitly “taught” to us by the game. Instead, we are set free to explore, try, fail, re-assess, and try again. The idea is that the learner is not able to pass the lesson until they have mastered the (targeted and well defined) skill, but that they can keep trying until they do. The game (unlike most classrooms) is a safe place to fail. There are no punishments for not having the right answer the first time or being the fastest. Instead, video games reward users who keep trying, experimenting with alternative strategies, and even cheating looking up the correct answer.

This brings up a good point that I’ll paraphrase from David Wiley‘s talk “If the Book Didn’t Change Education, How Could the Computer?“. Traditional education grew up in a world where access to high-quality information was not available to everyone, so very few people could possibly become experts. In other words, we have been living in a world of “information scarcity” for most of human history. This is the first time in history that students are living in a world of “information abundance”. Students are able to find high-quality, accurate information to answer any question imaginable– AND they can search for exactly the kind of information (text, video, tutorial, encyclopedia, expert article, etc) that will most effectively help them meet the challenge. In this world of abundant information, we do not need to spend our time telling students what the book says– we need to present them with targeted tests that reflect real world problems and applications of knowledge, and we need to coach/guide them in harnessing abundant information towards the task of solving these problems.

Back to Angry Birds, it is not uncommon to get “stuck” on a level. Usually, this happens to me when I’m applying a previously-learned technique to a new problem. This new problem requires a new solution, but I haven’t been able to figure out what it is. At this point, I can Google “Angry Birds Level 10-3” and decide whether I’d like my answers in the form of a video tutorial, a written description of the problem, or some other format. The point is that “the answers are out there” and I just need to be motivated to search them out. That motivation comes in the form of a tantalizing challenge that I know I could master if I had just one more bit of information.

Communicating expected outcomes to students so they can take ownership of their progress towards mastery

At all times, students should have a “bird’s-eye” view of the course structure, as well as a detailed writeup of the expected outcomes for the individual lesson. I once taught at a school where we would post the California Content Standard for each lesson we taught, and students would keep a list so they could check off their progress through the whole course. Video games often excel at this. In Angry Birds, you can progress to the next level after scoring two stars on a challenge,but you can also persevere to achieve mastery (3 stars) if you are motivated to do so. You can also look ahead to see how much more there is to learn. All of these design choices supports students’ ability to self-monitor and develop metacognition about themselves as learners.

Towards an Adaptive LMS

While these steps are just  good outcomes-based education practice and don’t require any technology at all, they can also be made more powerful if you match them with technology that supports the pedagogy. I envision a future where we can build digital learning activities with instant feedback to nurture motivation and exploration rather than squashing it. More on this in future posts.

I’d be very interested to learn what insights you’ve gained into online learning from playing games! Please share them in the comments below….


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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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5 Responses

  1. sairamshankar13 says:

    This is very use full content for online learners

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