Effectively engaging students in the classroom within an age of constant technological distraction can often seem like a battle of the brain, one where teachers consistently try to strike the balance between substantive learning goals and fun. Increasingly, educators looking for new ways to improve student outcomes have turned their attention toward interactive teaching tools, such as gamification.
In fact, within the classroom nearly half of all teachers say that they plan on integrating game-based environments into their curriculum, according to the latest Project Tomorrow Speak Up report, entitled “From Print to Pixel.” The report includes responses from 38,613 teachers and 4,536 administrators on the role of videos, gamification, animations and simulations in the classroom.
But continued uncertainty among many educators on this trend, as well as the effects of technology on students’ ability to understand information, begs a couple of questions: How can gamification be effectively used as a teaching tool — and when does it provide benefits in learning outcomes?
Gamification as a tool, not a solution
Whether students stand to gain from gamification — the use of game mechanics and design to complement learning — depends on the context in which it’s being used. But before adopting the instructional method, educators have to understand that just handing technology to students or simply gamifying a lesson is not going to help them meet educational goals, says Gabe Zichermann, founder of Dopamine, Inc. and author of “The Gamification Revolution.”
“I’ve seen a lot of people come in and say if we just give every kid a tablet, that will magically fix our problems. That’s not going to work,” said Zichermann.
“Instead, teachers need to find opportunities in this technology. In the future, the classroom is going to be much more self-directed and kids will do a lot more immersive learning, but there is some time away from that. So for the time being, parents and teachers need to understand that technology is not a replacement for teaching.”
Gamification is about teachers using game principles to make content more interesting for students and get them to engage with the lesson. He says gamification can have tremendous benefits on student learning, with there being programs like iCivics that allow students to assume the role of a political decision maker in addition to learning about political issues. However, throwing such technology or practices at the audience without sufficient instruction is not going to have the outcome desired, he says.
“I’ve seen a lot of people come in and say if we just give every kid a tablet that will magically fix our problems. That’s not going to work.”
Author of "The Gamification Revolution"
Still, the report finds that 50% of administrators said they believe implementation of digital content is generating better student outcome results. And, the use of technology is certainly increasing.
While less than half of all teachers said that they were using online videos in instruction in 2012, nearly 70% of teachers today are regularly utilizing videos to increase engagement in class discussions and provide real-world examples of class topics.
The use of gamification in learning has also exploded. According to the report, 40% of administrators say teachers are using digital games within their curriculum, with adoption outpacing integration of the 1:1 tablet programs, which is at 33%.
But as Zichermann notes, gamified learning tactics still elicit some uncertainty among administrators and principals who are worried teachers often use games or gamified lessons as an alternative to in-depth instruction rather than an aid.
The Speak Up report finds that while 84% of school administrators think effective use of technology in the classroom will lead to better outcomes for students, 54% also say that the biggest challenge is motivating their teachers to adapt their instructional practice to more effectively use digital learning within existing curriculum.
School leaders surveyed were asked why they were hesitant about expanding digital tools and the use of game elements in the classroom, and 57% said that their teachers lacked the proper training to integrate such content within instruction.
“I think educators should be skeptical of any claim that says that this one magical silver bullet is going to fix all their problems. I think they are rightly skeptical of that,” said Zichermann.
“The observation time and time again is that all technology aids in learning — just like books and writing. The big win comes with the combination of technology, gamification, and great teaching.”
It’s only fun and games: Potential downsides to substantive learning
Teachers who either use actual games or make the material more interesting through gamification are undoubtedly able to engage with students more effectively than they do with large amounts of text or tedious material, says Kentaro Toyama, author of “Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology.”
But at the same time, good teachers are extremely selective about whether they introduce games, as well as the types of game principles they introduce and how they find the right balance, he says. Otherwise, there’s a risk that students may meet performance goals, without actually mastering the subject matter.
"There is a risk that games are used in a course as a way to result in superficial outcomes without really making it fun for students to learn substantively," said Toyama. "I think some of the more widely touted areas of gamification, like a point system, that are supposed to motivate students tend toward a mindless use of gamification that isn’t effective."
And while gamification adoption in classrooms is increasing, there's still not enough extensive and definitive research to show that gamified learning environments absolutely improve student learning outcomes, says Christopher Devers, an associate professor at Indiana Wesleyan University whose research focuses on how and when technology promotes learning.
"Generally, the evidence is lacking that games provide learning benefits," said Devers. "Much of the research addresses the question, 'Do games work?' But as Dan Willingham argues, and I agree, I think that it is the wrong question to ask. Instead, we should be asking, ‘What are the components that contribute to learning with games?'"
“When teaching, we want students to think hard about specific topics, and when we add extraneous components like gamification, it can add unintended distractions.”
Toyama agrees that technology and gamified learning in the classroom can have the consequence of actually moving students away from the subject area if not done properly.
"Technology presents an incredible distraction for students. It’s basically cognitive candy," said Toyama. "In the same way that as a parent you would be concerned with students eating too much candy, these technologies can often give students the mental stimulation they want without the mental nutrition."
"The apps are designed to be maximally engaging and therefore distracting. They are designed to ignite the pleasure centers of children’s brains without gaining anything productive out of that experience."
In terms of cognitive development, Devers says that his research shows it’s preferable for teachers to invest more in evidence-based techniques rather than blindly subscribe to just technology or a method like gamification.
“I think it makes more sense to help students succeed through using evidence-based practices, effective studying techniques and improving transfer,” said Devers. “It would be better to use resources on evidence-based solutions and practices rather than on technology by itself.”
Winning with research-based techniques, integrated teaching
Despite skepticism of technology and game-based environments in learning, the Speak Up report shows digital and interactive education is becoming more ubiquitous. The authors found that 82% of district administrators said their districts have now integrated some form of digital content and online resources into the curriculum. Given the risks in learning outcomes of technology and gamification, administrators will need to understand how teachers can use these tools effectively and unlock the benefits in learning outcomes.
The outcomes of using game elements in instruction will vary depending on the type of game used and its context. However, contextualizing a game for the audience and adapting it to individual learning personalities can render the use of gamification more effective, says Dr. Richard Landers, an associate professor at Old Dominion University, specializing in the psychology of technology.
“In our research, the purpose of a leaderboard wasn’t to say ‘do the project well,’ but they were kind of like pieces of it with individual goals,” said Landers. “They were not just objective things they needed to do to be successful. It was more contextual and specific. We actually found in our data that that made a pretty big difference.”
“The risk of gamification is that if you push too hard on performance metrics, then people are just going to pursue performance metrics. That’s why we made goals contextualized ”
He says that some of the most effective ways to gamify learning are to tap into its narrative quality, which can also help educators make gamified learning goals more specific to the audience.
"Narrative is one thing that’s powerful about games, as it’s able to pull people into stories that engage people," said Landers. "There’s a lot of research that shows that people respond innately to stories rather than they do factual information, because stories are relatable. They are something we can put ourselves into and something we can follow along with and resonate with."
Still, both Toyama and Landers agree that solid instructional material is still a prerequisite to gamification being successful. The quality of the teaching is ultimately going to determine how effectively students engage with the subject.
"We need to focus primarily on nurturing good teachers that know when to gamify and how much to gamify," said Toyama. "Let’s not talk about whether to have gamification or not. Instead, let’s talk about how we ensure that every teacher is good about knowing when and when not to use gamification as a tool."
And when it comes to advising administrators on whether they ought to invest in gamification as a resource, Toyama says that depending on the track record of the school, most education leaders should probably focus on the quality of the faculty.
“If you are a school that is struggling for their students to do well, I would use every available penny to increase the amount of adult supervision,” said Toyama.
“Ultimately, there’s no parent in the world that says I believe in an education where a student is only sitting in front of a computer and playing games.”