Gamification Goes To College

EdX, the online learning platform, uses gamification to facilitate learning. Gamification may transform how this emerging market attracts and motivates students, and could have lessons for IT as well.

David Hill

February 7, 2013

3 Min Read
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A number of online learning platforms that enable anyone to take courses at no (or at least reasonable) costs have emerged in recent years. At the higher education level, four organizations that offer free classes on the Web are Coursera, edX, Udacity and Udemy.

In theory, massive open online courses (MOOCs) could transform higher education. But while speculation on business models (how to make money when providing education for free?) and effects (what will happen to campus residence programs?) is interesting, these models are not an IT topic. How best to use software to facilitate the learning process is.

Although various approaches are possible, edX has chosen gamification as a key component in enhancing the learning process for a student. edX is an open online course platform that offers university-level classes in a wide range of disciplines that can be freely accessed by students worldwide. edX was founded in April 2012 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, which each contributed $30 million to the nonprofit project--serious money that represents a true commitment.

The University of California, Berkeley, became the first additional edX partner and the University of Texas System, Wellesley College, and Georgetown University also now provide courses. This is a prestigious (and growing) list of higher learning institutions, which suggests edX will have a significant and important impact on the higher learning process.

To paraphrase the famous advertisement about E.F. Hutton, "When edX speaks, people listen." And edX is a big proponent of gamification. Dr. Anant Agarwal is the president of edX, as well as an MIT professor. At the MIT Inaugural Symposium on "The Future of Education" in 2012 (in celebration of the installation of L. Rafael Reif, a strong supporter of edX, as president of MIT), Dr. Agarwal spoke on "Gamifying Learning."

Recall that gamification encourages participant engagement, which means to pay attention to modify behavior to achieve a purpose. In the case of education, the purpose is to motivate the learner's behavior to facilitate the learning process, such as a higher retention rate of information and increased knowledge, and in a shorter period of time than would be possible through traditional approaches.

With gamification, an edX student can perform interactive exercises and get instant feedback, a feature that Dr. Agarwal stressed is a game changer. He believes that students work much harder to see significant success. The learning environment can be a rich one that can use a virtual laboratory with simulation capabilities and Lego-like design exploration.

In addition, although a student can work at his/her own time and pace, the student is part of a larger student population. So it is also important for students to see how they are doing relative to other students, and to discover how they may earn rewards (such as karma points for participating in a discussion forum). Getting the competitive juices flowing is a good thing.

All in all, gamification seems both an integral and important component of edX.

Mesabi Musings

In some sense, edX's adoption of gamification is a "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" for the technique. However, organizations that want to embrace gamification should proceed cautiously. That is because quality gamification requires a good design process. In turn, that process requires an application for which the addition of gamification is appropriate, as well as the necessary skill sets (internally, third party or both) and software tools to plan, design, build and implement effective solutions. In other words, gamification is an emerging technology, and the knowledge of how to do things well and correctly is not that widely distributed.

You should also look into how organizations in general (and yours in particular) can benefit from online learning. For example, there is currently no university program to train data scientists (although some applicable courses in programming and statistics may become available). Consider whether your organization can fill specific educational gaps through online courses. If so, and if you use edX courses, you can experience the use of gamification first-hand. You may also see how similar capabilities could be beneficial to your organization in related areas, such as developing a customer loyalty program.

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