For most of history, games were games and education was education. Today, 21st century edtech tools are bringing those worlds together as educators explore ways that the video games that kids love can enhance traditional learning paradigms.
The goal of gamifying a classroom isn’t yet widespread but it could become the norm as educators search for ways to help students enjoy the educational process as they acquire and retain information. By designing experiences that are meaningful to students, teachers find that students are more motivated to move through the learning process and more motivated to succeed.
There are hundreds of EdTech tools available to teachers today, everything from online interactive quizzes and presentation tools that include images, links, texts, audios, drawings and graphics to storyboards, virtual tours, puzzles, flipped classroom tools and more.
But gamifying a classroom is more than employing the use of educational technology in the classroom. Making a learning environment game-friendly, proponents say, nurtures intrinsic motivators such as those found in video games. “Self-determination theory is the branch of psychology that looks at why we’re intrinsically motivated to do things,” says Shawn Young, creator of the Classcraft game-based approach to learning, “It’s been around since the 1970s, and game makers have become masters at it.”
Barry Friedman, professor of information and education at the University of Michigan, concurs. Friedman has built a gamified-learning platform called GradeCraft which is a learning management system (LMS) that supports “gamefully designed” game-based courses.
Education Goes Online
The past 2 years have seen much of the educational world go online as school districts sought to keep children and teachers safe from the COVID-19 virus. Many educators had little or no experience with online education prior to March 2020 and even today, 2 years into the pandemic online learning, many educators continue to stick to their old teaching methods, having simply moved frontal teaching to a video-conferencing platform like Zoom.
Friedman would like to see the educational system invest in educating teachers in techniques and methods of EdTech and video gaming in education. Doing so, he believes, will allow schools to maximize the tools and resources that they have at their disposal. Friedman believes that at the present, too often teachers try to replicate the school environment through the online platform. They fail, says Fishman, to recognize the added elements of difficulty. “Given the rapid shift to remote learning during the pandemic, it’s understandable that teachers tried to take what they were doing face to face and translate it to online. But moving forward, we have an opportunity to do things a little bit differently.”
Gaming the System
Friedman, Young and other forward-thinking educator-innovators say that the time has come to game the system. While games have always been present in education, “gamification”, they say, isn’t about games.
Stein Brunvand, associate dean and professor of educational technology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn explains that “Gamification is applying gamelike principles to nongame situations. For example, think about the rewards programs at your favorite retailers and restaurants. Their main goal is getting you to spend money, and they get you to spend money by giving you points that you can accumulate to get free stuff. It becomes a game without you even realizing it.”
Some of the main benefits of gamifying an educational setting include:
As in gaming, gamification in the classroom uses the principle of choice to fuel student’s intrinsic motivation. It takes into account that, even though there may be one main objective, there should be multiple ways to achieve that goal. In the same way that a player in a game can use different weapons, different strategies or different tactics to achieve the desired goal, students should have that same kind of opportunity to choose how they want to learn specific material.
By giving students the autonomy to choose how they want to learn, the process becomes enjoyable. Brunvand says, “A big part of gamification is providing choice. Instead of giving 10 assignments that everyone must do, you can give a range of different assignments and allow students to pick and choose which ones they want to complete.”
Brunvald teaches that through autonomy, students gain the flexibility to work in a way that complements their learning style. “There are different ways to demonstrate mastery of knowledge,” Brunvald says. “Some students might be inclined to do more writing-based assignments, while others may want to do something more hands-on, like creating a video animation or building a 3D model out of Legos.”
Young emphasizes that gamification also builds a sense of competence and gives students on all levels a chance to achieve.
“We’re motivated by our own progress,” he told USA Today. Schools, he said, often hinder progress when they emphasize grades over learning. “If I’m a C+ student, I usually get C+ grades. I’m still learning, but I never see my progress.” Where the learning process has been gamified, it’s accepted practice to measure progress through “additive” forms of recognition or points.
Twitch, Facebook Gaming, YouTube Gaming, game developers and others refer to gamers as a community. There’s the large gaming community with small gaming communities, centered around specific games or platforms, as an outgrowth of the bigger group. The focus on community is not accidental – gamers almost always get as much out of the social aspect of gaming as they do out of the game itself.
Matthew Farber, assistant professor of technology, innovation and pedagogy at the University of Northern Colorado connects that type of community to the social groups that schools should be building. “If you watch TV shows like WandaVision or Bridgerton” says Farber, “they have huge online communities. When you’re done watching them, you can go online and read about all the Easter eggs, then share memes with your friends. That’s belongingness, and games do that really well.”
A proper gamified classroom is one that turns learning into a team effort. Young says that “School by design is very competitive, but we want to make it a more inclusive and collaborative experience.”
In a gamified classrooms, assignments become “quests” with different missions required to allow the student to meet benchmarks. Michele Haiken, a middle school English teacher and author of Gamify Literacy: Boost Comprehension, Collaboration and Learning gives students points for assignments completed that they can then cash in for special classroom priviledges or prizes.
Her students have avatars, work in teams and have the chance to “level up” by advancing to increasingly complicated missions, earning badges and posting their progress. “What I love about gamification in the classroom is that it creates a growth mindset,” Haiken says. “When they’re playing a video game, and their character doesn’t make it to the next level, kids don’t quit and say, ‘I’m done with it.’ They go back and try to figure out what they can do differently to get to the next level.”
In the end it all comes down to the experience. Gamification creates a learner-driven environment that supports different learning styles and behaviors. Gamified classrooms have been shown to increase student participation and advancement and lead to a decrease in behavioral problems.
Young says, “Whether it’s online or offline, the experience of school is core to student outcomes. If we can design that experience to be empowering and meaningful for kids, it will motivate them to do the things they need to do to be good learners. And that will lead to better academic outcomes.”