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wayne gibbons

I’m not a big fan of terms like ‘millennial’ and ‘Gen Z’, because I think people are far more complex than the year in which they were born can determine. When we use terms like these, there is a risk that they somehow frame the way we, as teachers, are expected to approach teaching. For example, is there a need to suddenly move all our classes onto Snapchat or *insert trendy app here*? Some think so and would argue that meeting the students on their turf is a good approach. Maybe. Maybe not. That trendy app will be passé next year. Then what? Learn to use a new app? I think a more lasting approach is one that permeates human nature and outlives trends: make it interesting and enjoyable.

Retention of students on civil engineering programmes is always a challenge, one from which the GMIT has not been immune. This is where interest and enjoyment can help: retention itself is very difficult to influence due to many factors that affect it, many of which are outside the control of lecturers (for example financial, social, family issues). But a significant factor in retention is motivation. There are different schools of thought on whether it is the job of an educator to motivate, but I believe that it does form part of the job. Either way, interest, and enjoyment can influence motivation, which in turn can influence retention.

So, what did I do to generate engagement and motivation?

I started by focussing on a module that I designed and delivered: Computer-Aided Design in Year 1 of our degree. I had heard about others using a gamification device known as ‘digital open badges’….these are essentially digital images that include meta-data that explains what the badge is about and what the recipient had to do to earn it. You could think of this as being a souped-up version of a scout’s badge, but it goes way beyond that. With that as a starting point, I began a doctoral case study into the design, implementation, and impact of digital open badges on that module. This involved a collaborative approach where students, lecturing staff, institute management, and an employer were involved in describing their views on digital open badges and the types of things that the badges should be available for. A natural ‘fit’ is associating a badge with high achievement (or even ‘best in class’) in an assessment: and some badges were included to cover that. However, other types of badges were designed into the scheme too, and a full suite of 17 badges was developed over a one-year period. This suite was then rolled-out for the following academic year, within the CAD module.

At the beginning of the roll-out, the students were surveyed to find a base-point for their views, attitudes, and motivation levels. During the implementation, they had opportunities to obtain badges for a number of actions/behaviours. These, as mentioned, went beyond associating a badge with assessment performance: there is a risk of alienation of lower achievers if they are not at the standard to obtain top marks, and that can have a demotivational effect. So, the scheme included mechanisms to support mentoring, peer learning, engagement (as measured by attendance), and self-improvement. When you look at this list, it might remind you of the types of traits you would like to see in the workplace, and indeed these qualities were important to capture. The difficulty in education has always been around how do you recognise and reward those qualities, especially when you are in an environment which tends to centre around a numerical grade as the main indicator of accomplishment. Where badges come in is that they offer a means of recognising and rewarding those qualities that we all would like to see, but for which we cannot typically set an exam.

At the end of the roll-out, the students were surveyed and interviewed. The institute manager and the employer were also interviewed to capture their reflections on the scheme, having seen how it worked in practice. The general response was very positive, with all stakeholders seeing multiple values for digital open badges. Students value digital open badges for confidence-building, peer-learning, incentivising attendance, and creating links to employability. The employer values digital open badges for identifying candidates with desirable traits and preparedness for continual professional development. Institute management values digital open badges for encouraging peer-learning and attendance at classes. All of these findings refer to quality, but what about quantity? Well, having captured motivation levels prior to and subsequent to the use of digital open badges, I was able to demonstrate a statistically significant rise in motivation levels due to the interest and enjoyment that the students had because of the use of the badges.

The implication here is that we (as educators and indeed mentors) can influence motivation and engagement if we try. In my case, this ‘try’ began by including the main stakeholders in a discussion from the very beginning: such a collaborative approach has borne a broad set of results that I know I would not have come up with if I attempted a ‘solo run’ on this. Collaboration is the key here. We know it works in professional practice, but it had been untested in this way in the degree programme in GMIT.

Digital open badges had been shown to be useful in other contexts, but only now do we know in GMIT that they can have a very positive impact on our students. As a result of my research, more lecturers are now using digital open badges with their students: I was the only one in GMIT when I began my journey in 2015. Digital open badges can be used in all kinds of settings, and if you would like to know more about my research if you’re thinking about using them in your professional practice, please feel free to contact me. I’d be delighted to share the knowledge of how to successfully engage and motivate people with you.

To find out more about my research, read this interview, or watch the webinar in the video above.

wayne gibbons

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