“I hate online and can’t focus on it. Sorry, what? I was Instagramming…”


The third and final part of his series about on-line teaching and learning in the present crisis

The success and growth of online is often noted as predominantly attracting an older/mature student. While in some cases this is overstated to assuage concerns of cannibalising “traditional” students, it could be interpreted that online is somehow inherently unsuitable for 18-21 years olds – the very audience that most institutions are scrambling to support in this current climate. So, is online more suitable for a specific target demographic? Millennials may well state that on-line learning sucks, and yet we can’t get our teen children off their phones!

Older students persevere with a poor learning environment because their extrinsic motivation is disproportionately high. They have the experience of a terrible job, pressures; kids/aged parents to support that take “traditional” learning off the table. It is very likely that (poorly constructed) on-line learning sucks as badly for mature students as it does for millennials. The difference is that life has worn down the Gen-Xers and other mature students to the extent that they will stick it out for the (extrinsic) terminal reward of a degree and a (potentially) better life at the end of it.

It is a widely held misconception that millennials are predominantly playing games on their phones. They are not (typically). Millennials are actually mobile gaming less than GenX-ers .They “over-index” (= do more of it than comparison age groups) in sports, health and fitness, music, media and entertainment, lifestyle and shopping. Millennials are proving to be intrinsically motivated to interact with apps and media that have gameful elements built in beneath a non-game interface.

Gameful design attempt to convey that, when exploring the world of what makes people engage, it is the cognitive science and behavioural psychology behind games, not games themselves, that we should focus on.

Narrative, or story, is an extremely powerful element of gameful design if that is your thing, but it is absolutely possible to get enhanced student engagement without converting all learning into a Carl Jung/Joseph Campbell narrative where; a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man…

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is often quoted in this world of extreme engagement. He states that, “mowing the lawn or waiting in a dentists’ office can become enjoyable provided one restructures the activity by providing goals, rules, and the other elements of enjoyment.”

Philip Trippenbach Head Influencer at Edelman gives this example of elements impacting a (desired) outcome:
Want to make people run? Don’t give them a badge for running. Give them a ball and shove four sticks in the ground. They’ll run around the field chasing the ball (and each other) for ages. The experience is intrinsically challenging and amusing, and the running is a by-product.

Trippenbach describes how games are all based on the basic principles of motivation, feedback,and challenge. A broader literature review looping in the likes of Karl Kapp (Bloomsburg University) and Jesse Schell (Carnegie Mellon) provides a reasonable checklist of gameful elements that can engender intrinsic motivation.

To promote intrinsic motivation to encourage students to persist or persevere, an experience should provide as many of the following as possible:

(1) rules – clear and effective
(2) effortless involvement (pick up and play) – think iPod iPhone – no manual
(3) an appropriate level of challenge – if possible tailored to students at different levels
(4) (one or more of) conflict, competition, cooperation – small teams provide support within the team and competition between teams (the dependent hero contingency)
(5) clear goals with inherent, clear reward structures
(6) immediate and continual feedback
(7) A sense of progress (levelling up) as the students progress through materials/activities
(8) narrative/curve of interest – hard to do but can provide great engagement – sometimes presented as big picture learning
(9) aesthetics – evidence shows that if it looks good, engagement is better/longer
(10) (fear of failure reduced – means of giving students repeat attempts, practice tests etc.
(11) student control over actions – perhaps choice between deliverables or types of deliverables (a video presentation rather than a paper etc.)

Most academics would say that they are attempting to offer at least some of these principles. When overhauling courses/putting them online, there is an opportunity to ask whether the transition might provide opportunity to accentuate any elements.  The solution(s) don’t have to be one size fits all; I tell instructors to look at the list, choose three or four elements (for version 1.0), launch, review student feedback, and then iterate to v2.0. As we are not talking about immersive, 3D virtual world journeys across the stars (in most cases), costs are not high.
Critical exams can (at least initially) stay the same. Creativity, giving it a go and monitoring student reaction is all that is required. If you want a bonus element – (number 12) on the list it is that it should be fun – I’d say we could all use a bit of that right now …

Some easy wins

Clarity of expectations. A succinct, printable syllabus (learning guide) helps with this, as does having one forum where clarifications can be sought. Timely announcements in the learning platform can serve as nudges to remind and encourage.

Feedback, (as immediate and continual as possible) can be provided with (more) frequent staff log-ins or supplemental staff support. But if your institution has not yet mastered an AI strategy, we can still help with simple quizzes (auto-graded) peer-to-peer discussions and adaptive release of new content in response to student action. Peer to peer discussion adds to the sense of student centrality and control, while supporting the faculty role as curator of responses, approver, rejecter, or elaborator on student responses.

Level-up. The more game-like aspects of gameful design may well be a harder sell and are absolutely easier to get wrong. One of my dissertation cases who stated: “I have sweaters older than most of my students,” gave up trying to get students to relate to Star Trek and Doctor Who, and instead allowed them to create their own narratives around economics concepts. The vivid, creative, cool and even somewhat odd narratives supported memorisation using principles similar to those applied in the development of memory palaces, used by Sherlock Holmes (among others) to retain and recall massive lists of data.

In summary

“Gameful Design” attempts to convey that it is the cognitive science and behavioral psychology behind games, not games themselves that promote focus. When transitioning classes to on-line, we are giving up the instructor (physical) presence, her intonation and other situational cues of the physical classroom that can aid memory.

We have to see how we can compensate. The COVID-19 crisis is forcing 18-21 year olds, who are used to being catered to by very sophisticated gamefully design platforms, to study on-line in platforms launched around 20 years ago. We have to think about what we can learn from modern media, emergent learning theories (including gameful design) and what our young people’s usage patterns and preferences are telling us. More discussion at every level is needed to determine how, without compromising the academic experience, we can promote and encourage engagement.

In my experience, all efforts by the instructor to enliven a course are very well received and feedback is, usually, constructive. In the current situation, any attempt at increasing engagement, particularly if it is motivating and borderline fun is going to be massively appreciated.

All of my cases studies at (University of) Pennsylvania showed increased student engagement, better test scores and very positive student feedback. If you think lecturing to a poorly attended room in person is bad, lecturing to an empty digital void is going to be even more demoralising.

For better or for worse, we have a captive audience that will not have a choice but to engage at least initially. Let’s see how we can hook them, keep them coming back and leverage the communication tools of modern society.

Kevin Bell Ed. D is a digital and innovative learning consultant.

Reach him at [email protected], 0429 621 067




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