Let's play school: gamification and the future of education

Gamification of School

Gamification is exactly what it sounds like: making something that isn't typically a game into one -- gamifying it. It's a concept that children are more than a little used to, but almost everyone else leaves behind when entering adulthood. This tendency to define categories, to keep games just for recreation and more serious things like work and education separate from them is losing ground as the results from myriad studies show that humans often just want to have fun.

Computer Game Programming

In education, this means everything from rewarding students with badges for a variety of achievements, like participation or stellar performance, all the way up to creating in-depth video games in which students learn by solving problems to progress in the game. The main thrust of the idea of gamification is the deconstruction of traditional reward systems in order to boost engagement.

As Joey J. Lee and Jessica Hammer put it in their paper "Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother?", "Gamification attempts to harness the motivational power of games and apply it to real-world problems -- such as, in our case, the motivational problems of schools."

Motivation and engagement in education through gamification

Ask any student, from kindergarten all the way up to post-doc, whether games are more fun than school, and you're likely to get the same answer: a resounding yes. Not surprising, when you consider the 3 billion hours a week people spend playing video games worldwide. According to Khan Academy president Shantanu Sinha, however, this doesn't necessarily have to be the case. "Learning is naturally fun, and students should want to learn," says Sinha. "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 the majority of people."

Game designers have worked hard to make their products highly engaging for the vast majority of people. Sinha breaks down three major things about games that give them a hefty motivational advantage over traditional schools, which he says try to motivate students with fear. "Currently, our pitch to young students goes something like this: 'You should study and work hard because otherwise you will get bad grades. If you get bad grades, you won't get into college or get a good job. You don't want to struggle in 10 years, so go study now.'" These big things that education could learn from gaming according to Sinha:

  1. "Most games are fairly non-judgmental." Rather than feeling hurried along, left behind or held back, gamers get to progress at their own speed -- and feel good doing it, regardless of how it was accomplished or how long it took. While traditional educational models threaten students with failure if they don't learn quickly enough, the gaming model would allow students to feel proud about their accomplishments and what they learn.
  2. "Most games give you a sense of immediate success and progress." The ultimate example of how traditional education doesn't do this is the fear-based motivational structure outlined above. Students don't find out if they've succeeded until that 10-years-down-the-line reward of not struggling in life does or does not come through. "Progress shouldn't be measured by cramming the night before and passing the final; it should be measured by your actions and good work habits every single day, and how well you retain and apply your knowledge," says Sinha. While quizzes and regular graded assignments are a big step in the right direction, they still lack immediacy, making it difficult to reinforce the correct way to do things in a timely fashion.
  3. "Most games encourage you to push your own personal boundaries." Another issue with quizzes and assignments is that often they're set up not to reward what the student did learn, but to punish the student for not getting it all right. Games are set up to "provide challenges perfectly suited for" each user, rather than setting a bar that falls somewhere in the middle of all students' abilities. This system encourages every student instead of letting the below average flounder and get frustrated and allowing the above average to coast once they've secured the grade they desire. "Imagine if students (or even adults) were always encouraged to improve themselves incrementally," says Sinha. "You aren't done after you secure an 'A,' that's just one phase of a never-ending journey of learning and discovery."
Student engagement comes naturally with increased motivation to learn. These principles are being applied to online education, but large class sizes make it difficult to bring them to traditional brick-and-mortar schools. As education technology progresses and more blended online and on-campus models appear, though, education will hopefully become more about the journey Sinha describes than simply about earning that 4.0.
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