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5 Easy Steps to #Gamifying #HigherEd

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

It’s time to get the party started with gamification in higher education. Maybe it’s the liberating feeling of the summer, or the fact that it is the perfect time for some educators to make improvements to their curriculums. Maybe I’m just sick of waiting for the gamification movement to bloom on its own. Regardless, it is time to take some drastic action in jumpstarting the games-in-learning movement this summer, so here are five easy things that every educator can start doing this fall to usher in a new era of interactive, engaging, and innovative education.

Professor brainstorming ways to improve class

The Importance of Gamification to Higher Education
I have great respect and admiration for old mentor and friend Charles Reigeluth who writes in his new book, Reinventing Schools: It’s Time to Break the Mold, that dramatic change is needed in education. So dramatic in fact, that the only way to achieve it is going to be to blow up the old system and start from scratch. Reigeluth is talking about public K-12 schools, not higher education, but all of the fundamental societal shifts that he cites as reasons for change in K-12 education in the information age also apply to higher ed. They are:

  • A move to customization from standardization
  • Increased diversity of ideas, information, and perspective rather than uniformity
  • An emphasis on collaboration rather than adversarial relationships
  • Work characterized by teamwork/shared leadership rather than bureaucracy
  • A focus on individual empowerment and accountability rather than centralized control
  • A reliance on worker self-direction rather than compliance
  • Increasing prevalence of self-service as opposed to a reliance on professionals
  • A holistic world view rather than compartmentalization

While all these changes are prevalent throughout society, higher education hasn’t kept up with the overall pace of change. It is not, despite the push from eLearning, MOOCs, and technology in general, going to embrace a wholesale change any time in the foreseeable future. Enter gamification (as opposed to game-based learning which uses actual games in the classroom). The often derided and somewhat controversial concept of gamification (or the application of specific decontextualized game elements or mechanics in the classroom) makes much more sense for higher education at this point. What gamification can add to higher education is that it provides students with enhanced opportunities for:

  • Engagement: At the most basic level, these suggestions make students more interested in what they are learning.
  • Flexibility: Incorporating gamification elements allows students to develop increased mental flexibility and problem solving abilities.
  • Competition: Games and game-based learning elements play on the natural human desire for competition. In this case, a form of competition in which people can learn from their failures rather than be penalized for them.
  • Collaboration: In a hyper-connected world, students need to be capable collaborators both with others local and online.

In addition to these mainstream 21st Century skills, game designer Jane McGonigal sees four additional attributes that gamimfication can help learners develop.

  • Urgent Optimism: Gamers are characterized by extreme self-motivation. They act immediately and decisively to attack an obstacle and always believe that there is a realistic chance of success.
  • Social Fabric: Through game play, individuals develop an affinity for the other gamers they are playing with, trust that those individuals will support the collective effort, and nurture a strong understanding of cooperation and its benefits.
  • Blissful Productivity: Game play makes the gamer happier while working hard than people generally are while relaxing or doing nothing. During game play, the individual is optimizing their productivity and enjoying it.
  • Epic Meaning: The problem-based nature of games allows players to feel that they are part of something larger than themselves, and people love feeling like they are a part of something big. This feeling motivates and inspires them to keep playing to solve any problem they encounter.

This is not saying that these objectives cannot be achieved without the incorporation of game mechanics into the higher ed classroom. They can. But the use of gamification techniques provides a new way of getting at valuable skills and a new and refreshing way of engaging students that makes learning more enjoyable and help make it more enduring.

Five Gamification Elements That Any Educator Can Use Right Now

1. Turn Grades Into Achievements – Games operate on the basic premise that hundreds of small achievements need to happen in order for a player to meet larger objectives and advance in the game. In addition, the feedback for each of these mini-objectives is immediate. Either you defeat the enemy, jump the gap, solve the puzzle, or you don’t. And you know immediately if you have failed and can adjust your strategy accordingly. While there are obstacles to dumping grades completely within a college curriculum, making a subtle move toward acknowledging smaller discrete units of learning provides several benefits. For instructors, it allows finer grained tracking of student progress and an ability to better assess where each student is having difficulties so that more immediate and pinpointed feedback can be given. The same benefits are true for students. They receive more immediate feedback and gain a better sense of where their learning of specific small objectives stands at any moment and they know exactly when they are ready to advance to the next problem.

This switch to an achievement-based model of education can be achieved in a number of ways. In some areas, using an outside resource like the Khan Academy can provide the extremely detailed tracking, immediate feedback, and self-paced progression that are key to this paradigm. If Khan doesn’t fit your needs, simply breaking your course assignments into much smaller deliverables that need to be mastered before the next can be taken on works in any field. In writing, require solid thesis statements, outlines, annotated bibliographies, introductory paragraphs, and multiple drafts over the course of a semester. Each step need not be professor graded either. In the writing example, the campus writing center can provide valuable support in guiding students through many of these intermediate steps.

2. Make Space Work In Your Favor – Games are "designed spaces." Someone intentionally plans every element that appears within a game from the rules of physics, to the color of a character’s shoelaces, every element is intentionally planned and designed to elicit a desired effect or to play a specific role in achieving the game objectives. As an educator, you are also putting together a designed experience for your students. Make every element of the class, from the physical space, to virtual resources, seamlessly support the learning objectives.

Rather than a straight rows classroom, design a space that provides interest and engagement for students by reconfiguring desks or meeting outside of the class. Take advantage of the Internet and use technology and customized online sites to create a virtual space for the class that provides a useful, interactive, engaging or even fun space.

3. Define Rules for Success – Games have clear rules for success that don’t always mimic the real world. The rules of physics, for example, are often tweaked in a game to make driving a race car more exciting and manageable with a control pad. Or the physics of combat are changed so that a character can perform a high-flying combo move. The secret is that the rules must always be clear and consistent, if not explicit. Unevenly enforced or inconsistent rules lead to frustration and disengagement by the player. There is no reason that the rules of your classroom need to exactly emulate the real world. Adjust your classroom rules to create a learning experience for students that challenge them to adapt their ways of thinking, or develop innovative solutions to problems.

As an example, think about changing the rules to emulate a non-equitable situation in the real world. Some students may be given more resources for completing a task than others, or rules may intentionally favor one group over another. The key here is to be intentional, clear, and transparent about what is happening and to make these rules a point of discussion and learning.

4. Emphasize Skills and Knowledge Over Information – Students don’t need information. They can look up almost anything they would ever need to know on a connected portable device. While there is a certain level of basic information needed by everyone in order to even be able to make an intelligent query, so much more is readily available than anyone could ever memorize on their own. What students really need in order to be successful are practical skills and knowledge (actionable information).

The essential skills should include the 21st Century skills that are currently receiving so much attention such as critical thinking, technology literacy, problem solving, collaboration, and self-directed learning, as well as any skills that are specific to a given field of study. Examples of these kinds of skills or knowledge can include knowing how to work scientific apparatus, computer programming, or other specific skills that allow students to use real tools to complete tasks. One way of facilitating the development of these skills is through project-based learning, where students use information to achieve pursue real objectives and concrete outputs which allow them to create knowledge. These resources from Edutopia can be readily adapted to higher education.

5. Introduce the Element of Chance Into the Curriculum – You may be thinking that nothing should be left to chance in higher education. That is true, but don’t forget that education is a designed experience (meaning you as the educator/instructional designer are crafting the situation from the ground up and are in control of what happens – including when and how "chance" enters the equation). As the instructor you are in charge of this designed experience and chance doesn’t have to be random. Think about it as adding elements of surprise that can keep students engaged and helps them remember. Unannounced guest speakers, a random schedule of pop quizzes, or even creating and randomly enforcing unevenly applied classroom rules are all ways of introducing elements of chance into the curriculum.

Another way of adding the element of chance into a class is to think of it as incorporating flexibility. Creating an a la carte menu of course projects and assignments can be effective. For those interested in more randomness, these assignments can be assigned via some sort of lottery.

Adding Gamification Elements Can be Fun
Doing all of these things at once can seem overwhelming to any educator trying to enjoy the summer or get ahead on their publications, so think small and think of gamifying your course as something fun for you and your students. Choose one or two of these simple steps at first and allow them to bring out your innate creativity. You will find that your teaching gets a refreshing update that makes it more enjoyable for you and more effective for your students. If you like it, stick with it, add some additional elements, or even gamify all of your classes.

Please, share your successes and challenges with me here, on Google+, or during #GBLFriday on Twitter.