Gamification: Not Just For After-School

If you have kids, chances are you’ve seen them glued to a TV playing video games at some point in their lives.  Gaming has shifted quite a bit from the days of my youth, from a niche market populated by “geeks” and “nerds,” to a multi-billion dollar industry that has become just as mainstream as pro-sports. It’s gotten so popular that “gamification,” or the incorporation of game-based elements, is now a huge buzzword in the elearning industry.  That said, like all buzzwords, there’s a difference between saying it and executing on it.  The reality is that it’s not that hard to implement well and I wanted to share a few articles with you today on how to incorporate gaming elements using minimal effort.

Be forewarned, you’ll need a subscription to to access a lot of what I’m sharing but that subscription is free and I’ve found the resource to be extremely helpful for my work so, if you don’t have one yet, I’d highly recommend it.

This week, let’s start with an overview of gamification elements; although it’s somewhat a plug for a product (but these days what isn’t?), what’s important is that it’s a good listing of standard gamification elements which I’ll summarize here:

  1. Multi-Level Action: “Learners must be able to progress through levels of difficulty, which gives them a continuing sense of achievement.”
  2. Competitions: Students need to feel as though they are competing (hence game), which can be done either against each other, the professor or some automated device. Competition drives engagement, which makes the brain decide something’s worth learning.
  3. Rewards: These can be intangible (plot progression, badges, new levels or recognition) or tangible (grades, homework passes, actual money, etc.) but students need to feel as though their work is rewarding them in some way.
  4. Incorporation of a narrative: A lot of the video games your kids own have a story that progresses as they play. Even as grownups, we like to pretend.  Role-playing’s been a game element in face to face for decades; it’s used by the army to teach counter-insurgency, doctors to train their bedside manner, teachers to learn classroom management, and all sorts of other professions.
  5. Social Connectivity: I don’t, but some gamers like to gloat. In all honesty, providing an opportunity for gamers to connect and share their experience within it often leads to further growth in the subject we’re trying to teach.

Gamification’s a cool concept and very powerful if done well, but it’s not always a good idea to go full throttle into a new trend.  Certain traditional elements of instruction (tests, papers, etc) are important in any course as well and, like all things, we should focus on incorporating game elements in targeted ways as part of a larger purpose.  Some of the below strategies are extremely simple and might be helpful to run by your faculty if you’re interested in including gaming elements:

  1. Role playing is a great tool. Moodle lessons (a Moodle activity type) can be set up to act like a “choose-your-own-adventure” book from the 80s (yeah, I spent a lot of time in the library as a kid).  Multiple endings can be included with different feedback based off the students behavior and the students can then discuss their outcomes in a forum as a deliverable.
  2. Ratchet up the difficulty as students get through the course. Ideally setting the modules up to build on each other will do this already, but consider incorporating elements of previous learning as students advance through different courses as well (this is especially effective in linear programs).
  3. Establish a social network beyond the course. Social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn allow for closed groups (thanks, FERPA) and give students an opportunity to share what they’re doing, ask questions, and establish connections outside of class.
  4. By simply adding a few game elements, you can breathe new life into an old activity. Set up a prize for students to achieve and a competition for them to get there.  This can work in a presentation assignment where students can vote on the best presenter (anonymously, of course).  Or consider a research assignment where the student who shares the highest number of relevant resources in a week is granted extra credit (a leaderboard could be kept updated in a discussion forum), an added badge, or an alternative assignment option the other students don’t have.
  5. Finally, there’s no shortage of educational resources out there that are games themselves. I’ve seen many marketing courses make use of Marketplace Live.  Political Science or Ethics courses can make use of NationStates and there’s a host of government media out there for educational use like this one about the Federal Reserve.  Build in a way for students to share their experience in the game with each other and derive a meaning associated with a learning objective, and you’re set.  Gameification is a Google search away.

This is a very basic view of Gamification and the majority of instructional designers who use it are in the corporate sector, not higher ed.  With that in mind, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on how it could be implemented for students.  What are your concerns/questions, and what do you think would need to occur for game-based learning to take on a larger role at your institution?


One Man’s Dream – Higher Ed’s Mission

I think this week we can take a step out of the dry article shares and talk about a very personal story.  It’s not mine; it’s one my director shared with me.  Meet Ankit Khandelwal, a former chemical engineer from Northern India who, with the help of online education, hopes to become a “Global Manager” within the next 15 years.  Dreams are all well and good—if my former students all achieved what they dreamed of, we would have a ton of basketball players and rock stars—but I’m sharing this with you today because of how he plans to go about this.  Having run out funding to continue his education in Denmark, Ankit has decided to go “open source”, identifying the skills needed to excel in his chosen field and utilizing MOOCs and other open educational resources to achieve this goal.  He’s not going to pay a dime and, if he pulls it off, he’ll have the same qualifications as any MBA in this world.

Online education is, in many ways, a very American phenomenon.  Europeans are, give or take, 10 years behind the US in terms of their implementation of online education so a lot of what he’s talking about is the same buzz we felt with the advent of EdX and Udacity.  While I wish Mr. Khandelwal all the best, I’d like to take a look at the advances in education that are allowing him to move forward and consider how we can incorporate that into our programs.  What he’s doing is something I’ve harped on before: Competency Based Education (CBE).

In a lot of ways CBE is a throwback to the classical method of education (before Carnegie Mellon and the Credit Hour System) akin to the original way Oxford was set up, how Aristotle and Socrates taught, or the University of Sankore.  Instead of planned out degrees, there were experts who you (as the student) hired to teach you specific skills.  You left with an endorsement for your ability to do certain things.  We had to get away from this in the early 1900s because, as the number of students increased, we needed a way to keep track of them all and, limited by a proto-industrial era level of technology, creating these categories of A, B, C, D and F was the way to do it.  I’m not knocking the system; I’m merely suggesting that technology has finally caught up with demand to the extent that we no longer have to mass-produce our students with cut-and-dried degrees.

Instead of diluting education, online technology has democratized it in the most dramatic way since the GI Bill scholarship program.  Finally, thanks to innovations like badging and CBE, we are closer than ever to offering the customized education that used to be considered normal.  We shouldn’t be afraid of these innovations because, at their core, they are a return to what education was supposed to be in the first place, an open forum that gives people like Mr. Khandelwal the opportunity to plan his own education and grow his own skills in a way that best aligns with who he wants to be.

My dream for education is an institution where the main question we ask isn’t “what’s your major?” it’s “what do you want to do with your life?”

What you think of his plan?  Will it work?  What do you like/disagree with?  Do you think there are elements we could incorporate in our programs and, if so, how would we go about doing it?

Group Projects: Why Students Hate Them, How To Do Them Well, and How to Take Them Online

While discussion forums are generally everybody’s first thought when it comes to peer-to-peer interactions, I thought I’d spend some time this week tackling that bear of instruction known as the group project.  I’ll start of by saying that I’m normally very skittish about designing group project in online as it’s very hard to do well.  With that in mind, the first piece I’ll share is a USNEWS article that summarizes the challenges of this instructional method.  The major complaint being made is that bringing these projects online makes it harder to hold project members accountable as the logistics of coordination and transparency become more difficult.  More importantly, though, is that it’s harder to get people to do their jobs.  As the article states, “it’s easier not to be accountable to someone you never see.”

While all of that seems discouraging at first, I’ll tell you that none of the complaints being listed by the article are different from those made by the 13 year olds I used to teach.  There’s always that one guy who never does his work, and this will be real in a career as it is in a class.  So before we get into the online-specific strategies that can be used to facilitate group assignments, I thought I’d share some simple strategies for facilitating any group project, offline or online.

  1. Keep it small: I would be skittish about more than 4 people to a group. The more humans, the more variables and machines with a lot of moving parts have a tendency to break.
  2. Set Expectations: Group projects fail when faculty assume that students don’t need something explained. With so many moving parts, idiot proofing the assignment isn’t just saving us headaches later; it’s doing right by our students.  When in doubt, put it in writing and rubrics should be mandatory.
  3. Establish Accountability: While self-reviews are likely to produce self-serving results, I’ve found that peer-reviews can be helpful, especially if they’re tied to a grade. You have to make the criteria as specific as possible and require examples but students are more likely to pull their weight if they know their peers are going to call them out.
  4. Start early and chunk it out. I say this about every single summative assignment and I’m never going to stop.  If students are going to submit something in 8 weeks, they need to start on day one and they need clear guideposts for how to move forward.  By breaking projects into chunks and establishing a schedule, it’s easier to hold people accountable.
  5. Create a sample plan and make that the first deliverable: the more structured something is, the more likely people are to follow it. Build a plan for how you would accomplish the project.  Set up an ideal timeline (see suggestion 1) and a list of items that need to be completed to meet it.  Chances are, if they know what it needs to look like, the group members can come up with a way to fill that plan out.

Also, and I’d really like you to look at this, Faculty Focus has a great checklist for evaluating the effectiveness of an online group project and I strongly suggest you read it and share it with your faculty.  Finally, Moodle doesn’t really lend itself to group projects the way blackboard does.  We can build group forums and threads in the shell but the interactivity is missing.  With that in mind we should look elsewhere.  Here are some webtools that can be used to help facilitate group work:

  1. Skype: Scheduling skype conferences are simple, skype is free and skype uses the same hardware students are using to access moodle. Worst case scenario?  They can call into a conference.  This is a great tool for hosting meetings.
  2. GoogleDocs: Students can view the work being created in real time, track access and make edits. Not only can they collaborate, they can hold each other accountable.
  3. Creately: Building charts and diagrams becomes a lot easier and it’s also quite similar to googledocs.
  4. Voicethread: Think Skype, but asynchronous. It allows students to have a conversation but similar to a discussion forum and show things as well.

What do you think?  What has worked for you in the past and what concerns do you have about online group project?  They are tricky, but with the majority of businesses moving to a web 2.0 model and group work being done online at work, I think modeling proper execution in school will help us create a competitive edge for our students.

Education and Social Mobility: Thoughts on How Curriculum Design can Provide Students With a Return on Their Investment

Given the current employment levels and the mounting student debt crisis, I think it’s a safe thing to say that our industry is under fire.  So today I figured I’d share this article by Dan Berrett from the Chronicle.  I’ll let you read it for yourself before you continue on.

The focus of the article was about a study two economists made trying to assess factors in the post college success of their students.  The funny thing occurred when they compared two students.  They couldn’t find any conclusive evidence that the college degree both students earned was a deciding factor in their employment outcomes.  They couldn’t even correlate the college experience with the skills that got them their job.

That’s startling news seeing as higher ed in this country is touted as the last bastion of social mobility.  But if you really think about it, we are working with an outdated model of higher education.  Think about it, how much has education really changed since the 1900s?  Sure, we have coeducation, online education and a more egalitarian method of providing people with access to these vehicles of social mobility, but have we actually kicked the tires of the curriculum we’re using?  Is there a particular reason we’re doing things like the Carnegie-Mellon grading system or Credit Hours?  How does an “4.0” translate to success in the modern job market?

My question for the week is, if we are going to market ourselves as a vehicle of social mobility, how can we, as educators, make sure that our instructional methods, as well as our instructional content is provided in a way that is conducive to a student achieving that end? 

I hate to beat a dead horse but when I think of innovation in higher ed, I think of the Minerva Project and (if you don’t mind my soapbox) these are the main reasons that I believe we should be considering as we develop curriculum:

  1. A focus in coursework on rigor and creative problem solving skills as opposed to rote learning (high level blooms vs low level)
  2. Experiential learning through projects, externships and internships and service opportunities
  3. Assignments that require students to grow beyond the classroom and apply their learning to real world applications.

As educators we tend to balk at the idea of real world applications, of getting our hands dirty.  I can’t tell you how many instructors I work with still demand 50-100 question exams when the truth is that no employer is going to ask them to take a test.   That said, the best part about the majority of online programs is that your students are usually taking them to grow in a field they have already gotten started in.  Think about it, instead of asking an RN to BSN student to write a paper about key needs in professional development at his institution, why not actually have him develop and lead a professional development experience for his peers and coworkers and evaluate his effectiveness?  Instead of asking a teacher to identify leadership needs and talk about how to fill them in her institution, why not actually assign her to design a solution to a problem and own a project at her place of work that makes that solution real? 

Wouldn’t that be rigorous (remember our definition of rigor from before) and wouldn’t an employer prefer to see it on a student’s resume?

I just want to leave you with one final thought before you delete this email.  In the article, Beth points out that, after college, she just needed a chance to prove that she could be a valuable employee.  She just needed somebody to take a chance on her.  If we make an effort to include relevant, real-world experience as a part of our curriculum, she would have been be one step closer to having the proof before she graduated.