Towards developing motivational MOOCs : A gameful design approach

by Selen Turkay (VPAL Research Fellow)

Learners are driven to Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) for many reasons. There are a plethora of studies on why students enroll in MOOCs. Some want to learn about the course topic, some are curious about the learning platform. Regardless of the initial motivation, students find it challenging to stick with these courses, which generates high dropout rates. Some of the main reasons MOOC learners drop out is that they feel isolated or unmotivated. Current MOOCs are designed cognitive frameworks that highlight the delivery of information, but lack affective or social design aspects to motivate learners. There are motivational frameworks and design principles which can be used to design online courses to scaffold learning and modify learner behaviors (e.g., Achievement Goal TheoryExpectancy Value Theory). One of these frameworks is known as gamification. This is the use of enjoyable qualities of game elements in non-game contexts. Gamification does not imply or require play. It is related to rules and elements of games that make them motivating to players.

In a recent literature review of empirical studies on gamification, authors identified 24 studies whose overarching question was “does gamification work?” Across these studies, the most commonly used design characteristics were points, leaderboards, and achievements/badges. These are the elements most commonly borrowed for interface design and often used without context. One of the reasons for their prevalence is their ease of implementation. However, their effectiveness for any sort of outcomes is not clear. For instance, studies showed that badges encouraged some students to practice learning behaviors but did not impact others. Others found that using a reputation system in a MOOC forum can generate faster response times and larger numbers of responses per post. It also affects how students ask questions. This reputation system was designed based on awarding points. However, reputation itself did not improve student grades and retention. This suggests that other methods should be used in addition to reputation system to improve retention and grades.

recent study investigated whether using gamification in a 4-week introductory Python course would impact student engagement. There were three groups in the study: plain, game and social. They found that gamification increased lecture video watching by 25% and increased average scores by 23%. Social game elements were even more effective at amplifying these effects to 50% and 40%. They used points (~rewards), leaderboards (~competition) and badges (~achievement) in the gamification condition. They also included a lego-like avatar which can be customized by spending achievement points, and embedded a time limit when answering quiz questions to induce tension. In the social game condition, authors implemented a competitive design where participants could select “an opponent” to compete against on quizz questions. They borrowed this feature from “matchmaking” feature of games. However, matchmaking algorithms are designed to match players with similar skills. Otherwise, players would get frustrated or bored and give up.

Given the narrow scope of these studies, we cannot know this competitive game show-like design would be beneficial to student learning in an online course with different populations.Similarly, competition is not always the best social game design to increase learning. For instance, Plass  and his colleagues found that cooperative educational games motivate students more than competitive ones. This implies that collaborative activities may retain learners more than competitive activities can.

There are many concepts and models that can explain the motivational and engaging aspects of games (e.g., Flow TheorySelf-Determination Theory). Self-Determination Theory suggests that sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are important for people’s well being and their motivation to engage in an activity. Sense of competence is about feeling effective in interacting with an environment. Sense of relatedness is about how connected people feel to the others in a group. Autonomy is crucial for people’s motivation, implying that if people feel agency and control over an activity, they will feel more motivated to come back to do the same activity. Self-representation with avatars, clear goals, multiple routes, feedback, reputations, ranks, and levels are listed as ingredients of games that increase player’s intrinsic motivation and engagement.

Yee (2007) identified three broad components of what makes multiplayer online games (MMOs) motivational: achievement, social and immersion.  People who are motivated by achievement care about advancement (e.g., progress, power, accumulation and status), mechanics (numbers, optimization, templating and analysis) and competition (challenging others, provocation and domination). Those who are motivated by social aspects like socialization (casual chat, helping others, making friends), relationships (personal, self-disclosure, find and give support) and teamwork (collaboration, groups, group achievement). The last category is immersion. People who like to immerse themselves, can do so through discovery (exploration, lore, finding hidden things), role-playing (storyline, character history, roles, fantasy), customization (appearances, style) and escapism (relax, escape from real life, avoid real-life problems).

These components can be used when designing online courses. Gamification as it has been applied so far aims to satisfy people’s need of achievement by using points and leaderboards. Social and immersion aspects have not been explored to their full potential. Multiple routes can immerse learners into exploring course activities and materials in a deeper way, increasing their sense of competence. Well-designed discussion forums can afford socialization and satisfy learners’ need for relatedness. Avatars give learners sense of identity and sense of presence. Avatar customization can increase sense of autonomy. Role-playing is a form of experiential learning. It contextualizes learning and facilitates understanding and learning of the materials to make decisions.  

In order for a MOOC to be effective, it should provide ways to promote active learning beyond just watching high quality lecture videos. MOOCs are self-directed learning environment. Students should be able to select their goals, plan and pace their learning, work with their peers, exchange ideas, and receive feedback and be informed about their progress. Passive learning is boring and ineffective. Games excel at involving people and getting them interested in whatever they want players to do within the game. I believe that online course designers can benefit from learning how game designers accomplish this. When we have a quick look at a generic discussion forum post on EdX platform below, we can realize opportunities to apply motivational design features. For instance, students do not get any visible indication for their level of participation on the current design. In a gameful approach, experience points may be granted based on students’ participation. A discussion forum participation title may be earned with experience points (e.g., count of posts) and placed next to student’s username. If students earn votes for their posts being constructive, it can count as extra bonus towards their titles which may be represented as small icons. Titles can be designed on EdX level or on course-level, and can be broken down on the type of posts (e.g., replies, creating a question based thread).

Forum post structure on EdX

Figure 1. A generic forum post structure on EdX.

As gaming culture and gamification spread through the real world, education will be impacted by game-based designs more widely. We already see multiplayer college classrooms and quest based public schools (Quest to Learn) designed to engage students and motivate their learning activities. There is a need for research-based, theory driven gamification projects that will prove (or disprove) the impact of gamification and tease out the conditions where specific designs work. As Lee and Hammer concluded “if we can harness the energy, motivation and sheer potential of their game-play and direct it toward learning, we can give students the tools to become high scorers and winners in real life.”

In future posts, I will talk about specific design principles I introduced and suggest how we can use them in course design to develop gameful courses. The next post will be  about how games utilize clear goals and allow for multiple routes to achieve these goals. What opportunities and challenges exist to use these as part of instructional design?

Disclaimer: Responsibility for the information and views expressed in this blog lies entirely with the author and are NOT endorsed in any way by organizations mentioned in the blog.