The Hub Game on: Learning through playing in higher education
The Future of Learning

Game on: Learning through playing in higher education

The theme of Athabasca University’s (AU) 50th anniversary is Beyond 50. We want to look forward to the next 50 years and imagine what the future of learning might hold. How will higher education institutions like AU adapt to new technologies and new modes of teaching? How do we create programs that will suit the needs of our learners in the next 10 or 20 years?

This is part one of the four-part Future of Learning series, which explores the current trends that are shaping education for tomorrow, featuring the next generation work that AU’s professors are doing today. You can also read part two, part three, and part four.

Picture a future, not far from now, where instead of writing a term paper, you design a video game. In lieu of grades, you earn “experience points” that unlock new levels of learning. And rather than orientation being about you getting to know the university, you play a mobile game that lets the university get to know you—everything from your unique learning style to your metacognitive skills. 

Sound unlikely? At some schools—including Athabasca University (AU)—this type of transformation is already happening.  

“In theory, any of us could be a university of one and just go to the internet to find all kinds of learning experiences. But there’s a difference between experiences and a true curriculum, which is how learning is stitched together in a meaningful sequence that ends with demonstrating competency and ability,” says Dr. Matthew Prineas, Provost and Vice President Academic at AU.  

Educational games can achieve this by design, with a framework that ensures students learn at their own pace, in a guided way, are continually assessed, and acquire holistic knowledge of a subject. 

At Play in the Cosmos, for example, is a videogame spanning the entire scope of Astronomy 101, from physics to cosmology. The game has post-secondary students use their astronomy knowledge to complete space missions, collect resources, and tackle scientific challenges, with the professor tracking their behaviourand time spentat key decision points to assess their understanding.  

“The beauty of something like (educational games) is that you’re getting feedback as you’re going,” says Prineas. “That’s our goal: to bring learning and assessment closer together.” 

Ideally, when gameful pedagogy is applied, it’s not just about passing an exam or acquiring a list of credentials; it’s about showing true mastery of a subject. As Prineas puts it, learning ceases to be a “black box”—where learning is presumed but unseen—and becomes something that can be quantified with embedded meta-data at every level of progression.   

Gamification vs Game-Based Learning

Gamification is the integration of game elements into non-game contexts: think leaderboards, point systems, badges, and progress bars to motivate participation and achievement. In a Western Oklahoma State College technology course, for instance, students can earn a “Drop it Like it’s Hot” badge for trying Dropbox, or “Moodle Noob No More” badge for getting started on the platform.   

Game-based learning, on the other hand, refers to learning that occurs within an educational game or game-like simulation. Students in AU’s Faculty of Business, for example, get to participate in a virtual internship that uses VR to let them “live out” what they’ve learned.  

“Both methods have high potential, and both are currently underrepresented in higher education,” says Dr. Sabine Graf, Professor in the School of Computing and Information Systems at AU.  

Generally, the easiest to implement of the two is gamification—an incentive system that goes back to the days of earning gold stars in kindergarten. Research shows it helps give post-secondary students ownership of their learning; provides manageable blocks of tasks and subtasks; makes learning visible (no more “black box”), and can motivate persistence when they might otherwise give up (a progress bar showing 80% complete could be the push a student needs to endure).  

But gamification can have mixed results if it’s not meaningful to the learner, which is why personalization is key. And Graf recently submitted a Moodle plug-in that does exactly that. 

Students choose between five gamification techniques that can increase their motivation at different stages, and in different situations, during a course. Graf will analyze the use of those motivational techniques by students, along with the impact on student performance, to create an adaptive system that provides learners with the right motivational technique at the right time based on the students’ individual characteristics and progress. 

As for game-based learning, Graf says the approach holds great promise as an educational tool but notes that it can be expensive and time-consuming to execute. She spent two years leading the design of the new educational game OMEGA, which builds students’ critical metacognitive skills (problem-solving, reasoning, planning, etc.) through play.   

“The biggest advantage is that a lot of people like games; some people even get addicted to games. So, if we can get people to learn while playing, there’s real power in that,” says Graf. “But for educational games to work, they have to be done well.” 

Dr. Maiga Chang, an AU professor who worked with Graf on OMEGA, says the three most important considerations for game-based learning are: the technical difficulty to execute and support it; the learner’s personal preference; and the nature of the course or subject matter. If these three elements align, the next step is to ensure buy-in from the professor or instructor.  

“Just like a salesman, if you don’t believe in your own product, you can’t sell it,” says Chang.  

Learning by Playing

Kurt Squire, who helped design At Play in the Cosmos, describes educational games asguided, scaffolded activities” that go beyond traditional classroom learning, or even a laboratory experience.  

“In post-secondary, we’re always looking for ways to make learning more constructivist and less about repeating back things that you’ve heard,” says Squire, a professor at the University of California Irvine. “We’re looking for things that create meaningful debate and interpretation.” 

Part of that equation could mean more authoring, with students designing their own games to demonstrate understanding. Squire predicts that “in the same way you’d write a term paper today, you might, in the future, work as a group to create a VR scene that embodies your knowledge.” 

To be clear, gamification and game-based learning aren’t a catch-all solution; they’re simply puzzle pieces in the bigger picture of deepening engagement. They can also be a powerful way of reaching students left behind by more conventional methods. 

AU’s Chang offers himself as an example. He recalls struggling in high school because he hated reading and memorizing—the twin pillars of his early education. So, when Chang began his master’s degree, he created a game to engage people like himself: those who learn best through play.  

“After my PhD, I told myself I’d never take another exam or read another book that I didn’t want to,” says Chang. “But I love games. And if there’s a game that can help me continually sharpen my skillset, it will support lifelong learning.”