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Unscripted reality: Using competition-based television as a teaching tool

Originally published November 12, 2013

As traditional academic model lose their relevancy with each passing day, educators are seeking new approaches to developing students in more meaningful ways. One of the latest trends in learning is immersive education.

Immersive Education is usually a suite of advanced digital technologies that immerse and engage learners in a way that is not possible with traditional teaching methods. Virtual reality (VR), virtual worlds, game-based learning systems, simulations, augmented reality (AR), fully immersive environments (such as caves and domes), creative computing systems, and 3D printing are among the Immersive Education technologies that K-12 schools and universities around the world are using to fundamentally change the way students learn. Many academic budgets cannot afford these sorts of IT expenditures but, with a bit of imagination, educator can still explore the benefits of this evolving teaching approach.

SFL spoke with Dr. Leigh Ann Danzey-Bussell about her successful application of certain competitive elements found in the reality-based television series Survivor to create an immersive learning experience for her students.

Leigh Ann Danzey-Bussell: I won’t say I’ve been programmed, but I have truly bought into the idea that students have to do rather than just learn.

Dr. Leigh Ann Danzey-Bussell, Assistant Professor Assistant Professor, University of West Georgia

I was very fortunate to have taught at Ball State University for many years. Their tag line is ‘Education redefined’ and that’s where I saw immersive learning at its best.

SFL: Describe your background and how you have gotten to where you are today as a teaching professional.

Danzey-Bussell: Well, my original plan wasn’t to be a professor, I will tell you that.

I am from Alabama and went to The University of Alabama as an undergrad. I worked in the Athletic Department and my whole thought process as a student, initially, was that I was going to be a sports broadcaster. At the time that I went to college, there were only two female sportscasters, as hard as that may be for some of today’s students to believe. We had Jane Kennedy and Phyllis George and that was it. I thought, “Okay. I am going to be the third female broadcaster and I am going to be different from them.’ I always had that dream I guess.

Through the process of working in the Athletic Department, I worked in Sports Information. I began to have a passion for the writing side of sports. So, I stayed after getting a bachelor’s degree in broadcasting and a bachelor’s degree in public relations and I got the opportunity to work professionally for a golf tour before going to grad school at what was then Northeast Louisiana, but today it is call University of Louisiana at Monroe.

After Northeast Louisiana, I then got my PhD from Florida State in Athletic Administration, again working in the Athletic Department, but more from an administration side and a research side. Ultimately, the goal was to be a college Athletic Director. Not factored into that plan was getting married, having a daughter and, you know, my personal and professional priorities changing just a little bit.

I have teaching in my family and I guess I can say it is in my blood. It was inevitable. It was going to happen at some point. I just thought it was going to be once I was done working in college athletics and ready to transition into my retirement.

That being said, I have been very, very fortunate to work in collegiate, professional and non-profit sport organizations throughout my career. Without those experiences, I would not be the teacher I am today.

SFL: Explain how you came began using Survivor as a teaching tool and how it gets students to learn attitudes, knowledge and skills that traditional teaching can sometimes fail to provide.

Danzey-Bussell: The idea was conceived and implemented at Ball State University. I have since taken it beyond Ball State and I would say it was the launching board for changing who I am and how I teach.

It is kind of interesting how it came to be and it transpired over a Christmas break. I was ending the fall semester as a Graduate Coordinator for our program at Ball State University and I wanted to add a bit of fun to graduate work because graduate work can be very boring, at times, and but very intense at others. There is this whole research, research, research aspect that graduate level work tries to push and I was looking to create something fresh and exciting.

I was a huge Survivor fan and I started thinking about how I could work it into a graduate level class to make it a little more interesting. I conceived the idea right after Thanksgiving. Created the rules in December and launched it in January. It was very, very quick process.

I had developed all of these ideas from academic literature that talks about lessons learned from team projects and I thought reality TV, particularly Survivor, could help students better understand things like leadership, teamwork, self-worth, and managing yourself in an unfamiliar environment. Those are all things that happen in the corporate world that most people need to understand, but if they just read about it in a textbook or listened to a lecture, it would not make the same impression. So, I created Sptadukia.

The title is actually an acronym. ‘S, P, T, A, D’ were the letters that identify our courses in our Sports Administration program, so they stand for sports administration. ‘U, K, I, A’ stands for ‘ultimate know-it-all.’

In essence, instead of looking for the lone survivor, the best person to play the game, I was looking for the person who was the ultimate know-it-all who could manage all these projects and the relationships that were being formed within working groups, and then individually, ultimately having the class determine who this winner was by voting; the same scenarios, more or less, as Survivor.

SFL: How did your students react when you began this teaching method?

Danzey-Bussell: Initially, I would say, because it was so different, those first students were a little apprehensive and complained a lot because there was a lot work involved.

To date those first students that went through our first class will tell you that it was the most amazing learning experience that they had. Even though it was a great deal of work, they now look at it as valuable learning that they didn’t realize was occurring at the time. They were complaining about presentations, PowerPoint projects and taking quizzes for immunity. But, it was just a really neat way to take what I call ‘information’ and present it in a new way that the students don’t necessarily realize they are learning until the class is over. Playing the game in class, they begin to face those challenges or attempt to address certain questions and concerns just like those they will face when they are in the real world.

SFL: When a student participant goes through this process and they are eliminated by their tribes or classmates, what happens to them?

Danzey-Bussell: Nothing. They are still very much a part of the group. They are not able to win the title of Sptadukia, but they have to participate and contribute as if they were still competing for it. Remember, it isn’t necessarily a competition to declare someone as the best student. It was more of a way to get them to understand office politics and how to maneuver through those, as well as develop potential leadership skills that they may not have or grow those that they do have. More important, I think their ideas of their own self worth is positively changed because a lot of times I have students that were in grad school because it was what was expected of them. Sptadukia was a way to get them to understand that even though maybe your ideas or the performance is not exactly what your company wanted it doesn’t mean you are no longer involved. If they make the decision to move forward, you have to be a contributor regardless of what occurs along the way. It became an ego thing, a little bit, so that was good. There were those who really wanted to win, there were those who didn’t care one way or another. It was that they participated and, initially, there were some that were like, ‘Gosh. I have to do this?’ Whether or not Survivor had been a part of the class, they would have still been participating in the same types of elements as far as quizzes group work and presentations. It just kind of added a new element to the way that I had already structured the class.

SFL: It seems as though this approach would provide a sort of transition for students to the business world because those individual, personal reactions are very similar to what you would find in an office when a new project is being presented to people.

Danzey-Bussell: Absolutely.

You know you may not buy into the direction the company wants to go, but you are employed there and you have no choice but to go that direction or to leave. That is something that I think students need to understand early on in their college careers. They also had to read Jim Collin’s book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap, And Others Don’t during the class where they learn more of these sort of office issues.

We always say, “If you are not with us, get off the bus.’ They understand the importance of putting together a good team, as well as understanding that if and when you wake up and you begin to dread going to the office or you are starting to complain a lot about what is going on, you need to evaluate the situation and decide if this is where you need to be. If it is not, get off the bus. Really look at your life priorities, your professional priorities and possibly move on in a different direction or to a different company that might support your work and professional philosophy about sports management; if that is the field they are in, or entertainment or whatever.

The game definitely provided them with an insight into, ‘Wow. I don’t like the way this is going. Should I jump ship?’ Actually, we did that half way through the class, just like in Survivor. They flip teams and move somebody from one team to another. I came in one night and said, ‘Okay. You are done as these teams. These are your new teams.’ Throwing those kinds of challenges at them became very important as well. You sometimes get too comfortable when you are working with the same people, and that is not always going to be the way it is when you are working in a professional world. The dynamics of business change minute by minute, so a person who you were working with that you had a good working relationship with may move on, or may be promoted or may not be involved in the next project. Here comes a new person. You have to develop those strong team dynamics again. Those challenges of potential, future corporate environments definitely came into play during my teaching of the class.

SFL: A lot of people would look at this and wonder about student assessment. What evaluative tools were used during the class?

Danzey-Bussell: I provide very specific rubrics each week to go with each individual task.

They have a group presentation and that group presentation has a specific rubric that went along with it. The traditional pedagogical elements of testing, like writing, were included in the class, but each person was also evaluated by their peers. I feel strongly that, and I implemented this early on during my second year of teaching, an assessment instrument was needed that allows each group member to evaluate the other group members and it becomes part of their final grade. I always felt it wasn’t fair when you do group work that you get the assignment, you write it and everybody in the group gets the same grade. We all know that not everybody carries the same weight when it comes to group assignments. I have a specific assessment piece to allow the students to rate their group members. I tell them nobody is allowed the full ten point as it is impossible to be perfect, if you are being completely honest. I ask them, ‘Do you want the person who was the slacker of the group to get the same grade as you?’ That kind of opens their eyes. There were definitely traditional elements put into play, but I try for that nontraditional approach as well because I don’t know too many people that have the individual group member evaluations like I have it. I am sure there are some, but, most definitely, each project counted for each individual student.

There was a rubric for when they read and did the report on the Collins book. There was one for reading articles. I try to get them to read research-based articles and do a review and there was a rubric for that. So, most definitely, everything has a tangible rubric that they could review to and base their final submission or presentation off of.

SFL: Do you know of anybody else who does this sort of competition sort of marrying reality TV thing other than you?

Danzey-Bussell: In the field of sport management, I just learned about a lady, not necessarily a competition but she is using the show Undercover Boss which I absolutely love and actually I spoke a lot about during Sptadukia telling students to watch the show because it is a behind-the-scenes look at different businesses and how they function, or how there is dysfunction within them. There are 17 episodes of Undercover Boss that are somehow related to the sport and entertainment industry. Students in these fields can analyze and critique the different episodes or uses them as a supplement to the lessons taught in class.

The other reality show that I think would be amazing to implement is The Mole. I think it would be amazing in a management class to figure out a way to incorporate that show’s tasks and challenges. In business, there is always that one person who is trying to sabotage the group’s project whether it is intentional or not. There is always that one person, I hate to say it, who wanted to be the boss’s pet, that is a nice way to put it. That would be a great way to teach them unfortunate life lessons in a class environment that many of us have probably experienced while on the job.

SFL: It seems to me that there are opportunities for long distance collaborations when following this format. A tribe of students could actually be shared among institutions, not just on a single campus.

Danzey-Bussell: You are right about that.

When I was at West Georgia, I was contacted to do a needs assessment for the local recreation department. Because I didn’t have grad students at West Georgia, I reached out to a colleague who was a coordinator of a graduate program at Eastern Michigan. Not only did we do the subversive or active learning, we called it problem-based learning, but we did it long distance. It was so successful that I think it is another element worth exploring in more detail.

We have actually just written that up and submitted for publication a piece that outlines how you can not only use students as consultants, but also how you don’t have to think within your classes, or your particular university, as the sole means for collaboration. You can stretch 1,200 miles and collaborate effectively, just like in the business world, because of technology. It made the process of working with the students at Eastern Michigan as if we were in the same room.

I do something like this, active learning or problem based learning, in every class I teach from an intro freshman class to doctoral level courses.

2020 Update: Dr. Leigh Ann Danzey-Bussell is Associate Professor of Sport Management at Trevecca Nazarene University, Curriculum Developer & Online Instructor at Upper Iowa University, Adjunct Professor at Troy University and Adjunct Professor at Belhaven University. In 2014, Danzey-Bussell co-authored a textbook Managing Sports Events.