Part 3: gamification

Posted: January 27, 2014 in A guide to adaptive learning
Tags: , , , , ,

An integral part of adaptive learning programs, both the simple models already described and the much more complex systems that are currently under development, is an element of gamification. The term refers to the incorporation of points, levels (analogous to the levels in a typical computer game) and badges into the learning experience. In Duolingo, for example, users have a certain number of ‘lives’ that they can afford to lose without failing an exercise. In addition, they can compare their performance with that of other users, and they can win ‘lingots’, a kind of in-game currency which allows them to ‘buy’ lost ‘lives or to compensate for a day of inactivity.

duolingo lingots

Gamification and adaptive learning go together like hand in glove because of the data that is generated by the adaptive software (see the next post: Big data, analytics and adaptive learning). The whole thing is premised on comparing the performance of different students, so score cards and leader boards and so on are hardly surprising.

The idea behind this, in case it needs pointing out, is that it can make learning fun and, so, students will be more motivated to do the work, which seems more like play. It is a much hyped idea in education: eltjam referred to the ‘snowballing sexiness’ of the term. In an ELT context, most references to gamification are very positive. See, for example, eltjam’s blog post on the subject or Graham Stanley’s conference presentation on the subject. An excellent infographic summary of and advertisement for the benefits of gamification can be found at the Knewton website.

Not everyone, however, is so positive. Gamification has been described by some writers and researchers as the ‘pointsification’ of everything – the reductionist process of regarding all actions with points and increased personal scores (see, for example, Neil Selwyn, 2013, Distrusting Educational Technology, p.101). The motivation it may generate is clearly extrinsic, and this may not be a good long-term bet. Adults (myself included) get bored of gamification elements very quickly. For both adults and younger learners, once you’ve figured out how to play the system and get extra points (and there’s always a way of finding shortcuts to do this), interest can wane quickly. And once gamification becomes a standard feature of educational experiences (and not just English language learning), its novelty value will disappear.

  1. blogefl says:

    A good summary of current thinking of gamification, Philip. I’m now wary of the subject too, but I think there is potential there and am trying to explore a little deeper than I did when I made that presentation you linked to. A good guide to gamification in education is Kapp (2012) –

    The most superficial aspects of gamification are those you mention above (the PBL trio of ‘Points, Badges and Leaderboards’, which includes levels. These aspects of games are the easiest ‘add-ons’ but their effect is just like scraping icing off a cake and spreading it on something. As you mention, this is unlikely to last long and the novelty of PBL wears thin usually after only a short-time. I’ve seen this happen in class when I’ve tried adding it – it tends to last longer with YLs, but PBL works best if it operates on multiple levels (i.e. not just one level that creates ‘winners’ and ‘losers’) and is tweaked regularly to ensure all learners are included in ‘the game’ – I have a book chapter coming out later in the year with my case study of gamifying writing for 12-13 year-olds using an IWB. It was an interesting experiment that worked to a certain extent, but required a lot of work to sustain the interest of the students.

    I also recommend reading Paul Driver’s take on gamification, as he is an informed critic of the topic and has a lot of valid things to say: and

    As for its role in adaptive learning, I can see it continuing to be an integral part of it in the future and suspect that most organisations/people who try to employ it will focus only on the superficial aspects (the PBL) – unfortunately, the result of this will be that the term ‘gamification’ will end up getting a bad reputation, which I think is a pity because there is something there which is interesting and which could be of value, but only in certain circumstances and only if employed with a lot of thought.

  2. Julie Moore says:

    And surely, you can only win points for very simple tasks with clear ‘correct’ answers, which as we all know, can only cover a tiny slice of what language learning is all about. Thus it pushes language ‘teaching’ (I use the term very loosely!) down the route of what’s easily measurable and works as a game, and ignores all the other stuff you need to really learn a language.

    Loving the blog, by the way 🙂

    • Indeed, Julie. As Neil Selwyn (whom Philip cites in his post) puts it, digital technologies ‘atomize educational processes and practices into a series of discrete tasks’ (Selwyn 2014:134). Of course, the atomization of language teaching ante-dates the advent of digital technologies by decades, if not centuries: in 1987 William Rutherford, for example, critiqued approaches to teaching that assumed language learning was simply the accumulation of discrete ‘entities’. What technology brings to the table is a virtually unlimited capacity to streamline the packaging and delivery of these entities. And I don’t think it’s stretching it to argue that ‘grammar points’ and ‘pointsification’ share common ground – at least in the eyes of those who have monopolized the means of production. Again, to quote Selwyn, ‘One of the clear outcomes of the digitizations [sic] of education […] is the reconstitution of education into forms that are reducible, quantifiable and ultimately contractible to various actors outside of the educational community’ (op. cit: 129).

  3. Jill Hadfield says:

    I hate the way these sites seem to use point scoring as the only type of game they use. Boring and repetitive. Games are potentially much richer, more varied more complex and more interesting than this.

    • philipjkerr says:

      Thanks, Gavin. This is a very interesting article, not because of its content, but as an illustration of how so much that is written about adaptive learning is blatant advertising. Knewton seem to be particularly good at getting their point of view into influential places. I’ll come on to this issue in later posts.

  4. Great series of posts so far Philip. I wanted to add that gamification tends to be a solitary affair,even if there are leaderboards and so on – it’s all about you and your own points/rank/level. This is even worse if it’s done in an amateur way. But what is increasingly popular in the world of video gaming (as opposed to gamification)? It’s the multiplayer experience. No amount of beating a machine for points and ranks is quite the same as playing with or against another human being. That’s what video game developers are finding. Which is why many of the biggest game franchises really clean up on the multiplayer element.
    Publishers looking towards gamification as the next best thing could usefully take note here. Talking and interacting with other human beings in the long run is much more motivating.

    • Jill Hadfield says:

      Yes I have also noted the rather sad solitariness of the computer game. Games for me involve interaction with other people.

    • philipjkerr says:

      Being named iPhone app of the year has certainly given Duolingo a useful boost, but this is seriously crap reporting – reminiscent of the BBC on any science / health subject. Just think what kind of marketing budgets the adaptive learning people must have!

  5. Really interesting post, and comments. I’ve been trying out Duolinguo too. I do like the gamification elements, but, as others have commented, the translations are often ridiculous. Today’s gem ‘The norm says to end the program execution in 5 minutes.’ I actually translated this ‘correctly’, but have no idea what it means. I’m intrigued by the idea that Duolinguo claims to be adaptive as I’ve seen no evidence of this in the texts it selects for me to translate. I usually end up choosing my own- did quite an interesting one about the Pope the other day that allowed me to use all my latent (lapsed) Catholic lexis!
    Unfortunately, I’d have to conclude that the quality of the learning experience is not actually important to the developers at the moment- though it may have to become so as interest wanes and people don’t actually want to sign up and pay.

  6. philipjkerr says:

    Thanks to Scott Thornbury for putting this link my way:
    Entitled ‘Do Gamified Education Apps Actually Help You Learn?’, this post by Bryan Lufkin looks, in a gentle way, at gamified apps like Duolingo and suggests that their value is greatest with lower level language learning. He also draws attention to the drop-out rate with people using these approaches. The post is also useful because it has some useful links.

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