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Using 'Code Words': A simple gamification technique to guide students to instructor personalized resources

Special Issue: Instructional Technology in the Online Classroom

By John Steele, Samia Humphrey / December 2018

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The purpose of this article is to offer a "code word" gamification strategy that can help guide students to materials that instructors deem important. The instructors in this article had created a separate website which was housed outside of the learning management system that included several personalized resources to help students throughout the course. The content included video lectures-instructor-extended video directions and tutorials for undergraduate students in two first series writing courses. The instructors had noticed a pattern of students not knowing about or finding these materials from numerous interactions with students later on or at the end of the course. Thus, a "code word" activity was introduced to ensure that students would find and access the additional materials. In essence, the instructor creates a game by placing a "code word" in material that the instructor wants to guide the student to, such as at the end of a video or in feedback on assignments. Although students still may or may not use the materials they've been guided to, the "code words" technique ensures that students at least know where the materials are located.

What is Gamification?

Gamification has long been used as a way to engage students in the traditional and online classrooms. ┼×ahin et al. found existing motivational issues frequent among distance learners due to this lack of connection to the instructor and/or university. The study defined gamification "as the application of game elements and digital game design techniques to non-game situations to engage and motivate people to achieve their goals" [1]. Thus, gamification can take on many different forms depending on what the instructor hopes to accomplish.

One such study determined that interaction and content presentation were two of the most crucial elements in online courses [2] . These are also two areas where instructors can impact the classroom with gamification. Steele, Robertson, and Mandernach [3] found that first-year online students may benefit from personalized instructional supplements such as video lecture, tutorials, and or Web 2.0 technology tools. Providing these additional materials can engage students in the important content of the course while also building a strong connection to the instructor and online classroom. However, there is no value in this material if instructors are unable to guide their students to it. Gamification can provide ways to engage students in seeking out these beneficial resources that can help them be successful in the course. One simple gamification technique is using a "code word" to guide students to specific information. Effective use of "code words" can connect students to vital classroom content, personalized instructor materials, and increase teaching presence.

What is Teaching Presence?

The Community of Inquiry (CoI) is one of the main learning models for distance education consisting of the three core elements of teaching, social, and cognitive presences [4]. Garrison et al., [4] defined teaching presence as "design of the educational experience" and "the responsibility that may be shared among the teacher and some or all of the other participants or students". Teaching presence is the element of the model that allows for instructors to engage students and guide them towards important materials. In the online modality, students frequently spend lots of time learning and communicating in a written form. Instructors typically present the information in the same manner, creating a more text-based environment [3] . Making it crucial that instructors in the online classroom actively shape the classroom community. Thus, the text-based environment can make it tough for instructors who create these personalized materials and technology tools to guide their students to them.

Why Use Gamification?

Instructors of undergraduate, introductory courses created additional resources and tools for students to access. The additional content had been deemed valuable by the student's feedback who had visited the website as a crucial part of their success with the content. All students in the course would receive a link to the webpage in the initial course message to the student and an announcement in the discussion area the first week of class. Both messages thoroughly explained the website and how it could help students in the course. However, the instructors noticed that there were still many students who were either unaware of the materials, or not navigating to them. Quite often, students would be sent the videos later in the course and state that they were unaware of them. One finding from a previous study by Steele, Nordin, Larson, and McIntosh [5] was that using a variety of communication venues to enhance the ability for students to access and receive information pertinent to the course was a best practice. To resolve the problem, instructors decided to try using a "code word" gamification activity as a fun way to connect the students to the webpage in a more engaging manner.

Why Use "Code Words"?

Instructors of the undergraduate online courses found that the use of the "code word" activity to guide students to these materials can be very beneficial. A "code word" can be any word the instructor chooses. The instructor creates a game out of the "code word" by placing the word in some material that the instructor wants to guide the student to, such as at the end of a video or in attached and embedded feedback on assignments. While this does not mean that the student read the message or reviewed the material, it does prove to the instructor that the student was at least able to navigate to it. Either way, if students are being guided to a resource that they may not need in the current week of class, but may need in a future week, this could prove very beneficial.

For example, one instructor placed the "code words" at the very end of an introductory video reviewing classroom expectations, guidelines, and how to access the external webpage resource. Students then had to watch the video in full to access the word. Another instructor placed the "code word" in the introductory video on the external webpage they created forcing students to access the webpage and watch the short welcome video. For all of these examples, participation points were used as a motivational tool for students to complete the "code word" activity. In addition, the instructor can take this simple gamification technique one step by furthering by connecting students to the university or content of course with a simple extension activity.

"Code Word" 2.0: Extension Activity

While instructors have several different options that they can use the "code word" for, they can also create other extension activities to engage their students even further. These extension activities can be used to build a connection to university, content, or instructor. For example, a lower-level first-year series course could incorporate different words about the history of the university or anything related to the university into instructional materials. For example, the student would find their "code word" by watching a video that takes them to a webpage where the additional materials are located. By putting the "code word" in the video, students are forced to watch the video introducing and detailing the purpose and content of the webpage. The strategy helps the instructor ensure that students reached the additional materials intended for them while learning something about the university. For the extension activity, once students find their "code word," they could be asked to research their "code word" and report back to the class in short paragraph about how their "code word" was connected to the university. This would give the instructor a chance to have students practice conducting a general search in preparation for more scholarly research that is required for other course assignments.

Another example would be to extend the use of "code words" to connect with terminology found in the course's textbook. In this case, a "code word" that is a term from the textbook would be provided to students at the end of the welcome video. If using an e-book copy of the textbook, students could even be taught to utilize the "control + F" shortcut to more easily find their "code word." When implemented by the authors, this extension activity got students thinking about the different concepts of the course, exploring their textbook, and learning a useful tool.

Looking to the Future

A common problem that online instructors face is getting students to view and interact with content. This content can include pre-loaded course content, instructor feedback, or instructor created resources. Gamification can help to alleviate this problem. The intent of gamification is not subject or content specific. It should not change the curriculum or pedagogical approach of course, but encourage students to engage with course content and instructor [6]. Utilizing "code words" harnesses these principles of gamification. The "code word" activity was made optional for students supporting Furdu, Tomozei, and Kose's [7] findings that making gamification elements a requirement can be a drawback for students. However, a limitation to making this optional is that students who may need the resources may opt not to complete the activity. The use of the "code words" technique by the authors was limited to first-year series students in two contents with a small sample size. Student's informal feedback to the question about the effectiveness of the "code word" activity resulted in an overwhelmingly positive outcome. It appears that not only were students accessing the material, but they felt more connected with the instructor and course. Further research is needed, however, to determine the impact that the use of the "code words" technique has on student achievement and to explore student perceptions of teaching presence as related to the suggested extension activities.


[1] ┼×ahin, Y. L., et al. The use of gamification in distance education: A web-based gamified quiz application. Turkish Online Journal Of Qualitative Inquiry 8, 4 (2017), 372-395.

[2] Lister, M. Trends in the Design of E-Learning and Online Learning. Journal of OnlineLearning & Teaching 10, 4 (2014), 671-680.

[3] Steele, J., et al. Fostering first year students' perceptions of teacher presence in the online classroom via video lectures. Journal of The First-Year Experience & Students in Transition 29, 2 (2017), 79-92.

[4] Garrison, D. R., et al. Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education 2, 2-3 (2000), 87-105.

[5] Steele, J., et al. Student preference for information access in the online classroom. The Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education 18, 1 (2017), 182-195.

[6] Featherstone, M. Using gamification to enhance self-directed, open learning in higher education. In Proceedings Of The European Conference On Games Based Learning. 2016, 824-834.

[7] Furdu, I., et al. Pros and cons gamification and gaming in classroom. Brain: Broad Research in Artificial Intelligence and Neuroscience 8, 2 (2017), 56-62.

About the Authors

John Steele is a Associate Professor at Grand Canyon University who teaches University Introduction, Psychology and Education courses.

Samia Humphrey is a full-time online faculty member who teaches Critical Thinking, Communication, and University Success classes at Grand Canyon University.

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