This feature first appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
It was a simple plan: track down some rogue goblins that had been raiding farms in the province and put an end to them.
It was a good plan, and, like most plans, it fell completely apart. In this case, immediately after the adventurers entered the caves and found themselves throwing down not with a mere handful of goblins, but with the entire Bitter Water Clan.
It had been a day long, a running battle with the magic user’s spells keeping the party one step ahead of the pursuit … barely. Just when it seemed that the weary adventurers might escape, they found their exit blocked by a fresh horde of goblin warriors howling for their blood. Out of spells, the magic user is reduced to holding a torch in one hand and a not-nearly-large-enough dagger in the other.
The fighter, a goblin arrow embedded in his thigh and one in the shoulder, struggles to remain upright. The dwarf, blinded in one eye yet always spoiling for a fight grips his war hammer even tighter, while the cool-eyed elf archer notches one of her last three arrows and searches the shadows for a target.
As the torch light dwindles, the goblin horde, eyes ablaze and weapons at the ready, comes screaming out of the darkness. The moment of truth has arrived. It’s time to … roll for initiative!
The game is afoot
Welcome to the computer networking infrastructure classroom at the Career Technology Center of Lackawanna County in Scranton, Penn. It’s the final 45 minutes of a Friday afternoon and the students are clustered around a U-shaped table that is covered with pencils, paper, miniature figurines, and dice — lots and lots of oddly-shaped, brightly-colored dice.
The room belongs to John Moran, the school’s networking instructor and, who is acting as dungeon master (DM) and storyteller for a group of students deeply immersed in the widely popular fantasy tabletop role playing game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). From the noise and excitement, everyone is very much enjoying themselves.
Moran’s job is teaching students the ins-and-outs of computer technology so that they can progress to college and successful IT careers. He runs a tight ship and students must work hard to keep up. Classes meet five days a week, for three hours at a time, covering a wide range of topics from computer fundamentals on up to the basics of network communications.
So why is valuable class time being spent on a game that has nothing to do with computers or any electronic devices? Surprisingly, Moran is using the game to meet a state educational requirement that all CTE programs contain a writing and math component.
“I use D&D to help my students build their literacy and math skills in a non-traditional way,” he explains. “After sitting at a computer for three hours a day, five days a week, my students are burned out, I’m burned out, and the last thing they want to do is type up an article on technology or solve pages of technical math problems.”
Students may not be typing articles or solving equations from a book, but there is a great deal of reading, writing, and number crunching going on around the table — because role-playing in a D&D adventure requires players to do plenty of research and writing.
There’s plenty of math as well, albeit mostly of the low-level addition and subtraction variety. D&D involves statistics across a myriad of areas that deal with every aspect of the game including movement, establishing hit points, combat, damage, carrying capacity, and even the percentage likelihood of convincing a surly orc merchant to sell your character a must-have item at a discount.
Computations and chronicling
The combat stage of D&D requires players to constantly juggle numbers. For example: A Level 8 wizard is casting a lightning bolt spell at an attacking frost dragon. The wizard is normally +4 to hit. He adds 2 to his attack roll because of his dexterity, but subtracts 3 due to balancing himself on an icy ledge, as well as subtracting another 2 because of high winds and blinding snow.
The dragon has an armor class of 18 and adds +3 to his defense because he is moving. What does the wizard have to roll to successfully strike the dragon? Answer: 16. Most players do this on the fly, and all in their heads.
Creative writing is another essential requirement for participation in one of Moran’s adventures. Having worked in the computer field and as an instructor for a number of years, he constantly preaches the need for out-of-the-box thinking and unorthodox approaches to solving complex IT issues on the job.
“When it comes to solving problems in technology,” he explained, “creativity and imagination are essential skills.”
Before an adventure begins, each new student receives a PDF of the Player’s Manual to read through. This is to help newcomers develop a backstory for the character they will be playing in the adventure. Their origin stories will include a great many details, such as where their character comes from, family and clan histories, and any motivations for becoming an adventurer — to name just a few.
It’s common for many new IT students to balk at the D&D assignment, claiming they aren’t creative or lack imagination — excuses Moran immediately and thoroughly rejects. “There is just so much pent-up creativity in young tech students,” he declared firmly. “Making them pump out their character’s origin story is a great way to help them realize that they have imaginations and can be creative.”
Not surprisingly, as students buckle down, they find that they enjoy researching potential character classes and races and before long they are fleshing out a rich and interesting backstory. The assignment is a two-page minimum, but many students to exceed that limit.
“I’ve gotten 12-page backstories from students who claim they’re horrible writers and, according to state test scores, have low reading skills,” said Moran. “But they get going and realize they enjoy it.”
Students sometimes become so absorbed in the task that Moran jokes he can’t get them to stop typing. “When you give them the option to take control of what they write and let them use that different part of the brain where they’re not just regurgitating info, it’s incredible to see,” he said. “It’s so nice to see them get that spark of imagination and just flow with it.”
In addition to math, writing, and thinking critically while playing through a complex adventure, students learn to interact and communicate clearly with others. Which are also essential skills that need to be sharpened by anyone planning to enter the modern IT workforce.
“IT students really don’t socialize on an extended level with one another,” said Moran. “They come to class, work on computers and tinker with things, but usually don’t step out of their comfort zones. “By playing D&D, they have to build their own little community by naturally forming small teams as they decide what character class and race everyone is going to be. They have to communicate back and forth.”
Surprisingly, many students will choose to play a fantasy persona that is the opposite of who they are in real life — and in the process exhibit hidden talents of leadership and buried interpersonal skills. One student in real life was a popular varsity defensive lineman on the football team. His choice of character was a small and dexterous gnome ranger.
Moran asked him why he made that choice, and the star player responded that, instead of always being the big strong kid, it’s nice to be a small quick guy every once in a while. “If I can have 45 minutes a week where people don’t see me as a 6-foot, 280-pound lineman, that’s pretty cool,” he said. “I can imagine stuff that I can’t do, but my character can.”
Another former student had a deep fear of speaking in class. If he had a question, he would approach Moran’s desk and ask it quietly. His character selection was a bard — a musical adventurer who sings songs to cast spells. Moran remembers asking that student, “Are you sure? You have to sing and there’s music involved.”
The student replied, “Yeah, I listen to music all the time.” Unknown to anyone in the class, this shy young man played guitar and wrote music at home. “That was stuff I didn’t know about him until we started playing,” Moran said.
According to both Moran and a pile of research articles, playing D&D can provide valuable opportunities for social-emotional learning to occur among participants. This happens as the players engage emotionally with the adventure and with other players.
“D&D is not playing pretend with fake emotions and ideas,” explained Moran. “It’s role-playing: You take on a role in a story and are tied into it, and to whatever happens.”
Investment in the storyline of the adventure also helps students identify and understand their own emotions. “I constantly remind players that the emotions they feel while playing are real,” Moran explained. “It’s their imagination, their creativity they are feeling, not their character’s.
“When they’re in suspense about what is going to happen or when they’re trying to help a fellow adventurer, those are live emotions that you can’t fake.”
One important emotion that develops among players is empathy toward others. “For a lot of students, this is their first time publicly showing empathy,” Moran said. “Playing as a team, they begin feeling compassionate about the fate of other characters, they care what happens to them and want to help them do well.”
Peer mentoring, attendance, and oversight
Academically, the most tangible consequence of playing D&D with students in the classroom is the atmosphere of increased learning. Students who are more advanced in their coursework frequently look for opportunities to mentor younger classmates who may be struggling with grasping a concept or completing an assignment.
Participation in weekly D&D sessions requires students to have a passing grade and be current with all assignments. “Students are way more motivated to do their work,” said Moran. “They don’t want to let their teammates down by not being able to play.”
Class attendance is also at an all-time high. “Historically, Fridays had the highest rate of absenteeism, but with D&D, I usually have all my kids here,” said Moran.
IT education isn’t literally all fun and games, of course. Moran’s courses are demanding, comprehensive, and current on the specific skills and certifications demanded across the IT industry. Staying abreast of industry innovations means a lot of outside reading for Moran, as well as regular confabs with an occupational advisory committee (OAC) consisting of experienced industry professionals and IT instructors from local colleges and universities.
“Our committee is an excellent resource for us. They know what the tech industry is looking for in potential employees,” said Moran. “They are also super helpful any time we need to get grants for equipment.”
Committee member Rich Ainey has an appreciation for how Moran prepares his students for employment. “It blows my mind how [John] makes his program interesting to catch student attention. He has transformed the program over the last few years to the point that his kids have more experience and certifications coming out of high school than I had after four years of studying management information systems.”
Moran admits that performance in his courses is cut-and-dried — student and classroom projects either work, or they don’t. And learning IT is often a bland experience. His unique teaching talent, in addition to a depth of knowledge and experience, is weaving a strain of creativity throughout his curriculum to make teaching fun.
“No one wants a nerdy and boring teacher like Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” he said. “Teaching can be made interesting as long as the teacher is creative.”
Creativity is one of Moran’s strongest traits and it began in childhood as he collected sports cards, read comic books, and woke up early to watch his favorite superhero adventures. “I loved watching Saturday morning cartoons, the X-Men, Spider-Man and others,” he said.
He is also a true fan of Walt Disney. “I love and admire Disney. He was so far ahead of the curve in Imagineering and the things he and his company created. Visiting a Disney property is a great experience. As a kid I wore out my copy of The Lion King.”
Creative muscles require regular use and Moran exercises his outside the classroom by participating in a weekly D&D adventure of his own with friends. His favorite character is Barnabus Blackroot, a Level 4 Order of Scribes wizard. He also runs a small comic and sports card shop, Moonshot Moose, LLC. His crown jewel is a complete run of Willie Mays Topps cards.
And just because he “doesn’t have enough to do,” he recently started a podcast that shares esoteric and fascinating tidbits about Walt Disney and his creations — including why you can’t buy gum in any of the Disney properties. (Spoiler: Disney hated gum because of how people spit it on the ground at other theme parks.)
Information technology may be the most rapidly evolving industry in the world. Innovations happen overnight, and no one knows exactly what tomorrow will bring. Whatever new advances come along, Moran knows that success in the field will be built on knowledge and IT certifications — and especially on the ability to be creative and imaginative in meeting challenges.
With each class period — and every roll of the dice – John Moran is preparing young people for career success.