Xbox Kids

Is this what school will look like? (Photo credit: phatfreemiguel)

2011 brought us the buzzword craze of “gamification” in education, or the quest to make learning online more like a video game. Inspired by FourSquare‘s achievement badges as a way of motivating users to check in to location-based services and Mozilla’s promise of outcomes-based badges in lieu of diplomas, we ed-techies went a little nuts for gamification this year. In my post about “The Angry Birds Guide to Online Lesson Design“, I tried to distill what makes video games so motivating, challenging, and fun to see if we could use those insights to enhance online learning. I’m now working on a “proof of concept”, helping a faculty re-design his course to be more student-centered and leverage the tools we have built into our Learning Management System.  I hope to prove that online can match the motivation of video games without trying to “mimic” them with leaderboards, badges, and the outward trappings of games. Instead, we need to look at what works in games and use that to think critically about the way we approach delivering instruction online.

I have been focusing on helping a faculty re-design his course to make it more student-centered using some of the insights I documented in the Angry Birds post. These are not as technically involved as setting up an achievements system, but they use the existing features of our learning management system to reinforce good lesson design. There are many tools in the LMS that enable courses to feel like games, if not outwardly look like them. I think that badges are great for motivating students, but so are grades! The hard part is motivating students to do the readings, master the material, and think critically about material. A lot of this is caused by outdated and debunked thinking about teaching and learning itself.

As in the best video games, students need a safe place to try and fail until they succeed. To that end, we are putting formative reading assessments in the LMS using the Blackboard Tests tool that students can re-try until they’re satisfied with their score. These are really meant for a reading comprehension check and to make sure students understand the assigned readings. We are also using the “feedback” feature in Blackboard’s tests tool so we can give students “clues” after they get a wrong answer– showing them where to find the correct answer in the book. These tests will also inform class meetings, as the faculty can see which concepts students had problems with and address those during the class meeting.


We started designing this course with Bloom’s Taxonomy in mind after I read a great paper on student-centered learning techniques in health sciences ed. It found that over 91% of questions asked of undergrad and graduate level health sciences students are limited to the “Knowledge” and “Comprehension” domains– the two most basic levels of cognition. [annotated link][original article].


We recognize that comprehension questions are essential to ensuring that students have a basic grasp on the content, but that they’re not the be-all, end-all of instruction. As in games, students need to take the basic skills they’ve mastered in one context and apply them to other situations.



To that end, we have adopted a problem-based learning strategy where students are studying real-life clinical problems and trying to apply new learnings from the book to solve those problems. During class meetings they brainstorm in small groups and propose action plans based on what they’ve been reading. They then complete discussion reflections where they answer a writing prompt designed with higher order Bloom’s verbs to stimulate specific thinking skills.

Today was the first class meeting where students did the whole program but the initial feedback has been very positive. I’m going to be checking the LMS to see student performance but it’s definitely been a stimulating and fun exercise in reforming a course! Expect updates here as this experiment progresses.

What are your experiences with student-centered learning? Do you think courses should be like video games, and if so, how? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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