University of Oklahoma’s clean, visual LMS

Screen shot of UO’s learning management system

I was checking out a massive online course from University of Oklahoma, and I was pleasantly surprised by the platform they’re using. (Looks like it’s called JANUX, possibly a homegrown product.)

What I like about this:

  • It’s decidedly visual. Great care was taken to create a visual classroom space. It’s not just text. Every document and discussion has an image or video.
  • The content modules along the side are subtly connected to the calendar. (The date shows up next to each module when you hover over it.)
  • It’s fast.

It’s basically just the standard format everyone’s using right now, but it hits all my priorities. It looks appealing and places the media and materials into time and space in an intuitive way.

E-books vs. tree-books

For some, the old ways are still the best ways?

Interesting (though not new or groundbreakingNew York Times article a few days ago about the endurance of paper books:

What makes all this activity particularly striking is what is not happening. Some features may be getting a second life online, but efforts to reimagine the core experience of the book have stumbled. Dozens of publishing start-ups tried harnessing social reading apps or multimedia, but few caught on.

The article hits that lingering question: Why do people seem to prefer e-books to be just digital copies of tree-books when they could be so much more? Where is our “reimagining” and why isn’t it taking hold? Is there something we don’t get about why and how people read? Is it just comfort or nostalgia standing in the way?

An observation from the article:

“A lot of these solutions were born out of a programmer’s ability to do something rather than the reader’s enthusiasm for things they need,” said Peter Meyers, author of “Breaking the Page,” a forthcoming look at the digital transformation of books. “We pursued distractions and called them enhancements.”

I know we’re doing this all the time. When I was part of a workgroup hoping to improve e-books at my last institution, I was championing annotation features, search, links, and all sorts of other things. But when I myself actually read e-books with those features, I never use them.

On a related note, today the NYT introduced a new web app called Today’s Paper, which de-web-ifies the experience of reading the paper on their site, instead giving you the sections and order of the physical paper paper.

Guesses and questions about gamification

We had a good session at the ELT Unconference this week about games and gamification in online courses. We spent some time talking about the differences between games and gamification, which seems to break down like this:

  • Game: Competitive or cooperative scenario with rules, chance, and the possibility of strategy
  • Gamification: Something that isn’t a game but that has game elements (narrative, concrete goals, rewards) added to it
  • Simulation: A (sometimes) game-like environment meant to provide opportunity for practicing a real-life scenario

To gamify a college course, then, we were picturing an overlay of new game mechanics to the student’s path through the materials, activities, and assessments of a course.  Perhaps a progress tracker that awards points or abilities, or a new terminology for things like tests and quizzes–“challenges” or “quests” perhaps?

Novelty aside, is there a potential improvement in student learning? Is student motivation increased, leading to increased engagement, leading to improved performance on course assessments? (Or are there other dimensions involved that I’m not thinking of?) When you replace or mask the course’s traditional extrinsic motivators, who benefits?

Here’s my small class of students: one who really cares about the subject, a bunch who mostly care about their grades, and one who doesn’t really care at all. Greatly simplified, obviously, but probably not overly deceptive.

Intrinsically motivated  Extrinsically motivated Not motivated
“I want to learn this!” From “I have to get an A” to
“I just have to pass this”
“Why am I here?”

So what happens when you add game elements?

Here are my guesses:

  • Intrinsically motivated student: Either a slight increase or decrease in engagement or motivation. They may be amused by the game elements or may be slightly turned off (based on their feelings about video games, perhaps?). There may be a net positive effect from their perception that the instructor is being thoughtful about teaching.
  • Extrinsically motivated student who wants an A: Little change in motivation; slight decrease in satisfaction with the course. I’d guess a student who insists on getting an A in the class will probably not become more motivated when game elements either replace or supplement traditional grade motivators. And if she is more motivated, what’s the benefit if she now has additional non-intrinsic motivation? I’m going to guess that she may well find the game elements to be an obstacle, or an obfuscation of her path, to a good grade.
  • Extrinsically motivated student who just wants to pass: I’m not completely sure. Are extrinsic motivators always cumulative, or will they conflict? And what’s the benefit if he cares about getting to Level 100 but leaves the class not caring about the subject matter, and never transferring what he learned out of the classroom? (Assuming that if the student found out during the semester that he loved biology, he would’ve done so through the activities themselves and not the motivators–either grades or points.)
  • Unmotivated student: Possibility of more (any) motivation to progress through the material and activities. This seems like a potential net positive: a greater chance that the student may complete the course activities, and a possibility that engaged exposure to the material may create unexpected intrinsic motivation.

Any other thoughts? Am I far too off base by making these clear distinctions? Does a real-life student with mixtures of motivators benefit differently?