Missed Opportunities Online and on Computers

by | 30 April 2019 | Course Design

In moments of transition, there are also many opportunities. For me, my moment of transition has become an enormous learning opportunity, which I have utilized to dive into a wide range of new topics including human rights, sustainable cities, and environmental justice. I am not alone, as can be seen by the huge enrollment numbers in digital learning options. Online learning and digital teaching tools are potentially a great way to reach a global audience. So are the existing tech tools and teaching practices getting the job done?

My academic and experiential starting points are the geosciences and astrobiology. Everything else I’ve picked up by reading a lot of news, having a diverse set of friends, and often going to new places and talking with the people there. However, despite learning much about global affairs, politics, and historical events, there often isn’t a very good substitute for content curated by an expert to help me really piece together all the disparate information into a cohesive and comprehensive framework. This is where the promise of massively open online courses (MOOCs) lies. At low- to no-cost, you can hypothetically take a course from an expert that gives you the basics of a field you haven’t previously engaged with or that you may want to (or need to) brush up on for professional advancement. Unfortunately, as shown by the dismal completion rates of MOOCs, the format promises more than it can deliver. So what’s going on here? I have engaged with MOOCs on three occasions and have, well, failed to become engaged by any of them. Early on I tried a course to learn a new programming framework. This course was too high-level, with excessively lengthy and opaque lectures which were only vaguely connected with the practical exercises that I was supposed to complete for homework. Another attempt was an astrobiology course, mostly to check out the competition to Habitable Worlds, my online astrobiology project, which ended up being little more than videos (which I skipped) and a trivia quiz every week (which I aced with previous knowledge and strategic Googling). Most recently I dove back into MOOCs to learn about human rights and environmental justice, this time a bit more serious about completing them properly because I had a lot of time on my hands and wanted to move in this direction for various projects. Still, I disengaged after a few weeks. In every single case, the content sounded intellectually interesting, but the execution left a lot to be desired. The format was uninspired, little more than what was already done in a physical classroom: watch someone speak for a lengthy amount of time (without the benefit of being able to interrupt with questions); do a bunch of reading on my own (six 100+ page UN white papers a week? I’m in!); have a discussion with people; and finally complete a trivia quiz to see if I picked up on minutia in the pile of readings and videos. In gaming parlance, this is grinding until you level up, where you repeat a rote activity or a fetch quest for long enough that you earn enough experience points to advance. I didn’t particularly enjoy the format when I paid for it. Why would I willingly engage in it for free?

It should be no surprise that MOOCs have mostly failed in their stated objectives. They typically have a less than 10% completion rate, and mostly by people who already have advanced degrees, because they replicate a passive learning system where only interest pulls you through to the bitter end, a format that people with advanced degrees have already successfully navigated. Essentially, MOOCs are working well for people who already know how to learn and can pull the relevant information out of a pile of knowledge. MOOCs have failed in their promise to democratize education and bring it to the masses because they are built with the presumption that most people already know how to learn and that interest in the topic alone will be enough to overcome deficiencies in design. But most people don’t learn most topics through interest alone. As humans, our interests are typically limited to a few topics and learning anything else is difficult without an extrinsic motivator. We tend to learn a lot through experience instead. I can remember many situations where I was told over and over and over again how electrical systems work, but still only truly learned it when I blew all the circuits in my house. Humans learn by doing and too few educational experiences actually focus on doing, especially online. Throwing up a bunch of videos and quizzes is easy. Designing something that takes advantage of the medium, a computing device that can create whole realities, requires more work. That work, unfortunately, is also misdirected. It often takes the form of “gamification”.

Definitions of “gamification” tend to fall somewhere along the line of the process of adding game elements to something to make it more fun and engaging. The suggested gamification elements typically include points, leader boards, and badges. It’s true that these are elements of some games. And it’s also true that they can trigger feelings of competition and accomplishment that can increase engagement. I’ve spent a bit more time on games like Half-Life 2, Portal, and Mass Effect to unlock some difficult badges. But overall, those components did nothing for my overall enjoyment of any of those games. They only acted to squeeze out a few interesting anecdotes and puzzles for a short period of time before I grew bored with the difficulty and pointlessness of the tasks. Gamification in education usually has the same outcome. It doesn’t really work because people know you are trying to trick them into thinking learning a bland topic is fun. It’s not genuine. And it completely misses the point of what a game is. It’s “gamification” only in that it takes the window-dressing of some games and ignores the heart of what a game truly is.

So what is a game? It can’t be to win points. There are no points to win in games like chess or checkers. It can’t be to top a leader board or to beat an opponent. There are no opponents in games like Solitaire. It can’t be to win badges. Board games and party games don’t have badges. So what is a game and why do we play them? The best definition I ever heard for what a game truly is came from a former co-worker, Joseph Schindler, who described a game as “an interesting set of choices”. I think this is an excellent definition that captures what all games are and why gamification as it is typically implemented misses the point. Think of any game that you like to play. You have choices over what you get to do and when. But the choices are constrained by the rules of the game. They create boundaries and a limit to the choices you can make. This would be a set, like in mathematics. And your choices change over time. In turn-based games, they change when an opponent makes their choices. In real-time games, those changes are on-going. This makes games interesting. True gamification would tackle these core ideas of games. Very few gamification efforts hit the mark because they are using the set-dressing of modern computer games, rather than the heart of all games.

When developing Habitable Worlds, I applied the principles of game design, usually only semi-deliberately. I had picked up a few ideas from walking through Portal‘s developer commentary to understand how and why they had designed levels the way they did. In Portal, you shoot portals at walls, ceilings, and floors to take shortcuts through physical space, or to use the laws of physics to do the impossible, such as accelerating yourself to terminal velocity through an infinite portal loop in a tiny room. The levels were cleverly designed to introduce, reinforce, and scaffold new skills, so that you build on simple principles until you can complex problems. There are sound and visual cues to help solve the puzzles. Likewise in Habitable Worlds, skills are scaffolded. Introduced, then reinforced, then combined with previous skills to solve new and more challenging puzzles. In the final project, I provide students with a huge space where they can make interesting choices. Their goal is to find a handful of habitable worlds in a field of 500 randomized stars, with a pile of funding to help them quicken those endeavors. There are choices I see students consistently making. Do I spend the money now or later? Do I double-, triple-, and quadruple-check my results before paying for a skill check, or do I wing it and hope the money lasts? Do I search the sky in a pattern or randomly? Do I analyze the stars sequentially or focus on the analyses I’m best at? Do I work with other people or go it alone? It’s no surprise that the course consistently receives rave reviews from students and faculty. This is proper gamified learning. No gimmicky badges or leader boards, and the points are only so I know which students to fail. I have provided my students with an extremely interesting set of choices. This is gamification in education done right.

Habitable Worlds project
In the Habitable Worlds project, students search for habitable worlds in a field of 500 stars.  They have six weeks and $50,000 to complete the task.  In this panel, students use spectral lines and transit data to calculate the properties of the mystery planet.  The $50,000 can be spent on automating many of the calculations, once students demonstrate that they know how to do them.

In addition to creating an interesting set of choices for a learner to navigate, good gamification also utilizes conflict. This is not the same as competition, which is what leader boards and point systems are good at capturing. Conflict is different. Games all have conflict. In many games, including games like Starcraft, charades, and chess, it is you versus an opponent or team of opponents. In cooperative-play games like Pandemic, it is you versus the game itself. In a game like Solitaire, it’s you versus randomness. And when you replay a game, you can often be trying to best yourself. All of these conflicts are standard ones used in storytelling narratives. Person versus person. Person versus nature. Person versus self. Person versus society. Good games have many of the key components of good storytelling, conflict most centrally, but often an engaging plot and interesting characters. Habitable Worlds incorporated not only the central core of all games, allowing the students to make interesting choices, but also the central core of Western narratives, which is conflict. There are multiple sources of conflict that run through the course. A key one is “person versus nature”. The project is naturalistic and the student’s goal is to uncover the secret planets, overcoming the obstacles in the way using limited time and resources. There is a strong thread of “person versus person” in how I set up the assessments to antagonize and challenge the student. And surprisingly, there is a “person versus self” conflict that the point structure encourages, where students seek to improve on their poor performance by trying failed assessments over (and sometimes over and over and over again) to best their previous scores. Habitable Worlds is engaging precisely because it uses the core elements of game design and storytelling. Very few other online courses do.

HabWorlds AI
The antagonizing AI of the Habitable Worlds assessments.  In this unit, it was modeled on HAL 9000 from 2001:  A Space Odyssey.

It is almost 2020. Online courseware has been a thing for 20, if not 30, years. Yet we have still barely moved beyond the video-and-quiz approach to teaching. Developing Habitable Worlds was expensive and time-consuming. But the principles that guided its development are not. They are simply the principles of good game design and storytelling, which can be incorporated into any classroom. Our classrooms and especially our digital classrooms often fail to engage students because they give them no choices, only scripts to follow and recite. This is true of traditional classrooms but, disappointingly, also the “new” online classrooms which use the most impressive invention ever devised by human minds. Adding game-y set-dressing isn’t going to help that problem. As instructors, we can design sets of interesting choices for our students to explore and create compelling conflicts that challenge them to engage these interesting choices. Until this becomes a more universal approach to teaching, though, we will be stuck with far too many missed opportunities to truly revolutionize education.

Developer commentary for Portal.  Pay special attention to how skills are scaffolded and how environmental clues are provided to help the player navigate the environment.

Notes for Practice


Create an interesting set of choices.  Learners should have agency in how they approach the problem you present them and not just be on the hunt for the one and only way to complete a task.

Create constraints on choices learners can make.  Good constraints, such as limited time or resources, create interesting trade-offs that allow for a broader spectrum of choices and possibilities.

Utilize conflict (not competition) to drive engagement.  Typical narrative conflicts (person versus self or person versus nature) can be used to make students feel like they are trying to best themselves, the instructor, or the computer and help keep them engaged through difficult material.