Leveraging Gamification for Refining Learner Experience in Online Education

by January 3, 2023 0 comments

Generation Z often spends nights playing online games. Ever heard of any learner on an online learning platform coming close to that? I doubt it. More than 90% of such learners do not finish or even start the programmes they have registered for! Many who finish do not start another one. The moot question is, why are these students abandoning the ship mid-sea? As Todd Tauber states in Quartz magazine, a plausible answer is that online educators are still thinking about classrooms in online learning.

Col. Rajiv Bhargava ISB
Ashok Pandey | PCQuest Col. Rajiv Bhargava ISB

Statistics indicate that online gamers and online learners are showing upward trends. While online learners are snowballing, showing a 600% increase in enrolments between 2016-21, gamers outnumbered online learners 15:1 in 2021. The charts show unmistakable trendlines.

What if we can bring the zeal and engagement of Gamification to online learning? What if we can make online learning fun?

Video Gamers Worldwide (In billions)

Video Gamers Worldwide In billions
Ashok Pandey | PCQuest Video Gamers Worldwide (In billions)

Source: Newzoo, published by venturebeat.com

Online Learners Worldwide (In millions)

Online Learners Worldwide In millions
Ashok Pandey | PCQuest Online Learners Worldwide (In millions)

Source: Coursera

Executive Summary

The article highlights the benefits of leveraging Gamification to make online learning more engaging and persuasive.

The quality of online learning is defined by engagement and satisfaction. This article will characterise the average profiles of learners on online platforms and compare them with the average profiles of gamers. It will identify the reasons behind boredom in online learning as compared to intense engagement in Gamification.

With the basics in place, the paper will define Gamification and the components of game design elements. It will appreciate instructional design challenges and quote existing use cases in online learning. It will also explore Gamification’s personal and social dimensions, highlighting the innovative substitution of in-class experiences.

Gamification is not a one-stop solution for learning and has its pitfalls. The article will analyse the potential demerits of excessive competition, cheating, difficulties in assessment etc in Gamification. It will then take a peek at future technologies and how they can synergise Gamification with learning.

In conclusion, the article will highlight the exciting methodologies by which Gamification can benefit learning platforms.

Profiling the Online Learners

The traditional online learner averages just over 25 years of age. The age pattern matches Generation Z, who average 20 -25 years. By inference, online learners will be no strangers to gaming and may welcome it into their curriculum.

Challenges in Online Learning

Engagement and satisfaction are the two key metrics to capture the quality of any online learning. Shortfalls in any of them will result in a learner dropping out midway in sheer boredom. If all that learners do is undergo a non-interactive one-way flow of push learning, it will drag them to tears. The new-age learners have short attention spans and can incorporate anything in 10-minute spurts into their daily schedules. Go beyond 10 minutes, and they will match it with rising dropout rates! How can we enhance their interest within limited timespans? The answer lies in Gamification.

What is Gamification?

A simplified definition for Gamification is ‘video game elements used in non-game situations.’ Any gamified system consists of three essential elements: a user, a non-game task for the user, and a set of game design elements that motivate the user to perform the task. In turn, the game design elements have four crucial components: a challenge, a choice, a change and a chance. All four play roles in keeping gamers on the edge of their seats.

A game is something where a challenge is set for the player. The player may make choices to overcome the challenge, although chance dictates that the player cannot guarantee that the choices they make are correct. The player’s choices change the game’s state, so the player must constantly re-evaluate the best choice for any situation. Once a player has made sufficient choices, the game is won or lost. That is the essence of game design. By comparison, in online learning, the test for designers is converting repetitive lessons into challenges and providing choices that leverage ‘chance’ to change the end game. Also, finally, the player cannot lose the game!

Employing an intuitive play of challenges and choices, Gamification has the potential to nudge users’ behaviour towards a sustained higher engagement. It can encourage learners to absorb content, connect, and help achieve peer-to-peer learning.

Instructional Design in Gamification

From a gaming design perspective, Gamification is of two types; structural and content. Structural Gamification overlays game elements to an existing structure, like sugar-coating citrus peels! It motivates learners with ranking leaderboards, progress bars, certificates, and badges. Exciting examples of online learning platforms utilising structural Gamification are:

  1. Iversity: An online learning platform for higher education and professional development courses provided by experts from all over Europe.
  2. Microsoft Learn: A free online platform that provides access to a set of training for the acquisition and improvement of digital skills
  3. openHPI: The educational Internet platform of the German Hasso Plattner Institute, Potsdam

Content gamification, by contrast, alters the existing content structure from the ground up to intermesh game characteristics with the content through game design elements. It can be highly resource-intensive, but it improves a given task’s overall experience and motivates high engagement bordering on addiction. Numerous e-learning authoring software like Adobe captivate, Elucidat, and Camtasia can enable educators to create learning content with Gamification. Examples are:

  1. Immersive Branching Video (Elucidat.com): It is about a fictitious teenager Lily. The story changes based on how the inputs from the gamer vary.
  2. LifeSaver by Martin Percy (Unit9.com): It is an acclaimed video on CPR unlike any other.
  3. Scenario-Based Policy Training (Elucidat.com): It is a fantastic way of learning boring, repetitive policies using storytelling.

It is evident that tremendous efforts have already gone to bring Gamification into mainstream learning. Yet, a lot remains to be done and to get there, one needs to understand the dimensions of Gamification.

Dimensions of Gamification

The dimensions of Gamification can bring a classroom interaction type experience to online learning. The two dimensions are: personal and social.

Personal Gamification can augment the individual learner’s experience with private feedback, progressive rewards and progress tracking. It provides a boost to the learner’s internal desire to learn.

Social Gamification enriches the experiences shared with other learners and is naturally interactive. It is a well-known fact that only very few users are highly active on the forums, a small proportion is rarely active, and the vast majority do not participate in discussions. To enhance the participation of the silent majority, gaming design provides reputation points, creates forum heroes, generates competitiveness, provides upvoting options, unlocks special privileges and enables learners to follow others’ progress. The process simultaneously targets two factors behind high dropout rates: isolation and low interactivity.

Gamification has immense potential and can bring campus experience to online learning. However, it has its drawbacks too.

The drawbacks of Gamification

The theory of Garbage In, Garbage Out is hugely popular with computers, signifying that the input’s quality determines the output’s quality. A parallel concept is, Gamification does not make bad content good! Content creators should be wary of portraying Gamification as a solution to all ills. Painting stripes on a horse does not make it a Cheetah!

Gamification’s strength can become its weakness if one is not careful. By its very nature, it can be overpowering, distracting learners from their goals. The desire to be on the top of a leaderboard may result in the competitiveness of a gaming kind, often called pointsification. Sacrificing learning at the altar of Gamification would be the ultimate sin.

Yet another drawback is in the social domain. When discussing sensitive issues, Gamification faces a severe challenge. Its attempt to make an issue light-hearted or playful may rub sensitivities and spark societal outrage.

The drawbacks of Gamification are substantial but are far outweighed by the merits. It is an integral part of the future of learning, and to ignore that would be missing the wood for the trees.

The Future of Gamification in Learning

In future, designers may explore the opportunities presented by collaborative Gamification to strengthen the team experience through shared goals, measurements and collaboration tasks. Content gamification is still in its early stages and has immense potential. New fast-developing AI and machine learning technologies can significantly reduce resource requirements, a sizeable constraint.

The ultimate goal of Gamification could be to achieve a ‘flow state’ for learners. In positive psychology, a flow state is the mental state of intrinsic motivation where people are fully immersed in their actions. With cleverly designed gaming elements, meaningful challenges and intense engagement, Gamification can bring learners closer to the experience.


If wishes were horses, Content Gamification would help me gallop through online learning with glee. A condition where students find every learning to be a game played joyfully would be an aspirational end state. The day learners will choose online classes over in-person classes for their superior interactive experiences; online learning will graduate to Education 4.0

Author: Col. Rajiv Bhargava, ISB

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