Shall We Play A Game — An Interview with Kaplan’s David DeHaven

DGI sat down recently with David DeHaven, dean at Kaplan University’s School of Information Technology. David spoke with us about the dramatic improvements he is seeing in online student performance as a result of Kaplan’s gamification initiative. Gamification increases the motivation and engagement of the student, and therefore helps produce a better educational experience.

Thanks for talking with DGI. Can you give readers some background on your current position and how you got there?

Since 2007, I have served as the dean for Kaplan University’s School of Information Technology.  Prior to entering academia, I accrued more than 20 years of information technology and business experience, most recently as Chief Technology Officer at Northrop Grumman.  While there, I saw several multi-million dollar efforts fail only to be later blamed on the technology or the business.  Looking closer however, I discovered that the success (or failure) of these projects could be found in the people…and how they were engaged.  Seeking to learn more, I entered a Doctoral program to understand more about culture, change management, leadership, and ultimately people and the role they play in organizational success.  Along the way I earned a Master’s in Business, a Master’s in Psychology and a PhD in Organization in Management.

I am also a Professional Certified Coach (PCC).  In this role, I focus on helping businesses and individuals reach their highest potential.  I consult and speak regularly about achieving personal change; leadership development and delegation; accountability; and how to create a supportive, open coaching culture that fosters innovation and collaboration. This certification has played a significant role in how I can help our students achieve their goals.

A recent article in Campus Technology described the impressive success of Kaplan’s gamification initiative, which you were instrumental in creating. Can you give our readers some background on that initiative and its results?

At Kaplan, students are not necessarily “traditional” college students. They have kids, day jobs, other areas of life that compete for their time with education.

In creating the gamification platform, we were looking for a way to bolster student participation in class work and figure out how to keep students engaged in what had traditionally been the hardest class within the School of Information Technology.

Through a unique partnership with gamification platform Badgeville, Kaplan University is using gaming techniques and mechanics, and applying them in the academic environment to increase student engagement and motivation. This innovative approach is a milestone for the School of Information Technology, making it one of the first online universities to incorporate this interactive platform into its instruction.

Similar to video or computer games, gamification or game theory in the classroom has proven to help students meet their learning objectives, become more engaged, and have an overall rewarding experience at Kaplan University. The initial pilot program in the online classrooms of Kaplan University’s School of Information Technology indicated that students rewarded by badging—an aspect of gamification that uses visual representations to stand for an achievement or accomplishment—spent up to 17 percent more time actively engaged than their counterparts. Grades were higher (9 percent) in the gamified courses.

Even when harder (optional) tasks were added to the courses, 60 percent of students self-elected to complete the more difficult assignment to earn the related badge. Additionally, increases were seen across the board in days attending classes and discussion board posts for students in gamified courses. As a result, the pilot program has now been expanded into Kaplan University’s School of Business.

I presented early findings from the initial pilot project last November at the Techonomy conference, one of the nation’s most prestigious gatherings of business and technology innovators. From that initial pilot program, which started with about 30 students, the effort has been expanded to now include over 700 students.

How did your background in behavioral psychology factor in to creating the badging system?

With any new product, one thing that’s imperative to take into account is how and why people will actually want to use it and what will keep them coming back to it.  With my background in psychology, I knew that the release of dopamine and endorphins is related to game playing and receiving awards.   We wanted to see if we could rely on brain chemistry to trigger interaction in the classroom, and that is exactly what happened.

As we sought out a partner to help create this unique program, it was very important to me that they be rooted in psychology as opposed to just gaming and Badgeville does this with their behavior-based approach.  The motivational reward aspect is truly what enhances the student experience.  One aspect that is important to point out is that we have an open badging system.  Open badging means that the class can see where everyone stands in the numbers as well as gives them the authority to present their classmates badges. Not only does it cause students to engage in discussions during class but also to go the extra mile to help out a fellow classmate.

Some examples of badges between peers include site sharing and team player badges.

What was the impetus for creating the gamification system in the first place?

Keeping students engaged is critical to a successful learning experience, and we found that the skills gamification promotes could easily enhance our curriculum by encouraging more quality participation. Our top priority is to provide students with the best learning experience using the latest tools. If the end result is more motivated students while achieving better outcomes, we say, ‘let the games begin’.

We consciously took the hardest course to begin with, to see how we could foster more engagement, and help students deepen their understanding of the material while also having more fun along the way.

This initiative will also help students show current and future employers what they are learning in real time.  It will be a great tool to help get that promotion or land their dream job.

Once a pilot has been proven successful, there’s often a race to implement it. What does the future hold for gamification at Kaplan?

The goal of the pilot programs is to continue to expand the initial gamification offerings for the courses currently participating as well as rolling it out to other schools at Kaplan University.  From that initial pilot program, which started with about 30 students, the effort has been expanded to now include over 700 students.

During the next phase of the pilot, we are looking into how to “validate” badges and make them shareable across social media platforms so that they are something that a potential employer would recognize as of value.

At Kaplan University, we pride ourselves on creating a student experience that is constantly evolving to meet the needs of the students and the industries they seek careers in.  Gamification is one way we can do that and look forward to expanding the program.

For readers that are focused in their own jobs on working to bring innovative products to market, what words of advice would you have?

I believe that in many ways, innovation is not about the product but rather the underlying behavior.  The School of Information Technology sought to increase motivation, and deepen the level of engagement of our students.  The change then was not so much in our product offering, or the services offered but rather a means of changing the behavior and means of engagement between the student and the material, their peers and even with faculty.  This can be applied to most new products out there so keep that top of mind and remember it isn’t just about the product, the service or even the technical side of things.

Will Sherlin

Will Sherlin

Senior Manager of Digital Marketing

Will Sherlin is the Senior Manager of Digital Marketing at 3Pillar Global. He oversees the 3Pillar website and other web properties, hosts 3Pillar’s ‘Innovation Engine’ podcast, and manages 3Pillar’s social media accounts. Prior to its acquisition by 3Pillar, Will was an Account Manager at PointAbout, a DC-based mobile app boutique that specialized in developing iPhone and iPad apps. He holds a BA in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of North Carolina.

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