I’m Finally Back to Writing Again…

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

Yup, after a year of being unable to write at all, I’m finally getting back to it again.
Here is the first part of my next endeavor. Let me know what you think!

And So it Begins

One learns more from a good scholar in a rage than from a score of lucid and laborious drudges. – Rudyard Kipling

I’m still not sure I like the word ‘gamification’, but it seems to be the label that best sums up what I do now. I like the phrase ‘gameful learning’ better, but like ‘software engineering'[1] and ‘serious games’[2], gamification seems to be the label that’s going to stick, so if I want to be able to communicate with other researchers, developers, and educators, it’s the word I should use. So, I will.

Let’s clear the air right up front.

For the most part, gamification is not new. Many of the concepts embodied by gamification are not actually new. Formally, ‘Gamification’ is the use of game elements in non-game contexts.

For many, the word ‘gamification’ conjures up visions of high scores, badges, competition, leaderboards, and geeky people pretending to be super-heroes while performing otherwise boring jobs. It can be that, but it doesn’t have to be. GOOD gamification – in other words, practical, meaningful, and useful gamification uses those concepts and structures from games that actually make good games good. It’s not just about providing a tastier carrot and a prettier stick. It’s about giving people the opportunity to work at something until they master it. It’s about second, third, forth and more chances to fail, and to ultimately succeed. It’s about allowing people to attend to their lives and to fit their learning around those lives rather than vice-versa. It’s about giving people choices and agency.

Gamification isn’t new to me, either. I’ve been playing around with many of the elements that now make up my gamified design for over 20 years, but I only started calling it gamification in 2012. Curiously, when I did that, a bunch of connections became obvious to me that hadn’t been evident before, so maybe it’s not such a bad term after all. Sometimes a combination of things that are not new themselves, when put together, can create something that IS new. My Practical Gamification is that.


Allow me to set the scene:

Over the years, I have experimented with a wide variety of different pedagogical approaches, but 2012 was a game-changer for me. In 2012, I was offered a course to teach at my current institution that I hadn’t taught in a while. The course is a fairly typical 1st year university introduction to computers course. For those who aren’t familiar with this kind of course, it teaches about computers in general, the Internet, word processing, spreadsheets, and so on. It is a service course designed for people who have no plan to major in computer science or information technology. It is often listed as a required course for some degree programs.

I teach at a smallish (~11,000 students) public undergraduate university that offers university transfer programs and baccalaureate degrees but that has no graduate school. Our classes are small (20-60) and instructors are normally expected to teach their own labs and tutorials, as well as do all their own marking.

I’ve been teaching an ‘Introduction to Computing’ course on and off since I first started teaching in 1982. The previous versions I had taught were very much like the course I was asked to teach this time, so this course wasn’t new to me. It’s important to note that the amount of time between the very first time I taught this course and section I was asked to teach this time is thirty years. Just the same, when I am given a course to teach that I haven’t taught before, I try to look at previous course outlines to see what’s been done before. I hadn’t taught this course at this university before, so that’s what I did. When I looked at the 2012 syllabus for this course, I was surprised to find that it looked very much like the syllabus I had used when I taught this course for the very first time at another institution!

Now, I’m not knocking either my original or my current institution – the course outline is fairly typical of a great many courses of this sort. The grading scheme looked kind of like this:

  1. ONE group assignment, worth about 20% (involving a PowerPoint presentation).
  2. FIVE regular assignments, worth about 5% each (for a total of 25%, including at least one word processor, one spreadsheet, and one database assignment).
  3. ONE midterm exam, worth about 20%.
  4. One final exam, worth about 35%.

The similarity of the course outline to that of my very first course 30 years before hit me like a slap in the face. It even had a textbook by the same author – the 11th edition, but still the same author.

One would have thought that a course on computers might have changed somewhat in 30 years. I certainly thought so. Computers have changed since then. In 1982, there was no Internet and PCs were in their infancy. We have also earned quite a lot about both learning and pedagogy in the last 30 years. I’d never really given it much thought before this, but it seemed like the time had come to try something different.

I asked myself:

If I were to re-design this course for the 21st century, how would I do it?

This seemingly simple question started me on a path that has resulted in some very fundamental shifts in thinking.

This book tells that story.

[1]: Software Engineering: is usually defined to be the application of engineering to the development of software in a systematic method. In fact, it really has a lot more to do with managing software teams than it has to do with engineering.

[2]: Serious Games is the design of digital games for purposes other than, or in addition to entertainment.

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