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Online learning has accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic and given a boost to research by Dr Timothy Hew, Associate Dean (Research Higher Degrees) who, after several years studying massive open online courses (MOOCs), is now zeroing in on how to motivate students in the virtual environment. 


“When we move everything from face-to-face learning to fully online, one of the biggest challenges we have is how to engage students. The worst thing an instructor can encounter is a screen where most students switch off their cameras – you don’t know if students are paying attention to what you are saying or doing something else, like looking at their phones or watching a movie. It makes the instructor question what they are doing,” he said.


Given that reality, he proposed using gamification to motivate students and self-regulated learning to improve student engagement. This was done by getting students to set goals and monitor and reflect on their learning. The project has received funding support from the University Grants Committee’s Special Grant for Strategic Development of Virtual Teaching and Learning.


Dr Hew’s investigations are focused on his classes. When learning went entirely online in January 2020, he and his research assistant started to monitor and measure student behaviour. The switch to online classes was done in a hurry, so there was not much time to develop special materials or approaches that would be appropriate for this new environment. It soon became clear that trying to replicate face-to-face classes with minimal adaptation could be a soul-crushing experience for both student and teacher.


“I would ask students questions but hardly anyone would volunteer to answer – they would just look at me. I ended up having to call names out like in primary school – ‘John, can you please answer’, ‘Mary, can you please answer’” – this despite the fact that up to 20 percent of the students’ grades was for online participation.


The silver lining of this experience was that it motivated Dr Hew to find solutions. When he offered the class again in January 2021, he kept the same content and participation marks, but gamified the learning. As a result, participation shot up.


Gamification involves using elements of games, such as leader boards, badges and a narrative structure, to motivate students to learn. (It is not the same as game-based learning, in which actual games are devised to convey knowledge about topics.) Dr Hew’s 2021 class was told that they could earn points for completing a certain number of pre-class assignments, such as watching a short video or interacting on a discussion forum, and these points would go towards badges. The more badges students accumulated, the more marks they could earn. In other words, students were told that they had to work for participation marks and given clear instructions on how to earn those marks.


“The badges gave them a sense of achievement and progression towards their goal. We also made use of a leader board. People like to compare themselves with others – to see who has acquired badges and how many. To my surprise, although students are adult learners, they were very engaged with earning badges. They did not want to be left behind.


“We are still analysing the data but, overall, we have found the use of gamification helped motivate students in a fully online environment,” he said.


Apart from motivation, Dr Hew was also concerned that the online environment could dampen active learning because students do not have instructors or peers in the same room to help them keep on track and reflect on their lessons. This suggested that self-regulated learning was especially important for student engagement online.


“Some students have told us, post-course, that they just come to class with no personal goals in mind. Of course, the course objectives are set by the instructor, but students should also consider such things as how much effort they want to put in, what they plan to learn, and what they want to get out of the course. If I, as the instructor, set five objectives, some students may only want to focus on the two or three that they feel are more meaningful to them,” he said.


To spark such reflection, Dr Hew and two PhD students have developed a simple chatbot that acts as an automatic recommender system. When a student enters the class on Moodle, the chatbot asks them what their goals are for the class. After the student inputs a response, the chatbot will recommend certain actions they can take.


Although the chatbot is still at a preliminary stage, it was tested on the January 2021 class. Post-course interviews with 18 students revealed that it had positive effects. “We were pleasantly surprised to see that students feel the chatbot is helpful. They find that the very fact they are being prompted to set their own goals makes them aware of these things,” he said. The chatbot is being refined for further testing on students in the 2021-22 academic year, with the target of submitting a project report in 2023.


While Dr Hew’s experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic have been the main driver of his current research, his work on MOOCs gave him a foundation for moving forward – including understanding the importance of requiring both teachers and students to turn on their cameras, the need for problem-oriented and active learning rather than having the teacher talk to the camera all the time, and the need for instructor availability such as regular online office hours.


“Instructors also need to buy into online teaching methods,” he said. Dr Hew has invited colleagues to try out his activities based on gamification. “These things are based on theory. If you want to do them well and you pay attention to the details, they should work. The response so far has been positive,” he added.


Dr Chen Gaowei

Dr Hew’s experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic have been the main driver of his research on using gamification to improve student engagement.