Gamified Lectures: What Went Wrong

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Following the What-Went-Right post, let's look on the dark side of life. Yes, I am truly pleased with learning achievements reaching beyond the core lecture content, and with the general way the gamified system worked. Task-based learning, individual assessment, rapid feedback, and regular weekly work - that’s what teaching should look like. First-hand experience in teamwork and project management for volunteers has been all to the good as well. But it came with a pricetag. It's  more than I can afford in the long run.

1. It costs more time than I can spare
Summing up the two gamified lectures, I had 50+ students posting their work each week,  many of them taking more than 1 task at a time. My rough calculation is I had to process about 80-100 small tasks every week. Some were simple 6-item quizzes I could read and evaluate in less than 1 minute. But I still had to open the Google Spreadsheet and enter the score in the right box, so it was 1+ minute at the very least. I also got essays, interviews, PPT/Prezi presentations as weekly regular tasks. If I found the task unacceptable or lacking, I had to write instruction, and check it again when revised. Plus, there were large and very large projects as Special Tasks. Both from the lectures and lab classes. Just imagine how much time it took in total.

I was usually able to handle all that on regular basis - when I was in town for the entire week. But whenever I went to a conference or business meeting for a weekend, it was no longer possible. I had to give them a “free pass” for the week. And even when I did manage, it took a toll on my other duties - research, writing, prepping for classes. I could be doing this for one semester as a pilot experiment. But I cannot carry on like that. Not at the expense of my research.

2. Because it takes so much time, it compromises the core principles
I never accepted a task without reading it - but I rarely had time to read thoroughly. Usually, I was able to assign points - but not to give extensive (or any) written feedback. And the feedback wasn’t rapid all the time - sometimes (the conference week!) students had to wait more than 10 days. I had planned to do some additional motivational work on top of the regular/special cycle: showcase the best achievements, build a team of students co-designing the gamified system, etc. I didn’t do it. It might have worked as planned if I had 20 students altogether. With 50+, weekly task-based individual assessment won’t work properly.

3. Pointsification
I wholeheartedly agree with Margaret Robertson’s (2010) critique of “pointsification”. Whenever I lecture on gamification, I emphasise the superiority of meaningful text-based labels over abstract points. Unfortunately, Google Spreadsheet we used to keep track of student progress is based on points, and there’s little we could do to “civilise” it. What I did was to attach a text label as a Comment to each Special Task. If you moved the cursor over numerical values in the “Special” column, you could see that these 5 points were earned for Prezi Designer task, those 4 for Web Publisher, 3 for Tell Your Story, etc. But it didn’t change the fact that in both student’s and teacher’s view the numerical score reigned supreme.

The reason we chose Google Docs was time pressure: it was a tool we already knew well, so we could invest all our time in the design of gamified classes. But I’m not happy with it, and I’m looking forward to something better.

4. Human error
The scoresheets contained 10 Rounds (weeks), each Round divided in 3 columns: A for Attendance, P for Task Performance (regular tasks), and S for Special Tasks. 30 columns multiplied by 52 students playing the game = 1560 individual boxes (in the two lectures alone, without labs). Just take a look here
Each time I accepted a task, I would manually enter the score in the appropriate box. If the task was a Prezi or Google Form, I also had to remember about bonus points. With this number of manual operations, every now and then I’d make a typo or misplace/miscalculate a number. Students reported them politely, never making a fuss about that, and I corrected all mistakes upon notice. Still, that was another thing I found irritating.

A good online Learning Management System would relieve all these problems. Automatic calculation and data processing saves a lot of time and eliminates many areas of potential human error, while good graphic design and data visualisation can chase “pointsification” away and greatly enhance user experience on both ends (teacher / student). Google Spreadsheet is helpful to some extent with its calculating functions, but it leaves much to be desired.

Which didn’t come as a surprise, actually. I knew what I was getting into. We’d been talking about the need for online tools in Games Research Association of Poland, and it seems an LMS is coming next year, designed by our friends working at the Section of Game Technology at Iagiellonian University. I just didn’t want to wait another year for the LMS to be built. Plus, thanks to this year’s experience, I know precisely what functionalities and aesthetics I’d like it to have. Now I can help make it better.