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Study: Gamification Techniques Can Improve Online Teaching

A new study out of MIT's Sloan School of Management explores the use of ideas and tools from the gaming community to improve online teaching and student learning outcomes. Among the techniques highlighted: using strong narratives throughout lectures; providing students with constant streams of input via a variety of media; and giving students opportunities to communicate and join in the action.

"Teachers around the country, thrown online by surprise because of COVID-19, discovered that using many traditional, in-class teaching techniques didn't translate as well to an online environment," said Andrew W. Lo, professor of finance at MIT Sloan, principal investigator at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and leader of the study, in a statement. "Thanks to evolution, our attention and focus are greatly enhanced when another living creature is physically close by, purely for survival purposes. And it turns out the gaming industry has figured out how to replicate this engagement in an online setting. My co-authors and I realized that this has incredibly powerful implications for online learning."

The study identified four key elements for maximizing student engagement in online learning:

  • Narrative — a specific storyline or overarching theme. For instance, study co-author Brian Stevens, senior lecturer at the University of Tennessee's Haslam College of Business, created a video game theme for his statistics class, incorporating "Boss Battles," "Speed Runs" and wacky characters to spice up his lectures.
  • Continuous flow of action in sight and sound, even before class starts. For example, Lo uses a countdown timer and upbeat music on his course page about 30 minutes before the start of a synchronous lecture, to build anticipation for class. He also switches tasks and/or scenes every 15 minutes to help maintain students' attention and interest levels.
  • Opportunities for two-way communication. To help turn students from viewers into participants, Lo uses a combination of the "Raise Hand" function in Zoom, polls, breakout sessions, surveys and the chat window.
  • High production quality. Lo built a home studio with various input devices, professional lighting, a green screen and more to create richer, more engaging presentations for students.

"Gamification could be revolutionary for education, and a godsend for students with more visual and collaborative learning styles," said Lo. "Take the chat window, which facilitates the wisdom of the crowd. With technology, we can engage a much broader set of students with diverse learning styles, and supercharge the impact of their efforts. Even after this pandemic is over, there's no putting this genie back in the bottle."

The full study, "The World of EdCraft: Challenges and Opportunities in Synchronous Online Teaching," is openly available online and includes extensive details on the researchers' home studio setups as well as links to additional online resources.

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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