Skillshare, Codecademy and the gamification of education

Codecademy badges

I'll stop with the "-ifications" when I'm good & damn well ready

Two Skillshare classes taken, 500 Codecademy exercises completed, and about 200 hours under my belt trying to drag my startup toward anything that could reasonably be termed “traction”… my brain hurts. In a good way.

The non-traditional learning opportunities that have emerged over the last year are almost unbelievable in breadth and scope. But the content isn’t new. Little is being taught today through these new platforms that you couldn’t get for free at the library (or worst-case by paying a course fee to your local community college).

So why the hell are they so freaking amazing? Why can this average-to-difficult student not get enough of this here ol’ larnin?

The best thing about these education platforms isn’t cost (although Codecademy is free and Skillshare courses often barely tick above single digits). It’s the concreteness of achievement.

In middle school, for every book that we read, we received a paper trophy that we could color in and pin to the wall. Then after 5th grade graduation, that stopped. Why?

I’m serious. Why?

It was a brilliant play to human nature. In general terms, we like getting things for doing things. We’re not good at receiving abstractions as consideration for a job well done. I’m not reading Wuthering Heights until I get a POG slammer with Heathcliff’s face on it, as portrayed by Ralph Fiennes. [Note: update this reference to something less painfully nineties].

“Badges” are a teensy step in the right direction, but clearly are only motivating to the weak-willed (guilty!) and easily impressed (ditto!). Soon, someone is going to discover a way to apply the crack-like effect of well-designed games like World of Warcraft to the educational realm. I want to learn algebra about as much as I want to spend eighteen hours killing and skinning virtual warthogs. Why is it so easy to get people (not just kids) to do the latter?

Education is just the beginning. Companies like EmployInsight are tackling the problem of employee engagement with psychological assessment platforms, so that people are matched up with the most appropriate positions. But what if you took on the problem from the other direction? What if you could increase engagement by gamifying work?

(Stephen Hawking called. He says that I just broke the universe.)

Is that so crazy? Dan Pink argues (convincingly) that job satisfaction is driven mainly by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. A well-designed game dynamic strokes all three. Maybe in ten years, we’ll have Level 62 Accountants running around, completing audit quests and hustling to get above 85 skill points in Tax.

Do games make us stupid? Sort of. They jack directly into the “dumb” part of our brain that rewards us, bypassing the “smart” part of our brain that makes us do things we don’t want to do. The end result? Underachievers can be motivated to learn and accomplish things beyond their conscious capacity.

And that will be awesome to watch.


7 thoughts on “Skillshare, Codecademy and the gamification of education

  1. Gamification is just the excuse for the poor work ethics and the lack of discipline of the spoiled generations that were brought up with the same lack of self-accountability that learning is supposed to be fun or it is the teacher’s fault.

    Don’t believe me?

    Just ask any of the Foxconn worker how gamified Apple has made their jobs? Or rather do the spoiled consumers even care that the Foxconn workers enjoy their jobs or not?

    Do the Foxconn workers really have the luxury to ponder the “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” for their job satisfaction, or are they just happy to have a paycheck when many others do not?

    Of course, the spoiled generations may never understand this trade-off because they are worried about playing games than working towards the real business accountability.

    • That’s a huge stretch trying to make a connection between gamification and foxconn. I really think you just wanted to talk about foxconn. You can talk smack about my generation all you want, but chances are most of us are logical enough not to make up spurious correlations between unrelated subject matter. Especially those of us using codeacademy to try to better ourselves. Anyways have fun being a wackadoo.

  2. It seems that over the past two decades, and still continuing on is a decrease in the amount of time people need to wait to receive feedback. At this point in time, you might call it “instant gratificiation”. In a world with ipods, ipads, iphones, twitter, facebook, tv on your phone, and kindle (to name a few), Everything provides instant information that is interactive and responsive. Hell, even responding to this article is a perfect example of what that means. Back in the day, which could have been a Wednesday, if you wanted to comment on a news article, you had to write a letter to the editor and send it via post. Want to develop film, you had to go to the store and wait a week. Want to read a book? drive to the library or book store, play a game? Go find some friends or family, pick out a board game and play it over the next 5 hours. Now I am only 26 but I remember doing each of these things (except commenting on a news article), they were not that long ago. Consider children today, many of whom have access to some sort of idevice, the internet, a computer, a tv, and or a gaming system. When they are home, they are (probably, though obviously not all) plugged in to something. When they go to school, they are expected to sit in a bland room, writing notes, while listening to their teacher talk… How captivating?… I imagine it is similar to families being given a color tv for the first time, shown how incredible it is to watch moving pictures and then later on told they can only sit and stare at the radio.

    Want proof?

    Ask a Teach for America teacher who has spent a couple of years trying their damndest to convince kids in low income communities that trying harder in school can help them. Then ask them what the donations of the original ipads did to their kids’ productivity rates. The answer might surprise you.I can tell you that in one particular instance, productivity in a class of students jumped 30 percent.


    They were engaged. The information was not some lecture anymore but a system of interactive devices that played out before their eyes, ears, and fingers. Learning was fun and when something is fun, you want to do it more. Now obviously, not all learning needs to be through game, such an environment would be ridiculous and very Ray Bradbudy. However, if games can spark interest where there was only indifference and prove to those without a great mentor how amazing math, science, and history can be. or hell, just give me a method lof earning how to code that isn’t quite so daunting as a textbook. Then why not?

    Game on

  3. Why it stops? Because people grow up. Most people aren’t motivated by badges. If you actually read the studies you refer to you’d see that in fact the smartest will even do worse in face of extrinsic reward systems.

    It all depends on what you want to do of course. It’s important to realize that the Internet so large that you can enjoy massive success just by catering to those who loves, be it even virtual, rewards. I wouldn’t be surprised if you found many entrepreneurial types in this group so there’s probably VC money in it too.

    Smart people however find their motivations elsewhere, so if you really want to improve things that matter, these motivational shortcuts doesn’t work. Just imagine trying to work these systems at a university. You’d be laughed out of the room, and probably for good reason.

  4. The problem with this form of gamification (badges and points) is that they skew the incentives. For example, Microsoft’s programming environment Visual Studio has badges, some of which are for things you don’t ever want programmers to do. By giving badges, you encourage this bad behaviour. Any intelligent learner will also realise after a while that badges are a cheap psychological trick. The real reward should come from understanding.

    I am not totally against gamification, but I think gamification is often done wrongly (i.e., Zynga-style). The examples McGonical gives in her TED-talk are more powerful: they create a story. This, I believe, is a far more powerful technique to engage learners. This is how good history teachers engage their students, and I believe maths and other sciences could be motivated in a similar manner. In maths, coding, physics, etc. you can learn based on interesting real-world problems that create far more powerful motivation than any system based on badges. I’m not sure this still counts as gamification since it’s really a well-known method of teaching, but it’s definitely true that we can learn from techniques that game designers use.

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