Gamification attracts learners to Massive Open Online Courses

By Dr Alvin Leung, Dr Ron Kwok and Professor Wei Thoo Yue

The article is based on the paper “Could Gamification Designs Enhance Online Learning through Personalization? Lessons from a Field Experiment� by Dr Alvin Leung, Dr Ron Kwok and Professor Wei Thoo Yue at the Department of Information Systems, and their co-author Professor Radhika Santhanam from the University of Oklahoma.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) provide the general public with the convenience of acquiring new skills and knowledge on the internet. Different from traditional classroom teaching, students enjoy the freedom to learn at their own time, place, and pace with little or even no instructor intervention. They also have the flexibility to choose courses offered by different educational institutions via MOOC platforms (e.g., Coursera, edX, and Udacity), mostly free of charge. Class Central estimates that there were 220 million active MOOC learners in 2021 with over 950 universities offering around 19,400 courses and issuing 1,670 micro-credentials 1. Some universities even partner with MOOC providers. Arizona State University allows learners to transfer the credits they earned in edX MOOCs for the first year of study in undergraduate programmes 2. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the growth of MOOCs even further. Due to travel restrictions and the inflexibility of face-to-face teaching and learning, MOOCs have significantly transformed students' style of online learning.

MOOC dropout rate alarmingly high

Despite so many advantages, do students really benefit from the flexible learning environment of such courses? Many technologymediated learning (TML) studies show that the lack of instructor monitoring and peer interactions make students less motivated to keep at their learning 3-5. The dropout rate for MOOCs is alarmingly high, ranging from 91% to 93% 6. The main reason for these high rates is a lack of self-regulated learning (SRL). According to Zimmerman (2000), SRL is a cyclical loop that regulates students' learning behaviour 7. There are three phases of learning, namely, forethought (learners set their learning goals and plans), performance and volitional control (learners pay attention to their learning tasks and self-observe their learning progress to optimise their efforts), and self-reflection (learners reflect on and evaluate their learning progress against their goals) 4, 7.

Self-regulated learning enhanced

Given that SRL is a key to success in MOOCs, how do we nurture it? Gamification, which advocates the use of game elements (e.g., virtual points, leaderboards, progress bars) in routine activities (e.g., learning and office works), is a possible solution. However, there are many failure cases of gamification in different scenarios including TML 8, 9. It is generally believed that the one-size-fits-all design of gamification does not fit everyone. In the context of MOOCs, learners have their own learning goals; According to goal-orientation theory 10, 11, the orientations can be classified into roughly three types, namely, mastery (i.e., developing competency by mastering challenging situations), performance-approach (i.e., seeking positive judgments by demonstrating one's superior performance), and performance-avoidance (i.e., avoiding negative judgements by evading one's inferior performance). Can we develop meaningful game design elements that can match learners' goal orientations, which in turn, help sustain learners' SRL?

Gamification improves learning experience

In our recent study, we demonstrate the importance of personalised gamification 12. We classify gamification into two dimensions, namely, message goal framing (i.e., framing a message either positively or negatively to learning goals) and type of comparison (i.e., personal or social comparison of one's learning accomplishments against the goals). With the use of trace analytics, we objectively determine learners' actual learning behaviours, including SRL. Implementing a field experiment, we find that positive social gamification matches well for learners with high performance-approach goal orientation, whereas positive personal gamification is the best fit for learners with high performance-avoidance goal orientation to motivate them to engage in SRL. Furthermore, we find that learners with high mastery goal orientations are self-driven and do not require any gamification to help them sustain their SRL. On the contrary, some gamification designs may crowd out the intrinsic motivations of these learners. In particular, positive personal gamification significantly reduces learners' SRL. Furthermore, we show that SRL is the key to successful learning outcomes, which are measured by knowledge test performance and practical test skills.

Our research has significant implications in the design of personalised gamification to motivate unenthusiastic learners to learn in an environment without instructors. It also highlights an important message — a good match between gamification design and learner goal orientations is essential for fostering meaningful engagement and achieving effective learning outcomes in a MOOC environment. With appropriate use of gamification, it is possible to reduce the significant drop out rate from MOOCs and improve learners' overall learning experience.


Dr Alvin Leung
Associate Professor
Department of Information Systems
Dr Ron Kwok
Associate Professor
Department of Information Systems
Professor Wei Thoo Yue
Department of Information Systems