Game On: The Practical Application of Game Elements in Graduate Online Courses

Concurrent Session 7

Brief Abstract

While gamification is not new to course and e-learning design, its adoption as a pedagogical strategy at the graduate level has proved elusive. Join Northwestern University learning designers and faculty in exploring innovative strategies in making gamification better understood, rewarding and more easily applied to graduate course design.


David Noffs has spent most of his life creating and working in unusual learning environments. From designing hi-tech mobile health education classrooms in rural and urban grade schools in Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, and the United States, to virtual classrooms beginning at Columbia College Chicago in 2005 and most recently in Northwestern University's School of Professional Studies. As an Instructional Technologist and Designer at the Center for Innovation and teaching Excellence at Columbia, he oversaw the development of online interactive tools for teaching in the arts, as well as virtual learning communities across the campus. He currently teaches both online and face to face courses in the Interactive Arts and Media department at Columbia and the Northwestern School of Professional Studies. Noffs' doctoral dissertation from National Louis entitled, "Resonating Frequencies of Virtual Learning Communities: An Ethnographic Case Study of Online Faculty Development at Columbia College Chicago” demonstrates his lifelong interest in the research and application of innovative pedagogies and technologies. Dr. Noffs is a frequent presenter at conferences on adult learning and online learning. He continues to research, explore, and apply emerging technologies in diverse learning environments.
Before moving to Chicago from a small town in Texas, Jacob worked as an Instructional Designer for almost eight years at a local community college. Prior to the journey that is online learning, Jacob was a Special Education Teacher for five years, teaching high-school students with learning disabilities in the subjects of Math and English. Jacob graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Radio-Television-Film from the University of Texas at Austin, and then went on to earn a Master’s degree in Computer Education and Cognitive Systems from the University of North Texas.

Extended Abstract

Topic overview: While gamification is not new to course and e-learning design, its adoption as a pedagogical strategy at the graduate level has proved elusive. For the purposes of our presentation gamification may be defined as the incorporation of elements of video games and gameplay into a non-gaming environment. Many faculty already use one or more game elements in their courses, such as badges, certificates, rankings, or unlocking of conditional activities. However, examples of graduate level courses designed with game elements as a primary design strategy are difficult to find. In fact, according to Bradley E. Wiggins (2016), “From the literature it is apparent that little is known about the current use of games and simulations in classrooms at institutions of higher education” (p.21). 

For some learning and in specific disciplines, a less linear approach to online learning may provide more meaningful interaction and enjoyable experiences for graduate learners. Rather than negatively impacting high standards of graduate learning and academic rigor, gamified team learning may actually benefit from a more problem based learning algorithm that mimics real world scenarios rather than artificially designed linear or scaffolded approaches. But while the adoption of gamification at the grade school and secondary levels is widely accepted, faculty in tertiary education and particularly at the graduate level, seem reluctant to embrace it as a serious pedagogy.

E-learning software such as Adobe Captivate, Articulate, Camtasia, as well as popular game development software such as Unity and Unreal can generate gamified environments and even game-based lessons, however, the learning curve is steep, and time and expenses can mount quickly for instructional designers and technologists. Furthermore, faculty may be reluctant in a university environment to employ software outside the FERPA secured boundaries of their learning management system (LMS). Researchers Reem Malas and Thair Hamtini (2016) define a gamified e-learning platform as, “An integrated combination of game design elements and mechanics within a system that consists of web-based tools that provide full support for creating content, distributing it, enabling organization, communication, and assessment in an educational context” (p.11).

In addition to general confusion over how and where to apply gamified e-learning, co-presenter and Northwestern Learning Designer Jacob Guerra-Martinez (2016) found that many faculty are simply unaware of the differences between game-based learning and gamification.  

At Northwestern, the Canvas LMS may provide all the necessary tools to gamify online courses through built-in features like quizzes, assignments, badges, custom learning outcomes, and third party Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI’s).

The purpose of the project is to develop a simple referencing model for faculty to help them design course and lesson algorithms that can be practically implemented with easy to use Canvas tools. The algorithm will define the learning objectives, desired outcomes and possible outcomes. The referencing model will provide recommendations for which Canvas tools are best suited to the elements (e.g. instructions, resources, challenges, help) in the gamified environment.

Discussion: (5 Mins)

After a quick introduction, we will ask participants to briefly describe their own experiences with gamification and game-based courses design. We want to find out specifically who our audience is. Are they teachers, researchers, instructional designers, and what is their level of experience in gamification or game-based learning? 

Demonstration: (20 mins)

We will present a brief overview of our current research and practice at Northwestern School of Professional Studies. 

Specifically, we will demonstrate the following concepts and strategies: 

  • The difference between gamification and game-based learning
  • What a gamification algorithm is and how it might look 
  • Gamification models, such as Malas and Hamtini’s gamified e-learning design (GED) model
  • Gamification course templates designed by Guerra-Martinez, that faculty can use
  • Faculty workshop strategies to help them understand and explore gamification in their own courses.

We will then break up into Jigsaw teams (number TBD) to examine examples of how the various strategies demonstrated may be applied to a specific context or case. Teams will be asked to develop their own cases to be used. Here we are also demonstrating a learner-centered approach in the innovation lab, where the learners can design a task based upon their own unique areas of interest. For example, how might the gamification course template be applied to a graduate course in Instructional Design?

Expert teams consisting of participant instructional designers, faculty, marketing, and administration, for example, will meet separately during this process to discuss their specific strategies, then combine back wth their Jigsaw teams to inform them of how their area of expertise can reinforce the strategy. 

Innovation: (20 mins) 

During this session, participants will process, discuss, and apply one or more of the strategies presented earlier. In addition, participants will be encouraged to adapt and modify strategies to generate hybrid and complex solutions to their own case or context. Finally, participants will present the findings from their Jigsaw teams. Specifically, each group will present how the various strategies could be applied to their own cases or contexts. 

Near the end of the session, we as facilitators, will ask the participants to provide their main takeaway in a sentence or two as a way of wrapping up the session.

At the completion of the Innovation Lab, participants will be able to:

  • Explain the difference between gamification and game-based learning
  • Describe what a gamification algorithm is and how it might look 
  • Apply gamification models, such as Malas and Hamtini’s gamified e-learning design (GED) model 
  • Create gamification course templates similar to Guerra-Martinez’, that faculty can use
  • Develop faculty workshop strategies to help them understand and explore gamification in their own courses.


Guerra-Martinez, Jacob. (2016). Are Gamification and Game-Based Learning the Same Thing. Retrieved from

Malas, Reem I., & Hamtini, Thair M. (2016). A Gamified e-Learning Design Model to Promote and Improve Learning. International Review on Computers and Software, 11(1), pp.8-19. Retrieved from

Wiggins, Bradley E. (2016). An overview and study on the use of games, simulations, and gamification in higher education. International Journal of Game-Based Learning, 6(1), pp.18-29. Retrieved from