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Learning Management Systems

A Moodle Plug-in for Gamified, Individualized Learning

North Carolina State University has developed a gamification tool that allows students to follow their own paths through coursework.

At North Carolina State University, instructors can turn their courses into a personalized game, where students complete course activities in the school's Moodle learning management system to gain skill points and advance their avatar through a series of objectives. The technology behind the game is a Moodle plug-in — developed in-house at the university — that allows each student to pursue a different path through the coursework. After three years of work, the development team is preparing to release the plug-in to the Moodle open source community as early as fall 2016.

How It Started

As an assistant teaching professor of sport management at NC State, Edwin Lindsay has seen plenty of freshmen and sophomores gunning for a career as a general manager of a major sports team, commissioner of the National Football League or another one of the "sexy" jobs in sport management. But those jobs are few and far between, and the reality is that very few sport management students will ever reach those positions. "We wanted them to understand that although those are awesome jobs to have, there's only one of them," said Lindsay. "There a lot of other jobs that are available to people who are interested in the management of sport that they are not even considering, at least at an early stage in their careers," he said.

Lindsay wanted to help students in his Introduction to Sport Management class discover those other jobs, and at the same time he wanted to help them discover which career path might suit them best. By pointing his students in a realistic and suitable career direction at the beginning of their university program, he hoped to help them avoid disappointment down the road. "The end game for us, as far as the design of the course and using gamification, was to really focus on helping students make better decisions about their careers early," said Lindsay. "If they do that, they can begin to craft almost an individualized experience, so they'll be much better prepared for that next step in their career once they finish their degree here at NC State."

Lindsay and his colleague, Michelle Harrolle, who was an assistant professor at the university until 2013, originally planned to gamify one unit in the course that focused on careers in sport management. They applied for a grant through NC State's DELTA (Distance Education and Learning Technology Applications) program, and their application was accepted. The grant team connected Lindsay and Harrolle with numerous experts from the university, including a graphic designer and the developers who write code for the campus Moodle LMS. The team worked together to conceptualize the game, and the project evolved from gamifying a single unit to developing a configurable Moodle plug-in to gamify the entire course — and ultimately any course.

Stephen Bader, business and technology applications analyst at NC State and the Moodle lead for DELTA, wrote the code for the Moodle plug-in. Lindsay would come up with the ideas for the game, and then Bader would make it happen. While Lindsay and the DELTA team developed the Moodle plug-in specifically for Lindsay's course, they also had a parallel goal of developing the plug-in to be transferrable to any course. "We've created a gamification plug-in that we're planning to release to the entire Moodle community," said Lindsay. Although the plug-in was originally developed for a sport management course, Lindsay envisions it being used in a variety of fields, including engineering, science and medicine.

How the Game Works

When students begin Lindsay's introduction to sport management course, they complete a "pre-game warm-up" activity, including a modified Myers-Briggs personality-type indicator test, which reveals a little bit about how they perceive the world and make decisions. For example, students find out whether they are introverted or extroverted and what that could mean for themselves and their future career. They also indicate their top three career choices within the sport industry.

Students then receive an avatar, which is the in-game character they will play as throughout the course. Each avatar has a cartoon-style profile picture, name, Myers-Briggs personality type and personal history. Students select a target job for their avatar, and each target job requires a particular skill set. Based on a student's personal history, the avatar may already have acquired some skills. For example, if the avatar's personal history includes being the leader of the high school debate team or a high school athlete, that history will be reflected in the avatar's skill set. As students complete course activities in Moodle, they gain points in skills areas to advance their avatar.

The gamified course includes about 75 activities, five of which are required. Every student has to do a manager interview, volunteer experience, a midterm exam, a final exam and develop a personal career plan at the end of the course. All other activities are based on the student's chosen career path. If a student wants to get the job of high school basketball coach, the game presents him or her with a mock job description including a list of required skills. Students have to achieve a certain number of in-game points in each of those skill areas to get the job. "What I found in the class is that students are willing to do things that they would never try in real life under the auspices that this is a game, and all they have to do is to reset the avatar and pick up and start over again," said Lindsay. "That's one of the beauties of the game."

Lindsay typically has about 100 students in his Introduction to Sport Management course, and grading the activities for that many students is a considerable amount of work. Lindsay always grades the five required assignments himself, and his graduate assistants help with evaluating the other activities. For activities that don't count toward the students' grade, Lindsay and his graduate assistants focus on giving the students valuable feedback. "If this were a decision that you were to make in the real world, if you're thinking about this career, these are the implications that we see related to that decision," explained Lindsay.  

Supporting Individualization

Although the Introduction to Sport Management course is a high-enrollment course, Lindsay said that gamifying the course through the LMS has enabled him to create individualized programs for those 100-or-so students. "My students are required to do those five assignments. After that they're choosing based upon their interest and what they think is necessary for them to get their avatar to the next stage in the game, so I've got one-third of my students that are doing one activity, another eighth of them that are doing another activity. It's all over the board."

The Moodle gamification plug-in takes advantage of the LMS's built-in analytics features to help Lindsay identify struggling students at an early stage. "Because I've gamified my course, I'm utilizing those [analytics features] a lot more effectively, I think more so than they were intended," said Lindsay. By tracking the number of times students have accessed the course material and how much time they spent on each unit, he said he "can almost predict how they're going to perform on that quiz or that part of the midterm or that part of the final exam." Once he identifies which students are struggling, he spends more time with them on the topics that are causing difficulty.

Lindsay encourages his students to pursue multiple in-game career paths. Because his original goal behind developing the game was to help students discover a career path that is realistic and suits their personalities and interests, exploring multiple career paths in the safety of a game environment facilitates that process of self-discovery. "If they come to the end of my course and tell me that they definitely want to continue to pursue the career or they have made the decision that this is one that they do not want to pursue anymore and they're looking for alternatives, in my book that's a win, as opposed to going through the entire course and feeling unsure about what they want to do."

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