Reflecting on Gamification, and MOOCs in general

Image shared under a creative commons license by S B F Ryan
Image shared under a creative commons license by S B F Ryan

Last week, I successfully completed a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in Gamification – ‘the use of game elements and game design techniques in non-game contexts’ (Werbach and Hunter 2012, p.26). The course was hosted by Coursera and instructed by Kevin Werbach, Associate Professor of Legal Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and leading figure in Gamification.

Initially this post was intended as a reflection on what I learnt during the course, and how it might be applied to our DigiLit project. But over the last few weeks my interest in MOOCs, and the current discussions surrounding them, has grown significantly and the subject appears to have gate crashed this post.

So there will be a reflection on Gamification, just not this week.

Taking part in the Coursera MOOC has been particularly interesting for me – with a research focus on educational technology and having studied instructional design – I didn’t just take the course to learn about Gamification, but also to experience a MOOC, and see how it differed (or not) from more traditional teaching methods.

About MOOCs

A Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) is an online course which aims to use technology in order to reach a larger audience, and also to make access to the course open for all. It is a way for just about anyone to engage in learning with a University, regardless of location, educational background or budget. MOOCs don’t always result in accreditation, and the ones that do vary in how it is delivered, but they do offer a useful taster of this level of education.

There are currently four main platforms that deliver these courses, although many independent courses are also available:

Udacity – originated from free computer science classes at Stanford University.

Coursera – also originating from Stanford, Coursera now offers courses from Stanford, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania and University of Michigan.

edX – founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University

Futurelearn – The UK’s own MOOC platform will open its courses in September of this year (2013) and has already partnered with 17 HE institutions, as well as the British Museum, British Library and British Council.

Interest in MOOCs has risen substantially in the last few years, with 2012 dubbed ‘The Year of The MOOC’ (Lepi 2013). But why MOOCs, why now? There are a number of theories, the most prolific being the financial allure of free university-level education. In the U.S. last year, student loan debt hit $1 trillion and here in the UK University fees increased nearly three-fold. This has resulted in young people having to think carefully about whether or not University is the right choice for them – and MOOCs offer an opportunity to trial HE, without the hefty price tag. Also, since MOOCs are free and open to all, many adult learners are joining MOOCs to learn about topics of interest and skills relevant to their careers.

There are, however, two sides to the MOOC coin:

High drop-out rate Popular
Often confusing for learners Inspirational
Better suited for experienced learners Platform for open research
Successful for many learners

(Weller 2013)

The biggest criticism of MOOCs focuses on the percentage of learners who actually complete – which according to Katy Jordan, a researcher at the Open University, is on average less than 10% of the learners who sign up (Jordan 2013). Very little demographic data is currently collected about the people who engage with MOOCs (although I was sent two such surveys by Coursera during my course, so this is obviously beginning to be addressed) which makes it difficult to interpret the reasons behind this significant fall in engagement.

But Michelle Rhee-Weise questions if completion rates really matter (Quillen 2013). Perhaps more would be learnt if we understood why people enrolled in the first place. Some reasons suggested are:

  • Other educators picking up ideas/checking out the competition
  • Learners who are only interested in particular skills within a course
  • Simply because its free – so there’s nothing to loose if you don’t complete

I have to admit that I fall within the latter category – along with genuine interest in what doing a MOOC is like, I enrolled on the Gamification course because I could, and because there was no penalty if I was unable to complete all of the assignments.

My Experience

The first thing I learnt about engaging with a MOOC is that it can be difficult to juggle with a full-time job. The course information claims that it requires between 4-8 hours a week – which doesn’t sound like much – but if you work full-time and have other commitments during the week you’ll be surprised how hard it is to find 4-8 hours spare. After only a few weeks I found myself struggling just to make sure I submitted something on time and this often meant that the quality of my work was not my usual standard – which, being a bit of perfectionist, I found quite hard.

I also failed to engage at all in any of the forum discussions – the video lectures, written assignments, peer assessment and multiple choice question tests were enough to keep me busy. But this left me feeling guilty, as if I wasn’t working as hard as the people who were engaging in discussions. It also made the experience a fairly lonely one. This is certainly something I would like to improve on in any future MOOCs I engage with.

I am currently attempting to engage with Mozilla’s new Webmaker MOOC – #teachtheweb – which admittedly I’m already behind on but I’m determined to get more involved. I like the sound of this MOOC because it involves more interaction – between the community and also with online tools. I’ve already hacked a BBC Food Chef page and turned it into my profile, something I’ve never done before and thoroughly enjoyed.

There are some critics of MOOCs who point out that they have not brought anything innovative to the education experience – and I have to say that video lectures and multiple choice quizzes are prime examples of this. Don’t get me wrong, I thought the Gamification course was great and I have learnt a lot, but it didn’t really push the boundaries in its delivery. Whereas #teachtheweb appears to be taking advantage of the tools available online and offering a more innovative learning experience.

However, as far as structure is concerned – Gamification is far clearer about what is required of you each week. It is quite likely that this is due to the course being in it’s second iteration, so lessons have already been learnt. Also, there is such a large online community for #teachtheweb that it can be somewhat overwhelming. What to look at next, what to read, who to talk to – it’s a learning curve and I’m still travelling it at the moment.

My favourite aspect of Gamification was the peer assessment. Interestingly, I dreaded it at first – I don’t feel qualified to tell someone else if their work is correct when I’m only learning the subject too. But once I got started, I often found that I volunteered to mark extra – it was fascinating to see what other people had written and really helped me to reflect on my own work and areas where I could improve.

Final Thoughts

I don’t think for a minute that MOOCs will overturn the University. For one thing, University is so much more than just an educational experience – its a life experience – for many its the first time living away from home and its where many of us mature and become self-sufficient adults. Also, you could never replace practical subjects, such as performing arts or design and technology, with online courses.

But I do think that MOOCs could augment traditional University courses – offering taster courses to prospective students and worldwide courses for any learner, regardless of location. I also believe that MOOCs could, potentially, be a way for Universities to engage with learners in developing countries – offering education to those who otherwise may not be in a position to engage with it.

What is clear is that MOOCs are a hot topic and something which I think many of us will be watching over the next few years – to see how they develop.


Jordan, K. (2013) MOOC Completion Rates: The Data [online] Available from:

Lepi, K. (2013) The Past, Present and Future of MOOCs [online] Available from:

Quillen, I. (2013) Why Do Students Enroll in (But Don’t Complete) MOOC Courses? [online] Available from:

Weller, M. (2013) 5 Reasons to do a MOOC, and 5 reasons not to [online] Available from:

Werbach, K. & Hunter, D. (2012) For The Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business, Wharton Digital Press, Philadelphia.


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