"One difficulty with education -- at least with deep engagement with education -- is that feedback on learning is kind of loose," said Zach Bodnar, a producer from Badgeville who worked with Kaplan on the design of the program. "Typically, feedback that you're successful or not successful comes in the form of exams or papers." Gamification techniques help break up the long-term goal of success in the course into many smaller objectives, allowing students to focus on the next step in the series and get immediate feedback as they complete each activity.
"That way, I get that experience that I'm doing the right thing, and I'm progressing. The system keeps telling you, this is your immediate next step -- and the immediate next step is not go get an A, it's go find somebody you can help in the forums," Bodnar said.
Analysis showed the most successful students were also the ones who participated most actively and asked good questions, so driving that kind of engagement also drives ultimate success in the course, Bodnar said. Kaplan's courses are delivered asynchronously, but also include live online seminar sessions where students can ask questions.
The effort required to gamify a course includes analyzing patterns of successful behaviors and designing the right system or badges and rewards, as much as the technical integration, DeHaven said. "It isn't something you can just throw into a course and say it's going to work."
Although gamification is sometimes promoted as a way of appealing to young people who have grown up with computer games, DeHaven said the greatest payoff for Kaplan might be the positive effects for adults returning to school in their 30s, 40s or 50s. "Often, they're asking themselves, Can I make it in this class? Can I make it in the university? They really like the recognition and the confidence it gives them that they're being effective," he said.