No drop outs – how smart phones encourage homework

Dr Grainne Oates (front, centre) a senior lecturer in accountancy at Swinburne University, has developed an app that turns learning into a game. With students Batur Changez, Paul Divitcos and Nicchia Gray. Photo: Eddie Jim
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When nagging fails, turn to technology. Dr Grainne Oates noticed that her accountancy students were unmotivated away from the lecture hall. ”When I looked at their results and how they were performing, I found they were doing very little outside the classroom.” She also noticed they were always attached to their mobile phones.

She decided to use the idea of gamification – the strategy of turning a task into a game – and designed the HEd (Higher Education) app as a tool to change student behaviour.

In the first semester of this year, a trial group of Swinburne University accountancy students received, via the app – every day, seven days a week – a multiple choice question related to material taught in lectures. They had 30 seconds to answer the question. When students got the answers wrong twice, ”they were told they need to go back and revise this material, you’re not on top of it.” And apparently they did.

A leader board was established, points given, and virtual badges awarded for correct answers – in the same way that a Fitbit awards badges for walking target distances.

Some students, says Dr Oates, were motivated by the competition; others asked for user names such as Superman and President Obama, so they could be part of the competition but remain anonymous.

At the end of the semester, engagement was up 74 per cent.  ”During the mid-semester break, I stopped sending the questions. I was flooded with texts. ‘What’s wring with the app?’ They wanted to keep going. I wasn’t expecting that.”

Now there are 14 disciplines at Swinburne – including engineering, chemistry, HR management and water studies – using the app as a study motivator, with reportedly good success.

Bachelor of Business student Nicchia Gray, 28, isn’t a ”super-competitive person” but she was motivated to study more when she saw herself moving up the leader board.  ”There were 300 people using the app [in the second accountancy semester]. When I saw myself improving, it made me do more work so I could do better and move up further.”

The daily questions worked to ”keep me thinking about the unit … and it helped me realise that sometimes I didn’t understand an aspect of the lecture.”

Callum Mc Veigh, 20, is doing a double engineering and business degree, an increasingly popular combination. Because he has significantly less contact hours in the business degree, the app served to keep accountancy top of mind, at least once a day. He wasn’t motivated initially by competition, as much as the desire to be involved. ”For the first two weeks, I didn’t use the app, I’d forgotten the email login. Once I got started I was trying to catch up with the leaders. I ended up sixth out of 300.”

Last week, Dr Oates received the Vice Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence in Higher Education. Next year, the second stage of the gamification app is being trialled.

Stage two is being developed by Dr Oates and Professor Dan Hunter, the founding dean of Swinburne’s law school – and co-author of two books about gamification as a motivator in business. In the university setting, the app is designed to keep students from dropping out.

”With accounting, people would fall out, they’d miss a class and lose a connection and feel they can’t do it,” he says. ”The app has turned that attitude around.”

Professor Hunter has a background in psychology. He says the app gives students a small ”dopamine hit, in the way people get a hit when they play the poker machines. The time limit of 30 seconds to answer the question brings a little anxiety and a little excitement.”

The second stage of the app will feature five-minute mini-lectures and follow-up questions. There will also be stages students need to work through, in the same way there are stages in a video game that players need to clear before rescuing the princess. Professor Hunter says the project is part of a general move toward more mobile learning.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.