Do we need to rethink gamification in EdTech?

Gamification has long been used in education, and none more so than in EdTech. Motivating learners to achieve more, and better, through games, quizzes and challenges can be engaging and often brings out a competitive spirit that many children and young people naturally possess. And, of course, by its very nature, EdTech lends itself perfectly to this sort of approach.

Gamification also teaches useful life skills such as perseverance and, where children work with others on a challenge, collaboration, cooperation and teamwork.

The term "gamification" was first used in 2002 and has become part of mainstream tech terminology in the intervening years. Put simply, it is the use of game elements in a non-gaming context to drive user engagement, loyalty and motivation. The thinking behind this approach is that everyone can enjoy games if given the right reason to do so.

It was the desire to drive pupil engagement in reading that drove the team at Browzly to introduce a summer reading challenge for young readers in July 2017. Now a successful annual event, the main objective of the challenge is to connect students with their friends throughout the summer holidays to help them experience the enjoyment of reading.

Bett 2020 awards finalist and Kids Judge Bett 2020 award winner Browzly, which is available as a mobile app for parents and teachers to register their students on and can also be accessed through the Browzly website, encourages children aged six years+ to read for pleasure, connecting them with other members of their school community to share books and reviews.

The app makes reading recommendations for every child with books that present intermediate level challenges, and facilitate discovery of appropriate titles by suggesting a personalised list of books according to their age. At the same time, it generates information for teachers relating to the pupil’s reading patterns, their progress and achievement and offers quizzes and activities to establish comprehension and facilitate personalised reading intervention in class.

When the challenge was first launched in 2017, the app's community feature was yet not live, so a leaderboard was used instead. Leaderboards are one of the most commonly used gamification techniques to drive engagement, encouraging participants to "stay in play" by creating the desira goal to rise up the board's rankings.

In Browzly's case, the aim of the leaderboard was to make the reading activities of each reader more “visible” across different schools. Children and parents could go on the Browzly website to see how many and which books were read by the participants, and who was leading the table. The prize was free private swimming lessons in a prestigious swim academy for the four readers who read the most books during their summer vacation.

“Since children are encouraged by modelling from their peers and love a little competition, we decided to use a leaderboard to motivate readers by showing that there were other children who were also reading during the summer holidays and help them discover the titles that were popular,” Bhavna Mishra, the founder of Browzly explains.

Young readers were encouraged to read and to record their reading by adding the titles of the books they’d read to their Browzly account, by simply scanning the books ISBN code on the app.

However, after a few days, Browzly received a few e-mails from parents who were concerned that their children were anxious about reading fast enough to stay at the top.

“We realised that parents and a few older kids were checking the leader board several times a day, and this was putting pressure on some of the older, more competitive children to read faster. They said that since younger children read shorter books, this put them in a position of advantage”.

Even though engagement with the challenge was high, it was felt that the leaderboard was inadvertently undermining the primary objective of the challenge, which was to encourage children to read for pleasure. So, Browzly decided to remove the leaderboard and took away some learnings which led to the following changes when the challenge was repeated in 2018:

  1. The challenge was split by age to ensure that children were “competing” with those of a similar age to prevent discrepancies in book length and complexity.

  2. Qualitative awards such as "Writer of best text review" and "Creator of best video review" were introduced in addition to the reader of the highest number of books award.

  3. Pupils still recorded what they read, but their access to other readers was restricted to their own school community.

“In the absence of age categories, the leaderboard didn’t quite work for all the children and caused anxiety for some, but we learned a fair amount from this exercise,” Bhavna adds. “It helped us to understand the workings of a leaderboard , and what the benefits and pitfalls are. More importantly, it helped us make our subsequent annual reading challenge rounds better for students across ages and levels. Summer holidays are an exciting time at Browzly.”

“We were also delighted to see how cleverly children “gamed” the leaderboard and used their ingenuity to find shorter books so they could keep up with the challenge. Roger Hargreaves’s Mr Men series was a huge hit to catch up on number of titles read in 2017. We love clever ideas, so this was a very delightful piece of insight.”

While gamification undoubtedly has a place in the learning process, Browzly’s experience suggests that developers need to think about how best to include it in their products, what are the pitfalls: Is this going to work for all stakeholders? Does it engage and motivate – or does it have the potential to disincentivise some?

It’s an interesting discussion. Let us know how you have used gamification – and what the outcome was.

For more information about the Browzly reading program visit https://browzly.com

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