In his online course on ethical decision-making, Greg Andres, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Waterloo in Canada, has students compete for the top spot on the class' leader board. As they answer questions about how they would respond to various ethical dilemmas, they receive a certain number of points depending on how Andres views their responses in a given context.
The goal is "to make course concepts concrete -- here's how it actually plays out in real life," Andres says.
Andres' class is an example of gamification, a term that generally refers to the implementation of different game-design elements -- such as competition or the earning of points or badges -- into various settings.
In recent years, gamification has become more prevalent in the corporate world and has extended into higher education, including online. Prospective online learners should examine the pros and cons of gamification when deciding whether a program that uses this learning method is right for them, experts say.
Examples of gamification vary among programs. For instance, in one undergraduate online English composition course at the New England College of Business and Finance, students play a Jeopardy! game as a grammar refresher. In the school's Bachelor of Science in Digital Marketing online program, students compete in teams to build and design the best website for a nonprofit organization, as judged by a faculty panel.
Widespread acknowledgement of gamification's use in various settings began roughly five years ago, says Kevin Werbach, associate professor of legal studies and business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, who co-authored the book "For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business."
"What we're seeing is lots of online learning ventures -- including both degree-granting online education, as well as more ad hoc kinds of learning sites like Khan Academy -- are seeing gamification as a valuable technique," Werbach says. He cites Duolingo, a free, gamified app for learning new languages, as another example of this instructional approach gaining steam in online education more recently.
Some faculty now view gamification as a way to better engage online students, who usually won't have opportunities for face-to-face interaction. Because online instructors often compete with social media and other websites for students' attention, gamification can capture students' interest while remaining informative, Andres says.
"It kept me engaged," says Bre Seavey, a 2015 graduate from the New England College of Business' online master's degree program in human resources management, which includes three gamified courses. "I learned things from other people that I wouldn't have learned on my own. So my learning process was that much more enriched."
Gamification allows students to become more active learners by inserting themselves into different scenarios, rather than passively listening to lectures and reading course material on their own, says Andrea Eberly, an e-learning instructional designer at the New England College of Business.
"They themselves have to think critically about the situation, and they become masters of their own learning as their engagement increases," Eberly says of gamification. "That's probably the biggest benefit."
Through gamification in online learning, students can also learn to persevere in situations that might require multiple attempts -- a trait that companies value in job candidates, she says.
"It's teaching qualities like persistence and creativity and resilience, and that resilience especially is something employers are really looking for these days," Eberly says.
In many cases, gamification provides students with instant feedback about why a particular answer is correct or incorrect -- something that online students may value as they juggle job or family obligations with an education. With gamification in general, students typically don't have to wait for an instructor to grade an assignment to receive feedback, Eberly says.
"Technologies have evolved, and particularly with social media as part of that, students want immediate likes, they want immediate recognition, they want immediate feedback," says Kevin Bell, senior fellow at Northeastern University's Lowell Institute, who has researched gamification.
But gamification has to be done right in order for it to work, says Werbach, of Wharton. Some efforts to implement gamification in online courses become too focused on rewards, he says, and students then care more about winning than learning.
In order for gamification to be taken seriously, students and faculty who are hesitant should view it not simply as a game but as a real form of education, says Paula Bramante, senior vice president for e-learning at the New England College of Business.
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The other issue comes down to the amount of time that gamification could require. A session may entail multiple attempts to finish, for example, and therefore take a long time to complete.
"It's easy to kind of get lost in that, and an online student always needs to be aware of time-management issues," she says.
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