In this week’s ITConversations podcast, Ned Gulley — who is the organizer of The MathWorks’ semi-annual programming contest — reflects on the lessons he has learned about how to design problems that elicit the optimal mix of cooperation and competition.
In a 2004 ACM paper Ned wrote:
Our contests resemble a wiki in the sense that anyone can modify any of the code on display. As with wikis, the result is a fertile meeting of the minds, and a model for successful collaborative design.
Players enjoy the social and collaborative aspects of the contest, and they value the ideas and techniques they learn as they participate, but they are also intensely motivated to compete and win:
In the Matlab contest your performance is measured objectively, quickly and often, on a level playing field, against real competitors. Pride in your programming prowess is quickly confirmed or corrected. There is egotistical gratification in seeing your name at the top of the board, and there is crushing disappointment when your pet algorithm fails or is beaten by a better programmer.
I hate to talk about it in terms of winning and losing but I can’t come to any other conclusion – a major part of the fascination is about outwitting the competition, if only for a moment. Somewhere on your website the contest is described as turning “MATLAB coding into a highly entertaining full-contact sport.” I think that says it better than I could.
And yet, while everyone wants to win, other kinds of rewards have emerged as well. For example, one player who had employed a disruptive strategy of code obfuscation in an earlier contest became an influential contributor of lucid comments in a subsequent contest, and was praised for his efforts.
Can we harness these dynamics in a broader educational setting? Ned thinks we can:
I’m picturing Mrs. Jenkins’ third period class versus Mrs. Jenkins’ fourth period class — it’s not hard to set these things up once you’ve got the scaffolding in place, and as we move into more service-based software I think we will see this approach move into middle school and beyond.
To get there, we’ll need to empower Mrs. Jenkins to create games that engage students in this kind of productive play. It’s a worthy goal.