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ERIC Number: ED575007
Record Type: Non-Journal
Publication Date: 2017-Jul-25
Abstractor: As Provided
Reference Count: 23
Gamification in Blackboard Learn
Publication Type: Speeches/Meeting Papers; Reports - Descriptive
Gamification in Blackboard Learn
Conference paper: New Orleans, LA – July 25, 2017
Blackboard World Conference 2017
Grand Valley State University
Gamification in Blackboard Learn
Gamification can be defined as “the use of game mechanics and experience design to
digitally engage and motivate people to achieve their goals” (Burke, 2014). Another definition
states it is “the use of game mechanics and dynamics in nongame contexts” (Deterding, 2012).
The application of gamification in commerce is well known through customer loyalty programs,
where purchases grant points and open rewards (Saran, 2015; Hofacker, de Ruyter, Lurie,
Manchanda, & Donaldson, 2016). Websites often track activity and reward users, such as the
community.blackbord.com site that grants badges and leaderboard status.
Engagement of a website user or a commercial customer can have tangible value in
creating behaviors that lead to specific results, such as sales. How about academic classrooms,
can we use more engagement there? Yes! Academic programs struggle with difficult problems
rooted in engagement.
What is the problem we are trying to solve?
While the government warns about a deficit of skilled workers (President’s Council of
Advisors on Science and Technology, 2012), many academic programs, including STEM, report
high attrition rates, low enrollments, and low program completion rates (Chen & Soldner, 2013).
A report by U.S. Department of Education in 2013 showed that in STEM 48% of bachelor’s
candidates and 69% of associate degree candidates left field of study or left college all together.
Other problems leading to low engagement include student boredom, alienation, low
achievement, and high dropout rates (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004; Swap & Walter,
2015). Attendance at college level continues to suffer despite the use of modern teaching
methods (Kelly, 2012). Research studies report uninviting atmosphere, discouragement based on
participation in weed-out classes, and perceived lack of relevancy (Lander & Gates, 2010).
Student engagement was shown to be linked statistically to the rate of student graduation (Price
& Tovar, 2014).
If this wasn’t enough, STEM fields are often seen as unwelcoming and chilly (Christe,
2013). Students report being humiliated and insulted by professors. An antagonistic long-term
relationship is forged with faculty. Sometimes faculty view student withdrawal from STEM as a
sign of successful instructions. Well-qualified students purposely abstain from careers in STEM
(Chen & Soldner, 2013).
It is important to note that advanced college courses often experience fewer engagement
problems. By the time students register for advanced courses they already committed to the
subject matter and the academic program. They often were weeded-out in introductory courses
and their determination to self-activate engagement may be high. However, college introductory
courses are a prime candidate to adopting gamification strategies both in short-term through
active learning within lectures, and in long-term by creating semester-long game mechanics.
Faculty, who teach advanced courses, often tenured faculty, may not see the urgency and need
for focusing on engagement. Faculty, who teach introductory courses, often contract or part-time
faculty, may have a positive view of gamification or other modern instructional methods,
however they may not have the permission from department authorities to innovate.
Why gamification and why now?
Key developments in recent history make gamification possible in schools. These
include the emergence of positive psychology, popularized books about human intrinsic
motivation, availability of digital gamification tools, and hiring faculty who interacted with
computer video games in their youth.
At the end of 1990s positive psychology became a scientific field. In contrast to
traditional efforts of making mentally ill people cope or improve, the new field focuses on
helping healthy people grow and thrive. The theory of “Flow” by Csikszentmihalyi from the
University of Chicago (1991) set the direction for the field in identifying a mindset of blissful
productivity. The activities that produce the flow occur in the special zone between boredom
and anxiety. The challenges are not too easy and not too difficult.
This direction was noted by many authors in the business field. Books were published on
how to improve well-working companies and help to improve employee experiences at work.
Some examples include: ”Good to Great” by James Collins. (2001); “The Drive” by Daniel Pink
(2009); “Reality Is Broken“ by Jane McGonigal (2011); “Where Good Ideas Come From” by
Steven Johnson (2010). These efforts helped to disseminate the principles of Positive
Psychology and popularize it.
Gamification is also possible today because of the release of digital tools, which
educators can easily adopt. Such tools include: ClassDojo (2011); Mozilla Open Badges (2011);
ClassCraft (2013); GradeCraft (2013). Recently, as part of a case study involving 501 students
in 4 semesters at Grand Valley State University a new tool was released called MyGame and
faculty are invited to adopt it (Machajewski, 2017).
Finally, individuals who are being hired into teaching positions at universities during
their youth had an opportunity to use computerized video games. The era of Atari in the 70s and
80s helped people realize the level of engagement that video games provide. Just as Prensky
(2009) claimed that students get quickly bored at school because they know the high engagement
experienced in games they play at home, similar idea applies to faculty. Faculty who remember
the video game engagement may seek out opportunities to create it both for themselves and for
their students (Granic, Lobel, & Engels, 2014). The Entertainment Software Association reports
that females make up about 41% of the sampled gamer population with the average age of 44
years (Entertainment Software Association, 2016). The average age of a male gamer is 35,
compared with 30 years in 2013. Research from the American Psychological Association by
Granic tells us that playing video games, even the violent ones, is beneficial to engagement and
learning (Granic, Lobel, & Engels, 2014).
Therefore, the stage is set today to adopt gamification in Higher Education because of
faculty who are welcoming the idea and students who demand it. It is not to say that games are
not liked or welcomed by previous generations of faculty. The period of 1960s and 70s was full
of game revival and focus on playful thinking. “The Well-Played Game” by Bernard De Koven
(1978) is a cornerstone of ludic studies today. However, the coupling of modern technology in
producing immersive feedback environments and scaling game dynamics and mechanics over
large populations of students make this time in history especially fruitful for gamification.
Blackboard Learn: Quiz Tournaments
A simple use of gamification in Blackboard Learn are Quiz Tournaments. An assessment
is setup based on a large pool of questions. Vendors, such as Cengage, often provide large pools
of review questions based on the textbook. A pool of a thousand questions based on multiple
chapters is not uncommon. The quiz then is marked as timed for 15 minutes and automatically
submitted when the time runs out. This means that students can answer as many questions out of
the pool as they can within the 15-min period.
The winner of the tournament is determined in the Grade Center by sorting the quiz
column by results. Even if a student views many questions, but answers correctly only a few, the
score reflects only the correct answers. Another benefit of this playful activity is that students
can perform it at the time convenient to them. This is not a synchronous activity.
A deadline is placed on the activity and results announced. Students can be rewarded by
the recognition, granting extra credit, free points on the actual exam, or any other reward faculty
specify. The Tournament can be executed multiple times or multiple quizzes can be created with
the same random pool of questions. This Tournament does not require faculty supervision
Blackboard Learn: Course Reports
Another way to use gamification principles in Blackboard Learn is to turn Course
Reports into a gameful activity. While some games are explained ahead of time, others can be
executed without student knowledge. In the book “The Drive” Daniel Pink explains two
approaches to rewards: “if then” and “now that”. The first one is often shortsighted and works
for physical tasks. If you do this, you’ll get that. However, if students know what the game is
about they tend to optimize toward this activity at the expense of more valuable tasks.
Therefore, a reward of “now that” type can be of greater benefit. It rewards previous, self-
motivated, and desired activity. It becomes a pleasant surprise that is reinforcing good habits.
An instructor in Blackboard Learn can run “All User Activity inside Content Areas”
report under Control Panel anytime during the course. During the first week of an online class or
classroom course, the report will rank students based on number of clicks reported. This creates
a sorted list of students who used Blackboard Learn. The winning student can be announced or
rewarded. This game does not have to be played repeatedly in the course, but it helps to create a
mindset of immersive feedback in the course.
Blackboard Learn: Adaptive Release
John Fritz and John Whitmer in their article “Moving the Heart and Head: Implications
for Learning Analytics Research” (2017) call adaptive release a “little known Blackboard tool”.
This tool lends itself well to creating immersive feedback environments. It creates an IF-THEN
logic inside of the Blackboard Learn course.
Adaptive release can be triggered by a course grade, marking content as reviewed, or
submission of an assignment before it is graded. One scenario of using this tool in a gameful
way is to ask students to explore the Blackboard Learn course content in the first week of the
class and find all “mark reviewed” buttons. These buttons would be scattered across the content
of the course, but students would know the specific number they need to find. The moment all
buttons are selected the adaptive release rules would make a new item available to the student
with reward information. In context of the MyGame app (Machajewski, 2017), such feedback
would include a text game code, which grants experience points.
Adaptive release can also be used in conjunction with the Grade Center. A game activity
can be based on an assignment that students submit electronically. Some assignments, especially
completed in external systems, may be difficult to intergrade. In the case study for MyGame in a
STEM course (Machajewski, 2017) the external systems included code.org, codecombat.com,
and NetApp University. Instead of waiting to verify the assignment, faculty can require that a
student takes a screenshot of their progress and uploads the screenshot to the Blackboard
assignment. The moment assignment is uploaded adaptive release would again make a game
This does not need to be an academic integrity issue. Yes, screenshots can be digitally
edited, but the external systems often allow faculty to login and verify student progress. When
this process is explained to students ahead of time, the problem of cheating is diminished. The
benefit of immersive feedback is retained when screenshots trigger adaptive release.
Blackboard Learn: Achievements/Badges
Badges are a way to document skills with higher granularity than traditional degrees or
certifications. Mozilla Open Badges allow for public display of the mini-credentials to
demonstrate the breadth of interests and accomplishments of individuals. Blackboard Learn
implemented badges through functionality called Blackboard Achievements. Instructors can
create graphical badges and associated rules, which allow users to earn the credentials.
As an example, a course that teaches Excel with vendor content from Cengage
(Machajewski, 2017) a number of options exist for assessment that can trigger badges. Hands-on
projects can be graded in the cloud system, theory exams can be delivered through multiple
choice questions, and simulation examinations can provide a summative assessment with virtual
Excel emulator in the browser. For students who reach 95% or better on the Excel emulated
exam a badge is then issued. In turn, students can export the badge into Mozilla Backpack and
include it in their LinkedIn profile or personal portfolio.
Other vendor systems such as Duolingo, Pearson, or lecture response system such as
Kahoot can be integrated with Blackboard Achievements. The integration takes place through
exporting spreadsheets with detailed activity from the vendor system and importing it into
Blackboard Learn. The offline grade book export as a spreadsheet makes this possible in
Blackboard Learn: XP Ledger
A new opportunity for gamifying activities in Blackboard Learn is available through the
MyGame system. This is an XP ledger software available from game.dataii.com. While
Blackboard Learn tracks the official grade, the MyGame system tracks Experience Points (XP).
The Blackboard Learn grades and XP are independent. Such points can be granted in any
amount to students for peer-instruction activities, Blackboard Learn Quiz Tournaments, Adaptive
Release explorations, and other gamefully designed activities. The rewards in the MyGame
system include the privilege of requesting late assignments, peer-recommendation for
classmates, LinkedIn recommendation by the instructor, and others.
The XP points can be converted into Blackboard Points before the final exam at a
conversion rate set by the instructor. In some versions of the game a Boss Level event
determines the conversation rate for specific students. Instead of calling the points “Extra
Credit”, the points are called “Peace of Mind Points” (PofM) in relation to the final exam. Each
PofM point is an approximation of a value for an exam question. Therefore, the PofM have a
realistic value for students and are associated with relieving anxiety, not focusing on the course
Blackboard Learn: ECP Program
The next gamification strategy is the Exemplary Course Program maintained by
Blackboard Inc. A foundation for gamifying courses is a well-designed course from the
perspective of instructional design (Machajewski, 2017). Gamifying poorly designed courses or
poorly delivered courses may be a mistake and a setup for failure. Games have a tendency of
amplifying good features of a course and amplifying poorly designed areas.
Just as a game requires well-written instructions, a course game requires clear
instructions, a statement of purpose to appeal to epic meaning of a game, opportunities for
growing competence in the subject matter content, and opportunities for relating to other students
through discussions, blogs, or social media channels. The ECP program allows faculty to have
their courses reviewed by peers and receive detailed feedback. To set clear expectations for the
program an ECP rubric is published with suggestions and expectations for a well-designed
course. Courses that meet the rubric requirements receive an award.
Recommendations for Faculty Seeking to Adopt Gamification
When considering gamification in college courses instructional designers and faculty
should take advantage of existing frameworks. One such framework was authored by Andrzej
Marczewski, a leader in the field of gamification. The Gamification Design Framework Toolkit
(Marczewski, 2017) prompts faculty with steps to define the problem, users, and define success.
Next, attention is given to the user journey in order to design experiences including behaviors,
mechanics, motivations, emotions through action and feedback loops. The process is meant to
be continually refined. Using a framework is very helpful in immersing the designer in specific
questions and keeping in mind the entire game as an environment for the student experience.
Another framework useful in evaluating the level of gamification in an academic course
is the Octalysis framework by Yu-kai Chou (2015). The faculty would ask questions about
specific core drives such as Epic Meaning, Empowerment, Social Influence, Unpredictability,
Avoidance, Scarcity, Ownership, and Accomplishment. In an Octalysis web resource faculty can
assess the level of gamification in their course and visualize it through a graphical display.
In another recommendation, faculty can explore the custom software developed for the
Introduction to Computing course at Grand Valley State University (Machajewski, 2017). The
mobile app is free to faculty, who apply for adoption at game.dataii.com. This approach
gives faculty a custom mobile application with options for creating their own game missions
and long-term player journey development.
A game is well-designed work. This is why instructional design and Blackboard ECP
program are important in adoption of gamification in Blackboard Learn. The reciprocal quality
of engagement means that as students are engaged by gameful activities, faculty also have an
opportunity to rediscover their joy of teaching (Skinner & Belmont, 1993). The self-
determination theory asks for purpose, competence, and relatedness in order to validate activity
as engaging and satisfying (Ryan & Deci, 2000). When faculty can share with introductory
students pieces of their advanced research as game missions, when they can extend a mandated
curriculum to findings they are interested in, when they feel they share with students knowledge
of a deeper value, when they experience social engagement with students in the classroom, their
teaching is revitalized, they are engaged.
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