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Former Schoolteacher 'Gamifies' Current Events Learning

By Sam Wigness, 01/30/18, 3:30PM CST

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Olympic Challenge is FANschool founder Eric Nelson's latest fantasy-type learning contest

Created by Eric Nelson, a former social studies teacher and two-time fantasy football champion, FANschool offers fantasy sports-style challenges and games that encourage students to engage with world events and develop better news-consuming habits.

Imagine your ninth-grade history teacher striding into class and asking everyone to take out their smartphones and check their fantasy lineups.

No, this teacher hasn’t thrown in the towel. And no, this isn’t a scene out of The Twilight Zone. This is a reality for nearly 100,000 teachers and students using FANschool to “gamify” as a way to better connect with world news and current events.

Created by Eric Nelson, a former social studies teacher and two-time fantasy football champion, FANschool offers fantasy sports-style challenges and games that encourage students to engage with world events and develop better news-consuming habits.

FANschool’s latest product, Olympic Challenge, is a global competition that requires its participants to pay less attention to the actual sporting events of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games and more to the geopolitics and history surrounding them.

Olympic Challenge

 

  • 5 families will receive a Fandango Dinner & Movie package.
  • 1 sports club will receive a $1,000 gift card
    for equipment
     at your local sporting goods store.
  • 1 winner will receive a Team USA/Olympics engraved iPad.
  • 1 winner will receive Team USA Winter Essentials gear (hat, gloves, scarf, and jacket).

In the first round, students select five countries they believe will receive the most media attention during the games, receiving one point for each time the country is mentioned the New York Times during the games. In the second round, they select 10 countries they believe will win the most medals, receiving 30 points for each gold, 20 points for silver and 10 for bronze. In the third and final round, students rank their Round 2 picks in order of which country will earn the most total medals.

To succeed in the Olympic Challenge, students have to consider each country’s history in the Winter Olympics and the top news stories surrounding the games. Will Nigeria’s first-ever bobsled team dominate the headlines? What is the impact of Russia being disallowed from the games?

The Olympic Challenge is similar to FANschool’s Election Challenge, in which students filled out electoral college maps predicting the 2016 presidential election results based on the information they gathered. Like fantasy football, success in FANschool games relies heavily on research and invokes competitive fandom.

“When you draft your team in fantasy football, you automatically listen and hear more about your players - that’s competitive fandom.” Nelson said. “You become more engaged and interactive with those players and teams.”

In 2009, using this concept, Nelson created “fantasy geopolitics” for his social studies class at North Lakes Academy Charter School in Forest Lake, Minnesota.

“When I started teaching I was frustrated that my students were so connected, but not developing any news habits,” Nelson said. “During lesson planning I was always checking my fantasy lineups, and I decided fantasy sports was the best way to stay connected and get students to reach the news.”

Although many of his students were familiar with fantasy football, Nelson received a few quizzical looks as he explained “fantasy geopolitics.” He projected a global map on the whiteboard and asked his students to select countries by marking them on the board.


Name: Eric Nelson

Age: 31

Resides in: Minneapolis, Minnesota

Occupation: Founder of FANschool.org

Family: Wife Aly, 2-year-old Jack, 2 week-old Lily, ageless dog Nelly

Interests: History, sports, learning, potential, sandwiches


“They weren’t really excited about it right away, but once they started drafting they got super excited and even started trash-talking, saying things like ‘You don’t even know where Azerbaijan is,’ ” Nelson said. “One student yelled ‘I’m kickin’ Djibouti!’ As soon as I heard that, we laughed and made T-shirts of it.”

Soon, slogans like “I’m Ghana win” and “Czech yourself” came whizzing through the air.

As the draft continued, students began helping each other find countries on the map and pulled out their smartphones to research them. Nelson recorded the selections on a Google doc. At first, Nelson only awarded points for mentions in the New York Times, but he later learned to use the Goldstein scale to track the tone of each mention and score accordingly.

For example, if China gives aid to a country in crisis, the student that drafted China would receive up to 10 points. Conversely, a country in the news for genocide would be docked as many as 10 points.

Nelson fine-tuned and expanded the game, often accommodating student requesting to trade countries and form alliances. In 2014, he started a Kickstarter campaign, asking for $10,000 to get Fantasy Geopolitics online. The campaign raised $12,706 in 30 days and received a massive publicity boost when it appeared on Mashable next to an article on Bruno Mars’ Superbowl 2014 halftime performance.

“It exploded from there and almost became nationwide before it was local,” Nelson said.

John Honish is in his seventh year of teaching seventh grade geography and eighth grade history, and third year of using FANschool. Honish said he stumbled across FANschool while he was browsing the internet and immediately felt it was a great way to connect his students to current events.

“I’m big into gamification and turning everything into a competition,” Honish said. “Once I stumbled across (FANschool), it stuck in the back of my mind and I thought of different ways to implement it. I was pretty set on signing up right away.”

Honish met with his principal and was told the school could not provide funds to implement FANschool. Instead, he started a GoFundMe to raise the money for a subscription. FANschool found the GoFundMe page, noticed some of the charity work Honish had organized in the past and insisted on giving the teacher a free first year.

“Their curiosity definitely gets piqued and soon they are following all sorts of countries and news because they want insider info for the game,” Honish said about his students. “I’ve got one student famous for his draft board. He goes some 80 countries deep to be prepared for three full rounds of twenty-some kids. He’s got them all ranked one through eighty, and he’s stingy with advice, except with a few of his friends.”

Those who participate in fantasy football will recognize that the over-prepared-stingy-advice-giver is a cornerstone of each draft. Honish, a fantasy football player, noticed other parallels as well.

“It’s always funny when a country sits longer on the board like it should, and then there’s a giant collective groan when it finally gets taken,” Honish said. “China is never going to make it past the tenth pick, but they get their hopes up anyway.”

After a successful trial run, FANschool is now in the school’s budget. Honish and a fellow eighth grade teacher have experimented with two-on-two leagues and watched as their students played off-shoot leagues of their own.

Ellen Stanley Kirchner, a former student at North Lakes Academy Charter School, won back-to-back FANgeoplitics championships in Nelson’s history classes in 2015 and 2016. Kirchner said she was by no means a model student, but found herself engaging in world news to do better in the game.

“The first year I was toward the middle of the draft, and I picked countries that other people didn’t know about,” Kirchner said. “I did my research and tried to predict countries that would physically blow up. I remember reading something about conflict between royal ambassadors in the Middle East, so I figured there would be some turmoil.”

Kirchner said that is no chance she would have been researching conflict in the Middle East if not for FANgeopolitics. Further, Nelson encouraged the students to turn on Google notifications for the countries they picked. Kirchner still has those notifications on, and gets regular news about Yemen and the other countries she drafted.

“It taught me how to properly research using better sources, pay better attention and take better notes,” Kirchner said. “If you didn’t do those things you wouldn’t win.”

As a result of her first championship, Kirchner received a “Kickin’ Djibouti” t-shirt, and the right to brag about her success on Facebook.

While FANschool has its bread and butter games in FANgeopolitics and FANpolitics, the platform allows for variation and customization to fit needs of each class. Doug Fisher, a hybrid athletic director/freshman geography teacher/physical education teacher, has found a Super Bowl Media Days assignment to be especially effective. During the assignment, the class breaks into teams of reporters and media figures, holds a press conference and practices the skills of a reporter.

“We research questions, role play and try to make it as real as possible,” Fisher said. “One kid who was doing a story on Russia spoke in a Russian accent for the entire fifteen-minute interview. Other kids have worn chains like Mr. T and come in throwing skittles like Marshawn Lynch.”

Fisher also helped organize a FANschool battle between 12 teachers and their classes in which they selected countries, created a coat of arms and practice graphic design while making t-shirts. Fisher said FANschool helps his students seek out and reach information that they wouldn’t otherwise.

“The thing the kids like is the instant access,” Fisher said. “If you need to know what’s going on in Yemen, they are two or three clicks away from the New York Times to learn more about Yemen. I feel like kids these days are inside their own sphere or silo, and I want them to open up and learn about other countries and cultures.”

Nelson left his teaching career in 2015 to pursue FANschool full-time. On an average day he spends his morning doing customer service and product management work and communicating with programmers. Several times a year he will Skype with a class to watch them draft and offer advice. In January, he was a panel speaker at the Fantasy Sports Trade Association Winter Conference in Los Angeles alongside ESPN’s Stephanie Bell, who started a fantasy league for ABC’s The Bachelor. The panel also kicked around the idea of starting fantasy leagues around ESPN coverage of the national spelling bee.

Nelson hopes the Olympic Challenge recreates the success of 2016’s Election Challenge and fuels continued growth for FANschool.

“Fantasy sports all started because fans wanted to feel more involved in the game,” Nelson said. “Well, from my experience, students want to feel more involved in school, as well. They become a manager and a player in their own learning, and the teachers become fans.”