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One Interactive Approach to Gamify the Online Classroom: Digital badges
Effective eLearning (Special Series)

By Tom Dyer, Jacob Aroz, Jean Mandernach / June 2023

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Gamification refers to the use of game elements and mechanics in non-game contexts, such as an online classroom. For instructors looking to infuse an element of gamification into the online classroom, digital badges might just be the perfect solution. Humans are attracted to games for many reasons: the prospect of receiving a reward for a positive action or outcome, desire to collaborate or compete, engage with content in a novel way, or visibly track progress towards a goal. Gaming elements have permeated our culture across a variety of contexts. From education to mobile technologies to workplace initiatives to museum displays (and everything in-between), the incorporation of gaming has the potential to enhance engagement, participation, satisfaction, and productivity. Within higher education, gamification does not always imply an actual game but rather focuses on the mechanics of how gaming works [14]. While there are many ways to gamify the learning experience, digital badging is a quick and easy way for instructors to gamify their classrooms.

With all the inherent benefits, it is no surprise that gamification is becoming increasingly popular in higher education… particularly in the online classroom. Broadly defined, gamification incorporates gaming techniques to motivate participation and engagement with an existing software application, online community, or a learning management system. This can include things like awarding points or badges for completing tasks or achieving certain milestones, creating leaderboards to encourage competition among participants, and incorporating elements of reward and feedback into the experience. Commonly, gamification will utilize challenges to allow users to “level up” and unlock new or different benefits. Within this context, when a user achieves certain milestones, a digital badge confers their status (for example, eBay badges or “elite” status in Yelp). Within higher education, gamification does not always imply an actual game but rather focuses on the mechanics of how gaming works. The goal of gamification in online education is to make students’ learning experience more engaging and interactive, which in turn fosters motivation and time-on-task with course content.  

There are a plethora of ways that gamification can be incorporated into the online classroom; so many, in fact, that it can be overwhelming to know where to start.

One doable strategy for gamifying your online classroom is to create a digital badging program.

Digital Badges

Badges are virtual rewards that learners can earn for completing certain tasks or achieving specific goals. Digital badges recognize a particular experience or signify accomplishments, such as the completion of a project or mastery of a skill. In an online classroom context, learners may earn badges by conducting presentations, exceeding participation expectations, developing a specific competency, or mastery on practice quizzes. Digital badges enable learning communities to identify new competency areas and recognize mastery or demonstration of those competencies. Badges offer several benefits. They create a social comparison between peers that may motivate engagement. Badges signal concrete skills and competencies to current or prospective employers; and they may help students to self-monitor learning and progress. Students meeting the established criteria can earn and display digital badges in recognition of their engagement in class (not only can they share their success with their classmates, but they can display and share their badges on social media or with their friends and family). Badges offer the unique benefit of making the invisible learning process more tangible and concrete.

There are five key components to a successful digital badging program:

  • Motivation. Badges can affect behavior by motivating positive study habits and independent studying.
  • Promote community. Digital badges can provide learners with an opportunity to enhance their reputation within a learning community (depending on how they are awarded) and share their success with their peers.
  • Encourage critical thinking. Badges may provide a way of recognizing higher-order thinking skills, teamwork, and the understanding of goals that do not translate directly to the course grade.
  • Develop skills. Sometimes grades can lack a focus on student attainment of desired learning outcomes, whereas badges allow faculty to focus on competencies, skills, and learner performance. This can be a great way to assess formative assessment/classroom assessment techniques (CATs).
  • Promote incremental learning. Students perform better when they can see their progress towards a goal, no matter how small. Visible, incremental learning documents smaller achievements that can help students progress toward more significant goals. An example of badge-based gamification is “Badge to Bachelors” initiative, a classroom-based badging game at Grand Canyon University. Many of the classes in this initiative are part of the student’s first-year experience. With that in mind, graduation can seem far off. Through a badging program, faculty can encourage students to see and experience small victories outside of summative grades. If used by a majority of faculty, a badging program can be a stepping-stone, a placeholder to motivate students toward achieving the ultimate prize, their degree.

Badges can also be used to create a sense of competition and motivation by allowing learners to compare their badges with those of their peers. For example, a course might include a leaderboard that ranks learners based on the number and types of badges they have earned. This can encourage learners to strive for higher achievements and to continue engaging with the course material. The voluntary challenge of earning a badge can encourage positive academic behavior without having to be tied directly to a grade.

Badges are an effective way to motivate learners and to recognize their progress and achievements. Through a digital badging program, educators can provide a tangible representation of these achievements and encourage students to develop skills and strive for mastery in their coursework. The integration of game-like elements into the learning process can not only enhance motivation and engagement but also foster a sense of community and collaboration in the online classroom.


[1] Boulet, G. Gamification: The latest buzzword and the next fad. eLearn Magazine (Dec. 2012).

[2] Craig, L. Engagement techniques for online education. eLearn Magazine (Oct. 2015).

[3] Raymer, R. Gamification: Using game mechanics to enhance elearning. eLearn Magazine (Sept. 2011).

[4] Steele, J. and Humphrey, S. Using ‘code words’: A simple gamification technique to guide students to instructor personalized resources. eLearn Magazine (Dec. 2018).

About the Authors

Thomas D. Dyer, Ph.D., is a professor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Grand Canyon University. He has more than 15 years of experience in higher education and online education. His research focuses on examining student engagement, participation, and community connection in the online classroom through social presence strategies. He explores strategies for integrating community cohesion, online proximity, and social presence literacy through careful and considerate technology integration. Thomas is an active teacher, advocate, researcher, author, and presenter in the field of online education and social presence literacy.

Jacob Aroz is currently an Assistant Professor with the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Grand Canyon University. There he has worked with students beginning their college degree, many of whom are returning to school later in life to achieve lifelong goals and dreams. In addition to his work teaching students over the last ten years, he has enjoyed working with colleagues and researching in areas like social presence in online classrooms, gamification in online classrooms, and metacognitive practices in self-reflection.

Jean Mandernach, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Center for Innovation in Research on Teaching at Grand Canyon University. Her research focuses on enhancing student learning experiences in the online classroom through innovative instructional and assessment strategies. She explores strategies for integrating efficient online instruction in a manner that maximizes student learning, satisfaction, and engagement. In addition, she has interests in innovative faculty development and evaluation models, teaching and learning analytics, emergent instructional technology, and faculty workload considerations. Jean is an active researcher, author, presenter, and consultant in the field of online education.

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