Adventures in Gamification: An Interview with Tom Benjamin

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To finish our series Adventures in Gamification, we have a special surprise for you!  Dr. Tom Benjamin, who teaches the Gamification in Education course on OpenLearning,  has kindly agreed to participate in an interview with Accredible to discuss Gamification, MOOCs and his future plans.  This was especially exciting as a student of his course as he answered a few questions that I thought I had sorted out…read on to learn more about applying game theory to learning – and how he applied it to the course.

Who is Dr Tom Benjamin?

tom picture Tom Benjamin graduated from University of Michigan in Psychology, then did an MBA at Michigan State. He played water polo for MSU and Sydney U while in graduate school. He moved to Australia where he worked as a psychologist and researcher. He has taught & researched at a tertiary level across a number of disciplines including economics, IT, and demography.

Music is intrinsic to development of his game research.  His Detroit music career could be best described as a frat party and wedding singer. Although he went on to academia, some of his former rock band members continued on in the entertainment sector.“We were the first generation of kids with access to electronic gear. With our paper route money we bought stereo recorders and the same mics and amps as the Beatles!,” recalls Tom.

Karaoke, campfire singing, and blues jamming have many properties of gamification. Our local Rising Star karaoke was #1 in Australia and they allowed me to test out my multi-tracks with a live audience. Often someone would hear one of my public domain songs and ask if it was “an 80’s song”. I nodded without telling them that it was actually 1880’s!”

Participants in Gamification in Education should recognize in karaoke the gamified elements of competition and unpredictability add to that the capability to change the pitch of the song to fit a comfortable key is a huge leveller. Tom explains, “You could sing anything from bass to soprano with a push of the button. And you get intermittent reinforcement as with a 10,000 song list you’re bound to kiss a few frogs before finding the songs that fit you like a glass slipper.”


The true value of MOOCs can be found in the knowledge we gained, the pure learning. Where that knowledge comes from is far less important.  At one time, it was believed that radio and TV in the classroom would be the disruptive innovation, but it turned out that those devices had a much larger impact at home, where students could be exposed to the same news and information as their parents – and often ahead of when they covered it in school.

Documentaries and lectures on TV (or pod-casts) are valid methods of distributing information and gaining knowledge.  Information from experts are delivered to you in a one way dialogue, giving you the opportunity to absorb the content.  Discussions are not always required with the educator in subjects like science or history (how frequently will you want to argue a fact?) and the lectures are every bit as informative as a live lecture. ytv

Advancements in technology have made it possible (and cost efficient) to share this information to more people.  What once would take many years and much funding to produce can now be done with a pod-cast microphone and a netbook. “The information element has already been disrupted.  I couldn’t even dream of offering these courses without the massive heavy lifting subsidy from OpenLearning and YouTube.  We can put up post-grad quality material limited now only by our time investment. What won’t be disrupted will be the administrative and social elements of tertiary education,” says Tom.

“Disruptive Innovation is among the most misquoted terms at the moment.  The classical example was the motorcar which took a while to outperform the horse cart then improved exponentially, eventually making the horse obsolete.” ~ Tom Benjamin

Distance education once meant sending reams of paper material back and forth between student and the education facility.  At the University of NSW, home of one of the largest distance ed courses in Australia, Tom Benjamin introduced the use of digital technology – first by CD ROM, then the Web.  “There was initial resistance but it soon took over as the dominant format,” reminisces Dr. Benjamin. “I found OpenLearning which emanated from my University of NSW alma mater, contacted them, and they were very helpful in setting up my free MOOCs. I’m particularly grateful given that my current course have no revenue I can pass on to them.”

On Gamification

While working as a psychologist in the acute neurological and psychiatric wards in the hospitals, Dr Benjamin saw that patients had the same needs for exercise and recreation as before their accidents, but that it became more difficult due to their paralysis or disability.  Additionally, there was an embarrassment and frustration for the patient when being waited on hand and foot and having to thank a therapist for helping with simple tasks they could once do for themselves.  In this he saw the potential for computer game-based interactive tools.  “Most people welcome a chance to do something on their own and have a machine they can control, interact with, and yell at.  So we developed some physical games like the hanging ball, described in my course,” Tom explains.

Math_games_-_Big_Brother_Mouse_activity_day“Games in classrooms and rehabilitation centres had been traditional. However, the psychometric properties of games were somewhat new at the time and they remain controversial. How would parents feel if Johnny failed on a ‘game’ version of a test and didn’t get into med school? Duck and cover.My early research in hospitals sought to bridge the psychometrics between ‘task’ and ‘game’. Were there principles by which any tasks could be transformed into games? Could drills be gamified so that patients would find them more fun? Could games, despite their chance element, replace psychometric and academic tests?”

Games are a traditional teaching and learning tool. Direct instruction is the proven superior way of presenting information, there are only so many hours in a day and in a human concentration span, so games have long been a welcome alternative to drill and listening.

In the “Gamification in Education” course, we learned that games don’t have to be technology based to be effective.  They need to capture a person’s attention, draw them into a believable “world” or “story”, and challenge them into being and understanding more than they normally would. Gamification_techniques_5

“We knew for centuries that a lot of learning takes place out of school. And the success of commercial games speaks for itself. Little kids would not likely spend hours reading off quiz questions to each other at home or doing mortgage & probability calculations. But toss in some rules and dice and call it Trivial Pursuit or Monopoly and they’ll spend hours. So this is nothing new,” reminds Dr Benjamin.



“My personal advice is not to feel guilty and not to get sucked into the black holes of multimedia and the latest techno-bandwagon fads. You can spend countless hours downloading and installing software, let alone learning it. I do. And teachers often end up doing this unpaid (and unthanked) at home. So I’ve always recommended setting up a multimedia club or lab rather than trying to do all this admin yourself.” ~ Tom Benjamin

Flashcards, hangman and spelling bees all have a purpose – to develop the mind, just the same as tech based games.  Including gamification elements such as unpredictability and competition will help make the learning fun and memorable.  Tom Benjamin states, “I still treasure my dictionary I won in the class Spelling Bee at Washington Elementary school!”

His advice for teachers who are looking to use games in the classroom, “My personal advice is not to feel guilty and not to get sucked into the black holes of multimedia and the latest techno-bandwagon fads. You can spend countless hours downloading and installing software, let alone learning it. I do. And teachers often end up doing this unpaid (and unthanked) at home. So I’ve always recommended setting up a multimedia club or lab rather than trying to do all this admin yourself.”

On the Gamification in Education MOOC

As a student of Gamification in Education, I found that the course whet my appetite for more information.  I researched, read, watched videos, listened to additional pod-casts, anything I could to gain a fuller understanding and to be able to better answer the quiz questions. Imagine the surprise I felt when Dr. Benjamin further explained his views on the course… neuropsychology

“Gamification enrolments have far outstripped my psychology courses. This surprised me because of the interest in what people think forensic psychology is all about from their TV shows. And neuropsychotherapy is another buzz area.”




In his course on Gamification, Dr. Benjamin used many elements of gamification – he created a quest of knowledge and understanding that motivated the learner, he used text, pod-casts, quizzes and movies to capture our attention.

“A short movie with a text version can pack in a lot because the viewer can save, rewind, and replay or just read the text the old-fashioned way. And with the OpenLearning platform the real work will be your own research to answer the quiz questions. So the heart of education remains as always: reverse-engineering from what I hope you’ll learn back to what I have to deliver to help you do that.”

What’s Next for Tom Benjamin?

“I want to expand the MOOC offerings so they are better integrated. My next series will be Personal Branding. It will expand on the multimedia resources I’ve started to put together under the Neuropsychotherapy course, which is aimed at therapists. Branding is useful to job seekers,businesses, community groups with a ‘cause’, and anyone wanting a web presence.”

Dr. Benjamin has started a new venture known as the Multimedia Institute of Technology to continue offering free courses, but he is open to developing commercial courses as well.  “My courses will focus on skills that will be useful for those already in employment such as teachers and therapists. Job seekers and businesses may well find these skills a good investment when building their portfolios.”

Interested in learning more about Dr. Benjamin and his future plans?  You can follow him on his blog or on Twitter, Google+ or LinkedIn.  For the full interview, click here.

Thank you to Dr. Tom Benjamin for taking the time to speak with us at Accredible.  Also, thank you for joining us for this series.  We hope you’ve enjoyed your own Adventures In Gamification! If you’ve not yet had a chance to take Gamification in Education by Dr. Tom Benjamin via OpenLearning, there is good news – you can join in at any time!  Add it to your To Learn list today!  

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