Gamification And Efficacy In Education Technology

Dr. Jeremy N. Friedberg, Partner, Spongelab Interactive
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Dr. Jeremy N. Friedberg, Partner, Spongelab Interactive

I have sat in many design meetings where we often refer to the people we design for as, “users.” How many users logged in today? Are you a new user? Will our users use this new user tool? What’s your username? It’s a curious term that has been used to qualify and quantify the people who use the devices and software we design. The term “user” has been around for so long that we generally don’t even think twice about the word, its meaning, or its connotations, but I believe it is having a strong negative effect on design.

The need for creating an archetype user to design for is understandable. Building software and software ecosystems is hard, and if we can compartmentalize the people who will ultimately use our software into some neatly defined packages, it makes our design challenge that much easier. But the problem with users is that they’re people – and people are intelligent, emotional, individuals whose behaviors are governed by personal needs and motivations that are complicated, unpredictable and extend well beyond the utility of the software we’re designing. It makes it messy and frustrating.

Designing technology for “education” has some unique challenges as compared to other communities. We’re designing for students, teachers, and administrators, all of whom have very different roles, needs, and perspectives on efficacy and validation; not to mention the conflicting observations of what they think they need, versus their actual observed behaviour. But the design challenges go even deeper. This community requires its platform technologies to aide in so many different tasks, twenty four hours a day, over long periods of time. It’s a complicated ecosystem of content, pedagogical, and administrative processes, social and individual experiences, that all need to be implemented and accessible across a spectrum of hardware devices. To date, all of these components are somewhat available in varying forms,and to some degree quite successful, but ultimately, compliance rates (are people using the software the way it’s intended to be used) are very low –a key indicator that the design is still not right. So what’s the problem?

First, the observable and well reported frustration with trying to use all of these components. We need to use them efficiently and feel good about using them. It’s like wanting to use a car to get you to work and back. You’ve seen cars being used by others – they look sleek, easy to operate, and you get the general idea, but instead of buying a car, you can only order pieces from the car parts catalogue. Some will buy the pieces, read the plans, get support when needed and get it built – but most will not have the patience to put it together, or work through the problems - and instead go back to walking. It may take longer but at least you’ll know you’ll get there. This is where we are with education and implementing digital learning technologies. Once this complete car package (learning technology ecosystems) is in place and available,people will easily buy them, learn to drive, enjoy driving, and drive often.

The Second problem is rooted in, pardon the pun, drive – that is, motivation and reward. How do we get our new drivers to independently want to do much more than just drive back and forth? Your new car can let you explore new places, haul heavy loads, and let people travel along with you. From this perceptive, building the car is easy, but understanding how to get people to change their behaviour is much harder. This is where the concept of gamification provides a solution. But before I continue, let me qualify the term “gamification,” as it’s a highly overused, abused, and poorly understood term. It’s not about sticking points and badges on everything (as most of those experiments in the education field have been failures). It is a deep study of human psychology. An exercise in truly understanding the drives and motivations of all the people who’ll be driving that car and engage with our design. It’s an exercise that has proved to be crucial in other industries (business and commercial gaming) and there are important lessons to be applied here in education technology and this is where the design process must begin.

These people are not to be trivialized as simply users. They are people, with all the variation and complexities of individuals, and regardless of what it looks like, we must understand what drives the people in this community, what they need to feel rewarded, and how those feelings and sense of reward change over a day, a month, a year, through content and platform when they are social or working independently and even across degrees and careers. The difference from other industries and the challenge here is the time scale and the diversity of the community. So how do we begin to learn this? I’ll throw in another cliché – Big Data.

Current learning technologies are, for the first time, giving us all the information to solve both of these problems. The data is amazing, and have the capacity to personalize learning experiences in a be used. Profound and meaningful way that will not only impact learning, but what is valuable in education. However, the ability to deliver is fundamentally a function of good design. It’s a design approach that in the past had begun with the utility of the system’s components, but now must begin with the people, and their larger world in which our designs will be used.

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