Are Your Students AOK? Gamification and Student Retention in the Online Classroom

photo: cdsessums

photo: cdsessums

We’re near the beginning of the semester and I’m thinking about retention—how many students I start and end with each semester. If you teach online, you know that retention is an issue. There’s plenty of data indicating, as Michael Kuhne writes, that students are less likely to pass an online course (versus a traditional course) let alone complete it. And so, we’re on a collision course each semester with these two realities: 1) online education is here to stay. It is the present and future of education…It ain’t going nowhere. And 2). neither are many of our students.

Ideas abound about reasons for poor retention. Off the top of my head:

  • Limited engagement with one’s peers.
  • Technological barriers (i.e. students without regular access to computers attempting online courses)
  • Insufficient digital literacy (students who cannot navigate the web attempting online courses )
  • Poor time management (without the daily reminder from professors, Charlie forgets to do his homework)
  • Poor time management (without the daily reminders from Charlie  :-) Prof. Smith takes two weeks or more to provide feedback)
  • The list goes on and on…

Right now it’s the first bullet point above that I want to do something about–and Jane McGonigal and games may have some help for me. 

In chapter five of “Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better And How They Can Change the World,” McGonigal discusses two concepts that seem relevant to retention in the asynchronous online classroom: “Prosocial emotions” and “ambient sociability”.

She writes:

Compared with games, reality is disconnected. Games build stronger social bonds and lead to more active social networks. The more time we spend interacting within our social networks, the more likely we are to generate a subset of positive emotions known as “prosocial emotions”.

She goes on to write,

Sometimes we want company, but we don’t want to actively interact with anybody. That’s where the idea of playing alone together comes in. [...] Ambient sociability is a very casual form of social interaction; it may not create direct bonds, but it does satisfy our craving to feel connected to others. It creates a kind of social expansiveness in our lives–a feeling of inclusion in a social scene, and access to other people if we want it .

It seems to me that online students need a bit of both of the above. They need to feel connected with their classmates, to create a strong-ish bond with at least a small group of other students. And, in the larger context, they need that ambient sociability so that when they are working at 2 am (!) on their homework, they retain a feeling of connectedness to the class on the whole (the social scene).

But how to create this? How to achieve this through a game, a game which can be layered over my current curriculum? I don’t want to redesign my entire class just this moment and, frankly, I don’t know a thing about building games or coding.

The answer? Perhap’s it’s the online game AOK.  Am I sure? No..I dunno… but I am going to give it a try 

What’s AOK? Take a peak. Yeah. I could describe it to you, but why not watch the video!

Okay. Got that?  In it’s simplest form it’s a game where people do or observe nice things and then document those acts/observations online. By documenting their AOk’s, participants receive points on their personal leader board as well as the opportunity to “level up”. While the AOK designers envision a place where players document things in the wider world, I wonder if my students couldn’t narrow their focus just a smidge to the happenings of our class. At this moment, I’m thinking about all the helpful things that happen every semester right beneath my nose– the aid that goes without comment: a student answers another student’s question on a discussion board before I can get to it, a student explains a thorny concept, a student helps another student edit a third draft of an essay. I’m also thinking about all of the Machiavellian and frankly lame ways I’ve written guidelines for participation into my syllabus: You must do this, you must do that, insert yawn here.

What if we just turn it into an AOK game?

Say each player plays 1) individually and 2) as a class.

Each player tries to gain a certain number of points which correspond to a final participation grade. As a class, we might challenge another class, likely one of my other sections of freshmen English, to a competition. Each class might choose a cause, create a hash-tag, and see if they can’t raise money for that cause.

What do students get out of this, you ask?  How do they experience those prosocial emotions and ambient sociability? One of the problems with online learning is that there isn’t consistent and sufficient community across a learning platform. If we use the AOK platform in tandem with my current platform (I can do this because my  platform is open) students have a immediate access to a community via the leader board and player profiles–they can see who is who and who is up to what. The “comment” and “wave” function mean that they can engage with each other when they like to the degree that they like. For example, perhaps Classmate A has a question. Classmate B sends him a link to the section in the syllabus where that question is answered. Classmate B then posts her action on AOK, thus earning AOK points as well as contributing to her class cause. Classmate A later goes back on to AOK and comments on B’s profiles page–a quick thanks for the help, or a shorter “wave”.  Maybe just a thumbs up (also a function) on B’s profile page.  This seems like a plausible scenario.  . Equally important, other students witness this AOK moment. They can’t miss it as it’s documented on the group leader board.

Finally, as another colleague reminded me, quoting Mary Kay Ashe, “There are two things people want more than sex and money… recognition and praise”. I’d add to that that no one wants to wait around for that recognition! Through AOK student/players can self-promote a bit and watch their good acts or observations reflected in their rising scores. And praise is easy enough to give via all the additional social media functions noted above.

So, who’s with me? Or at least, who’s watching?  We’re gonna give this a go and see what happens. Stay tuned.

Author Dominic Saucedo