An instructor, innovator, LMS master, and "Jedi", Szymon Machajewski is a leader in the EdTech industry's newest approach to student engagement: gamification.
Szymon Machajewski: As a Blackboard innovator, my professional focus overtime has migrated from a technical role to a role of leadership and innovation in education. Specifically, I focus on the proper use of technology instead of developing it. This aligns with the message from the US Department of Education, where the problem is no longer just the Digital Divide, but the Digital-Use Divide. I promote Blackboard Learn adoption and that’s my main focus.
RR: How has adoption of the LMS posed a “good problem”?
SM: At University of lllinois at Chicago we have been running Blackboard Learn for a number of years. One of of the big milestones has been going to Bb Managed Hosting, which was a great experience for us. We are continuing to grow the use of the technology, which is a tremendous task. We are so successful promoting Blackboard that the new problems of storage usage or bandwidth are good problems because the big mission of the University is to benefit students, and adoption of the LMS is the way to do it.
RR: You’ve been teaching Higher Ed online and in the classroom since 2003 – what are some of the challenges that are unique to each setting? And what solution do you see?
SM: I think the general challenge is engaging students and motivating them to explore new areas of science. Specifically, there are severe difficulties with inclusion of minorities and gender, especially in engineering. Those are some of the challenges that I believe can be addressed by redesigning the online and classroom experience according to the principles of design thinking.
Design thinking is a way to design solutions to a set of problems called “wicked problems”; these are often human problems that show themselves in different ways. For example, the difference between design and engineering thinking is that in engineering thinking, you can deploy the solution many times whereas in design thinking, you solve problems so difficult (i.e. engaging students who don’t want to hear about math) that the solution is often unique to the situation. One critical example of design thinking is when Apple solved an experience problem through the use of the iPhone; they were able to involve users in diverse teams. By leveling the authority in the project so that people with various skills were able to contribute, design thinking helps you emerge from an ongoing failure of the participants. It applies to education because as teachers, we continually adjust to the needs of students, administration, curriculum, etc. Every semester is different because the dynamics between students are different. For me, design thinking led to developing a gamification system for teaching classes. This applies to both in class and online courses.
RR:Why do you think gamification is such a powerful tool?
SM: We look at games and get points, incentives; it keeps your mind rolling about engagement and staying connected. Use of gamification will help us to address those large issues in the classroom because when we play games together, we develop empathy for each other and empathy is the first step for inclusion. We have different needs as players and different roles in playing games (achievers, influencers, socializers, explorers). The same principles and human behaviors that are used to increase player adoption in video games can be applied in the classroom because “Reality is Broken” (book by Jane McGonigal). I’ve heard it said that “people are escaping to virtual worlds” and derive more satisfaction out of games than from real life. This is something we can capture. Designing games is extremely difficult – but well-designed games are very simple.
Gartner in 2012 predicted that 80% of all gamification projects are going to fail because of poor design. Points and badges are just a surface approach. Our challenges in adopting serious games are visible in our language. In English, we say “you’re a player”, “play is for children”, “you are gaming the system”. This shows that over time, the respect for games has been worn out, so what has changed is that kids from the late ‘70s and ‘80s who were raised on games are now becoming industry leaders, and better able to relate to the power of gamification.
In 4-6 months I’ll be releasing a case study on a new gamification system used at Grand Valley State University to teach STEM introductory courses. It includes integration with Blackboard grade center, textbook vendors, and other systems . Students receive feedback on practice, not just on gradable elements like exams. So, the more we adopt gamification in education we may increase the respect in our culture for gaming. We also need to nurture a positive view of failure. We have villainized failure and made success the only option; people ought to realize that success is a byproduct or side-effect of failure . People enjoy the challenge of games, it may be the only environment where people seek out failure and maybe even enjoy it.
RR: What do you like about the Community Site?
SM: I like the System Administration home page. I also appreciate the gamification system in place there because it shows who is active and helps create relationships. Obviously, the site is now replacing all those listservs that we used to use. Having a place where searching is available and you can have rich media content is always a good thing.
RR: What ideas do you have for further use of gamification on the Community Site?
SM: It would be great to design awards based on participation. Achievers have the satisfaction of earning points. Not even tangible rewards – but privileges – are just as valuable. For example, a discount at Bb World or offering a recommendation on LinkedIn to top performers.
RR: You have created your own YouTube Channel - what’s that about?
SM: The channel helps to communicate differently than my blog. There are a number of playlists with troubleshooting tips. One is for teaching Microsoft office. One is for addressing reported problems in Blackboard. There is another playlist about security. There are some others about gamification and inclusive thinking. In case of Blackboard Known Issues, there is always a text version from Blackboard, but in the videos, I show how to identify these problems and apply the workarounds.
RR: Favorite quote?
SM: Albert Einstein: “Games are the most elevated form of investigation”