Total Immersion: Engaging your online students through gamification.

Written by Matt Smith, Instructional Designer

This is part 1 of a 2 part series.


My three and four-year-olds absolutely hate bedtime. Beyond a doubt when that clock hits eight and it’s “go time”  the five stages of bedtime grief roll in–denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally two hours later, acceptance. Many tears are shed, promises made, frustrations shown, and cries for help called out in the night–and most of that is coming from me.

One day that all changed. It was an offhand remark, “Hey, let’s see who can get to bed first. It will be a race.”  That statement changed the bedtime game forever. Soon it became a series of challenges (brushing teeth) and obstacle courses (last minute bathroom stop) that became the “bedtime challenge”.  My children were doing all of the necessary routines with a fun twist.

How many parents reading this right now have added points to the scoreboard for doing the dishes, or gave their child a treat for cleaning their room? We’ve been gamifying tasks for quite a long time.

Somewhere along the way, we forgot how well it works.

When we add a game to a burdensome task by incentivizing positive behavior, we get our desired outcome.  This also holds true in education. By adding game elements as incentives to a repetitive or undesirable task, perspectives shift and engagement increases.

This is known as gamification–and if you’re into science, you might be persuaded by Sailer and Homner whose research led them to the conclusion that gamification had quite a positive effect on cognitive, motivational and behavioral learning outcomes. Or, if you’re a results-oriented person, you might be convinced by the fact that in 2011, a group of online gamers, in three short weeks, collectively discovered the structure of an enzyme that helps AIDs-like viruses reproduce. The problem puzzled scientists for decades–yet it was solved by playing an online game.

Gamification just works. And if you’ve ever punched out a card at your favorite restaurant or collected points from a barcode scanner at a store, you’ve participated in gamification.

Why Gamification in an Online Course?

First of all, gamification is not about packing more content into your existing online course.  Gamification introduces a system that creates an experience for your students–your content does not change.  You may, however, begin to examine your learning outcomes and along the way discover what is truly important in your course and how you are delivering that message.

If you like the idea of making your courses interactive, and engaging your students in a much deeper and meaningful way, then you might be ready to give gamification a try.

Sounds Great, But How?

Most online courses have no resemblance to a game, so how do educators gamify their class?  Probably the easiest way to do this would be to use an online program like Badgr. Badgr is a free resource that interacts with Canvas.  In fact, it is very easy to add the app to your course content.

Badgr integrates with Canvas courses and accounts to award portable digital badges to students as they complete course modules. Open Badges may be awarded for any achievement. Badges can recognize diverse achievements, going beyond the simple metrics found in degrees and transcripts to provide a rich picture of a student’s learning journey.”  (courtesy of

If you’re considering gamifying your course, this program is the “iphone” of conversions (ie; shiny badges and achievements, ease of use).  But a system like this, while user-friendly, is not the only way to gamify your course. Believe me, this article is not a product plug, so this app is just an example of a tool that already exists.

If you don’t mind putting in the work, you can begin implementing gamification ideas into your course on your own. Concepts like progress tracking, challenges, social sharing, points and leveling systems, and unlocking content all combine to make your course an experience.

The possibilities that exist for your course are endless.  Could you reimagine your course as a “choose your own adventure” which opened modules to student’s individual capabilities, or a “virtual escape room” which had students have to discover your content?  Imagine a scenario where the student starts your class and watches a video that unveils a mystery that awaits them. They then have to follow the clues through your course modules to unlock certain pathways, only able to progress when they pass quizzes which rely on them knowing the content in your course.

If you’re ready to create an immersive environment for your students, we are ready to help.  Reach out to the eLearning team and set up a time to meet with an instructional designer.

Works Cited

Sailer, M. & Homner, L. (2019). The gamification of learning: a meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review.

Endow, S., & Hallen, M. (2011). Faculty of 1000 evaluation for Crystal structure of a monomeric retroviral protease solved by protein folding game players. F1000 – Post-Publication Peer Review of the Biomedical Literature. doi: 10.3410/f.13306984.14669086

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