Does the gamification of education mask the authenticity of learning?

Zoran Popović has been hailed for his innovative learning games in which, his students access learning and do scientific work through game-based incentive systems like points, awards, and leaderboards.  Popović’s most notable game is “Fold It:” a game in which players work to fold proteins in order to assist in medical research.

Popović has also worked on “Refraction, ” a game that teaches fractions and basic algebra to young learners through the investigation of light refraction.  The stated goal of the game is not to show the value of understanding fractions and algebra, but “to leverage [the game’s] popularity to acquire huge amounts of learning data and discover the best ways to teach early mathematics.”  While employing this sort of feedback loop is admirable, to mistake it for authentic learning is misleading.

The problem is: what do students really learn through playing these games?

In “Fold It” students (players) manipulate protein structures to attempt to fold them in the most medically useful ways.  Points are awarded for success and leaderboards are maintained to track progress on specific proteins and amino acid structures. Popović himself has stated that many people who study this type of chemistry in academic settings get frustrated by the game, and it is people who are not chemists who do the best work and earn the highest scores.

This claim concerns me.

Popović describes this phenomenon with pleasure and explains that this means any regular person can participate.  That I do not dispute.  Non-scientists are definitely participating in scientific research in an unprecedented way.  I do dispute, however, that any real learning is going on.

I’ve played my share of puzzle games and once you learn the basic rules it becomes a game of applying those rules in new ways.  Games in and of themselves are based on rules and rule structures, so once the rules are understood success comes from exploiting those rules to the player’s advantage.  The topic is less important than the rules structure.  “Fold It” serves as a vehicle to crowd source research and is absolutely excellent in that role.  It would be difficult to argue, however, that lay people are actually learning much about how a protein folds.

Anecdotally:  my wife with a background in applied mathematics and electrical computer engineering (she took organic chemistry as an elective) found it much more useful game-wise to continue clicking a protein innumerable times in order to make it fold for the most points as opposed to thinking through the actual chemistry of the scenario.

Creating game-based incentives for learning do not replace creating an authentic need or desire for education.  Alfred Newmann’s framework for Authentic Intellectual Work (AIW) focuses around three main criteria for creating strong learning environments: construction of knowledge (higher level thinking), disciplined inquiry (deep knowledge), and value beyond the classroom.  It is in this last piece that AIW shows its strength.  When we create tasks and lessons that have clear value outside of the classroom, student engagement increases dramatically. There is no need for gamification as we have created authentic need.  Who cares about getting the most points on a speech when you actually need to learn the skill of speechwriting for a future situation?

Recently I’ve been working with my AVID class on public speaking.  I made a clear link to public speaking as a universal life skill – how experts in most fields are called on to speak, how interviews are just a series of short speeches, and how jobs that are typically considered manual labor require public speaking skills.  For example, professional athletes frequently have to give extemporaneous speeches in front of national audiences in the form of an interview..  Most of my students were instantly able to point to examples of athletes with both strong and … not so strong public speaking skills.  They recognized the benefit of a good interview.  Since most of my students are confident that they will be famous in some way, they were motivated to participate in the lesion.

In my classroom, when a clear contextual link between the assignment and value beyond school is made, there is no need of an artificial game structure.  Authentic structure is more appropriate, and if we (teachers) do not have an authentic rationale for a lesson we probably shouldn’t be teaching it.

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