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Want to learn how to avoid the perils of human resources work?

Liliana Meneses has a game for that―or more accurately, she has “gamified” part of her curriculum.

Meneses is program chair for UMUC’s Human Resource Management & Marketing, Business and Professional Programs. She was one of dozens of experts from several Maryland universities who presented their ideas on how to create games to improve learning at the “New Designs for Learning: Games and Gamification” symposium sponsored by UMUC’s Center for Innovation in Learning and Student Success and the University System of Maryland’s William E. Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation on Sept. 29.

In her game, Meneses said, a student assumes the role of a fictional company’s vice president for human resources (HR), and must complete several scenarios commonly experienced by HR-management staff―everything from global HR to labor relations, training and development and performance management.  And based on the decisions the student makes, the value of the company’s stock will rise or fall.

“The idea is to impress on HR students that the decisions they make impact the bottom line of the organization,” Meneses said.  “[Students] can [internalize] that through scenarios where they can make mistakes and get feedback on why the stock went up or down.”

The game is designed for an online class; a student can complete it and get feedback without the input of a professor. Its effectiveness is not yet clear, though.

“The students have found it to be what they call fun,” Meneses said.  “But it’s still too early to determine its impact on learning. Now that we have developed it, we can put together a study to see what they are learning.”

A generation of students―those born since 1980―has grown up playing video games in which they earn rewards or suffer consequences while trying to achieve specific goals.  Educators long have recognized the potential for incorporating game techniques and approaches into learning activities to make them more engaging, to convey information and to enhance retention and skill development.

There’s a difference between producing video games and gamification of curriculum, some of the participants said.  Aside from the expense, producing video games requires complex talents.  But curriculum can be “gamified” for relatively little money while still providing a similar experience.

Examples of gamification in teaching and learning include:

  • Using badges or other rewards to record achievements
  • Encouraging progression through tasks by offering progress markers
  • Including competitive elements and rankings

Janice Horoschak, an instructional designer in UMUC’s Learning, Design & Solutions department, said games not only need to be fun but also relevant to students’ needs so they learn something new that applies to their job or interest. Additionally, the game must be understood by diverse people with different learning styles.  And if it provides friendly competition and is social, so much the better, she added.

UMUC game designers Jose Olivieri, Christina Shinn and Liz Cunningham described a game aimed at an upper-level criminal justice course. In it, the student―a rookie detective trying to solve a robbery case―stumbles across evidence that ties the robbery to a 27-year-old cold-case murder.

“The goal is to fill in the gaps and solve both crimes,” Olivieri said. “The foundation of the game is the story. If we did our job right as game designers, we have made the game experience as real and as complex as possible for the student.”

The possibility of failure must be incorporated into the game, Shinn said because that’s where learning happens.

Designer Trish Biere said that everything designed into a game must have an educational purpose, and the glitzy bells and whistles of video games must not impede that goal.

To optimize for the typical UMUC student, who is often a working adult trying to fit an education into his or her overbooked day, these games must be available and playable on all platforms, including cell phones, said designer Candice Binuyo.

“If you want to incorporate gamification into a course, making it accessible to mobile devices will be key to its success,” she said.

But instructional designer David Dunn warned that the gamification of education is not a panacea and can easily miss its mark.

“At best, the results are inconclusive,” he said.  “We want it to [work].  It’s fun for us as teachers and designers.  We get to be creative and playful. But what we may get is this,” and he flashed on a picture of broccoli covered with chocolate sauce.

“When the task is more complicated and requires creative thinking, simple rewards just don’t work,” he said. “Improved performance and personal satisfaction stem from feelings of autonomy, mastery and purpose.”

Still, some games have outlived the course for which they were designed exactly because students do find them to be fun, said designer David Clark. By example he cited a game that helped students in one course understand the concept of binary numbers by having them convert decimal numbers into their equivalent binary values―0, 1, 2, 3 equals 0, 1, 10, 11.

“The students became so engaged that they wanted to keep playing it after the course was over,” Clark said. “The whole idea is to have fun and mastery. Someone will stick with that for years.”