Generation Z
Professor Barry Dwolatzky

Generation Z are rapidly stepping onto the world stage. They are graduating from high school, entering the workforce and studying at tertiary education institutions. Referred to as digital natives, this generation grew up with technology and have no knowledge of life without it. They are globally connected, incredibly mobile, entrepreneurial and crave autonomy – especially when it comes to education where they want flexibility on how, where and when they learn.

Are our South African universities equipped to engage with and stimulate these digitally immersed learners? Wits University’s Emeritus Professor Barry Dwolatzky, who serves on the Computer Science Advisory Board of University of the People (UoPeople), a tuition-free, online university, says that conventional education models are starting to become superfluous in our modern age as more learners go online.

“The brick-and-mortar style of tertiary education is set to be disrupted in the near future with a move towards virtual learning. With so much material available through technology anytime, anywhere, it is no longer necessary to physically attend a lecture with hundreds of people. Learners can watch and learn online from the comfort of their homes,” he says.

But can digital learning be as effective and engaging as in-person education? Teaching by traditional methods with a blackboard and the teacher’s voice as focal point – or ‘chalk and talk’ – is already making way for more online learning spurred on by the global pandemic, while a more informal and interactive approach that allows learners to study at their own pace has long been acknowledged to inspire more effective learning.

This is where gamification comes in. By blending the online method with interactive learning techniques, a new way of learning is created, integrating game elements and game thinking in activities that are not games. Technology, then, becomes a tool for active, instead of passive, learning. Using game-based mechanics, aesthetics and critical thinking to engage people, it promotes studying and increases motivation.

While South Africa is not quite there yet with gamified education, with the digital divide a stumbling block to including lower income learners in online learning, University of the People is opening up opportunities with its tuition-free model and is on the right path to making gamification in higher education a reality. This is critically important for a country such as South Africa where unemployment among the youth is at a record high and which is in dire need of jobseekers with tertiary certificates or degrees. 

Prof. Dwolatzky sees huge merit in gamifying learning and believes disruptors in the education sector should tap into this method of learning to keep students motivated and minimise dropout rates.

“There is a lot to be learnt from gaming. There is no penalty for failure – if you lose you start again, taking the lessons learnt with you into the next game. There is no stigma attached to failure – it is seen as part of progressing. People play in virtual multinational groups and learn to collaborate and communicate with players from different cultures in order to jointly solve problems,” he explains.

World renowned game designer, author and researcher Jane McGonigal asserts that gamification works because gaming triggers emotions such as joy, excitement, curiosity and pride, among others. Gamification is being used in business with good results, offering hope. McGonigal believes that these techniques could be applied to revolutionise the ways through which higher education is delivered or assessed.

Gamification perfectly aligns with the flipped classroom concept, where traditional ideas about classroom activities are reversed, transforming learning into a hands-on, differentiated and even personalised learning experience. The theory is that students learn best when they have goals, targets and achievements to reach for in a way they perceive as fun. So, using game-based elements, such as virtual currency or point scoring, problem solving activities, peer competition, teamwork, score tables and advancements to higher levels help learners assimilate new information and test their knowledge.

As a computer science advisor to the online University of the People, Dwolatzky has insight into how students respond to online learning and what keeps them motivated. “Universities that recognise the connection between digital engagement and student experience will be ahead of the curve in educating online learners.”

At UoPeople, learners participate in online discussion forums, peer review groups and graded quizzes, all of which improve attitudes towards learning, Dwolatzky says. This is echoed by UoPeople President Shai Reshef: “Thanks to our strong online community, students make connections from all around the world. This is a resource for sharing information, wisdom and support as well as for building a vibrant, international network.”

President Reshef concludes: “When implemented correctly, online education is the solution to the crisis in higher education. It is not just putting lectures on Zoom; rather, there is an entire pedagogy involved. You need to build in meaningful interactions and create virtual resources for students to make a positive change in student behaviour.”

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