Date of Award

December 2019

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Jing Lei


Gamification, Online Education, Students Interaction

Subject Categories



This study created and examined a gamification design that aimed at improving students’ interaction in a graduate level online course. By using a design-based research approach, the study investigated the application of principles from Self-Determination Theory in the gamification design and its influence on students’ interaction in discussion forums in terms of quantity, interaction dynamic, and interaction quality. The gamification design included a positive feedback system, contextualized in a narrative environment that was based on the original course project design. Participants were 49 students enrolled in the online course in three versions of the course, which were the non-gamification version of the course in the 2016 summer semester (NGC), the prototype gamification version of the course in the 2016 summer semester (PGC), and the revised gamification version of the course in the 2016 summer semester (RGC). Students’ interaction data in the academic discussion forums were compared with each other. Students’ gamification performance data were presented and compared between the PGC and the RGC. Moreover, eight students from the RGC participated in semi-structured interviews and shared their experiences and perspectives about the revised gamification design.

The results showed that students in the gamified courses posted more messages per week. When students were the facilitators for the week, they were more actively involved in the online discussion. The student facilitators in the gamified courses were more active compared to the student facilitators in the non-gamified course. Second, students’ interaction was more evenly distributed among students in the gamified courses. On average, students in the gamified courses received comments from more peers than students in the non-gamified course. The class level density scores were higher with smaller centralization scores in the gamified courses. Finally, the RGC discussion transcripts presented more knowledge building features on a weekly basis in

comparison with the PGC and the NGC, while overall the online discussion in the three versions of the course fell into the lower phases in the knowledge building conceptual model.

Students’ gamification performance was about the same in the two gamified courses. Nonetheless, the design adjustments made between the two design cycles and during the second cycle improved students’ participation in several gamification activities. Furthermore, students’ interaction was more stable during the six weeks in the RGC due to the design adjustments.

The semi-structured interviews further revealed the RGC interviewees’ experiences in the course. The positive feedback system satisfied students’ competence needs. Nonetheless, to what degree their competence needs were satisfied depended on their experiences and understanding of gamification. In pursuit of competence needs, some interviewees’ autonomy needs were undermined. The peer evaluation, dynamic academic discussion, and the authentic course project satisfied students’ relatedness needs. But additional emotional support from peers was barely sufficient.

The study provided an example of gamification design in online courses to improve students’ interactions in discussion forums. The results suggested a positive feedback system could be added in the course design to improve students’ performance of the targeted learning activities. The selection of learning activities, the design and development of the gamification elements, and the gamification algorithm should take both the subject matter and students’ characteristics into consideration. A narrative environment can help align the feedback system with the course context and students’ actions should result in development of the narrative.


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