5 Questions to Ask Before Gamifying Your Online Course

Online education is a dynamic and exciting field. From advanced approaches to instruction to multimedia use in the online classroom, the ways in which online learning has evolved require instructors, course writers, and even administrators to remain constantly alert and curious. One concept that’s gathered significant interest in this field is gamification. Games are, after all, extremely popular in our culture. From board games to console games and even to games on our mobile devices, it’s easy to see that games are all around us and capture our attention—and free time. With this level of popularity, it might seem natural, then, that we would want to consider how we can shape our online courses similarly.

Gamification refers to the principle of applying game-like elements to other areas of activity. It isn’t limited to online education, though. Consider how popular fitness trackers give out badges, or how grocery stores offer loyalty programs with savings if you spend enough. These elements, which are taken from games, attract our interest and keep us motivated, so it’s only natural that there would be interest in including them in higher education. Like any endeavor in your online course, though, it’s important that you create these elements in a way that supports your larger course goals. In this article, we’ll explore five questions you should ask before trying to gamify your online course.

Before You Begin

While diving into gamification has the potential to be an exciting endeavor for your online course, it’s important that you assess whether it’s an approach you’d actually like to take. It holds tremendous potential for bringing out the best in your course—it’s an innovative, new approach to course design for many course writers; it can incentivize completion of course elements, modules, and more; and many learning management systems already have built-in gamification features such as badges or leaderboards. However, these elements also bring with them certain risks. For starters, some research surrounding gamification is ambiguous with regards to efficacy, meaning that the work you put into it might not lead to gains in student achievement (Dichev & Dicheva, 2017). Secondly, that work involved is considerable, requiring time, energy, and attention to detail. Because gamifying an online course is no small feat, it’s important to take note of what’s required to ensure that this is an endeavor that will improve the learning experience for your students. As you make your way through the questions that follow, take time to consider these pros and cons. As exciting as the idea of a narrative structure or leaderboard might be, it’s important that you know you can do so in a way that supports student learning.

Does my course lend itself to a narrative structure?

One of the most common elements of a gamified course is a narrative course structure. This isn’t limited to gamified courses, however. Narrative structure is a powerful way to illustrate to students the relationship between modules, create engagement, and establish an emotional connection to the course in a way that motivates students to continue through it. From a gamified perspective, think about how common games are structured. Take Super Mario Bros., for instance. The princess is captured, forcing Mario to go through a series of different worlds and beat different bosses until he’s eventually able to save her. It has a clear start, interrelated worlds or elements, scaled difficulty, and an achievable, observable goal.

Now, this isn’t to suggest that your course should involve kidnapping or adventure across worlds, but, if you’re looking to gamify your course, it’s important to see what interrelated elements can carry students from one module to the next. Perhaps you have a history course with a chronological approach, or maybe you have a business course that requires students to navigate through certain principles with increasing complexity. Behind most games is a story, and there’s no reason the same can’t be said for courses. From chronological to ideological and even sequential structures, the narrative arc of your course can take a number of different forms. For information on the different types of narrative structure you can use, consider reading our article, “The Use of Narrative Structure in Course Design.”

Of course, this isn’t to suggest that the narrative structure should dictate the design of your course. As always, it’s critical to follow the tenets of the course design triangle and start with your objectives, then move on to your assessments, and finally identify your instructional materials to make sure all your course elements are in alignment with one another. Only after ensuring this alignment can you determine and create a narrative structure for your course.

Can I create structural opportunities for learners to receive rapid feedback?

Another element of gamified courses is rapid feedback. Think about it: In games, it’s typical for players to quickly know whether they’ve made a mistake. Whether it’s coming to a dead end, losing a life, or something else, games often have built-in opportunities for players to do something wrong, learn from their mistake, and try again. Similarly, a gamified course should include opportunities to receive this type of feedback. This can take the form of an automatically scoring quiz that provides students with detailed feedback on their progress, a rubric students can use to assess their performance, and so on. Basically, they’re a sort of practice activity that students can complete—a low-stakes assessment or environment where they can take a shot at the skills they’re being asked to develop.

This is particularly important when it comes to the detailed, high-level feedback students receive from their instructor. Traditionally, this feedback takes time for the instructor to write and return to students. Because a gamified course is built on this idea of rapid feedback, though, it’s important that students aren’t required to wait long to know how they performed. This isn’t to suggest that detailed, high-level feedback shouldn’t be part of a gamified course, but that the course should also include feedback that’s more immediate in nature. Simply put, the sooner a student receives feedback, the sooner he or she can use that feedback to correct anything in need of development or improvement. In a gamified course, students need to receive feedback quickly so they know if they’re ready to move on to the next course element (or “level,” if you will). Otherwise, they’ll reach walls or barriers that prevent their progress or their ability to move forward.

Can I create a structure that promotes self-improvement (or progress) and an openness to failure?

Similar to the need for feedback is the idea of creating a structure that is open to both failure and self-improvement. By creating chances for students to fail, a gamified course also includes opportunities for students to learn from that mistake and try again. This is a common element of most games themselves; you fail at some point or another in a level, and you’re given an opportunity to try again (or go back to the beginning). In an online course, our aforementioned strategy (rapid feedback) provides students with what they need to know or do to perform better on their next attempt. By looping students back to relevant learning activities or instructional materials, a gamified course provides students with the tools they need to master each objective before moving on to the next one.

One common way of illustrating this in online gamified courses is by providing a visual indicator of progress (commonly seen as a line that progressively moves forward or gets filled in). By doing so, a course constantly shows students how far they’ve come, or how much they’ve improved. Some learning management systems, such as Moodle, have taken to building this feature in, so it’s possible you already have this available to you.

In what ways can I incentivize completion?

One of the most well-known features of a gamified course is incentivization. In games themselves, this often takes the form of achieving a new form, unlocking new skills or items, or receiving trophies or achievements. In the online classroom, this typically takes the form of badging. This topic can be explored at length, but when it comes to deciding if you should gamify your online course, we’ll just explore a high-level overview.

Simply put, badging in an online course involves students receiving a digital badge—commonly an image—reflective of an achievement. Badges alone, though, don’t necessarily incentivize students to complete a course or module (Lister, 2015). In order for badges to add value to a course, they must actually have some sort of value. When determining if you want to include badges in your online course, consider how you can make them valuable. Is there a way your badges can be used that’s relevant to students’ academic or professional goals? Basically, when considering how you can create badges, you have to ask yourself what’s in it for your students. How are they better off for achieving these badges? For example, if your course involves the development of skills that may have explicit value in the workforce, developing badges that illustrate the student’s competence in those particular skills may have value for the student later during job interviews. Alternatively, if your course or program engages in ePortfolios, including a section listing all the badges the student has earned may also incentivize students.

It’s possible that they aren’t. This might not be ideal, but, if it’s the case, consider other strategies you can use to incentivize course or module completion. One common element of doing this is through leaderboards. By having an available list of who has made the most progress, you open your classroom to friendly competition among students that encourages them to progress forward.

Do I have the time?

This last question might seem obvious, but it’s perhaps the most important. Gamifying an online course takes a significant amount of time and effort, and not giving an element the attention it deserves may be detrimental to your students’ online experience. With this in mind, prior to attempting to gamify your online course, it’s important that you make sure you have the time and resources necessary to do so properly. Consider the elements you wish to include and whether you have time to develop them. For instance, if you’re looking to add a narrative structure, do you have time to restructure your entire course if it proves necessary? Or, if you’re looking to include high-quality rapid feedback, do you have time to write that feedback? Each of these steps can require a significant time investment, and not giving them the time they deserve can hinder the learning experience for your learners.

Conclusion

As you might imagine, there’s a lot to consider ahead of gamifying an online course. From your course structure to how you provide students with feedback and even incentivize them, gamification is a full-scale approach to course design that is a lot of work but, when done properly, can have a major impact on your students’ experience.

References

Dichev, C., & Dicheva, D. (2017). Gamifying education: What is known, what is believed and what remains uncertain: A critical review. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 14(9). Retrieved from https://educationaltechnologyjournal.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s41239-017-0042-5#Sec13

Lister, M. (2015). Gamification: The effect on student motivation and performance at the post-secondary level. Issues and Trends in Educational Technology, (3)2. Retrieved from https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/itet/article/view/18661/18410

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