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Can Gamification Boost Independent Learning?

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Gamification is one of the new buzzwords in social media circles. It's the idea that by making non-gaming applications more game-like -- by adding points, badges, levels, titles and other game mechanics -- these apps become more fun and engaging.

We see gamification at work in apps like Foursquare, where "checking in" and giving your location via the app earns you points and potentially the "mayorship" of venues. Even though the term may be new to some, gamification has been used for years for offline services too, such as earning points and unlocking special deals via frequent flyer programs.

The question now is whether (or how) gamification can be used in education. Are there ways in which it can be used to similar ends, to help students feel more involved and engaged in their learning?

In some ways, education is already replete with this sort of thing. You gain points (via assignments) to level up (in grades) and eventually win with a badge (your diploma). But that's not really game-play. The premise behind "gamifying" educational applications and websites is to instigate engagement and collaboration.

To that end, the social learning network OpenStudy has unveiled some new rewards for active participants on the site -- namely, medals and achievements -- a first step in adding game mechanics to its site.


OpenStudy provides a place where learners can find others working in similar content areas in order to support each other and answer each others' questions. The site is a recipient of one of the Gates Foundation's recent Next Generation Learning Challenges for its work building out a global study network around opencourseware materials.

Those who are studying OpenCourseware are often, but not always, independent learners. While the OCW materials contain lecture notes, assignments, quizzes, PowerPoints, and sometimes videos, what they're missing two big components: an instructor and a class. OpenStudy helps ameliorate the isolation for students by giving them a forum where they share questions and answers in real-time -- where they can study together. In a popular class like MIT's "Introduction to Computer Science," there are so many learners signed up for Open Study that there are usually around 30 online at the same time.

The new gamification elements aim to meet a couple of OpenStudy's goals: to make education more accessible by distributing the responsibility of teaching among an online group of peers, and to make education more enjoyable by making it game-like.

Even without the new rewards system for helping, plenty of users on OpenStudy already offer each other help. Some of the most loyal users of the site happen to also be some of the most active with offering their assistance. The gamification elements will recognize these helpful users, and encourage the behavior to spread.

The new features include the following:

Medals: Students can give medals to helpful peers. Medals are tracked at the study group level, so users will be able to see how helpful they are across different subjects.

Achievements: These will reward students for asking questions, socializing, engaging in particularly elaborate dialogue, and more. These will be rewarded both within study groups (for interacting with a particular subject) and across the site as a whole.

Fans: This will be OpenStudy's version of testimonials, so users can become "fans" of people who've helped them. As you amass fans, you can unlock new titles and move from being a "pupil" to a "hero."

After just one day in action, the site already has users who are "Super Heroes" with over 300 fans. OpenStudy is already a fairly active community -- but the badges and titles may help it become even more robust.

Educators, have you used gamification tactics in class? Do points and badges make learning more engaging for students?

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