Serious play: boosting engagement in online courses through games

Dario De Notaris explains how gaming techniques should be taken seriously as a way to keep students engaged in online courses, based on his research into improving Mooc completion rates

Dario De Notaris's avatar
University of Naples Federico II
18 May 2021
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Learn how applying game techniques to online learning improves engagement

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Instructors teaching online are always looking for new ways to improve learner participation. Massive open online courses (Moocs) offer an easy way for people to study and improve their skills as part of a lifelong learning process. In the past year, the number of learners on dedicated Mooc platforms has grown to 180 million enrolled in more than 16,000 courses. However, many of these learners never complete their courses because they struggle to dedicate the necessary time and attention. This high dropout rate in online courses remains unresolved.

What can we do to improve engagement?

Instructors need to design their courses based on the needs and characteristics of the students. It is vital to allow learners to apply what they are learning. Usually in online courses we can find texts, videos, links, quizzes and collaborative activities such as forums and project work. These are good but they are not enough. People love to play games. They spend a big part of their childhood playing and then, as adults, they play sport, video games or download games on their phone.

It’s time to take games seriously

Where game structures are applied in an educational context, we call them “serious games”. These are games whose primary goal is to educate and not to entertain. Serious games could be designed as part of a more complex learning strategy, rather than simply as a stand-alone training approach.

Early-stage research on the integration of serious games into Moocs suggests that putting learners in a rule-based system, where they can experience cultural roles and emotions, helps them improve cognitive, emotional and social skills. Serious games allow users to enhance their problem-solving abilities.

However, gamification, when applied to educational or serious games, is not a universal panacea. Sometimes gamification works, sometimes not, and it is essential that the full course pathway is carefully designed while paying attention to which part could be connected to a game and how.

Alright, copy that. So, how can we ‘play’ a course?

1. Design your course as a game: each lesson is a stage, and graded assessments are their bosses. Create obstacles and prizes and define activities to give learners an authentic context. Tools such as H5P help you to realise easy interactive paths, as in a game. Augmented reality will support this as it grows and becomes more accessible, but for now you can recreate many situations using the camera on your smartphone and learners can do the same.

Here’s an example: think about a course dedicated to Dante’s The Divine Comedy. In a lesson, the instructor explains the steps that Dante does in a particular canto – or segment of poetry. After reading the text and watching the teacher’s talking head video, the learner can interact with a simple animated video, choosing how Dante could proceed or interact with the other characters in the story. In this way, learners play the role of Dante and learn The Divine Comedy by acting in it. In a more complex scenario, learners could also choose to play as Virgil.

2. Challenge and collaborate: organise your class into groups and give them activities to complete together and points-based prizes to stimulate rivalry and increase connection and participation. One easy example might be that a group of learners has to assemble a mechanism using several parts they must first find on a table. It is essential to define the assembling order to make the machine work. The group that finishes first gains the most points, with various rewards for other groups.

3. Socialise the results: at the end of activities, ask learners to discuss their gaming decisions to compare the different approaches. This will aid peer-to-peer learning and reflection. You can use forum activities or live video sessions on Skype, Google Meet or Zoom. In a more complex scenario, you could also organise live challenges to allow learners to compete and co-learn during the activity.

Some handy tips

  • Use interactive videos: put a question at the end of a video and ask students to choose how the story will end. You can use tools such as H5P or PlayPosit. Taking the machine assembling example, you can easily reproduce a working table where the user can find and select the part to mount.

  • Make a TV drama: use your phone and record role play scenarios. Ask the learners to do the same to answer the question, using tools such as Animaker or Powtoon. In the example about Dante, you could ask your students to act out simple scenarios playing as Dante, Virgil or other characters from The Divine Comedy. 

  • Trivia: engage students with enhanced quizzes, using Kahoot! , Sporcle or simply Google Forms. During a live video class, it is easy to organise a competition in which learners race one another to get the answers.

Now is time to embrace being a kid again and start playing…seriously.

Dario De Notaris is a learning experience designer, Federica Web Learning at the University of Naples Federico II.

This advice is based upon the research paper “How to play a MOOC: Practices and simulation” in which the authors present the interactive solutions set up at the University of Naples Frederico II and the University of Padua to improve participation and engagement in their Moocs.


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