OU researcher makes online learning a game

Spring 2020

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Radhika Santhanam is researching the benefits of bringing reward elements from video gaming into online learning.

Radhika Santhanam is researching the benefits of bringing reward elements from video gaming into online learning.

Within a week of COVID-19 isolation starting nationwide, social media was flooded with memes reflecting the humor and struggle of parents suddenly faced with teaching their elementary school-aged children at home.

According to University of Oklahoma Price College of Business Professor Radhika Santhanam, parents should let “gamification” lend a hand.

Santhanam is an expert in enhancing human-technology interactions. Her work as OU’s Michael F. Price Chair in Management Information Systems, made possible through an endowment established by Price at the OU Foundation, features research on ways to make e-learning easier.

Part of her research involves studying video games to collect data. “We want to see, ‘What is it that motivates people to be engaged in video games for long hours?’ ” she said. “We apply those principles to learning.

“Online learning is very convenient, but research shows that the engagement level is low relative to face-to-face learning. Gamification is a fun, playful way of engaging people in a task, particularly those that seem a bit repetitive or monotonous,” Santhanam said.

“It uses some of the same principles and elements that you see in video games: interactivity, sensory stimulation, role-playing and feedback.

Gamification creates a reward or incentive to engage the learner if they do a task successfully.”

Santhanam said her research shows that creating curiosity, challenges and such goals as acquiring badges or a position on the leaderboard can engage students in learning.

“One of my previous research projects replicated the TV game show, ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ ” she explained. “The questions and all of the context were about technology learning. If you did well, you went on to the next level. If you didn’t answer the question correctly, you left the game.

“When we compared test results to students who did not have a gamification intervention, we saw that the first group was much more engaged and learning outcomes were higher,” she said, adding that the same results occurred when she and colleagues gamified a Massive Online Open Course at a Hong Kong university.

Currently, Santhanam and a Minnesota colleague are working with private industry to investigate gamification in team-based work. In addition, they are developing gamification apps that encourage exercise and health education among company employees.

She also is interested to see the outcomes of current COVID-19 gamification efforts worldwide, including a Snapchat social mapping app called Zenly that rewards participants for sheltering at home by creating a “stay-at-home leaderboard,” and a South African e-learning platform educating citizens about the virus.

“Obviously people could read the newspaper or surf the Internet, but when you learn from gamification, the benefits are that you not only learn in a fun way – you often don’t even feel that you are learning – but you remember what you learn for a long time. You aren’t cramming for an exam; you learn in a very implicit way.”

Santhanam said parents carrying the weight of teaching at home for the first time might consider exploring smart phone apps that appeal to students while teaching concepts like the alphabet, reading and math.

“Sometimes, it’s hard to even get kids out of the games. They are intellectually engaged and learning,” she said. “The interactivity engages them because they are thinking about the reward and recognition feedback.”

Parents who aren’t keen about encouraging more screen time can still employ gamification, Santhanam said. “Make it an educational exercise: ‘You have to solve this math problem’ or ‘You have to finish this sentence,’ and then leave the clues around the house and make kids go find them,” she said. “Think of it as a scavenger hunt.”