In response to a Blackboard World 2017 developer competition challenge, Hackaboard, I developed a set of course gamification tools.  The goal of the project was to help students redefine the story of their course experience and to help them find inspiration for learning.  In life, everything eventually becomes a story and we rely on stories for memories of experiences, for defining relationships, and to enjoy life.

Storification is an important gamification element.  Whether it is a story told by an instructor during a lecture or background narrative for a class simulation, or the epic story for a video game, where we must save the galaxy.  Stories engender emotion and motivate us to action.  This is why helping students create a good story about their Blackboard Learn course is important.

The Pledge

This gamification app tells a number of stories based on the actual, current course data.  A student who visits the LTI link will see their own name at the top of the screen with a bar graph in proportion to other students in the class.  While the names for other students are changed, to respect privacy of grades, the data is real.  The graph is not sorted by progress.  The graph pivots at the average score in the class showing above average as positive numbers and below average as negative numbers.  Seeing your own score in relation to the background of the class can be an important element of feedback on your progress.

The peer-reviewed research on gamification leaderboards is mixed.  Some practitioners believe such tools motivate players, some find that leaderboards demotivate, especially to a particular gender.  This tool in the Blackboard Learn course is meant to be only one of many forms of feedback about course progress and relies on faculty maintained grades as the data.  It should be added that grades are a flawed way to measure academic progress.

The Turn

This software application helps students to tell a new story about the course.  When students simulate taking the same course with a different instructor they can see their  alternative progress.  Is it unreasonable to assume that students would do better or worse if they studied under a different instructor?  What emotions may emerge when students realize that under a different instructor they would do better or worst?

Research shows us that pedagogy can make as much as two letter grade difference in teaching, but unfortunately faculty often disagree.  In a book “To Improve the Academy: Resources for Faculty, Instructional, and Organizational Development” Craig Nelson, from Indiana University, says that it is one of dysfunctional illusions of rigor to think that students fail classes because of inability, weak preparation, or lack of effort.  Instead he says they fail because of inappropriate pedagogy.

When students fail it is often due to inappropriate pedagogy. Substantial improvements were produced (see above) even in classes traditionally regarded as necessarily difficult, among them calculus, physics, chemistry, and economics. This is not to say that students have no responsibility for their own work. Rather, we have grossly underemphasized the faculty members’ responsibilities.

— Craig Nelson, Indiana University, To Improve the Academy: Resources for Faculty, Instructional, and Organizational Development

A father of academic taxonomy, Benjamin Bloom, conducted research in the 1980s to demonstrate that tutoring increases grades by almost two letter grades (Bloom, 1984). Active learning shows increase of 0.47 standard deviation (Ruiz-Primo, Briggs, Iverson, Talbot, & Shepard, 2011).  Some learners are one and a half times more likely to fail in courses dominated by traditional lectures over courses with active learning strategies (Freeman et al., 2014).

So, will a different instructor affect the student final grade or current progress?  Yes! The grade is likely to increase if the new teacher uses better instructional methods, which technically is possible.  It can also be much worst.  This is why the instructor simulation goes both ways.  However, this application helps students to realize, what the research tells specialists, about the shared agency of academic achievement.

This gamification app will also simulate a different semester.  Students run into various problems in their lives during a specific semester.  Winter driving may affect attendance.  Shorter Summer semester may also be a factor.  A different social group among course mates may  contribute to changes in the academic performance.  We know that microaggressions committed by students or instructor, even tolerating such events by the instructor, can activate stereotype threat and lower grades.

Sharing these stories with students is important.  When this app is used by instructors in their courses, the impact on student way of thinking about the course may have far reaching consequences.  Teaching about microaggressions, teaching about the student responsibilities in their learning, but acknowledging instructor contributions is important.  Playing a good game in class requires that we clarify the rules of the game and use most current research we can find.

The Prestige

The Course Gamification Tools project also tells an alternative story, which is not immediately obvious.  While the first graph showing current grades is based on the Grade Center data, the analysis tools are telling a fictional story.  The button to change instructor simply randomizes grades each time it is pressed.  Adding a new semester also creates a random data set.  However, the emotions, questions, and intrinsic motivation generated in realization of the principles above are real.

First of all, the data to analyze and simulate alternate instructors and alternate semesters is available in Blackboard Learn, the SIS,  Why is this app not processing the available data?  We could process the Activity Accumulator with frequency of student logins, with time spent on tasks, with grades for the same or similar course, analyze multiple instructors for the specific course, reach out to public reports on, and through my other projects like BbStats we could pull data from multiple organizations.

I chose not to do this.

This application is a form of protest against short-sighted use of Big Data in education.  Some use of Big Data in education is simply not appropriate and goes against the basic idea of learning.  Students themselves spoke up at the Philadelphia Edu Con 2.9 about their fears that Big Data may predict their failure before they even have a chance to succeed.  Isn’t education about raising above stereotypes, socioeconomic backgrounds, and previous behaviors?

A moment of reflection is due in light of news from Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, where the president wrote to faculty, that freshmen students should not be considered cuddly bunnies.  Instead, students who according to activity data are likely to fail should be excused from the University.  He wrote that the University should “drown the bunnies” and “put a Glock to their heads.”

So, how important is failure in an academic experience?  How important are stories about success despite the data analytics stacked up against a student?  We need to tell stories of epic meaning, just like video games do.  Even if those stories are just played by CPUs, or randomized buttons in Gamification Course Tools, which suggest you can do better with enough tries.  You, too can save the galaxy from the alien invaders.  It will take hours of grinding and a lot of failing.  Just make sure to play a good game.

This application is a form of protest against short-sighted use of Big Data in education.


Bloom, B. S. (1984). The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring. Educational Researcher, 13(6), 4. doi:10.3102/0013189X013006004

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okorafor, N., Jordt, H., and Wenderoth, M. P., (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 111(23),8410-8415.

Ruiz-Primo, M. A., Briggs, D., Iverson, H., Talbot, R., & Shepard, L. A. (2011). Impact of Undergraduate Science Course Innovations on Learning. Science, 331(6022), 1269 LP-1270. Retrieved from