The educational disruption caused by COVID-19 represents a major challenge for teachers all over the world. The situation requires adapting the organization of lectures and the learning style to a fully online distance-learning context. Distance-learning is very different from face-to-face learning, notably in terms of interaction between teacher and students, also among students, and complicates student engagement and participation. The paradigm of ‘student-centered’ education seems more difficult to maintain in this new context.
But, even in a traditional classroom, it is not always easy to get students’ attention. This is especially true for courses in technical fields. As Finance professors teaching an undergraduate program in Hospitality Management, we are regularly faced with this situation. As a way to overcome the issue, we have progressively implemented simulation games in our classes over the past few years. So far, our experience suggests that the use of Game-Based Learning (GBL) techniques can be an effective way of reducing student anxiety towards technical and/or abstract concepts, and increase their class involvement which is consistent with existing evidence (Subhash & Cudney, 2018). When confronted with the additional challenge of distance-learning, we therefore implemented GBL methods to understand if it would remain effective in this new setting. We had two questions in mind:
Can Game-Based Learning techniques be used to reduce the gap in class dynamics and interaction between distance-learning and regular face-to-face learning?
And are they effective in helping students acquire targeted competences?
Developing a group simulation game for an online course
We use several, group-based simulation games in our Finance courses. Organizing simulation games in groups comes with several advantages: it makes the game easier to manage and, more importantly, increases the number of constructive exchanges among students. It may also help weaker students develop competences through the interaction with their classmates.
Of course, adjustments are required to make games work in a distance-learning environment. In particular, interactions with 60 students via an online chat are more complex than in a classroom setting. Likewise, it is impossible to let students interact with each other through the learning platform – this would lead to chaos. The most critical step is thus to find and deploy a strategy to make students interact with each other in a dynamic, yet manageable, way.
We therefore opted for the following approach:
Leading role of the teacher, who provides all relevant data and shares his screen so as to ensure that all students have access to the same set of information.
Centralization of all student comments and questions via the online chat and answered live by the teacher.
Organization of the game in periods with enough time between subsequent periods so as to allow students to reflect on the decisions they take and discuss them with other group members.
Decentralized communication among students via WhatsApp, Facebook, Skype, or any other device they are used to for chatting with their classmates. Note that some applications such as WebEx and Zoom offer the possibility to use so-called "breakout rooms” to manage discussions among students within specific groups.
Use of a learning management system such as Moodle to allow students to communicate their decisions/actions in the game to the teacher.
Apart from these adjustments, it is important to keep a few generic rules in mind and to ensure that they are applied. The simulation game has to be:
Realistic: to ensure that students do not perceive the game as futile and are interested in participating.
Fun: to engage students throughout the game.
Competitive: to incentivize students to do their best and to correctly apply the concepts developed in class.
Aligned with the learning outcomes: to not only make students participate and have fun, but to ensure they get something useful out of the game.
These rules aim at making sure that the simulation game contributes to both the effective acquisition of the targeted competences and their transfer to the workplace.
In the context of this article, we use the example of a “bond simulation game” (see the box for more details) that we implemented in two online Corporate Finance classes. We then ran a survey to ask students about their learning experience in relation to the game. We were particularly interested in their feedback regarding the ability of the game to reduce the gap between distance and face-to-face learning by making the class livelier and more interactive.
Does GBL help reduce the gap?
In the first class, even though 48 students were present during the session and the game, only 18 answered the survey. This may indicate that some students were inactive, but we believe that this is mostly due to the context: in a distance-learning setting, it is difficult to ensure that all students participate in this type of survey. In the second class, we therefore invested more effort motivating the survey and explaining that its goal was to get feedback to improve the course for the next sessions. 30 students (out of 47 present) answered. This higher rate of response outlines that in a distance-learning setting, teachers need to clearly motivate all activities in order to ensure that students remain concentrated and involved.
47 students (out of 48 respondents) considered that “the game contributes to making the dynamics of the online course closer to a traditional face-to-face course” (in detail: 31 ‘totally agree’ with this statement, 16 ‘agree’, and 1 ‘disagrees’).
43 students considered that “the game contributes to making the class more interactive” (25 ‘totally agree’, 18 ‘agree’, 4 ‘neither agree nor disagree’, and 1 ‘disagrees’).
Moreover, 44 students considered that “the game is fun” (30 ‘totally agree’, 14 ‘agree’, and 4 ‘neither agree nor disagree’).
It thus appears that GBL helps reduce the gap in class dynamics and interaction between distance-learning and regular face-to-face learning.
Does it help students acquire targeted competences?
Until the final evaluation, it will be difficult to give a definitive and unbiased answer to this question. But, here also, the feedback from the students is encouraging. The objective of the game was to assess if students had acquired the first two learning outcomes, and to introduce the third and last learning outcome of the corresponding chapter:
Learning outcome #1: 39 students (out of 48 respondents) answered that “the game helps them to understand the relation between the yield of a bond and its value” (in detail: 14 ‘totally agree’ with this statement, 25 ‘agree’, 4 ‘neither agree nor disagree’, and 5 ‘disagree’).
Learning outcome #1: 41 students answered that “the game helps them to understand the link between the economic situation and the prevailing interest rates and yields” (15 ‘totally agree’, 26 ‘agree’, and 7 ‘neither agree nor disagree’).
Learning outcome #3: 39 students answered that “the game gives them some intuition about the sources of risks which may affect the value of a bond investment” (20 ‘totally agree’, 19 ‘agree’, 7 ‘neither agree nor disagree’, and 2 ‘disagree’).
It appears that GBL helps students to assimilate learning outcomes and is incidentally corroborated by several highly relevant questions and comments that students made after the game.
A few takeaways
We also asked two questions related to the course in general. The objective was to get a sense of whether the game may have a more general impact than discussed above.
81% of the students said that “the game reinforces their interest for the course” and only 1 student out of 48 disagrees with this statement.
81% of the students further added that “the game motivates them to engage more in the course”. No student disagrees with this statement.
One last note. When using a game in class, especially in a distance-learning context, it is essential to ensure that the instructions and the progression in the game are clear to all students. One question in the survey covered this issue. 83% of the students concurred that “the instructions and the progression in the game were clear”. This suggests that there was no important bias in the game and that the results from the survey can be considered relevant.
While we remain cautious at this stage and cannot ensure that the game will effectively increase the number of students who acquire the learning outcomes, it seems evident that the game has had, at the very least, a positive impact on (i) class dynamics & interaction, as well as on (ii) students’ engagement & motivation for the course.
Reference Subhash, S., & Cudney, E. A. (2018). Gamified learning in higher education: A systematic review of the literature. Computers in Human Behavior, 87, 192-206.