Introduction

Regardless of the quality of learning materials and experiences, if students don’t have effective learning skills and/or a willingness to engage, student performance and course completion will likely suffer [1]. One dramatic example of this comes from a study that found Harvard and MIT’s 17 massive online open courses had only a 5% completion rate [2]. Assuming Harvard and MIT’s reputation for excellence is well earned, this finding is likely due to low student motivation and/or ability—not low quality course content or inferior assignments. Schools often experience disengagement, cheating, learned helplessness, and dropping out due to boredom or lack of engagement, absenteeism, and distraction [3, 4]. Conversely, millions of people freely engage in games for recreation [5]. Project Delphinium asks, “Can we improve learner skill and will, and subsequently increase student performance and completion, by adding game elements to a course?”

Gamification of Learning vs. Learning Games

Figure 1. Skill & Will Learning Model [6]

Gamification of learning is a relatively new concept that has gained popularity in research and practice in recent years. It has different goals than learning games, though both work to improve learning outcomes. While a learning game tries to integrate pedagogy and content into a fun experience (i.e., it becomes the teacher), learning gamification’s goal is to drive behaviors and attitudes (i.e., skill and will) that promote learning outcomes [1].

Many of the attitudes and behaviors that learning gamification target are not directly related to the learning process. Instead, gamification of learning involves strategically applying game elements to non-game learning environments (e.g., a course) to encourage students to practice the “skill” and “will” demonstrated by effective learners. For example, a learning gamification intervention might be designed to improve time on task, self-monitoring, task and standards perception, motivation, engagement, perseverance, and evaluation of one’s performance, abilities, and reactions (Figure 1) [6]. Each of these are behaviors and attitudes that have been shown to improve learning. While one might say they learned from an learning game, they could not say they learned from learning gamification. Instead, one might say learning gamification helped them know how to (skill), and want to (will), learn [1]. In addition, a gamified learning experience may have many game elements, like leaderboards, achievements, challenge, collaboration, autonomy, etc., but it is not considered an actual game because it lacks characteristics of a complete game, like an end state (i.e., winning or losing).

Tools for Gamification of Learning

Few tools for the gamification of learning are currently available and developing such an environment can be time consuming, expensive, and requires a significant level of programming expertise [9]. Most current learning gamification researchers either use standalone gamified environments [8] or they develop plug-ins for a specific Learning Management System (LMS) [16]. These tools are often proprietary and inflexible and typically cannot be or are not shared with other researchers. This makes it difficult to conduct research and apply gamification at scale in schools or organizations.

Project Delphinium works to eliminate these issues by significantly simplifying the development time for making new game elements and providing an "app store" like environment for adding game elements to a course. In addition, Delphinium gamification designs are flexible, allowing designers to mix and match game elements for a course. Project Delphinium has been called the WordPress of learning gamification. This allows researchers and practitioners to rapidly prototype and test their gamification designs to ensure they are getting the best results possible. Once a gamification design has been created, it can be rolled out to any number of courses. Watch this demo video to see how creating a new gamified course works.

At its heart, the Project Delphinium framework is an LTI factory designed to dramatically speed and simplify the development and integration of new features into an LMS. While the framework is optimized for adding gamification components, we have successfully used it to add a variety of pedagogical and dashboard elements to an LMS. In addition, any OctoberCMS component can be added to an LMS including forums, polls, forms, e-commerce, etc. Learn more here.

Literature Review

Almost all current learning gamification studies find that at least some of the intended goals of learning were achieved, though the majority also included some failed and/or inconclusive results. In general, studies found that various game characteristics can be motivating, fun, exciting, socially supportive, and engaging, and have a positive impact on learning outcomes like participation, completing assignments, performance, completing work early, assignment quality, and feelings of success [7-28]. However, poor gamification designs can be discouraging for students that do not compete well or have low motivation [15-18].

Poorly designed research makes it difficult to generalize learning gamification principles due to the lack of: adequate sample sizes, validated psychometric instruments, control groups, clarity in reporting results, a unified framework for evaluating gamification outcomes, inferential statistical analysis, and widely accepted definitions and theoretical rationales. In addition, studies are limited by short time frames which may not overcome the effects of novelty, and studying potentially confounding principles, user characteristics, and contexts at the same time [1, 3, 7].

Testing the Theory of Gamified Learning

Lander’s Theory of Gamified Learning [1] is a significant theoretical advancement that attempts to remedy many of the research challenges described above. This testable theory proposes that game elements affect behaviors and attitudes that moderate instructional effectiveness and mediate learning outcomes (Figure 2). However, little empirical research has been done to test this theory [29]. The research arm of Project Delphinium currently focuses on testing the mediating process by which game characteristics affect students’ behavior and attitudes, and as a result affect learning outcomes.

Figure 2. Theory of Gamified Learning [1].
Note. D > C > B and A > C > B are mediating processes. The influence of C on A > B is a moderating process. Directional arrows indicate theorized path of causality [1]

Project Delphinium has been researched and developed over the past 2½ years in a pilot study of 24 sections of a Management course [31, 32]. Pilot studies are currently underway in a variety of other classes as well. Results in the early pilot study demonstrate an 11.9% improvement in student retention in online sections, and over 70% of the students report that they are “more” or “much more” motivated than in a traditional course. Data also demonstrated that the majority of students finished assignments earlier and earned more points sooner in this environment.

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