How Do Games Work in Online Courses?

learning gamesWhat is your reaction to finding out that game play is required in an online course? I have taken a lot of different types of courses over the years, and being required to “play a game” is not one I’d personally be happy to see on a syllabus. My mind immediately shifts to the stress of scoring points, leveling up, and competing. But I sat in on a panel presentation from McGraw-Hill this fall that made me reconsider my assumptions – as a student, instructor, and instructional designer.

Integrating a game structure could work in ways I hadn’t considered, and it’s perhaps the learner’s perspective that’s most important. The New Media Consortium’s annual Horizon Report includes game-based learning as one way that technology is likely to impact learning in the future. The report highlights the social aspects of game interaction and the “simulation of some sort of real world experience that people find relevant to their lives.” In the context of online education, this can mean preparing to work in a new field or advance in your current career. What do you need to know about playing games in your online courses?

Games, Gamification, and Game-based Learning

These terms are all increasingly used in higher education to describe strategies related to increasing student motivation and enhancing learning. Games can add an element of fun to traditional course content and the online learning environment. Educator Sarah Smith-Robbins presents three primary components of “true gamification” in an article from EDUCAUSE.

  • Goal(s): The end of the game is reached when goals are met. These should be clearly identified at the outset.
  • Obstacles or challenges: As Smith-Robbins states, “easy games aren’t much fun to play.” Learning games often present a series of challenges that must be overcome in order to reach the goal.
  • Collaboration or competition: You may compete against yourself or as part of a team to reach the established goal, or beat others in pursuit of it.

Feedback is also an important part of game-based learning, as described by educator David Dockterman on As learners/players meet challenges in the game, feedback on each action or decision helps them make the next move based on lessons learned.

Gaming in Education

The McGraw-Hill Gaming in Education session presented the views of professors currently using games in their college-level courses. Their descriptions made me realize that I had played similar games (and enjoyed the experience) even as early as high school, without realizing that’s what was going on. It’s not always about trolls and dragons, earning point and badges, or even winning.

While the panel members did admit to having challenges with initial game implementation, they also conveyed overall success that was in large part attributed to their students in flipped classrooms, blended and online environments. Here are a few of my take-aways – qualities, benefits, and tips – which may help you get a better idea of what to expect when you encounter games in your online courses.

Qualities of a Good Game

  • Relevance: Games and their goals need to mean something to you and your course. The practice games mentioned in the session allow students to consider real-world decisions in their fields of interest (e.g., marketing, politics). No chasing levels and arbitrary points just for the sake of competition.
  • Multiple paths: While there is a central goal of the game, and a set of rules that guide interaction, there are many possible ways to reach the end with no single “correct” outcome.
  • Complexity: The experience is different from a puzzle or practical exercise; players apply strategy and there are consequences to the choices they make, which lead to better decisions later on.
  • Integration: The game is not the objective of the course, but instead helps students understand the concepts covered in the course. Game play could be a large or small part of class assignments, all designed to support learning.
  • Usability: The panel emphasized the need for game platforms to be easy to use, both for students and instructors. Expect a learning curve, but one that is supported with good design, tutorials, and assistance.

Benefits for Online Students

  • Active learning: How often do you find yourself re-reading passages in your textbooks? Or maybe you even skip the reading altogether. Maintaining focus during passive activities, like reading, can be challenging. Game strategies can place you “in” the course content in ways that require more focused attention, which in turn helps you retain the material covered.
  • Real-world simulations: The games mentioned during the McGraw-Hill session, as well as many others, can lead to knowledge and skills related to your future career and workplace. Games provide a low-risk way to practice solving problems and making decisions.
  • Team work: Not all games rely on individual efforts. Combining game-based and online learning can further develop your skills related to managing projects as a group. From use of communication tools to creating deliverables, games can include multiple components of a team project, as well as allow you to experience different roles in the process.

Tips for Online Students

  • Use orientation materials. As I mentioned previously, learning how to navigate a game platform takes time and practice. (Remember figuring out your first online course?) The interface may be, and should be intuitive, but test the waters with any materials provided to help you understand the logistics, tools, and rules before the game officially begins.
  • Embrace the adventure. Your first learning game may be very different from the typical course interactions you encountered before it. Accept the challenge and the new experience and involve yourself in the process.
  • Be willing to fail. We are, as students, often focused on avoiding failure at all costs. But games encourage trial and error as a way to learn, increase your knowledge, and build relevant skills. It’s okay to fail here; it’s even expected.
  • Reflect on the experience. Panelists mentioned requiring students to write about their game experiences, as well as create “after action reports.” Taking time to identify what you gained (e.g., knowledge, skills, resources, practice, networking) can be helpful, even if it’s not part of a class assignment.
  • Ask questions! If you aren’t sure how the game works or what’s expected of you, let your instructor know. Your questions may be shared by others in the class, and the problems you face may have ready solutions – but you won’t know unless you ask.

While I’m not ready to add games to my online courses as an instructor, I am open to the possibilities, and considering a poll of past students for more input. Thanks to McGraw-Hill for organizing the session, and to the panelists for sharing their experiences so that the rest of us could learn from them as well.

Have you experienced game-based learning in your online classes? Share your recommendations for other students, and the pros and cons from your perspective.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog