Learning Redesigned: Can Gamification Save Higher Education?

U.S. Education Lags Globally, but Good Gamification Offers Avenue for Improvement. 

From dramatically increasing user engagement metrics for marketing campaigns to solving problems that have stumped scientists for 15 years, gamification continues to make a meaningful impact across a variety of industries. With the proliferation of computers in the 1980s, education was one of the first industries to introduce games as a complement to learning. And while education has continued to experiment with the proposition of tying games and learning together, the idea has struggled to gain traction. Meanwhile, the United States’ education problems continue to mount, particularly for higher education. Could a renewed push for gamified learning be the answer? 

What’s wrong with American schools? Well, when viewed from a global perspective, they simply aren’t performing. According to the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, America spends $1.3 trillion on education annually - more than any other country in the world – with middling results. Among the 34 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, the US ranks 24th in mathematics, 17th in science, and 14th in reading.

Standardized tests show that the problem is just getting worse. According to a Brookings report, 30 year old Americans in 2012 scored lower in literacy tests than did average 30 year olds in 1994.

Clearly all levels of education, including Higher Education, could benefit from revamping. Numerous theories exist regarding higher education’s next move. Games-based learning offers an almost counter-intuitive solution – to add more game elements into the classroom. Students might use algebra, for example, to complete a series of challenges that are tied to a narrative-based mission. There would even be a tangible reward for completion.

Shantanu Sinha, president of the wildly successful Khan Academy, labels the US’s incentive system as a major factor in our low education rankings:

“One of our biggest problems is that our education system has a very poorly designed motivation and incentive system. It just doesn’t work for everyone.”

Khan Academy is a prime example of an innovative education curriculum that utilizes game elements. Their free online videos cover a broad range of topics – from basic algebra to entrepreneurship and macroeconomics – and feature 4,500 videos which have been watched over 300 million times.

The video format lets students learn on their own time, while the site’s game elements keep users attentive. Of course, there’s the standard badge-reward system. In this case a series of astrological-themed badges beginning with Meteorite, as a reward for small accomplishments, and continuing to Black Hole, of which little is known save that students can only ever earn three, and only after tremendous effort.

Another gamification element can be found in Khan Academy’s recommendation system, which tracks each user’s progress. It then advises students which courses to tackle next, based on their learning characteristics.

Adjusting the learning process allows users to continually gain competence, and encourages them to pursue mastery. Finding the optimal challenge is a balancing act. Each user brings different skills and idiosyncrasies to the gaming process (or in this case the learning process), so it’s critical to develop tasks that aren’t too difficult, but still feel like an accomplishment.

In his book The One World Schoolhouse, Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, outlines a restructuring of the US education system. Instead of letter grades,  he proposes a qualitative assessment process that spans several years. Given the success of his online educational ventures so far, it’s difficult to dismiss Khan’s ideas.

Here’s Khan on his inspiration for Khan Academy: 

Gamification offers value for traditional university settings as well. Steven Johnson, Assistant MIS Professor at Temple University’s Fox School of Business, added game elements to one of his Social Media courses. Professor Johnson called his course the Social Media Innovation Question, and awarded badges to students who blogged and engaged with social media. Students who performed especially well earned themselves a place on a classroom leaderboard.

Professor Johnson correctly identified the intrinsic motivation of the students – to hone their digital media skills – and encouraged that with recognition and positive feedback. By positioning the course as a mission-based narrative where students leveled up after so many accomplishments, Professor Johnson created a narrative structure that connected each task to a final goal.

“I like getting recognized,” said MIS major Megan Stephens, one of Johnson’s former students. “It gets me to do higher-quality work and dedicate more time to something.”

Again, Sinha’s advice rings true: “When learning once again becomes a personalized path full of individual triumphs, students will reclaim their natural enthusiasm and passion for learning.”

Given gamification’s current success in higher education, further adoption of game elements in course curricula seems an inevitability. In fact, author Charles Aldrich predicted that all educational assessments will be game-based in 3-4 years. That might be overly optimistic, but it signals the confidence experts have in gamification’s future place in education.

How do games help you learn? Have you ever participated in a gamified course? Let us know in the comments.

About 

A lifelong Nashville native, Zach loves to work with words. After graduating from Middle Tennessee State University, Zach worked in a variety of sales and marketing roles before joining Technology Advice. He's most interested in studying technology's effect on culture and business. Follow Zach on Google + or connect with him on LinkedIn.