Higher-ed Gamification Interview

Some time ago, I was asked by Katarzyna Pranke to answer a set of questions about gamification in higher education. It was one of expert interviews she needed for her Master's thesis in translation at Queen's University in Belfast. With her and her supervisor's permission, here it goes. (And if you read Polish, there is another one edu-gamification interview I did for a thesis at Iagiellonian University.)

1. Do you think there is a need  for introducing game elements and game mechanics in higher education, for example, in translators’ training?

Yes and no. There is a need for better systems of organisation and management of education, including better ways of instruction, scaffolding, structuring, grading and feedback. Why? To increase learner’s motivation, performance and achievements. It doesn’t have to be game-based, as long as we can find more efficient solutions. But it seems that we can’t. As gamification research suggests, game-like or play-like learning seems to be the best choice.

2. How higher education would differ in that matter from other levels of education?

The main difference is career orientation: most higher-ed students want to find a job after graduation. This makes it easier to get them involved in non-obligatory activities (like special quests for volunteers), which are related to work-relevant skills, and/or the creation of project portfolio, and/or contact with potential employees. Another difference is that higher-ed is not compulsory. Students have chosen this particular degree programme. If they don’t like it, they can opt out. This also makes them more likely to benefit from gamification, because the motivational power of games seems to be strongly reliant on the fact that people are not forced to play.

However, none of these two differences should be overestimated, especially with freshman undergraduates: if a 19-20-year-old college student still lives off the parents’ money, the first year of higher education doesn’t differ much from the last year of high school. Universities are now full of disengaged students, who are not really interested in the contents of what they study: if they have to study something to keep the financial support going, then it’s not completely voluntary.   Lack of interest in academic education is also related to uncertainty about career choices. So, for students who don’t know what they want to do in life, neither career-orientation nor voluntariness would effectively work as differences. See Carol Dweck’s concept of growth mindset and fixed mindset for further explanation.

3. I know you are implementing gamification into your courses, could you tell me about any good practices (examples of what worked well)?

Visualisation of feedback (online scoresheets and progress bars) + clear rules of calculating scores (experience points) to final grades + opportunity to do extra voluntary tasks for a better score: I will stick to this combination for the time being. I am still looking for better options, but this one already works well. Students see how the grade is dependent on their efforts, and understand that if they want a better grade they need to do something more. This means there are very few (or none at all) students who will haggle or beg for a better grade at the end of term. 

 4. Could you provide examples of the use of experience points and levelling up?

The classic example is the pioneering syllabus by Lee Sheldon: https://gamingtheclassroom.wordpress.com/syllabus/. Students collect experience points for each task -> points translate into levels -> levels are translated into the final grade.

5. Do you use main and side quests  in your courses? How do they influence students’ behaviour?

Yes, I think the division into mandatory and non-mandatory quests should be one of the foundations of edu-gamification. On the one hand, reliance on mandatory quests is a disadvantage, as it limits the space of meaningful choice and autonomy for the user. On the other hand, if the teacher is responsible for equipping students with core skills specified in the syllabus, then the core content cannot be subject to choice. When I teach Academic Writing to English Studies seniors, who are supposed to complete the course with the ability to write essays in a variety of standardised patterns (for&against, solution-to-problem etc.), I must include essays among mandatory quests. I can’t let students replace essay writing with belly dancing, or even with writing poetry or short stories. There must be standardised academic essays, period. And if we have core skills packed into mandatory quests, then we obviously need optional side quests to create the much-needed scope for meaningful choice. 

6. What may be the obstacles and  how to avoid them? (obstacles related to the education system, marking system, methodology, teacher’s attitude, students)?

Obstacles are legion and mostly can’t be avoided - they must be struggled with.

In education systems, there is a standardised grading scheme we must comply with, which sometimes (in lower education) takes the form of very detailed point-based assessment systems already in place. We have regulations on classroom attendance and scheduled classroom hours. And, as said above, we have to teach by the curriculum. Thus, teachers are limited in their design choices.

Another problem is that teachers who implement gamification are usually alone in their efforts: they can gamify their own classes but this is just a small bit in the whole edu-process.

Students pose the usual challenge: they may not like what the teachers offers. On the one hand, this isn’t exceptional for gamification: there are always some students who don’t like school. On the other hand, even though many students don’t like the standard way of teaching, they are accustomed to it and take it for granted. New innovations designed by the teacher are a sudden change of “rules”. The top-performers who feel secure in standard teaching environments may dislike the necessity to adapt to the changes. The lazy ones, whose main concern is to minimise effort, will not like a system which clearly exposes lack of effort. Some may dislike the narrative theme. As Karl Kapp says, the fact that some students may not like it does not mean that you should abandon it. Still, problems with student attitude should be counted among obstacles.

What I find to be the main obstacle is the required time commitment. It is time consuming to design a gamified system: challenges, mechanics, progression, rewards, narrative, visualisation, feedback channels etc.. And to select and learn how to use a learning management system (preferably, an online platform). And to write instructions for students, explaining how the system works, what they need to do and how to do it. During the course, in addition to the mandatory assignments required for the core learning outcomes, the teacher will have a number of additional side quests to check, grade and give feedback on. All this takes time.

7. How much extra effort is required from tutors before and during the course? How difficult is it? What knowledge about game design should tutor have in order to be able to do it right?

The answer above covers the ‘extra effort’.
There is no universal answer to ‘how difficult’. If the teacher is good at systemic thinking and design thinking, it is not difficult - but time-consuming nevertheless.
And there is no universal formula for game design which could be a canon. The teacher should know some methods of game design and have good understanding of game mechanics/dynamics to be able to make informed design choices. The MDA model (mechanics - dynamics - aesthetic) could be a good model to start with. Or the Octalysis Framework by Yu-kai Chou. Or the Q2L Design Packs from Quest2Learn, designed specifically for teachers. All available online. But the method is just the starting point. The design should always be tailored to the needs of the particular target group and the constraints of the environment. 

8. How much freedom can a tutor provide for students within a course framework in order to be able to control the situation? How to keep the balance between freedom and control? What mistakes to avoid?

How should I understand “control the situation”?

For balance between freedom and control, see above: main and side quests. If the course is supposed to equip the students with specific learning outcomes, then there should be no choice to avoid these. Also, we need to remember that edu-situations are different. Sometimes it is possible to create a variety of options for the verification of a desired learning outcome: with memorised knowledge, it is possible to give students a choice between a test, an essay, an oral examination, a multimedia presentation or another project. Other times, like the Academic Writing I talked above, you must make students do one particular thing (like: write essays) to which there is no alternative.

Other mistakes I can warn against:

Do not allow for unlimited repetitions of the same task. This can be overused and destroy the balance.

Strictly limit transfer of rewards (points, currency etc.) between students. Otherwise, cheaters will collect far too many rewards from top-performers who have plenty to share.

If you have many students, do not accept extra volunteer tasks in the last two (preferably, four) weeks of the term. Otherwise, you will have an avalanche of tasks in the final week from students who want a last-minute boost to their grade.