Virtually There: Gamifying Your Virtual Classroom

The key is to make sure you never lose sight of your learning objectives. All of your game’s prompts or “missions” should be identical to real-world skills/learning objectives.

“Virtually There” is a monthly column addressing the special challenges associated with designing, developing, and implementing virtual and blended learning.

As virtual classroom design techniques evolve, it is natural for organizations to want to include the newest design trends in their programs. With the very social/collaborative nature of the virtual classroom, it’s understandable that gamification of these designs seems such a good fit.

What Is Gamification?

The idea of using games in training is not new. The “Games Trainers Play” series by Edward Scannell and John Newstrom lists more than 400 activities in 12 categories, from ice-breakers to creative problem solving to teambuilding. These types of activities are used to motivate learners, review concepts, and create energy during the delivery of otherwise dry content.

Clearly, games are popular with many trainers. However, they have not always enjoyed the same popularity with learners—many people hear words such as “games,” “ice-breakers,” and “small group activities” and internally moan. Games, to some, don’t seem like a valuable use of time. Instead of trying to motive them or energize them, they would prefer to spend their time LEARNING something.

Using gamification techniques is substantially different than including games in training. Gamification is directly related to instruction—using game “elements” such as badges, leaderboards, and competition to teach skills.

But it is not just about including a game in your design, it is about aligning the game to the learning objectives.

The key is to make sure you never lose sight of your learning objectives. All of your game’s prompts or “missions” should be identical to real-world skills/learning objectives. For example, if you want participants to learn persuasive communication skills, the associated prompt would be “Persuade [Insert Character Name Here] to join you.” I can’t overstate the importance of this 1:1 alignment enough—it’s the single biggest missing element I find when evaluating instructional game mechanics (despite how obvious it might seem). Source: Dr. Stephen Slota

Gamification Ideas for the Virtual Classroom    

Let’s take a look at a few learning objectives that could be taught in a virtual classroom using gamification.

1. OBJECTIVE: Create a persuasive sales strategy for Product X.

Gamification Strategy: Create a competition between four teams over several virtual sessions, taking advantage of the naturally competitive nature of a salesperson.

Activity Design: Design a multiple-session virtual program, and pre-assign participants into four different “sales teams.” The facilitator is given the role of the prospective customer. After each piece of content is delivered, have each team work collaboratively in breakout rooms to prepare their sales strategy, based on the prospect’s requirements. Include an opportunity for the teams to finalize their strategies, and then have them present to the larger group. The facilitator will award the winning team with the sale.

Why this works: This type of activity allows learners to immediately apply content and critically analyze an approach in a collaborative setting. It reinforces the collaborative nature of creating a winning sales strategy, and offers an incentive to take the activity seriously.

2. OBJECTIVE: Utilize a new system to book travel reservations.

Gamification Strategy: Wrap up the content into a story that is told by the learners, each acting as travel agents, while the facilitator acts as the potential traveler. Allow for a trial-and-error approach to teaching the system, encouraging colleagues to assist one another.

Activity Design: As soon as the live lesson begins, launch application sharing so all participants can see the new reservation system. Tell the class you are planning a vacation, and want them to help you make the reservations. Call on one participant and turn over control. That person should book your air travel, asking questions based on previous experience as an agent, and inputting data into the system, with the rest of the class watching. When the “agent” has trouble, pause the story and have the group assist with troubleshooting the system. Each learner gets the opportunity to book a car, hotel, activities, and then deal with more complex changes to existing reservations.

Why this works: By drawing on the learners’ existing knowledge and building on what a colleague already has accomplished, this story-based approach provides motivation for everyone to stay engaged and pay attention throughout the exercise, and teaches them to transfer what they know about the existing system to the new system. It eliminates a lecture-based approach to systems training, and we all want that! Also, it provides freedom to fail—if a learner doesn’t know what to do, he or she can call on colleagues for help.

3. OBJECTIVE: During new hire orientation, utilize corporate intranet resources to take advantage of embedded learning opportunities.

Gamification Strategy: Design a scavenger hunt, and use badges and leaderboards to show individual progress. Include badges for collaboration. This promotes individual accomplishment, as well as collaboration.

Activity Design: Convene a new hire orientation program via the virtual classroom, and tell learners they will spend the next two hours learning how to use online resources to learn about benefits, products, and IT support. Provide a PDF that lists the various intranet sites that can help them, and a list of 15 questions they need to research and answer. Answers are posted to an online system, and points are earned for each answer/accomplishment. Learners can research the answers on their own or use chat to work with others in the group. The virtual classroom screen updates the accomplishments (via a leaderboard) while the learners work on their own system. As a final step, have each learner post a question he or she has about the company. When the class comes back together, discuss the individual questions, rather than the basic content learners researched on their own.

Why this works: Lectures about basics often are not engaging, and don’t’ take advantage of the energy a new hire brings to the class. By allowing learners to do the research on their own, they’ll get more than the content—they’ll learn how to find the information again later on. Finally, you can be comfortable knowing that the discussion component of the class is relevant and meaningful to the group.

Notice that a common element in all of these examples is the minimization of lecture-based content—most of the learning comes from participation in the gamified activities. The key is spending time designing experiences up front that meet your learning objectives and take advantage of the collaboration opportunities provided by the virtual classroom.

A thought leader in the field of virtual classrooms, Jennifer Hofmann is the president of InSync Training, LLC, a consulting firm that specializes in the design and delivery of virtual and blended learning. Featured in Forbes Most Powerful Women issue (June 16, 2014) as a New England Women Business Leader, she has led InSync Training to the Inc. 5000 as the 10th Fastest Growing Education Company in the U.S. (2013). Hofmann is the author of The Synchronous Trainer’s Survival Guide: Facilitating Successful Live and Online Courses, Meetings and Events (Pfeiffer, 2003), Live and Online! Tips, Techniques, and Ready-To-Use Activities for the Virtual Classroom (Pfeiffer, 2004), and How To Design For The Live Online Classroom: Creating Great Interactive and Collaborative Training Using Web Conferencing (Brandon Hall, 2005). She has co-authored, with Dr. Nanette Miner, Tailored Learning: Designing the Blend That Fits (ASTD, 2009), a book focused on taking advantage of distributed technologies to create the best blended training solution possible. Her most current projects include a monthly Training magazine online series titled “Virtually There” and her newest book, Body Language in the Bandwidth – How Facilitators, Producers, Designers, and Learners Connect, Collaborate & Succeed in the Virtual Classroom (InSync Training, 2015). Follow Jennifer Hofmann at her blog, Body Language In The Bandwidth at or on Twitter @InSyncJennifer.