Using Gamification Mechanisms and Digital Games in Structured and Unstructured Learning Contexts
The transition from the pre-defined and often inflexible tools and practices of institutionalized mass-education towards dynamic and flexible learning contexts remains a challenge. Enabling rich and engaging learning experiences that consider the different progression rates and routes of each student require new approaches in education. This paper analyzes opportunities for employing gamification and digital games to construct navigable dynamic learning channels and enable pathways towards turning users into adaptive learners able to reach learning goals both in structured and unstructured contexts.
KeywordsLesson plan Location-aware Game customization Tingo
Components: the specific examples of the higher-level features, such as points, virtual goods, quests, etc.
Mechanics: the elements that drive player involvement and include elements like chance, turns or rewards.
Dynamics: elements that provide motivation through features like narrative or social interaction.
Even if gamification brings the promise of engagement, there are also challenges to be considered when applying gamification mechanisms, especially in educational settings. Most elements used in gamification rely on competition and rewards. In games where competition lies as the core of the experience, we can identify two main categories: (a) head-to-head competition, where players compete directly against one another; (b) Asynchronous competition, where a player competes against other players by comparing the outcomes of their play . These approaches cannot be applied as a universal solution. It is necessary to consider that each student has different needs and not all are motivated by competition . Therefore, other mechanics need to be identified to lead motivation and engagement. Cooperative play experiences and chance-based play provide an alternative. In cooperative play, players can work simultaneously to achieve a common goal or take turns, in order to find success, while in chance-based games use randomness and chance to enhance the variety of decisions need to make. Such implementations reflect the basic human activity matrix that ranges from solo (hobby, audience, analysis) to competitive (job, sport, criticism) and collaborative activities (community, performance, teaching) . Just like in non-digital or less technologized collaborative learning environments, where students work together on a collaborative assignment and at the same time they deepen their knowledge and their understanding , games have also the potential to increase participation in learning activities by enlarging availability of opportunities to collaborate; enhancing the accessibility of those opportunities, as well as the affordability .
Digital Educational Games build upon major learning theories . In line with the behaviorism theory, games deliver stimuli to learners, gather their responses and provide feedback . Following the constructivist approach, games involve learners in active processes, enabling them to construct new ideas or concepts based on their existing knowledge and experiences . Social constructivism is applied in games by providing diverse cultural, language, and environmental contexts in which learning can take place. Connectivism is strongly represented in virtual environments , where the ability to make decisions , as well as nurturing and maintaining connections is explored to facilitate game achievements through continual learning.
While employing gamification to stimulate learning is the latest trend , the use of games in education has gained momentum in the last decade. However, designing games with a good game-play and immerse game players in a realistic setting while also encouraging re-playability is considered a true craft. Employing games in education require the consideration of the variables that influence learning and a learning theories need to be incorporated into the game design practices . However, promising games are for the educational setting, a significant issue that needs to be addressed is the limited opportunities to tailor games for specific learning activities. Game customization remains a job for developers, even if efforts are being made to implement deeper levels of customization foe end-users [16, 17, 18].
Learning experiences span from effortless to difficult, where the gratification of accomplishment is delayed . The challenge is not to motivate; it is to support them finding a path to success. Coupled with technology advancement, at strategy level, the priorities for Education and Training 2016–2020 focuses on more open and innovative learning and teaching; sustainable and efficient investments in educational systems; relevant and high quality skills and competencies; inclusive education, equality, and non-discrimination; as well as strong support for educators.
The European Qualification Framework  also recognizes the need to support validation of non-formal and informal learning towards core skills such as literacy, numeracy, science, foreign languages; and horizontal skills such as learning to learn, social and civic responsibility, creativity, to support learners in finding personal fulfilment, and later in life find employment and engage in society. All require new approaches in pedagogical practices and experimentation in smart, scalable, inclusive learning environments.
Key to addressing these challenges is the flexibility and elasticity of the learning space, of its contents and assessment methods that enable the learning space be reshaped based on learners’ needs, performance, abilities, as well as on the learning objectives that have to be met. Digitally supported pedagogy today still relies on pre-defined (rigid) learning contents and assessment methods, and learning systems that are too assistive, leading to a distorted learning outcome. They do not adopt student-centred learning and do not present the required level of flexibility to accommodate both structured and unstructured learning.
In the context of this paper, structured learning contexts are constructs that are modeled by teachers in order to implement a certain learning plan. Unstructured learning contexts are constructed by students based on given assignments. Constructing consistent, yet dynamic learning spaces is an increasingly important issue in the context of the advancement and expansion of technologies for learning and skill development.
This paper reports work in progress on designing gamified lesson plans that are applied in structured and unstructured learning contexts. This approach creates new levels of flexibility in reaching learning objectives by employing emerging gamification mechanisms and digital educational games.
2 Constructing Structured and Unstructured Learning Contexts
The shift towards more flexible learning implies the adoption of new methodologies and practices. The emergence of gamification and gaming technologies offer opportunities to construct new approaches to learning, giving learners more freedom, strengthening collaboration skills, and stimulating their creative mind.
This section presents the transition from a traditional classroom-based approach to a gamified approach that employs technology to build specific language competencies. In the context of this paper, structured learning is learning that is continuously regulated by the teacher; while an unstructured learning context occurs when the teacher initiates the learning, but does not impose the steps to achieve the learning objectives and meet the assessment metrics.
2.1 Classroom-Based Lesson Plan
A significant part of the teaching activity relies on traditional methods, while the technology-oriented generations expect more engaging learning methods. Even if significant efforts are being made, the tradition from teacher-centers to student-centered education remains challenging. To address it, this paper follows the transition from conventional teaching methods to new approaches that integrate gamification and games as consistent stimuli for motivation and engagement.
2.2 Gamified Learning
Structured indoor learning
Unstructured outdoor learning
2.3 Blending Technology into Unstructured Learning Contexts
One of the key challenges in providing students with unstructured learning is to set up an environment where users can have access to on-demand knowledge that is relevant to their current context and desired learning outcomes.
DBpedia, a project that provides semantically classified information that can be queried using a vast number of descriptors, including geo location. Because the resources contained in the datasets are classified semantically, it provides a straightforward way to retrieve these resources based on specific topic of interest and also to locate related content using knowledge graphs.
Wikipedia, the premier online open encyclopedia offers basic API functions that can search for articles that are in a specific radius from a particular geo location (https://www.mediawiki.org/wiki/Extension:GeoData#API). The limitation of this service is that it cannot be used to filter the results based on particular topics of interest. In some context this could be beneficial because students are exposed to the entire set of information that is available, but it can also be a factor that distracts their attention from the desired learning outcome.
Wikimapia, a service that aims to describe and categorize physical locations.
2.4 Game-Enhanced Learning with Tingo
Tingo is a Digital Educational Game developed by Advanced Technology Systems, Romania (http://desig.ats.com.ro/). The game was created to support foreign language learning, while coupling specific curricular competences and game activities.
A significant issue that occurs when teachers aim to employ digital games as support tools for learning is to adapt the game to the specific learning objectives within a lesson plan. To address this issue, the Tingo game has been designed to enable a basic level of customization, allowing teachers to create simple learning contexts. The applied scenario builds upon location-aware technology.
In Tingo, individual players can set up their own bookcase. To collect books, players need to complete additional quests. Players can combine individual bookcases to form a public library.
To increase motivation, the game enable players to set up an individual vocabulary. As they progress in the game and learn new words, their individual vocabulary becomes larger and larger. The game displays a scoreboard with the following categories of players: (a) players that have the largest collection of words; (b) players that have the largest number of unique words that do not appear in other players’ vocabulary; and (c) players that have the largest number of similar words.
Curriculum-based specific competences
Unstructured outdoor learning
These scenarios can be extended to support, for example, problem based learning. By coupling learning foreign languages with other disciplines such as math, the lesson plan on the architecture of the Târgoviște City can include specific tasks that address math topics.
3 Discussion and Next Steps
Students will invariably experience different progression rates and routes, which often lead to different learning outcomes than those expected. This can be a consequence of several factors including the pre-defined and often inflexible tools and practices of institutionalized mass-education, but above all else emerge two key considerations: on one hand, learning is a choice, an act of personal agency and even if the best blend of technologies is available, without sustained motivation, learners will not truly engage in deep learning processes; on the other hand, when technologies are not available or are not easy to integrate into learning spaces, the experience might prove too frustrating even for motivated learners.
To address these challenges, it is necessary not only to turn ICTs into navigable dynamic learning channels, but also to enable pathways towards turning users into adaptive learners able to reach learning goals without a high dependency on certain technologies. Technology is a guide for learners and a mean to reach learning goals. Therefore, technology dependency should be avoided. The aim is to foster self-regulated learning by assisting learners in how to comprehend and realize when they do not know something and to stimulate discovery such that learners seek out the necessary knowledge or information. The immediate benefit of such a learning environment is that it affords ambient leaning including adaptive and personalized teaching and assessment.
This approach contrasts to recent developments and solutions where the software is too assistive letting the learner know what is ‘needed’ in every step of the learning journey rather than letting the individual conduct reflective and summative learning. Removing agency from the equation of learning (and teaching) has implications from the pedagogical perspective. It limits the quality of the learning experiences by creating automatons and the consequential reliance of learners becoming highly dependent on software.
Instead, the approach proposed in this paper follows a completely different paradigm, where learners are given the freedom of choice based on a plug&learn approach (e.g. smartphone apps; digital games). It considers the fact that the outcomes of learning experiences that occur outside of formal, structured settings are not assessed and valuable information about the learner is lost. Moreover, the solution proposed herein builds upon the fact that many students own mobile devices. This offers a significant opportunity for bring-your-own-X (device, cloud, applications, etc.) enabling individuals to find one tool that performs every function they need, removing the hassle of working with problematic tools that do not address all their needs.
The paper presents lesson plan scenarios that employ gaming technology to construct engaging learning experiences. Future work involves the testing of the prototype and of the scenarios with students from different high schools, with the purpose of extending the learning scenarios for problem-based learning and enhancing the functionalities provided by the Tingo game.
The work presented herein is partially funded under the Horizon 2020 Framework Program of the European Union, BEACONING – Grant Agreement 68676 and by Unitatea Executiva pentru Finantarea Invatamantului Superior, a Cercetarii, Dezvoltarii si Inovarii (UEFISCDI) in Romania, Contract no. 19/2014 (DESiG).
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