Simple Ways to "Gamify" a Bb Learn Course

Blog Post created by kd36413 on Feb 22, 2018

I know there has been a lot of discussion about gamification in the online education world, and I have seen some examples of its use that, frankly, amaze me.  They are elegantly complex instantiations of the gamification concept.  They are also beyond what most faculty are willing to do in their courses.  There are any number of reasons for this, but as an instructional designer, my reality is if I want faculty to change how they do things, I have to give them a simple, easy to implement idea, and then when that works, coax them into trying something more complex.


How can I do that with gamification? By getting back to the basics.  In simple terms, gamification is using principles of behavior modification and motivation to change people's behavior. Whether that behavior is buying coffee,  spending money to play a "free" game, or engaging in learning activities, gamification works to motivate people to behave the way you want them to behave.


However, gamification is not a teaching method. Now, I know gamification aficionados can feel their hackles rise with that statement.  In my view, is gamification is a behavioral method, not a pedagogical one. Gamification won't improve ineffective instruction. It can, however, increase the likelihood that students will engage with and benefit from effective instruction. And no matter how good your instruction is, if students don't engage with it, they won't learn from it.  As I tell my students, I can't guarantee that you will learn if you do what I ask you to do, but I can guarantee you won't learn if you don't.



With that in mind, my simple gamification ideas are based on the simplest and the easiest to understand of the gamification tools - PBLs, or points, badges, and leaderboards. These are examples of positive reinforcements or rewards - something desirable given to increase the likelihood of the reinforced behavior being repeated in the future. Points and badges are examples of extrinsic rewards, or rewards that are external to the learner, while leaderboards are intrinsic examples since they appeal to something internal to the learner, competitiveness. Points and badges are easy to implement in Learn, but leaderboards are bit more problematic. Let's look at how I use each of these to change the behavior of my students.


The first things I needed to is identify the behaviors I want students to exhibit.  There are three things I decided to concentrate on in my online courses:

  1. Completing all the work assigned in each week
  2. Completing that work in a timely fashion
  3. Completing that work in an exemplary fashion

Each one of these involves either points, badges, or a sort of leaderboard concept.



WeekComplete.pngTo get students to complete all of the work each week, I used the Achievements tool in Learn.  Each week, students have a certain set of activities they need to complete. I created an achievement for each week that awarded them a custom badge as soon as they had attempted every item for that week. I located the achievement for each week at the beginning of each Learning Module for that week, so once they had completed all of the assignments for that week, it would be the first item they see in the learning module. I also included the Achievements Tool on the course menu, so they could see which achievements they had and hadn't earned, and check the requirement to see what they were missing.



While they could use the gradebook to see what work they are missing, it doesn't focus on a given week.  This reward is specific to the work for a given week, and everyone who completes that work - whenever they complete it - earns the reward.


I found out the hard way how effective these achievements are.  One week I accidentally used the wrong quiz grade while setting up an achievement (Chapter 10 instead of Week 10), and I happened to be away from email that Saturday when most students were finishing up their work.  I came back to several emails asking why they hadn't earned their achievement even though they had done all the work; some even told me exactly what the problem was because they had checked the requirements for the achievement.



Getting the work done isn't enough; students do better in my courses if they get the work done on time by the due date.  However, knowing that things happen, and sometimes assignments are missed, I allow students to submit work late. For a long time, like most people, I took points off (a punishment) for work submitted late.  Then I took a MOOC about virtual performance assessment where we discussed the issue of late work.  Someone said something that stuck with me - "If you deduct points for work being late, you are grading them on the ability to follow rules, not what they have learned."


So I stopped deducting points for late work, but I still wanted to encourage the on time submission of work. I was talking to a colleague about awarding bonus points for attendance, and decided to adapt the method to submitting work on time, and I started awarding bonus points (positive reinforcement) for on time work. In behavioral learning, reinforcement always work better than pubishment.  When you reinforce appropriate behavior, the learner knows what behavior you want.  When you punish inappropriate behavior, they only know what you don't want - they don't know what to replace that behavior with. It's more complicated than that, but that's the simple explanation for why you want to try to use reinforcement over punishment.


Each week students get work done on time, they earn bonus points, but the number of bonus points increase for each week in a row the student gets the work done on time.  The first week they get 0.5 points, the second week 1 point, the third week 1.5 points, the fourth week 2, etc.  If they miss a week, they start over at 0.5 points.  As we all know, as the semester goes on, students' motivation decreases; increasing the bonus helps counteract that motivational decrease.



To do this, I set up Grading Periods for each week, and a Category for bonus points. Monday morning (work is due Sunday night) I filter the grade book by grading period, and manually enter the maximum possible points for the week.



Then I filter on the Bonus Points category and make any adjustments for late work the prior week.



The first student in the list completed all the work on time for Week 5, so I entered a 2.5 in the first step.  However, when I filtered on bonus points, I saw she hadn't completed her work on time the prior week (no bonus earned), so I changed it to 0.5, starting her string over.  While the set up is a bit time-consuming, creating 15 grading periods and bonus points columns, one for each week, it only takes a few minutes each week to award the points.  I can do it for all three of my online classes while drinking my morning coffee.


You might say I'm still grading them on following the rules, and you have a point.  However, what this approach does is separate the grade on the work students do from the consequence of their behavior - either turning work in late or on time.  Since the bonus is separate from the assignment or assessment grade, the grade they receive reflects the work they do. A student who does A work receives an A grade regardless of when the work is completed. They aren't  receiving a B because it was late, and feeling the frustration for knowing they did A work, but because their child was sick or they had to put in overtime at work, they had to hand it in late and get a lower grade.


What I have found since I adopted this approach is I have a slight increase in the number of students who complete their work on time, a larger increase in the number of students who successfully complete the course (they tend to persist since they can catch up after a bad week), but a TREMENDOUS decrease in my stress level since I don't have to deal with people who think they have valid excuses for late work - and often do. Also, because I keep the bonus points separate from the grades, I can calculate grades with and without the bonus points, and in only a very few cases did the bonus change a final letter grade, and even then, only a half grade (e.g. from a B to a B+ or a B+ to an A).



Leaderboards are a tricky thing when gamifying learning. Leaderboards list the top point-earners in a competition.  However, in education, you have the issue of confidentiality; you can't really allow other students to know the grades of the students. For another, they are only motivating for those who have a chance to be at top of the leaderboard. For a student closer to the bottom or a student who isn't competitive, it can actually be "demotivating" to see where they place compared to other students.


The closest I use to a "leaderboard" gamification element is the Weekly Winner.  This is a concept I totally stole from the Adobe professional development courses I take. In the longer courses, a Weekly Winner is chosen, well, each week.  However, the criteria are never defined.  They are essentially whoever does an exceptional job that week.




I earned this one in the Games Design course, and it had nothing to do with the game I was designing.  Instead, I got it for being active on the Facebook group helping other students, the learning journal I wrote...and fessing up to watching Lethal Weapon instead on paying attention in class - and why that was a bad idea.


This semester I started to award the Weekly Winner to students who exhibit behavior I want other students to emulate. for example to the student who posted their social activity first (discussion or blog), to the student who took advantage of being able to take a quiz more than once to improve a grade, or, as in this case, the first student to complete all of the work for the week.  To encourage others to do the same, I explain why the behavior was exemplary and what students can achieve if they were to mimic that behavior. I also create an Achievement, where the trigger rule is membership rule based on the winner's username.




The idea behind this is based in social or observational learning. The reinforcement of a behavior can motivate other students, the ones who don't receive the reinforcement, to change their behavior, simply because they see someone else get that reinforcement.  Even though THEY didn't exhibit the appropriate behavior, now they know what the appropriate behavior is, because they saw SOMEONE ELSE get rewarded for it.


I just started the Weekly Winner award this semester, so it is far too early to see if it has any real affect.  However, I did notice more students posting their social activity earlier in the week after I awarded the Weekly Winner to the first poster one week, and the week after I awarded it to the student who repeated her quiz, more students made multiple quiz attempts.


What's Next?

These are admittedly simply techniques to gamify Blackboard Learn, but they are a great place to start.  I have also done things like created a character to represent me (well, the younger, thinner, virtual version of me), and branded learning materials around that character.



I want to add the concept of a narrative to my courses. For astronomy, that would based on a journey back through time - as you view objects further and further away, you are seeing them as they were further and further back in time.  For my general psychology course, it will be the Museum of the Mind, where each topic in the course is in a different "room" in the Museum, my avatar is the docent, and students will have a variety of activities they can complete to learn the content for that topic.


I'll let you know how that goes....