Gamification in Higher Education: Enrollment and Retention

(Originally posted on the Scannell & Kurz Enrollment Management Blog)

The word “gamification” has been thrown around a lot lately in the world of higher education. Originally used in the marketing sector, gamification’s popularity stems from its ability to sell a product or brand more effectively by using metagames (short, playful experiences) to interact with customers on a more engaging level.

Educators have already begun using gamification principles in the classroom, encouraging student academic success. For example, the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts has implemented gamification principles in the form of an immersive card game called “Reality Ends Here.” The school’s goals were to increase the amount of media its students created, increase student collaboration outside the classroom, and challenge students to be more creative.

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The way the game works is that students pick up a packet of cards that includes a “maker card,” telling them what they must produce (such as a 30 second short), “property cards,” that challenge their creativity by mandating elements to be included in the production, and “player cards,” bearing the names of students in the program who must be sought out and collaborated with on the project. Students earn points based on how many cards they use, and the subsequent complexity of their project. When the assignment is finished, the cards are returned to the office and their project is uploaded to the website. Last year’s winner accumulated an astounding 33,794 points. The prizes for the game have included things like class recognition and exclusive meetings with top industry professionals and famous Hollywood producers.

Given the success of the USC example, I wondered how gamification could be applied to enrollment management challenges like summer melt and student retention. First, consider some of the preventable reasons why students slip away over the summer: cost, social anxiety, and informational barriers. When students are accepted, they could be enrolled in an online game that makes it clear what steps need to be completed (and in which order) to successfully matriculate at the institution. The game could guide them through, step by step, and give them rewards (digital or tangible) for completing challenges like connecting with other accepted students on Facebook, setting up a financial aid counseling appointment, and completing an online orientation session that answers common questions about enrolling at the college.

I believe applying the idea behind the USC card game to student retention would have a similarly successful outcome. Think about the activities that highly engaged students participate in: they have joined an organization (or several), they regularly meet with faculty members, they make and keep appointments with their academic counselors, and they collaborate with other students outside the classroom.

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Students could be encouraged to participate in these activities merely by “gamifying” them. Every student at orientation would be guided to download an application that assigns them different challenges throughout the year, depending on the activities that would contribute to their success at that time. In the first few weeks, challenges could include joining a student organization, uploading a photo of yourself and your roommates in your freshly unpacked dorm room, checking in at various spots around campus, tracking down and administrator or faculty member and asking them a question, securing a favorite study spot, etc. Accountability would be built right into the mobile application, and students would be ranked on a leaderboard based on how many challenges they had completed. At the end of the challenge period, dining credits or some other nominal prize could be awarded based on the points each student had earned.

What are some ways you think gamification can be applied to higher education?


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