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gamification

Higher ‘Professional’ Ed, Lifelong Learning to Stay Employed, Quantified Self, and Libraries

***  This post was originally published in ACRL TechConnect on March 23, 2014. ***

The 2014 Horizon Report is mostly a report on emerging technologies. Many academic librarians carefully read its Higher Ed edition issued every year to learn about the upcoming technology trends. But this year’s Horizon Report Higher Ed edition was interesting to me more in terms of how the current state of higher education is being reflected on the report than in terms of the technologies on the near-term (one-to-five year) horizon of adoption. Let’s take a look.

A. Higher Ed or Higher Professional Ed?

To me, the most useful section of this year’s Horizon Report was ‘Wicked Challenges.’ The significant backdrop behind the first challenge “Expanding Access” is the fact that the knowledge economy is making higher education more and more closely and directly serve the needs of the labor market. The report says, “a postsecondary education is becoming less of an option and more of an economic imperative. Universities that were once bastions for the elite need to re-examine their trajectories in light of these issues of access, and the concept of a credit-based degree is currently in question.” (p.30)

Many of today’s students enter colleges and universities with a clear goal, i.e. obtaining a competitive edge and a better earning potential in the labor market. The result that is already familiar to many of us is the grade and the degree inflation and the emergence of higher ed institutions that pursue profit over even education itself. When the acquisition of skills takes precedence to the intellectual inquiry for its own sake, higher education comes to resemble higher professional education or intensive vocational training. As the economy almost forces people to take up the practice of lifelong learning to simply stay employed, the friction between the traditional goal of higher education – intellectual pursuit for its own sake – and the changing expectation of higher education — creative, adaptable, and flexible workforce – will only become more prominent.

Naturally, this socioeconomic background behind the expansion of postsecondary education raises the question of where its value lies. This is the second wicked challenge listed in the report, i.e. “Keeping Education Relevant.” The report says, “As online learning and free educational content become more pervasive, institutional stakeholders must address the question of what universities can provide that other approaches cannot, and rethink the value of higher education from a student’s perspective.” (p.32)

B. Lifelong Learning to Stay Employed

Today’s economy and labor market strongly prefer employees who can be hired, retooled, or let go at the same pace with the changes in technology as technology becomes one of the greatest driving force of economy. Workers are expected to enter the job market with more complex skills than in the past, to be able to adjust themselves quickly as important skills at workplaces change, and increasingly to take the role of a creator/producer/entrepreneur in their thinking and work practices. Credit-based degree programs fall short in this regard. It is no surprise that the report selected “Agile Approaches to Change” and “Shift from Students as Consumers to Students as Creators” as two of the long-range and the mid-range key trends in the report.

A strong focus on creativity, productivity, entrepreneurship, and lifelong learning, however, puts a heavier burden on both sides of education, i.e. instructors and students (full-time, part-time, and professional). While positive in emphasizing students’ active learning, the Flipped Classroom model selected as one of the key trends in the Horizon report often means additional work for instructors. In this model, instructors not only have to prepare the study materials for students to go over before the class, such as lecture videos, but also need to plan active learning activities for students during the class time. The Flipped Classroom model also assumes that students should be able to invest enough time outside the classroom to study.

The unfortunate side effect or consequence of this is that those who cannot afford to do so – for example, those who have to work on multiple jobs or have many family obligations, etc. – will suffer and fall behind. Today’s students and workers are now being asked to demonstrate their competencies with what they can produce beyond simply presenting the credit hours that they spent in the classroom. Probably as a result of this, a clear demarcation between work, learning, and personal life seems to be disappearing. “The E-Learning Predictions for 2014 Report” from EdTech Europe predicts that ‘Learning Record Stores’, which track, record, and quantify an individual’s experiences and progress in both formal and informal learning, will be emerging in step with the need for continuous learning required for today’s job market. EdTech Europe also points out that learning is now being embedded in daily tasks and that we will see a significant increase in the availability and use of casual and informal learning apps both in education but also in the workplace.

C. Quantified Self and Learning Analytics

Among the six emerging technologies in the 2014 Horizon Report Higher Education edition, ‘Quantified Self’ is by far the most interesting new trend. (Other technologies should be pretty familiar to those who have been following the Horizon Report every year, except maybe the 4D printing mentioned in the 3D printing section. If you are looking for the emerging technologies that are on a farther horizon of adoption, check out this article from the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies, which lists technologies such as screenless display and brain-computer interfaces.)

According to the report, “Quantified Self describes the phenomenon of consumers being able to closely track data that is relevant to their daily activities through the use of technology.” (ACRL TechConnect has covered personal data monitoring and action analytics previously.) Quantified self is enabled by the wearable technology devices, such as Fitbit or Google Glass, and the Mobile Web. Wearable technology devices automatically collect personal data. Fitbit, for example, keeps track of one’s own sleep patterns, steps taken, and calories burned. And the Mobile Web is the platform that can store and present such personal data directly transferred from those devices. Through these devices and the resulting personal data, we get to observe our own behavior in a much more extensive and detailed manner than ever before. Instead of deciding on which part of our life to keep record of, we can now let these devices collect about almost all types of data about ourselves and then see which data would be of any use for us and whether any pattern emerges that we can perhaps utilize for the purpose of self-improvement.

Quantified Self is a notable trend not because it involves an unprecedented technology but because it gives us a glimpse of what our daily lives will be like in the near future, in which many of the emerging technologies that we are just getting used to right now – the mobile, big data, wearable technology – will come together in full bloom. Learning Analytics,’ which the Horizon Report calls “the educational application of ‘big data’” (p.38) and can be thought of as the application of Quantified Self in education, has been making a significant progress already in higher education. By collecting and analyzing the data about student behavior in online courses, learning analytics aims at improving student engagement, providing more personalized learning experience, detecting learning issues, and determining the behavior variables that are the significant indicators of student performance.

While privacy is a natural concern for Quantified Self, it is to be noted that we ourselves often willingly participate in personal data monitoring through the gamified self-tracking apps that can be offensive in other contexts. In her article, “Gamifying the Quantified Self,” Jennifer Whitson writes:

Gamified self-tracking and participatory surveillance applications are seen and embraced as play because they are entered into freely, injecting the spirit of play into otherwise monotonous activities. These gamified self-improvement apps evoke a specific agency—that of an active subject choosing to expose and disclose their otherwise secret selves, selves that can only be made penetrable via the datastreams and algorithms which pin down and make this otherwise unreachable interiority amenable to being operated on and consciously manipulated by the user and shared with others. The fact that these tools are consumer monitoring devices run by corporations that create neoliberal, responsibilized subjectivities become less salient to the user because of this freedom to quit the game at any time. These gamified applications are playthings that can be abandoned at whim, especially if they fail to pleasure, entertain and amuse. In contrast, the case of gamified workplaces exemplifies an entirely different problematic. (p.173; emphasis my own and not by the author)

If libraries and higher education institutions becomes active in monitoring and collecting students’ learning behavior, the success of an endeavor of that kind will depend on how well it creates and provides the sense of play to students for their willing participation. It will be also important for such kind of learning analytics project to offer an opt-out at any time and to keep the private data confidential and anonymous as much as possible.

D. Back to Libraries

The changed format of this year’s Horizon Report with the ‘Key Trends’ and the ‘Significant Challenges’ has shown the forces in play behind the emerging technologies to look out for in higher education much more clearly. A big take-away from this report, I believe, is that in spite of the doubt about the unique value of higher education, the demand will be increasing due to the students’ need to obtain a competitive advantage in entering or re-entering the workforce. And that higher ed institutions will endeavor to create appropriate means and tools to satisfy students’ need of acquiring and demonstrating skills and experience in a way that is appealing to future employers beyond credit-hour based degrees, such as competency-based assessments and a badge system, is another one.

Considering that the pace of change at higher education tends to be slow, this can be an opportunity for academic libraries. Both instructors and students are under constant pressure to innovate and experiment in their teaching and learning processes. Instructors designing the Flipped Classroom model may require a studio where they can record and produce their lecture videos. Students may need to compile portfolios to demonstrate their knowledge and skills for job interviews. Returning adult students may need to acquire the habitual lifelong learning practices with the help from librarians. Local employers and students may mutually benefit from a place where certain co-projects can be tried. As a neutral player on the campus with tech-savvy librarians and knowledgeable staff, libraries can create a place where the most palpable student needs that are yet to be satisfied by individual academic departments or student services are directly addressed. Maker labs, gamified learning or self-tracking modules, and a competency dashboard are all such examples. From the emerging technology trends in higher ed, we see that the learning activities in higher education and academic libraries will be more and more closely tied to the economic imperative of constant innovation.

Academic libraries may even go further and take up the role of leading the changes in higher education. In his blog post for Inside Higher Ed, Joshua Kim suggests exactly this and also nicely sums up the challenges that today’s higher education faces:

  • How do we increase postsecondary productivity while guarding against commodification?
  • How do we increase quality while increasing access?
  • How do we leverage technologies without sacrificing the human element essential for authentic learning?

How will academic libraries be able to lead the changes necessary for higher education to successfully meet these challenges? It is a question that will stay with academic libraries for many years to come.

Why Gamify and What to Avoid in Library Gamification

*** This blog post has been originally published in ACRL TechConnect 0n August 7, 2012. ***

In my last post, “Applying Game Dynamics to Library Services,” I presented several ideas for applying game dynamics to library services. After the post, I have received a comment like this, which I thought worthwhile to further explore.

  • What about the risk of gamification – the fact that it can deprive people of internal motivation for serious activities by offering superficial external rewards?

We tend to associate the library with learning, research, scholarship, and something serious. By contrast, games make us think of fun. For this reason, it is natural to worry about a library or any library-related activities such as reading, studying, researching becoming frivolous and trivial by gamification. In an effort to address this concern, I will point out that (a) gamification is a society-wide trend (and as such, highly likely to become not so frivolous after all), (b) what to avoid in gamifying libraries, and (c) what the limit of gamification is in this post. The key to successful gamification is to harness its impressive power while being fully aware of its limit so that you won’t overestimate what you can achieve with it.

Why gamify?

SCVNGR plans to create a game platform as Facebook built a social platform.

Gamification is not just a hot topic in libraries or higher education. It is a much bigger society-wide trend. In a similar way in which Facebook has evolved from a single website to practically ‘the’ social platform and layer of the real world with over 900 million active users as of May 2012, now a game layer is slowly being built on top of the real world. Just as the social layer effectively fused social elements into the world, the game layer brings gaming elements into reality. A game layer that we can compare to Facebook has not yet emerged. Nor is clear how far gamification will penetrate our daily activities. But we can imagine what a semi-universal social platform is going to be like from location-based smartphone apps such as Foursquare and Gowalla. Instead of building a virtual world for a game, these apps gamify the real world. Our mundane everyday activities in the non-game context turn into gaming opportunities for rewards like badges, points, rankings, and statuses.

But why apply game design elements to the non-game context in the first place? The short answer is that people are more motivated, engaged, and often achieve more in games than in the real world. Why are people better at a game than in real life? It is because games offer an environment intentionally designed to provide people with optimal experience by means of various gaming mechanisms and dynamics. Games make people perform better in the way the real world does not. It was in this context that a game designer and game studies researcher, Jane McGonigal, stated that reality is broken.”1 Gamification aims at extracting those game mechanisms and apply them to reality in order to make the real world experience more interesting and engaging.

Gabe Zichermann’s definition of gamificaion as“the process of game-thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems” expresses the goal of gamification well.2 In this definition lies a good answer to the question of why libraries need to pay attention to games and game dynamics. Game dynamics can raise library users’ level of engagement with library resources, programs, and services. They can help library users to solve problems more effectively and quickly by making the process fun. A good example of such gamification is the NCSU Mobile Scanvenger Hunt, which was described in the previous post here in ACRL TechConnect blog.

What to avoid in library gamification

Since games can induce strong motivation and spur a high level of productivity, it is easy to overestimate the power of game dynamics. Perhaps, everything we do will turn into a game one day and we will be the slaves of omnipresent games that demands ever more motivation and productivity than we can summon! However, not all games are fun or worth playing. Designing good game experiences is nothing but easy.

The first thing to avoid in gamification is poor gamification. Gamification can easily backfire if it is poorly designed. Creating a library game or gamifying certain aspects of a library doesn’t guarantee that it will be successful with its target group. Games that are too challenging or too boring are both poorly designed games. Naturally, it is much more difficult to design and create a good game than a bad one. The quality of the game – i.e. how fun it is – can make or break your library’s gamification project.

Second, one can over-gamify and make everything into a game. This is quite unlikely to happen at a library. But it is still important to remember that people have a limited amount of attention. The more information we have to process and digest, the scarcer our attention becomes. If a library offers many different games or a variety of gamified experiences all at once, users may become overwhelmed and tired. For this reason, in pioneering the application of game dynamics to libraries, the best approach might be to start small and simple.

Third, a game that is organization-centered rather than user-centered can be worse than no game at all. A game with organization-centered design uses external rewards to increase the organization’s bottom line in the short term.3 Games designed this way attempt to control behavior with rewards. Once users feel the game is playing them rather than they are playing the game, however, they are likely to have a negative feeling towards the game and the organization. While a library doesn’t have the goal of maximizing profits like a business, which can easily drive a business to lean towards organization-centered gamification, it is entirely possible for a library to design a game that is too heavily focused on the educational aspect of the game, for example. Such gamification is likely to result in lukewarm responses from library patrons if what they are looking for is fun more than anything else. This doesn’t mean that gamification cannot make a significant contribution to learning. It means that successful gamification should bring out learning as a natural by-product of pleasant and fun experiences, not as a forced outcome.

Harnessing the power of game dynamics

Games are played for fun, and the fun comes from their being ‘not’ real life where one’s action comes with inconvenient real-world consequences. For this reason, when a goal other than fun is imposed on it, the game begins to lose its magical effect on motivation and productivity.  It is true that games can achieve amazing things. For example, the game FoldIt revealed the structure of a specific protein that long eluded biochemists.4 But people played this game not because the result would be revolutionary in science but because it was simply fun to play.

It is probably unrealistic to think that every task and project can be turned into a fun game. However, games can be used to make not-so-fun work into something less painful and even enjoyable to some degree, particularly when we lack motivation. In his book, Game Frame, Aaron Dignan cites the story of tennis player Andre Agassi.5 Agassi played a mental game of imagining the tennis ball machine as a black dragon spitting balls in an attempt to smite him. He did not hit 2,500 balls a day purely because it was fun. But by making the grueling practice into a game in his mind and tying the game with his own real-life goal of becoming a successful tennis player, he was able to endure the training and make the progress he needed.

In applying game dynamics to library services and programs, we can take either of two approaches:

  1. The ultimate goal can be simply having fun in some library-related context. There is nothing wrong with this, and at minimum, it will make the library a more friendly and interesting place to patrons.
  2. Or, we can utilize game dynamics to transform a more serious task or project (such as learning how to cite literature for a research paper) into something less painful and even enjoyable.

 

Gamification with little investment

Budge, a gamification website

Gamification is still a new trend. A pioneering gamification app, Gowalla lost to Foursquare in competition and was acquired by Facebook last December, and it is yet to be seen how Facebook will put Gowalla to use. Another gamification tool, Budge is closing down at the end of this month. For this reason, those who are interested in trying a gamification project at a library but may wonder if the result will be worth investment.

In this early stage of gamification, it will be useful to remember that gamification doesn’t necessarily require complicated technology or huge investment. You can run a successful game in your library instruction class with a pencil and paper. How about rewarding your library patrons who write to your library’s Facebook page and get most “likes” by other patrons? Or perhaps, a library can surprise and delight the first library patron who checks in your library’s Foursquare or Yelp page by offering a free coffee coupon at the library coffeeshop or simply awarding the Early-Bird badge? In gamification, imagination and creativity can go a long way.

What are your gamification ideas that can engage library patrons and enliven their library experience without huge investment? Share them with us here!

Notes
  1. Jane McGonigal. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.  (New York: Penguin Press, 2011), 3.
  2. Gabe Zichermann and Christopher Cunningham. Gamification by Design: Implementing Game Mechanics in Web and Mobile Apps. (Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2011), xiv.
  3.  The distinction between games with organization-centered design vs. those with user-centered is from Scott Nicholson, “A User-Centered Theoretical Framework for Meaningful Gamification,” (pre-print) http://scottnicholson.com/pubs/meaningfulframework.pdf.
  4. Elizabeth Armstrong Moore, “Foldit Game Leads to AIDS Research Breakthrough.” CNET, Sep. 19, 2011, http://news.cnet.com/8301-27083_3-20108365-247/foldit-game-leads-to-aids-research-breakthrough/.
  5. Aaron Dignan, Game Frame: Using Games as a Strategy for Success, (New York: Free Press, 2011), 80.