Gamification and Student-to-content Interactivity

Learner engagement is considered to be an effective predictor of student success. We can increase learner engagement by focusing on interactivity in course design.

Dice CC-BY-NC-SA by Daniela Hartmann on Flickr
CC-BY-NC-SA by Daniela Hartmann on Flickr

The Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University published a paper on the topic: Predicting Online Student Outcomes from a Measure of Course Quality (Jaggars & Xu.) The purpose of the study was to gather empirical evidence regarding the link between online course quality and student outcomes.

The study looked at four main areas:

  • Course design: organization and navigation
  • Learning objectives and assessment
  • Interpersonal interactions (student-to-instructor & student-to-student)
  • Effective use of technology

Much of what was learned through the research reaffirms what we have shared here before – that there exists a positive correlation between student-to-instructor interactivity and student success.

What the study did not reveal was a correlation between student success and online course design, or for that matter, between student success and the alignment of learning objectives and assessment. That isn’t to say these aren’t essential considerations when designing the online course – they are. But rather, that the study did not provide evidence that these factors are directly related to student achievement.

Another interesting finding was that although student-to-instructor interactions showed a positive correlation to student outcomes, this was not necessarily the case with student-to-student interactions. In fact, students indicated their experience with online discussion and group projects was, to paraphrase, pretty much a time sink.

Initially, the findings appeared to support a relationship between the effective use of technology and course grades, but after controlling for student characteristics the relationship became less apparent. Most quality assurance rubrics and accepted practices in online delivery suggest that educational technologies need to be current or state-of-the-art. However, this study suggests when designing rubrics for online course design…

“…quality ratings for technology may wish to focus on not just the use of “current” technologies but how these technologies are used to support user interaction, confidence, motivation, and learning.”

It occurs to me that interaction, confidence, motivation and learning can all be supported by the introduction of games or gamification in learning design.

The use of games in education has gained momentum in recent years. Games can be very motivating (perhaps even addicting). In a game we interact with the medium, often are given problems to solve or challenges to overcome, make choices, and as we progress in skill we become more confident.

Tools like Respondus StudyMate and Quia can be used to turn objective type quizzes into word games: (matching, hangman, crossword, fill in the blank). This is especially helpful when learning new terminology. After integrating games into her Medical Terminology course a couple of years ago an instructor reported significant improvement in student test scores as students began to spend hours reviewing the content as they played games and tried to improve their scores.

The learning is not necessarily the learner’s primary goal when playing a game, but rather accomplishing a task, mastering a certain level, gaining points or credits, and ultimately to win. Of course learning happens as an outcome in the process. Games are by definition, competitive – we may compete against the computer, chance, ourselves, or others (bringing us back to the earlier discussion about student-to-student interactions).

According to Karl Kapp, “Gamification is using game-based mechanics, aesthetics, and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning, and solve problems.”

“Through the careful application of game elements—such as the freedom to fail, interest curve, storytelling, and feedback—in learning programs, ordinary content can be made more engaging without the development of a full-fledged learning game.” – Karl Kapp

By looking for ways to implement game elements into our courses we may be able to repond to the several questions brought up in the study, including student to student interactions, and effective use of technology (student to content interactions).

For more information about gamification, check out Karl’s article Getting Started with Gamification on ASTD.org.

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What students love about online learning…

Students say they love their online courses when their instructor is accessible and responsive, when their instructor is hard to reach or unresponsive – not so much.

CC-BY-NC-SA by John Harvey on Flickr
CC-BY-NC-SA by John Harvey on Flickr

We recently surveyed our online students regarding distance learning support services. The last question in the survey asked for “any other comments” they wished to offer. About two-thirds of the responses were very positive with students telling us how much they appreciated the online options. Here’s the gist…

“Although the instructor had organized the course well on Blackboard, I could never get a prompt response…”

“My instructor was awesome and was always there if you had any questions.”

“…every course I have taken has been great and the professors have all been attentive and responsive”.

“I really enjoyed my online course with [my] professor… he was responsive to my individual questions and he always replied in a timely compassionate manner.”

“I enjoyed my online courses. The professors were always available for help, though at times I had to wait a day or so for them to email me back.”

“I enjoy my online classes. My psychology class this semester has been great. My economics teacher on the other hand, I feel is very distant and not very helpful when I try and reach out to him.”

Note the theme here – “I loved the online course – my instructor was responsive”.

It would appear that instructor responsiveness and availability is key to student satisfaction in the online learning experience. Some thoughts on how to accomplish this in your online courses…

Students need to know the instructor’s preferred communication style.

Which tools or methods will you employ – email, instant messaging, texts, voice calls, Twitter, Skype, or a combination thereof? Posting this information in the syllabus and course introductory pages can help to manage expectations. Students will know that although you are not available twenty-four-seven, you can still be reached and will be getting back with them in a reasonable amount of time. Tell the students you will respond in a timely manner so they know when to expect a response, and be specific. If your intention is to answer inquiries within 24 hours, state this on the course homepage along with your contact information. I knew a teacher, new to online, who told her students that she would be checking her emails on Thursday evenings. Yeah… as you might imagine, that was not very well received.

Online instructors should not feel the need to respond to every text as it is received, but they do need to establish some sort of routine. If you check your email first thing in the morning or before you go to bed at night, students will begin to expect your responses around these times. If the schedule changes – you’re on vacation, or working on a project that takes you away from your normal rhythm – send out a message or announcement that they might not hear back from you until the next day.

Virtual office hours are useful even when students don’t take advantage of them. They know that Tuesdays and Thursdays they can log into the chat or find you on Skype between 2:30 and 4:00 in the afternoon. I know more than a few faculty who regularly schedule virtual conferences with their students using Google Hangouts or Skype, just to add a more personal connection as they review their students’ writing assignments.

Have the students introduce themselves to the rest of the class at the beginning of the semester. This can be very helpful in creating a sense of community in the virtual classroom environment. You can model this by posting your own introduction to a discussion forum as the first assignment. Using the Blackboard video feature or simply sharing a short video from your phone can help students to see you as a real person so they can put a face along with the name of their professor.

For more ideas about improving communication and interaction, check out the Communications & Interactions Plan found at University of Utah’s Center for Teaching & Learning Excellence: https://utah.instructure.com/courses/148446/pages/communication-and-interaction-plan-strategies

CC-BY-NC-SA by Ed Yourdon on Flickr

What can we do to help students be more successful in online courses?

We surveyed our online students this spring and received a strong response to the open-ended question, “What could [the college] do to help you be more successful in online course(s)?

CC-BY-NC-SA by Ed Yourdon on Flickr
CC-BY-NC-SA by Ed Yourdon on Flickr

I tried to categorize the students’ responses around themes – here are the top ten…

  1. Reliable Technology – specifically the learning management system (LMS). Students expect the technology to be reliable and to work as designed when they need it. They do not expect to be logged out, or timed out, or to find the system off-line due to a power outage, etc.
  2. Video – students want their courses to include short videos:  lectures, explanations, examples, demonstrations… “like Khan Academy”.
  3. More Online Courses – students are enrolling in online courses because it meets their schedules and they need more online offerings if they are to complete their programs
  4. Reminders – they want to get alerts, reminders, notifications about what is due and when it is due.
  5. Consistency – students would like for their online courses to have the same look and feel. The layout of the courses, tabs, menus should be the same from one course space to the next.
  6. Instructor Availability – students want to be able to contact their instructor when they have a question or need help and expect to get a response in a timely manner.
  7. Timely Feedback – students are looking for their instructors to keep them apprised of their progress. They would like to get their grades early and often.
  8. Faculty Involvement – students appreciate faculty taking an active role in teaching the course – not so much a third-party website or publisher’s course pack.
  9. Online Testing – they want to be able to take more tests online as opposed to coming to the testing center. They point out that they enrolled in the online class so that they would not need to travel to campus.
  10. Calendar – students would like to know what is coming up ahead of time and for all their courses. A composite calendar of events for all of their courses is their suggested solution.

It is interesting to me that through this survey, students had an opportunity to recommend new and innovative technological solutions, yet they focused much more so on issues of design and delivery – on improving existing processes.

The good news is, we can do a lot of this stuff!

Customizing setting for the Blackboard Retention Center

Subscribing to Student Success

Online student retention is problematic. Online learners drop courses for any number of reasons.

Oftentimes the problem is they aren’t exactly sure what will be required in regards to time and resources for the course and are simply waiting for access before deciding whether to continue. One way to help offset this early drop phenomenon is to make sure the syllabus is available prior to registration. The syllabus should include information about the schedule, whether there are any synchronous requirements, textbook information, and any additional resources needed to successfully complete the course.

As for those students who enroll and decide to give it a go… there are some things we can do to help them get on-board, including fostering a sense of community with other students – especially those who have successfully completed online courses in the past – and making sure new to online students can find the support resources they need to navigate any technical issues (e.g. orientation to LMS, help desk, library, online tutoring, etc.).

Another way we can help is to find ways to reach out to students who are at-risk of falling behind.

Blackboard’s new “Retention Center” is designed to alert both student and instructor at the point a problem begins to emerge. This immediate feedback can help students to know where they stand in time for them to evaluate their own efforts or to seek help. Instructors can reach out to struggling students at the first signs trouble, before they get so far behind they cannot successfully complete the course.

The Retention Center replaces the former Early Alerts feature, permitting faculty to create and apply “rules” to help reach out to students who may be at-risk. Rules might include: logging in at least once every three days, or average grade falls below 79%, more than one late assignment. In the event a rule is broken, an automated message is sent to both the student and the instructor. The instructor (or other users e.g. advisor or program coordinator) may then reach out to the student ASAP to see what they can do to help.

CC-BY by Wolfgang Greller of Flickr

When Online Learning Fails

A recent article in the Instructional Technology Council newsletter shared some of the challenges and frustrations from a student’s perspective when online learning fails.

An high school student tells of her experience enrolling in two online courses during her senior year. While seeking greater flexibility in her summer study schedule, she instead finds the whole experience somewhat frustrating.

Integrating Technology and the Academy

CC-BY by Wolfgang Greller of Flickr
CC-BY by Wolfgang Greller of Flickr

Eight important considerations about online learning to consider from the student perspective…

1) Students need to understand the online course requires at least as much time as the face-to-face alternative. Many online courses require logging into a course site and completing assignments and discussion postings on a regular basis – as much as several times per week.

2) Familiarity with required technology is essential. New-to-online or to a given learning management system (e.g. Blackboard, Moodle, Canvas) will require some orientation. Students and instructors both need to be comfortable with the technology in order that they might focus on the learning.

3) Simply migrating course content and quizzes to the learning management system does not an online course make. In order for deeper learning to be effected students need to actively engage with the content and with one another.

4) Assessments must align with both the content and the learning activities. It can be frustrating when questions on an assessment are not related to the material. Try awarding an extra point to the student who finds an error in either the content or the assessment – and then of course, correct the error as soon as possible.

5) The level of faculty-to-student interaction is arguably the most important factor impacting student retention and academic achievement. Frequent and timely feedback, instructor availability via email / chat / texting, and some type of faculty presence, permit students to better connect with the course through their instructor.

6) Student-to-student interaction creates for the learner, a sense of community – not only for the course at-hand, but to the institution as a whole, and can positively impact both retention and persistence.

7) Support services including online tutoring, technical assistance, self-help tutorials, etc. become all the more critical when the learner is disconnected from the classroom by both time and place.

8) Lastly, Ms. Shriver points out that she prefers “learning in the traditional classroom setting”. Keep in mind that flexibility is the primary reason students enroll in online courses.  Despite the obstacles she fully expects to take more online courses in the future.

Those of us who are responsible for delivering online learning need to be cognizant of the challenges students face and look at what we can do to ensure the learning experience is of the highest quality possible.