Tools of the Trade | September / October 2017

An open-source video-game-based instruction platform gives students more control over the pace and content of their learning.


Educators at the University of Michigan (U-M) in Ann Arbor have released GradeCraft, an opensource video-game-based instruction tool for K-12 and higher education institutions. The tool was developed in 2012 by Barry Fishman, a professor at U-M’s schools of information and education, and Caitlin Holman, a doctoral candidate in the School of Information and lead software developer at the Digital Innovation Greenhouse within the Office of Academic Innovation.

GradeCraft employs what its creators call “gameful learning,” which refers to a system of assignments that is more self-directed and pointsbased than a traditional grading system. In a traditional course, students follow a set schedule of assignments set out by the instructor. But students have a range of choices in a gameful course, says Fishman in a video on the GradeCraft website. “That can feel a little bit scary at first,” he notes. “But once you get past that, you feel empowered, more in control of what’s going on, and you know at many more steps how you’re doing and what you need to do next in order to accomplish your goals.”

Using this platform, students accumulate points for assignment completion rather than receive traditional grades. They must complete one assignment before the system “unlocks” a new, more challenging assignment. In addition, they have the freedom to look ahead and choose different assignments and paths through the course content, depending on their own learning needs.

Students can plan their own coursework using GradeCraft’s “Grade Predictor” tool (shown below), indicating the assignments they want to work on and how well they think they will do. The software marks completed assignments and points earned in green. At any time, students can see their total points earned, predict their grades given their current progress, and see where they fall in a points-based ranking of their peers.

Built into the platform is the “freedom to fail,” say its designers. That is, students can make multiple attempts to complete an assignment without those attempts affecting their final grades. Students and instructors both can keep track of their progress.

GradeCraft was made available earlier this year to all U-M faculty and staff through the Canvas course management system, and it now has been integrated in some way in more than 50 courses, including a series of MOOCs, across eight different schools. The University of Arizona was among the first external universities to adopt GradeCraft in its programs.

“When [students] are doing work that they’ve chosen to do, that they’re really excited and pleased about, they pursue it much more intensely. They do better work,” says U-M physics professor Tim McKay. “We hope, too, that they will develop a sense that the real excitement of learning doesn’t come from doing the assignments that are on the syllabus. It comes from asking your own questions and going out and pursuing the answers to those questions.”

U-M’s Third Century Initiative supplied a US$1.88 million grant to help fund the tool’s creation, as well as funds to create the Gameful Assessment in Michigan Education (GAME) project in 2015. GAME, in turn, formed a Gameful Learning Community of Practice and Gameful Learning Lab to support the design of more tools that encourage this style of learning.

In July, U-M hosted its inaugural Gameful Learning Course Design Institute, a one-and-a-half-day workshop open to all educators. The school also offers a MOOC through edX on designing gameful learning experiences. “We hope to launch a virtual community of practice for gameful instructors from around the world to share ideas and push the pedagogies forward,” says Fishman. He anticipates that community will launch by the end of the year.

A single-course, six-month license to use GradeCraft costs US$40 and accommodates up to 350 students.

Visit To take U-M’s MOOC on gameful learning, visit

This article originally appeared in BizEd's September/October 2017 print issue. If you have comments or feedback on its content, please contact us at [email protected].

Students and faculty at the University of Michigan share their experience in a points-based gameful course.