Monthly Archives: November 2013

Gamification and Storyfication: It’s the Little Things

I saw a wonderful presentation by my Belgian Sanoma Learning colleagues earlier this week. At Van In they offer a service called Bingel, which essentially is an online exercise platform for primary education, kids aged 6-11.

Bingel island

Normally Bingel has a beautiful user interface of an island floating in the clouds. However, on October 17th 2013, a story started to unfold. First a panel appeared counting down the days until November 7th. An then, the mountain on the island erupted as a volcano, spitting red lava in the sky.

Bingel users were then encouraged to collect sand in order to make the volcano to settle down. And how to collect sand? You guessed it, by completing exercises. As a result, during the following week Belgian children did three times more exercises than normally during that November week. By now the volcano has calmed down, but the story is still developing…

These little things are what build up gamification. You take your normal routine activities and bring in some extra spices. Think of Google Doodles. Although they have become more complex through the years, they are still somewhat small things bringing temporary delight to information searchers.

These small gamification elements have to tap into users’ emotions in order to work. The Bingel volcano eruption caused some suspense no doubt, as well as joy in the end when enough sand had been collected.

Gamification Ain’t Just Hyped Fabrication

The notion of play comes from inside, it’s in our nature. And I am not just referring to us humans. Take a look at this clip:

Play and gaming are something we get engaged in just because we want to. Why we want to, that varies a lot. I bet those baby ducks were into sliding just for the thrills, but there can be many other motivators, too. Mastery, prizes, social bonding, intellectual challenges, to name a few.

Gamification and game mechanics are studied a lot these days. Gamification sits right at the top of Gartner’s emerging technology hype cycle in 2013. Whenever a technology is in that position, be aware of what gets said or written about it. After all, it is called a hype cycle.

At the same token, not everything is baloney. There are reasons for a  technology to get up there. That’s also the case with gamification. It is not a silver bullet solving climate change or all economic crises. However, if applied well and in right contexts, it can turn out to be useful. And fun.

Gamification basically means applying game-like mechanics and components in non-game contexts. Such components are for example badges, leaderboards, storylines, and currencies. I am especially interested in applying these things in the domain of education.

Some say games and gamified educational materials can make school fun again. I am not in that camp. First of all, I believe that claiming current school to be “unfun” is mostly a reflection of us adults who went to school in the 80s or before.

Secondly, I think educational materials alone cannot do the trick.  Having fun / enjoying oneself benefits from a safe environment, with engaging social surroundings. Gamified materials can help for sure, but they amount up only a part of the equation.

It all comes down to motivation. How to motivate pupils to learn, that is the key question. If that requires splitting up content into chunks that manifest elements familiar from games, let’s do it! If those chunks can follow each other to form a game-like story, let’s do it more!

I started this post by stating that motivation varies per individual. I like water slides so in that sense I get motivated by similar things as the ducks above. I also like intellectual challenges found e.g. in crossword puzzles. I suspect most ducks don’t.

So gamification is closely related to personalized/adaptive learning. We like to play different games and get motivated by different rewards. Also—and this is important—many of us don’t want to play games, at least not all the time. For them we need to fade out the gamified layer instead of underlining it.

Intel’s Multi-Level March in Education

News got me earlier this week that Intel, which people generally identify as a chip manufacturer, had acquired Kno, a provider of “smart eTextbooks”.

I had to update my knowledge on Intel. I knew that it was big, but it is huge: more than 100 thousand employees and more than $50 billion in revenues in 2012. And there is more to Intel than the ol’ semiconductor chips. For example all kinds of edtech stuff. Take a look at this concept video:

Pretty cool, huh? Of course the example of creating a bridge as a project is quite sexy—good luck trying to come up with something as flashy from learning English or algebra. The video nevertheless shows quite well the multi-level approach Intel has taken in education, including both hardware and software.

However, mere HW and SW are not enough. You also need content. So it sounds like a wise move for Intel to add Kno to its portfolio. Kno’s own technology is nice, but I assume the real reason for the acquisition was that Kno has 75 educational publishers with more than 200 thousand titles in its network.

Interesting to see whether Intel will become a household edtech name joining the likes of Google, Apple, and Microsoft.

How to Steer Self-Organizing Classes?

I finally got to read the wonderful Wired piece about the Mexican school. It tells a true story about how a teacher adopted Sugata Mitra -esque teaching methods. As a by-product he discovered a 12 years old genius in his class. Strongly recommended reading.

Like Mitra with his hole in the wall experiment, Sergio Juárez Correa gave his class some problems and then just stepped back, letting them discuss and come up with solutions. As you can guess, the results were excellent. Besides Paloma Noyola Bueno (the genius), also other students significantly improved their learning.

The great thing about self-organizing approaches is that they are student-centered. Students can choose the methods they want to apply. Sometimes they can even select the problems they want to tackle. This presumably makes them more motivated. That’s very easy to believe.

I think it would still be too idealistic and naïve to claim that this method as such is bulletproof, always yielding to the best results with each student, in each context. In reality the teacher has reason to intervene every once in the while and carefully steer the students to a preferable direction.

The keyword here is ‘carefully’. How to subtly get the kids to take interest in something, without appearing bossy and in effect resorting back to traditional methods? The best way to get the students to lose their motivation is to first claim that they can do things how they want and then take it back.

There are some tips and tricks for the teacher to apply. First strategy is to give the student a set of choices instead of complete freedom: “In this project your job is to run a business. Choose your domain from consulting, logistics, or automotive industry.” “Log on to any of these three mathematics games to learn fractions.” “You can do this exercise individually or in groups.”

The second pointer is to start with small tasks. Teaching typically corresponds to mandatory curriculum items. However, there can be plenty of room for variation in how these items are addressed.

The third advice is to be present. As with flipped classroom, also student-centered methods free the teacher from giving lectures to actually interacting with the kids. So “stepping back” should not be taken too seriously. Or rather the step should be so short that the teacher was still available for the students.

You could argue that following the above proposals dilutes the core message of self-organized and student-centered learning. If the teacher steps in very often, it actually becomes teacher-centered learning. In the Wired story Juarez Correa said that he was sometimes very tempted to intervene when his students seemed to have difficulties, but he resisted the urge.

What do you think? Can student-centered approach be introduced partially or in batches. Instead of blowing up one big hole in the wall, can we drill several smaller ones?