online learning gamificationTraining presentations can be dull events. You try hard to be engaged with the barrage of slides that pass in front of you. But you just can’t keep your eyes open. It’s just too linear. Not engaging enough. Despite the efforts of your teacher.
Now try that in an online learning setting, which often lacks live, human instruction. Completion rates for online learning courses? A shocking 10-15 %.

So what’s missing? Is the issue the slides, the topic, or just low intellectual curiosity? Simply put, these instructional design strategies are incompatible with the way we’re wired to learn – that is, through trial and error, curiosity and  social engagement.

That’s why good online learning platforms should leverage gamification to simulate how we, as humans, learn best.

What Is Gamification?

Gamification is the art of applying game mechanics and experience design into non-game contexts to digitally engage and motivate learners. In terms of , this might involve basic add-ons like assigning an avatar to learners and allowing them to accumulate points in order to “unlock” the next level in their course.

That said, adding game mechanics to learning experiences is merely the tip of the iceberg. At its core, gamification is all about humans. As such, it is founded on the tenets of behavioural science and educational psychology in order to best mimic the way that humans are wired to learn.

Social Learning: How We’re Wired to Learn

Online learning shouldn’t feel like a chore. However, with the way most platforms are designed, even navigating through the menu of modules often feels like ticking off a to-do list. When the design is misaligned with the wiring, for all the instructor’s best efforts, even the most intriguing topics can become a huge snooze.

Gamification is a best practice within digital learning that enables users to go with the “grain of the brain”, which was described by psychologist Louis Cozolino as a “social organ”. From even the earliest of civilizations, Aristotle quoted that, “Man is by nature a social animal.” So how does this relate to online learning?

Ultimately, we learn via social learning environments, or as Cozolino calls it, “tribal environments”. When we lived as tribal, hunter-gatherer societies, knowledge was passed down in groups via storytelling and hands-on, social activity. Thusly, we learn best through:

Competition and collaboration (in moderation);
Storytelling and (role) play;
Cultivating bonds/attachment;
Fostering egalitarian participation; and
Creating a safe space for vulnerability and uncertainty.

Let’s zoom into some of these social learning elements.

Gamification Techniques for Online Learning

Because is all about humans, and social learning is all about how humans learn, it is inherently rooted within online learning. That’s why linear learning is so, comparatively, ineffective. Presenting information along a linear path, wherein learners progress through pre-defined stages (stage 1, then 2, then 3, etc.), is bound to bore.

Competition and collaboration

For one, learning that takes place in social contexts is both active, or “hands-on”, and therefore unpredictable. That’s where competition and collaboration (Octalysis Core Drive 5) comes into “play” (pardon the pun). In social contexts, we are intrinsically motivated by the desire to “outperform” with others. This means that in online learning not only necessitates a clear goal, but the ability to measure your progress achieving it against that of other learners.

For example, if you award points for every successfully-completed group objective, you and other learners can be ranked on a leaderboard accordingly. But note that, while competition’s great for inspiring intrinsic motivation, it should also be used sparingly. Social learning theory emphasizes the importance of cooperation and collaboration, more so than competition.

Storytelling and (roleplay)

Storytelling predates writing. The earliest tribes relied on storytelling (Octalysis Core Drive 1, 3 and 4) to pass down knowledge and cultural traditions from generation to generation. Roleplay, on the other hand, takes storytelling to a whole different level – the learner plays a role or becomes a character immersed in a virtual online learning environment. Not only does this enhance engagement, but it simulates how we’re wired to learn – that is, actively, through hands-on experience.

As you might imagine, gamification, storytelling, and roleplay go hand in hand. For example, in storytelling and roleplay, the character follows a non-linear/divergent path (or different “branching scenarios”) to reach his/her goals. Each path yields different results in order to constrain learners’ choices in a meaningful and educative way.

Stories are also highly conducive to game mechanics, such as players, points, and power-ups – the latter two being positive reinforcement/feedback tools. A good storyline/narrative is great during the onboarding or scaffolding process.

Weave in surprises and unpredictability

This gamification tip pairs nicely with storytelling and roleplay, which provide virtual environments, or “safe spaces” for exploration and unpredictability (Octalysis Core Drive 7). Much like competition, we are intrinsically motivated by the uncertainty of “what will happen next”. In online learning, this controlled randomness also ensures that learners don’t receive the same result every time they perform a particular action. When they know what to expect, they’ll be less motivated to repeat the same action.

Furthermore, unpredictability breeds vulnerability. And emotional engagement lies at the heart of what motivates humans (along with how we cement knowledge!). As such, a simple gamification technique might be providing regular feedback or switching up the dialogue with randomly-generated tips.

To Sum Up

As you can see, you don’t need fancy machinery or a large budget to turn your online learning platform into a compelling customer journey. A little knowledge of social learning theory and gamification goes a long way! But it’s important to start off on the right foot.

Give us a shout to take your online learning business to the next level!