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Classroom reflections on using gamification techniques

This blog post is about classroom reflections on using gamification techniques to achieve learning outcomes. It is not about games in education (refer to my previous blog post for clarification on the difference).

One day in 2011 I saw a vision of the future when I used in my class  for the first time. I teach one or two days at TAFE in Interactive Media and Information Technology. Our TAFE system attracts a wide range of learners. For some it offers second chance learning opportunities to the unemployed or people who have struggled with traditional education systems. As a teacher, I have learnt more here than I ever would have learned with a class of gifted eager learners.

Over the years in my work as a technology trainer, I have planned dozens of lessons on basic web design using HTML. When a teacher is passionate and experienced about a subject it is more frustrating to accept apathy from learners. I was getting better results teaching software I had learnt the night before than I was getting teaching with Web technologies. I realised I was setting the standards and goals too high. A simple approach worked better. However I had lost that perspective from being in a specialist field for too long. The day I chose to use instead of my usual tricks was a very surprising lesson.

The class came to life. Energy went through the roof. A four hour lesson ended up taking two weeks because the learners were begging me to do more! The difference in what they achieved (and what I thought they were capable of achieving) was not minor – it was truly amazing. So, let me explain the ways I have tried to teach HTML and the resistance and issues I faced.

Traditional Teaching Plan:

I first tried teaching HTML with notepad and a browser. Learners set up basic opening and closing tags and were asked to build a simple table structure.

Issue No 1#:  The glassy eyed effect

The moment I use the word coding or programming a large part of the audience drifts off to another planet. HTML is not as complex as other coding languages, yet is imagined to be a very difficult thing to achieve. People give up before they start.

Issue No 2#: Perfect syntax

When you write something (like a blog post) a smelling nistake makes it harder to read, but not impossible. Writing code requires 100% perfection in capitalisation, punctuation and syntax. For a teacher this means standing behind 20 plus students and squinting at every comma and colon while other students impatiently wait for their mates to catch up. In many learning tasks, the ratio of one teacher to multiple learners slows everybody down to the pace of the slowest learner. Everyone knows who is holding up the class (which is horrible and embarrassing). I also tried using Dreamweaver tutorials step by step guides so learners could work through at their own pace.

Issue No 3 #: The interface

Where we were starting from was too complicated for first time learners. The amount of tools and options available was overwhelming. The configurable workspaces were easily re-arranged and tools disappeared.

So with the next class I asked learners to select and watch a video of their choice on Adobe TV and then try to replicate that task on their computer. Once they had mastered that one task they were asked to teach their friends how to do it too (Peer teaching).

Issue No 4#: Identifying current level of experience

The learners were not given an effective method of selecting a video tutorial at the right level for their experience.

So let’s compare the traditional teaching with code academy is a website that teaches programming through a web browser interface. The learner is provided with a simple screen asking them to perform certain tasks. Before logging in you are invited to interact. You are given specific tasks and IMMEDIATE feedback if it is correct, or suggestions if you did it wrong. Your failure is private and small so you try again. The embarrassment of step-by-step instruction is avoided.

Once you decide to Sign up you are now given a choice to do one of eight tracks. That’s voluntary participation and autonomy in practice.

On the Web fundamentals track you are presented with a simple layout. The learning outcome is written in plain English in the right column.

The number of exercises and projects required are clearly marked. This gives you the chance to set your own personal goals of what you want to complete.

Once you start, there is a whole range of gamification features: Percentage complete, Points, Streaks and Badges. Points are shown for today, your best day, and running total. You are provided with a neat little onboarding tool that introduces you to the main areas of the screen.  You are asked to change one line of code and earn your first badge – that was a nice surprise. In the second lesson you don’t receive a badge (what do I have to do to get another badge?????).

When I saw how immersed everyone was in the activity I tried something new. I set up a leaderboard on the classroom white board with names and  their current score. I normally avoid competition and comparisons but as this wasn’t an assessment and the stakes were low I could see that it was adding some fun and was highly motivating.  Before long the learners were taking the whiteboard marker and running up to the board to record their own scores. They didn’t want to take a lunch break and asked if we could learn Javascript as well next week. I repeated the activity with my Friday class and had the same result. Absolute transformation in engagement and skill level!!!

My role changed dramatically during these lessons. Instead of being the teacher out the front of the classroom, I became a cheerleader. I walked around encouraging people.  (I hadn’t actually done all of the exercises myself so I was kind of bluffing it which turned out to be a good thing.)  I asked the more advanced people to assist those who were stuck so it turned into a peer teaching session with high levels of interaction. I offered some assistance with simple syntax errors but this time the computer picked up most of those types of errors and gave explicit hints and feedback to keep the learners moving at a much faster pace than I have ever achieved. It was like me and a robot, working together. The robot was doing all of the things I am really tired of doing repeatedly over the years (and better at it than I ever was) and leaving me to do the things I really like about teaching.

Codeacademy used gamification to address key issues we face as educators:

Issue No 1#: The glassy eyed effect (otherwise known as  ‘I can’t do this’)

Codeacademy feedback, progress and badges inspired learners to keep on trying. They were given the option of hints. Most importantly, their failure was private. They could plod away and repeat exercises until they got it right. They didn’t give up. A lot of them really surprised me in how well they did and their resilience to failure.

Issue No 2#: Perfect syntax (Repetitive skill building)

Supporting large groups of people to learn the skill and drill type of rules and knowledge required for an industry is challenging. Knowing who has got it, and more importantly who hasn’t, is usually done at assessment time when it is too late. Codeacademy eLearning is far more like a natural one-one mentoring system than a classroom environment in the level of guidance, support and feedback to the individual.

Issue No 3 #: The interface

A well designed task based simple interface was a crucial part of the success of this course in HTML.  Notepad was too simple. Dreamweaver too complex. This simulation identified and included what was truly necessary. Needless to say – the investment required to achieve this level of instructional design is not possible with one teacher preparing lesson resources the night before. E-learning offers educators the chance to share the load through Open Education Resources and Creative Commons Licensing.

Issue No 4# Identifying current level of experience

Codeacademy provides a fast track approach. Hints and tips are only shown when needed. Everyone starts at the same point but can fly through to the point where they actually need, and choose more scaffolding

I have since repeated the exercise of introducing a class to HTML via Codeacademy, but without me as the leader. I was distracted with other things and left them to independent quiet study. I am sure they still learnt a lot but it was a very different experience to when I played the role of coach alongside their self paced study and encouraged peer interaction and challenge. The energy in the classroom and the fun factor was just not there. In the future I see all classrooms embracing the unique opportunities eLearning technology offers us with a teacher /coach fully involved in the process with a modified, but essential, role.

I hold as a fantastic example of gamification and learning.  The approach addresses general issues we face as teachers of large groups with a wide range of skill level and interests. Moreover it approaches it in ways that I can not do using traditional teaching methods. As we move toward Augmented Reality this concept will be applied to real life skills in a similar way as it has been applied to learning HTML.

I could have quoted a lot of statistics about the positive effect of gamification in a classroom but thought it valuable to start with some personal reflection. Have you had similar experiences in your classroom? What online resources can you personally recommend as examples of effective gamification? Please reply with your stories.

If you’d like to chat about how you can use gamification in your classrooms and courses – send me an email at

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