15:07 PM

Playing Games: Gamification in the Classroom

Forget about family board game nights with Monopoly™. Gamification is being used everywhere- from loyalty programs to exercise programs, and now, it’s in the classroom.

Tyler Hopper has gotten in the habit of turning off the lights when he leaves a room.

Sometimes the second-year business and marketing student will opt to crack the spine of a book rather than fire up his computer, particularly since learning it would take three Earths to sustain his energy consumption.

It wasn’t a complicated calculation in math class that told Hopper a change of habits was necessary, however. Nor was it anything he read in a textbook that tipped him off.

It was an online sustainability course with a large gaming component that helped it hit home for Hopper that he’s doing the world a favour when he powers down. “It was ‘Oh wow, I’m definitely not as sustainable as I thought,’” he recalled about the revelation.

The course that enlightened Hopper was taught by Shaun Iles, a Mohawk sociology professor who’s winning over students — and teaching them the importance of treading lightly on Mother Earth — by incorporating gamification in his classes.

If that sounds like an excuse to play video games for credit, it’s not. Gamification is pervasive outside the classroom, from getting bonus drug store points for buying a certain hair gel to receiving a free coffee after five fill-ups at the gas station. In an academic setting, it bucks traditional “chalk and talk” teaching by using challenges and rewards to foster learning.

In Iles’ case, he sends students a congratulatory video or awards bonus grades for acing quizzes.“Once they find out there are bonus grades, they really put in the extra effort to get 100 per cent,” Iles says.

A cell phone scavenger hunt app highlights eco-friendly features on the Mohawk campus while a video game about a fictional island lets students put the theories they’ve learned into practice. Players learn instantly, and at their own pace, whether their choices about resource management are sustainable. More than that, however, the game helps students relate to course material.

“It was a tool to access whenever we wanted to beat it off the bat or to learn about modules about food or water,” Hopper says.

Stellar final marks are celebrated with a prizes such as reusable water bottles or solar-powered cell phone charges.

His is the kind of course that Iles would have enjoyed taking while growing up in Oshawa. Gamification might have kept him from dropping out of high school.

“I hated teachers telling me how I should be learning,” Iles recalls. “if I had educators that were a lot less rigid, it would have changed my fate, and I could have stood a little more engagement on my part. But at the time, I’d have rather played drums or snowboarded.”

In many ways, his own experience with teaching made him the perfect candidate for head of the class. Iles understood the importance of giving students the chance to learn and relay information in ways thatworked for them.

At Mohawk, he finally met teachers that inspired him to excel academically when he was accepted to study general arts and science at the college after growing frustrated with going nowhere. He flourished at the college, tackling university next. Iles studied at McMaster before getting his master’s degree in education from the Universityof Toronto.

He returned to Mohawk to teach in 2008 and soon after learned about gamification at a conference where world-renowned game builder Jane McGonigal was a speaker. Something clicked for Iles, who was a video game fiend growing up.

“I started seeing the educational merit in the games (my daughter) was playing but there was no way to bring that to the forefront (in an academic setting),” he recalls.

Still, he set to work on a template to bring gaming into the classroom without taking away from the course itself. The simulation of life on that fictional island was designed by Vuk Pejovic and Garrett Tyler at iDeaWORKS, Mohawk’s research and innovation department.

“When designing a game for a course, the challenge is making educational components entertaining and enjoyable,” Pejovic said. “We felt that Shaun had a really strong script to follow, which helped build the game.”

And it’s helped build Iles’ career into one of storybook proportions. That guy who once gave up on school is now an award-winning teacher, most recently winning the Online Learning Excellence Award from Pearson.

Looking back, he’s convinced he could have shown his 17-year-old self the way, too.

“He’d have probably called me a sellout,” Iles says with a laugh. “But if I could have sat down with 16 or 17-year-old Shaun, I could have convinced young Shaun this was cool.”

This article was originally published in the 2015 volume of Quanta, Mohawk College’s annual celebration of research and innovation.

Author Tiffany Mayer is a freelance writer based in Hamilton and Niagara. 

About Mohawk

Mohawk College educates and serves more than 29,500 full-time, part-time, apprenticeship and international students at three main campuses in Hamilton, Ontario and learning hubs across Hamilton through City School by Mohawk, and at the College’s Centre for Aviation Technology at the Hamilton International Airport. Mohawk is among the top five colleges for applied research in Canada. It has been named one of Canada’s greenest employers seven years in a row, holds a GOLD STARS rating from AASHE for sustainability achievements and is home to the country’s largest and first institutional building to receive dual certification for Zero Carbon Building Framework design and performance for The Joyce Centre for Partnership & Innovation. More than 135,000 people have graduated from Mohawk since it was founded.