Research: Applying Gamification to the Foundations Platform
In theory, gamification in online learning should be used to make the course content more interactive and fun, which in turn should increase engagement and retention. Unfortunately though, gamification has also become a bit of a buzzword, and is often used without fully considering why, and the underlying psychological principles that go beyond gamification.
When we mention gamification in online learning it’s likely the first example that comes to mind is Duolingo. Their entire model is built on making language learning a game, with an overdose of gamification techniques. Whilst I’m sure there likely will be a lot we can learn from them as an ‘extreme’ example, it’s also worth taking any comparisons with a pinch of salt as the users, the market and the needs are entirely different, even more so now we’re focussing solely on B2B for the short-term. I see any gamification we consider or use should be subtle, considered and focussed - Foundations will never be a game.
Why gamification? How can it help on Foundations?
There are a number of problems we need to solve which gamification could potentially be part of a solution for, amongst other ideas. An example of some of these problems are:
We’ve had feedback that the course is too long, and the completion rates are low. Whilst it is true that the course is thorough and there is a lot of content (significantly more than other SANS courses and than our competitors), I do also think there is a lot we can do with the UX to make the course feel more digestible, which in turn should help with student motivation.
I also want to look into the ‘stand back and admire my work’ phenomenon, which I feel we could do a lot more with on Foundations.
How we appeal to both intrinsic and extrinsic learners with the same, examinable course content?
There’s no single answer to any of this, and we’re already looking at many ideas, but I feel like the utilisation of gamification could help.
Having said that, we do need to properly consider the audience and use gamification sparingly and effectively - not just blindly applying gimmicky animations and badges which could actually do more damage than good. I am also acutely aware that some of these gamification methods can be extremely manipulative and unethical, and whether well intentioned or not, I don’t want to apply anything carelessly - which is why I wanted to learn more first.
Ultimately the question is not what can gamification do for Foundations?, rather what are we trying to achieve, is gamification the best way to achieve this, and how?
Research and Study
Some of the reading and learning that helped me to better understand the subject
🧠 Understanding the psychology behind gamification
Gamification is based on the Self-Determination Theory, which identifies three psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
Autonomy is the desire for individuals to have control over their actions and decisions. When people feel they have choices, they are more engaged and motivated. Gamification can offer users a sense of autonomy by allowing them to make decisions that impact their experience. For example, letting users choose their preferred topics or set and track their own goals.
Competence is the need for individuals to feel capable of achieving goals and acquiring new skills. Gamification addresses this by providing challenges tailored to users' skill levels and offering feedback on their performance. Points, badges, or leaderboards can serve as tangible indicators of progress and achievement. Overcoming challenges and visible improvement gives users the feeling of accomplishment which motivate them to continue.
Relatedness is the desire for individuals to feel connected to others and part of a larger community. Gamification harnesses relatedness by incorporating social elements, such as collaborative tasks, competitive features, and sharing achievements with friends, colleagues or others. This can create a sense of camaraderie or friendly competition, which further motivates users to engage.
Another key psychological element of gamification is attempting to harness a state of flow (a state of deep engagement and concentration). It’s very difficult to achieve, but is considered to be the ideal experience where individuals become fully absorbed, losing track of time. Gamification can help achieve a flow state by offering users clear objectives, prompt feedback, and challenges that align with their skill level. When users achieve a state of flow, they tend to stay engaged with the activity and derive a strong sense of enjoyment and satisfaction from it.
👯 Social pressure
If we were to start to build a community between students it would encourage accountability and competition, which in turn should lead to better staying power and engagement.
However, this is less relevant and far more difficult on a B2B platform. We would need to understand if customers (managers) would be comfortable with:
Their staff (the students) sharing their scores with all Foundations students (unlikely on a B2B platform).
Creating cohorts from Licence tags in the CMS. What this would effectively mean is that students would see the scores/activity of their colleagues (more likely - could be enabled or disabled at a team level).
Alternately we could share scores/performance anonymously. Similar to how energy companies compare your usage to your neighbourhood average, which has proven to be extremely effective in changing people’s behaviour.
Not making Foundations a social platform is a blocker for digging deeper into some gamification techniques, and tapping into ownership and possession for example (profile picture, points, leaderboards etc.).
Gamification doesn’t have to be leaderboards, badges and streaks, it doesn’t even have to be obvious. You may be surprised to hear that we we already harness some game-like approaches to encourage motivation and increase engagement. The Foundations course could just be a printed text book, but it’s not - we use labs, quizzes and progress bars for example.
My research into gamification is about understanding what level is right for Foundations, and what will have a positive impact.
To a certain extent, the UI is merely the shell the content sits in. And whilst there is a lot we can do on UI to increase engagement through gamification, if we were to fully embrace gamification then the majority of the work is actually in how the content is written (storytelling, engaging), and they need to work hand-in-hand.
👔 Gamification for a B2B audience
It’s easy to assume that B2B means business professionals will take the course, and that B2C means students and more casual users. But actually the students could well be similar people - we know the existing audience contains students (via Cyberstart and the STI for example), and students taking the course via their company could well be the same kind of people as would take the course via the B2C route. The key difference really is motivation:
Would you have the same motivation if you paid vs if the company paid?
What are you trying to get from the course if the company has asked you take it?
Did you even want to take the course or have a say in which course you took?
🤓 Focus on labs
Labs are actually a brilliant dive into gamification. But how can we make them more challenging and rewarding? Should they have difficulty levels, better hints, and better progress indicators and rewards? And are there any other challenges we can set other than labs?
🌈 Everyone is different
The problem with streaks for example is that, unlike Duolingo, learning a little each day doesn’t suit the content on the Foundations platform or the way we want to encourage students to learn. It also doesn’t suit the typical user’s availability to learn on the Foundations platform either.
Instead we need to consider having students set their own intentions and ‘deadlines’. For example, an STI student might have very different availability and learning pattern to an employee who has been set Foundations as an OKR for the quarter - it’s right that they will learn at different times and at a different pace.
Another example which we’ve already encountered is the number of people on the platform who are looking to re-skill, and who are perhaps not absolute beginners. This means some of the initial modules are extremely basic and low-level for them. Forcing these students to complete these modules only makes the course longer and more boring for them. We started to explore the idea of pre-module assessments to allow them to skip the module based on a high score, and we even had feedback of a student doing exactly this using the existing quizzes!
The more I read on gamification and the more I learn, the more I realise that this isn’t something that can we simply apply and tick off as done. Gamification is a web that affects everything on the course - from the tone of voice to the interactions.
We need to make the course feel like a fun place for users to spend a considerable amount of time. The ultimate goal is that users enjoy spending time on the Foundations platform and ideally a place for them to find a flow/focus state when they do.