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Relevance and genuine human experiences separate great gamified learning solutions from frivolous learning diversions. Use feedback to tweak your program and keep participants engaged.

You will very often see that when gamification is discussed in the learning environment, some find it necessary to distinguish ‘serious learning’ from other types of learning – implying that as soon as something becomes gamified it is no longer as serious. This is not the case at all. There is a very big difference between turning an instructional program into a game and applying game mechanics and elements to add value to the learning experience.

The rules of the game

There is a lot more to creating a gamified solution than simply ‘bolting on’ game elements or mechanics to an existing system. This is especially true when we apply gamification elements to e-learning. Gamified solutions appeal to everyone in a multigenerational work force (see Uniting your workforce with gamification) but the key is relevance. The idea is to create a human experience that unlocks the full potential of every individual. By making the e-learning experience more engaging, more real and above all more relevant, we foster both retention and recall. Recall and retention are the primary e-learning goals and are particularly useful metrics when evaluating the effectiveness of an e-learning course. If we can’t remember anything we have learnt, then the exercise has been fruitless.

E is for engagement

What is e-learning? Well, simply stated, e-learning is ‘learning conducted via electronic media, typically on the internet’. A MOOC – Massive Open Online Course – would be a good example of e-learning. Participants register with the academic institution offering the course and then complete a series of online lecture videos, questions and surveys. More often than not, a certificate of accomplishment is awarded at the end of the course if all the goals (metrics) have been met.

E-learning core drives

Our core drives to seek meaning, empower ourselves and accomplish things are ‘white hat’ motivators that come into play when we have elected to take up e-learning of our own volition. However, when an e-learning course is assigned, black hat motivators of loss, avoidance and urgency come into play.

Gamified solutions are not games

It is crucially important to distinguish between a recreational game and a gamified learning solution. The purpose of gamification is not to reduce the material to a frivolous diversion, but to add value by providing proven engagement mechanisms to enhance and complement the existing program. Let’s look at some examples.

Real Life 4 Kids is an educational game in the truest sense in that it provides a safe, simulated environment in which learners, usually schoolchildren, learn real-life skills through playing a game. Although it has an online component, it is also not an e-learning platform in the strictest sense. Instead, learners gather around a simulated city, much like an enormous Monopoly board, and perform simulated, real-world tasks like purchasing property, running stores, voting for mayor … and more. It’s very fun oriented, and very noisy, and is everything you would associate with a game.

Duolingo, on the other, hand is an e-learning platform that very cleverly uses game elements to enhance the learning experience. The Duolingo app teaches languages like French and Spanish, Korean and German and is fairly typical and familiar to anyone who has ever taken a self-study language course. There are specific lessons with specific outcomes and the app provides a steady stream of feedback that keeps the participant engaged and moving forward. Duolingo also makes use of black and white hat motivators. For example, if you miss a lesson, the Duolingo mascot, an owl named Duo, appears in your inbox and starts crying! This heavy ‘guilt-trip’ is usually enough to motivate you to reengage with the program.

E-learning essential elements

  • Metrics. There is no value in gamifying something that you cannot accurately measure. Without metrics, you cannot determine if you are on track. By collecting data and tracking progress, the rules and rewards can be tailored toward building a positive experience and sustaining the momentum produced by the (white hat) core drives of meaning, achievement and empowerment.
  • Flexibility. An e-learning solution should allow the learner to create their own learning path (core drive = empowerment) as far as possible. This maximises gain on the time spent learning. By creating a feedback loop, the learning experience is tailored to the individual, preserving the all-important element of relevance. You want to create a personalised experience fueled by user data.
  • Engagement. By allowing the learners to communicate, cooperate and even compete with one another, we add an extra dimension to the learning platform. We don’t ‘reduce’ it to a game; we ‘enhance’ it with game elements and mechanics. For example, adding a progress bar and a five-question quiz at the end of the lesson adds value without trivialising the experience.
  • Feedback. Perhaps the most valuable outcome of a gamified solution, the immediacy of the e-learning environment, makes feedback absolutely vital. It is important to know whether you have all the essential systems in place to measure the behaviours that you want to gamify. The e-learning strategy should always (1) identify the key actions learners need to practice and (2) know how these actions will be measured and evaluated.
  • Reward systems. Accomplishment and achievement must be recognised in real time or at the very least as soon as possible. We want a feedback loop where the desired action or outcome is clearly defined and immediately rewarded. If the behaviour or outcome is not achieved or observed, the steady stream of feedback through various touch points in the course should explain why.

If you can make your e-learning experience apply to the real world as much as possible and translate the abstract concepts into tangible, real-world experiences, your battle is almost won. Remember to review your feedback and to adjust your program accordingly. Ultimately, you want a closed feedback loop that keeps your learners fully engaged and keeps you fully informed with vital insights about their progress and learning.