The gamification of education: Beyond the ‘Minecraft effect’

The term ‘gamification’ has been with us for a while now, having been coined at the beginning of the Noughties by computer programmer Nick Pelling, of BBC Micro fame.

It’s one of those modern terms used to describe and give legitimacy to something that’s always been there; in this case the use of gameplay mechanisms usually associated with fun stuff to make non-fun stuff more accessible and understandable.

As one wag put it, "gamification is exciting because it promises to make the hard stuff in life fun”.

In the business world a whole industry has sprouted up around companies offering platforms and solutions to help ‘gamify’ everything from employee recruitment and training to marketing strategy and CRM.

Education is no different, with classrooms now awash with technologies that aid both the teaching and learning experience through the application of game design elements.

Countless column inches have been devoted to how the sandbox construction game Minecraft has made the leap from darkened bedrooms to brightly-lit schoolrooms, with teachers using the Microsoft title to foster and complement creativity across many different disciplines.

But the trend towards gamification of the classroom is now wider than one single game – it’s global in scope and has the backing of both governments and big corporates.

Much of the big corporate activity is altruistic – whether that’s the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation investing in initiatives such as Quest To Learn in the US or The Vodafone Foundation teaming with the UNHCR to deliver a tablet-based ‘digital school in a box’ to refugees in Kenya.

Meanwhile, the US Department of Education acknowledged the trend towards the gamification of education with a Games Learning Summit earlier this year, that it hoped would start to bring some structure to the burgeoning segment.

Put simply, the DoE’s point was that it’s all very well for game developers to be engaging with the education sector, but that the games themselves need to be aligned to established curriculums in order to be useful.

A sign of that desired collaboration came earlier this summer when GlassLab teamed up with PopCap and researchers at Florida State University to develop an educational version of free-to-play game Plants vs. Zombies 2.

Called Use Your Brainz Edu, the title is designed for maths students ages 11 to 18. While similar to the main version, the game is able to gather data on a child’s problem solving skills thanks to its analytics engine, that can then be assessed by a teacher to record their progress.

Teachers who use the game in the classroom will receive lesson plans to help develop problem solving strategies and will also have access to an online dashboard providing them with real-time reports on in-game accomplishments. It’s like Xbox Live for Mrs Crabapple.

However, software is only part of the gamification equation – schools need the hardware too if its potential is to be fully realised. And that’s not straightforward, particularly in the UK – iPads aren’t cheap and the reality is that budgets are currently limited across the board.

As such, purchasing decisions are mainly made on cost. Plus, once the equipment is in the classroom, the teachers need to be trained how to use it. HP is one vendor taking on this particular challenge, with its ruggedised Education Edition tablet and notebook devices and teacher training programmes.

The catch here is that technology doesn’t stop evolving – discussions are already moving towards Virtual Reality and how that can take the gamification of learning to the next level, not just in education but in all of its myriad applications. It’s a fantastic opportunity, but again, more complication and more cost.

The onus will be on government to ensure the gamification of the UK classroom take place in a structured and cost-efficient way, which means close collaboration with stakeholders – developers, vendors, resellers, teachers, parents and, of course, the children themselves.

PCR’s Sector Spotlight on Education is running throughout August – click here for more articles

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