Gamified Stamp

The Best Ways to Foster Motivation in Online Courses are More Fun than You Think

Was your last online course fun?  Well today I participated in a research project by taking a short online course. The topic was social media safety for teens and it was boooring. It was all long texts, no visuals, no interaction, no fun. Here’s an example of one of the few inputs that were supposed to teach me something:

text lecture pixelated

One of the main lectures about Internet safety in social media. This is only half the page (I had to scroll). Am I supposed to learn something here? (pixelated to protect copyrights of the owner)

It was not the lack of technology

Since the eLearning platform behind it offers many professional features to make your course interesting and interactive it wasn’t the technology that failed.

It was not the lack of motivation

Nor was it the content – since I am developing an online course for iPad & iPhone safety for kids myself I was already interested in the topic (intrinsic motivation – yay!). And they did have a couple of pretty important facts in there that I would love to be able to recall now – but I can’t. Why? Because that course showed a total lack of learning design basics.

It was simply the lack of learning design

And I am not even talking about Gamification (yet), but about basic principles that learning psychology research has known for more than 20 years now. Plus the insights about online courses and mobile learning from the more recently.

Kind of important stuff when you design an online course is:

  • Chunk information into digestible bits
    Do not use long-winded, scrollable boring text deserts. Feed one spoon at a time to the hungry
  • Use visuals, interaction and variance
    Insert pictures, interesting formatting, drag & drop, more than one question type
  • Give the learner instant feedback
    Show realtime feedback for every single question that has been answered. Let the learner know immediately how they are doing and use that in the beginning for making them aware of where they had no idea what dangers are lurking in the Internet for their kids (then they want to know – they will be immediately intrinsically motivated to move on!)

Ok and where is the fun part now?

That IS the fun part (ok, part of it): making any kind of online learning fun is much easier than you think. If the learning designer of the social media course only had followed the three very basic principles above their course would have been more fun already! Plus, I would have been able to recall some of the info they wanted to get across (learning impact). But of course there’s more. Let’s look at the research. Ok, now I am talking about gamification. Soooorry.

Gamification? Isn’t that just points, badges and leaderboards?

Actually … no (*). There’s more. But even PBL (points, badges, and leaderboards) can make your online course more fun and therefore create a bigger learning impact if used wisely. That’s where I got interested in the research and dove into the „why“ and then „how“. Because, let’s be honest, even with a decent basic learning design you will still have problems: In online courses with many online learners, motivation and scarce social interaction are still problematic, due to the effects of isolation in a seemingly empty online environment. You’re looking at a screen for crying out loud! However, gamification has proven to encourage the development of motivation and engagement in online learning social contexts. So I analysed the gamification elements relevant to online learning in respect to their efficacy towards intrinsic motivation, competition and cooperation as well as to social learning. Turns out that research can sometimes come pretty handy.

Gamified Stamp

Tadaaa: Here’s the most important ingredients for your engaging online class. Seriously. It’s fun!


Spoiler alert: It’s NOT about the ingredients! The prerequisites to success are Game Thinking (instead of rewards), freedom of choice and variety. Then you add the other ingredients. The key components for gamification in online learning are:

  • Freedom to fail
    Failing in games in fun, right? Turns out that is also true for learning!
  • Rapid Feedback
    realtime, unambiguous, visual, multimedia-based

The mindful reader (cool that you are still with me!) might recall that some of these match the basic learning design principles I cited before, like variety, using visuals, interaction and realtime feedback.  But wait – there’s more!

how gamification fosters motivation in online courses

The most important ingredients to foster motivation in online courses (Gaby K. Slezák, 2016). Images:, CC0

So, the Gamification components with major effects on intrinsic motivation are: Freedom to fail (retry-button! Epic fails!), story, meaningful goals, rapid feedback, and challenges. The story element can be quite powerful: you don’t have to write an epic Hollywood plot – use cartoons, characters, themes and tonality to make your course a little more playful and therefore more fun.

So, this is what you need to gamify any online learning experience – be it a self-paced coding class or a company training with learning groups. Because:

„Fun is just another word for learning“

(Raph Koster, 2010)

For online courses with more than a handful people you’ll need to look at social learning wisdom as well. But that is stuff f or another post.

*) Deterding et al. define Gamification as „the use of game design elements in non-game contexts.” (Deterding et al., 2011, p. 9). Or how eLearning guru and bestseller author Prof. Karl Kapp describes it: „Gamification encompasses the idea of adding game elements, game thinking, and game mechanics to learning content.” (Kapp, 2012, pos. 949).

Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R., & Nacke, L. (2011). From Game Design Elements to Gamefulness: Defining “Gamification”. In Proceedings of the 15th International Academic MindTrek Conference on Envisioning Future Media Environments – MindTrek ’11 (S. 9–11). New York: ACM.


Koster, R. (2010). Theory of Fun for Game Design [Kindle Edition]. Paraglyph. Phoenix: Paraglyph Press.

Gaby K. Slezák (2016). „Förderung von Motivation und sozialem Lernen in MOOCs mit Gamification“, Krems. Available only at