Swinburne is bringing gamification to the classroom

Monday 30 November 2015

Professor Dan Hunter, Dean of Swinburne Law School and Dr Grainne Oates, senior accounting lecturer.

Professor Dan Hunter, Dean of Swinburne Law School, taught the world’s first course on gamifying business practices

In summary

  • Gamification is the use of game-design techniques in non-game contexts
  • This article originally appeared in Swinburne's Venture magazine
What if we could harness the power of games to transform the boring into fun, the difficult into achievable and the tedious into stimulating?

Imagine being transported to a fantasy world where you, the hero, fearlessly battle monsters and warlords. With every enemy you take down, your bravery is rewarded with precious points allowing to you to gain powers and access undiscovered worlds. Adrenalin, a feeling of empowerment, and a sense of achievement boil up as you are seconds away from completing a quest and a step closer to the next challenge.

Games are a powerful tool and, when designed well, they can help with problem solving, divide big tasks into manageable steps, encourage teamwork, give players a sense of control, reward innovative thinking, and develop confident attitudes. 

What if we could harness the power of games to transform the boring into fun, the difficult into achievable and the tedious into stimulating?

Such a strategy is called gamification: the use of game elements and game-design techniques in non-game contexts, making a mundane challenge more engaging for the user.

Unlock the potential

Gamification can be used to combat the age-old university problem of lack of student engagement, says Professor Dan Hunter, inaugural Dean of the Swinburne Law School.

An expert in intellectual property and an avid World of Warcraft player, Professor Hunter taught the world’s first course on gamifying business practices. He has also co-written two books on how game thinking can revolutionise business.

'Gamification allows us to apply different motivations than the ones that we usually use in classes,' Professor Hunter says. 'It can be used to access students’ sense of fun, as well as competition and co-operation, among a range of other behaviour modifiers. So it’s a useful addition to the many other mechanisms that good teachers use to encourage student engagement.

'At Swinburne, we’ve trialled an app, developed by senior lecturer in accounting Dr Gráinne Oates. It’s a simple pop-up notification displayed on accounting students’ smartphones or tablets. Presented with one multiple-choice question per day, students are given a time limit of 30 seconds to answer. Results from the pilot study have shown a 74 per cent increase in student engagement.'

Professor Hunter says gamification isn’t about building a fully-fledged game. It’s about using some elements of games, such as 'pointsification', where users are rewarded for doing something you want them to do.

For gamification to be a successful strategy in education, it is first necessary to identify the behaviour that should change, what motivates students, the narrative the teacher wants to tell and the desired learning outcomes.

The trial found students were motivated to do well in their exams and the narrative became their journey of progression. 'We wanted them to answer questions that were aligned with their learning outcomes,' Professor Hunter says.  'Taking this into consideration, game elements must be designed around maximising students’ understanding of the relevant content, in a way that allows them to see their progression.'

Students earned points for every question answered correctly. The more points they collected, the higher they climbed on the virtual leaderboard. This gave instant feedback, evoked a sense of competitiveness and motivated students to improve performance.

No magic solution

While a system of points, badges and leaderboards (PBL) can be effective in engaging students, games and interactivity lecturer Dr Steven Conway is cautious about this approach, suggesting it runs a risk of demotivating students. 

'PBLs are all about context. In the wrong situation, PBLs can undermine three intrinsic human needs: autonomy (I am independent, I have choice, I can make a difference); competence (I can do this, I’m good at this); and relatedness (I connect with my peers, the game and my role in it),' Dr Conway says. 'Gamification must show consideration of the innate psychological needs of its participants and the diverse learning environments they are embedded within.'

'It is very easy to create a game that actually demotivates students and indeed distracts from the desirable learning outcomes.'

Dr Conway believes a gamification framework should be a support mechanism, not the reason that students complete their work. 'Gamification has to be optional. If the purpose is about learning, we shouldn’t make an app something that students are required to use,' he says.

Innovative teaching tool

Gamification enables teachers to think outside the box, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Learning Transformations) Professor Mike Keppell says. He is passionate about empowering academics to transform the way they teach and improve learning outcomes. 

'Using games is an innovative way to connect with students. It also challenges students beyond the use of tools such as PowerPoint slides, where they have the opportunity to apply the knowledge they’ve learnt,' he says.

'Learning occurs on the edge of your comfort zone, and gamification is a tool that can offer this kind of learning experience. However, we must be careful not to distract students with games that don’t support their journey of learning and knowledge.'

Professor Keppell says by choosing strategic areas of the curriculum and designing the gamification framework appropriately, students and teachers will benefit. 'It’s just one of many strategies for engaging students and getting them excited about learning.'

Play the right game

If gamification is really the way of the future, the key to unlocking its success is experimentation. We need to keep testing and altering game elements to suit the ever-changing needs of teachers, students and the educational environment.

The Red Queen Hypothesis, named after the Red Queen from the fantasy world of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, suggests that people must constantly adapt, evolve, and proliferate to gain advantage and ensure survival. Gamification, used as an education tool, might be one of many ways for universities to keep up with good practice.

'Like all new technologies, gamification appears revolutionary but will eventually just be evolutionary. It won’t transform learning, but it can be used as a helpful supplement to address some areas that we can’t otherwise fix,' Professor Hunter says.

At their fingertips

Dr Gráinne Oates, senior accounting lecturer from Swinburne’s Faculty of Business and Law, has found a way to engage simply and effectively with her students.

Knowing it would be a struggle to retain the focus of the 1500 people taking a first-year core accounting unit, Dr Oates was determined to connect with her students. They were enthusiastic about using a mobile app to support their learning, so she approached a Swinburne graduate to develop one.

Forty-seven students took part in the trial of the HEd (Higher Education) app. It incorporated a simple push notification, which asked one multiple-choice question a day that students had to answer within 30 seconds.  Each question was directly aligned with material taught in lectures. Students who got the answer wrong were directed to review the relevant subject matter.

The results were encouraging: 74 per cent of students used the app regularly, with questions answered in an average of 15.3 seconds.

'A daily notification reminded students of the work they had to do in a quick and easy way. I think being able to earn points and badges for correct answers added an element of fun to learning,' Dr Oates says.

Bachelor of Communication Design/Bachelor of Business student Ruby Mazzocco uses the HEd app regularly and says it helps her prepare for assessments.

'It informs me of the sorts of questions I will be tested on in upcoming exams, as well as letting me know where I stand in regards to other students,' she says. 'The instant feedback is helpful because it means that I am able to check back on past reading materials or lecture notes if I answer a question wrong.' 

Students also benefit from the instant feedback on their academic progress. Business student James Hanley says some elements, such as the leaderboard, could be brought into the classroom.

Teachers say the back end of the tool provides valuable real-time feedback. 'As a teacher, I can see each student’s level of engagement and the percentage of students who answer correctly and incorrectly,' Dr Oates says. 'This allows me to identify topics students are having trouble with early on. Then it allows me to revise these concepts in the following week’s lecture.'

The app was designed as a flexible platform so academics from any discipline can insert their own content. This semester, about 1700 students are using the app across several units, including biology, chemistry, engineering and human resource management, as well as accounting.

The next stage of the project will incorporate new game elements to provide an even better learning experience. “This stage would bring the kind of features and conventions students have come to expect as standard from digital interfaces and mobile apps,” Dr Oates says.

'For the more socially competitive students, a ‘challenge mode’ would be introduced. Once a week, students could choose to challenge someone higher up on the leaderboard to a duel at a more challenging question for extra points.'