Time to Climb: solving the engagement problem in education

“If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” John Dewey, 1917.

Engagement crisis. No control. No choice. These seem to be issues that education has had to face since long ago. So the big question is… How can we solve them? 

A great idea that teachers have been implementing for some years now is taking the principles of game design, and plugging them into areas where there was no game. Learning while playing goes against memorization, which is useless, and this is the foundational concept of what we call Gamification. 

At PSh we believe in this, and for this reason, we designed Nearpod’s recently released game “Time to Climb”.  We worked hand in hand with their production and development teams, in order to share ideas, which at the end gave birth to this educational game. We interviewed the brains behind this project: Kelly Yuen, Product Manager; and Hernán Torrisi, Software Engineer. 

Right now game-based learning is a hot topic in education, and the interest in this area has been growing for several years. Why do you think games are so powerful and useful for learning?
Kelly: I had the opportunity to learn through gameful pedagogy as a student. As a learner, I found that the use of games and gameful concepts was extremely effective in my understanding and engagement with rigorous material. Games and gameful pedagogy enable students to be the champions of their own learning. With this, students have a sense of autonomy, belonging, and choice in games. Not only are students learning while playing games, but they’re having fun. 

What are the elements that a great game for education must have to create maximum engagement, beyond just earning points and badges?
Points and badges are just some of the different elements that make a great learning game. Successful and effective learning games will include but are not limited to, clear goals and objectives, a way to establish rank (e.g. points, levels, leaderboards), competition, progress and feedback.

Why did you choose to undertake this project now? Was it a requested feature from actual users, or something you were just planning to develop independently?
One of my main objectives as a Product Manager at Nearpod, is to delight and engage every student in the classroom. At the end of last year, as a team, we sat down to discuss different ways with which we could bring more joy to the learning process within Nearpod. Ultimately, we decided to facilitate a design sprint to tackle this goal, and by the end of the sprint, we had created a prototype of what is now “Time to Climb”. After testing the prototype with students, we validated the concept with teachers as well; and the early feedback was overwhelmingly positive, so we knew that we had to bring the game to life!

What are teachers saying about the effects that the game is having within the classrooms so far?
The early feedback of “Time to Climb” has been overwhelmingly positive. Students are begging their instructors to play over and over again, which is rare since students almost never ask to retake quizzes for fun. It’s an easy way for teachers to engage with students directly within a Nearpod lesson, and it’s a fun way for students to review the material. Students have loved the avatar selection experience, and they enjoy seeing their progress as they climb up the mountain. Time to Climb has allowed all students to shine.

What is the usage data telling you so far about the success of this game?  Does it seem to be most popular among certain age groups or subjects?
Teachers across all disciplines have been able to apply this activity type to their content; at the beginning, many started by using our pre-made Time to Climb mini-lessons, and progressively they started transitioning to creating their own. We have seen teachers across all grades and subjects utilize the game within their lessons, and we’ve seen that participants are enjoying and engaging in the activity, regardless of their grade level!

What is your prediction about the role of games in classrooms 5 to 10 years from now?
If implemented with intention, games can be a leading driver in engagement and learning in the classroom. I imagine that teachers will not only continue to leverage learning games, but that they will also thread game concepts into their teaching practices. 

Now let’s get into the logistics and the development behind the implementation of gamification.

As a dev team, is this the first time that you build a game with live interaction? Do you plan to build more of these in the future to supplement Nearpod activities such as your teacher PD lessons?
Indeed, this is the first time that we’ve built this kind of multiplayer real-time game with such a wide volume of data and users. 
We are planning on building more games to increase student engagement in class, not sure yet what other types of necessities it will fulfill, but for sure there is potential in this.

What were the biggest technological challenges that you faced while building “Time To Climb”?  What are the technological challenges posed in general by interactive game development?
The hardest part was to provide a real-time experience, while managing latency and connectivity. Since students have different ages, and they are playing from different devices with a variety of connectivity issues and screen resolutions, so while developing we are dealing with a wide range of conditions.
Other challenges were to keep the games fun and entertaining, but also making sure that there was a successful learning experience, so that students learn, have fun and improve their results at the same time.

How could “Time To Climb” be adapted as a team activity, rather than an individual activity?
We've been discussing and asking teachers about team gameplay, so we are considering multiple options, such as: averaging response time per question, or selecting a single player to answer the questions for the whole team. We haven't made a decision yet since team play has different d
ynamics and goals than single-player games. It solves a possible shortage of devices, and it promotes discussion and agreement, but we have to make sure that this way every student still participates and learns.

Do you see a pathway to incorporating increasing difficulty levels of questions as a way to differentiate learning steps within “Time To Climb” in the future?
I can see the possibility of customizing the game dynamically per player based on their progress. In this sense, the difficulty of the questions is not the only variable we can tweak; we could also reduce the number of answers, or modify available time per question to keep students challenged, and at the same time not frustrated.
We shouldn’t be fearful of change, but we don’t like failure, so sometimes it’s safer to stay in known land. We need innovative thinking, and it’s proven that games can foster creativity and deep thinking, so why not take the risk?