Gamifying an Online Leadership Studies Course

By Ramiro de la Rosa

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Ramiro de la RosaRamiro de la Rosa is the Associate Director for Research Innovation in Distance Education, Center for Online Learning and Teaching Technology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. He is an adjunct professor for the Leadership Studies Undergraduate Minor at UTRGV. De la Rosa holds a Ph.D. in Leadership Studies, Master of Education in Instructional Technology, and a Bachelor of Business Administration. He has presented at numerous national and international conferences and participated as a panelist on the topic of gamification as pedagogy. De la Rosa has 18 years of experience in the field of Distance Education.


Recent scholarly findings indicate that the use of gamification in education can promote learning and deepen student understanding by supporting diverse learning styles through the inclusion of principles of good design. Finding just the right mix of pedagogy and technology for developing fully online courses can be difficult but not impossible. This article describes how leveraging gamification elements in both pedagogy and Blackboard® tools can motivate and engage students. De la Rosa will discuss the application of gamification to the Leadership Studies Undergraduate Minor courses. Readers will examine gamified elements, and discover gamification as a promising new pedagogy for fully online leadership courses.


Can gamification as pedagogy be the new norm? When properly designed, gamification as pedagogy can promote learning and deepen student understanding. It can empower students to be more collaborative, engaging, and imaginative. Additionally, gamification can support diverse learning styles through the inclusion of principles of good design and pedagogy.

Last summer, I developed three fully online, gamified, Quality Matters® (QM) aligned courses, in Blackboard LearnTM, for the Leadership Studies Undergraduate Minor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. They included Introduction to Leadership Studies, Leadership Skills Development, and Personal and Organizational Leadership courses.

Quality Matters provides faculty with the tools and training to develop quality online courses. You can find additional information about Quality Matters through their website.


As I prepared for the development of the Leadership Studies courses, I set forth three aiming objectives. The objectives included: to explore gamification as a promising new pedagogy for online courses; to match gamification elements to Blackboard Learn tools; and to determine which gamification elements faculty can incorporate into an online course.

The Problem With Thinking Gamification is About Technology

Keeping students motivated and engaged in an online course is a significant challenge facing education today. One proposed solution is to incorporate gamification into teaching and learning. Gamification is the application of game-like techniques to non-game environments to increase motivation, engagement, and learning (Kapp, 2012). At its most fundamental form, gamification is a systematic instructional development process (Farber, 2015) which incorporates elements such as points, leaderboards, and badges and whose primary purpose is to change behavior and develop skills (Burke, 2014). Gamification is about helping students find meaning in the activities they perform and not necessarily about turning education into a game.

I began this endeavor with the premise that technology was required to create an engaging, interactive, gamified, fully online course and that I would need to spend an immense amount of time looking for and learning new technology. I was aware of the time commitment required to develop a fully online course that met Quality Matters standards; after all, I had done this for several years. I also knew that adding gamification on top of QM was not going to be an easy task. However, I was determined to develop a QM, gamified, online course in Blackboard Learn. When I embarked on the journey, I began with what I knew or, at least, what I thought I knew. I spent a considerable amount of time looking and trying various gamification technologies for badges, leaderboards, and points. I spent weeks searching for technological tools to implement into Blackboard Learn as part of gamifying my course. I assumed that technology was the answer to gamify a course, only to realize that technology consistently came up short, especially when it came to finding a leaderboard for Blackboard Learn. Here is where I was wrong: I thought gamification was just about technology.

The Solution

Gamifying a course does not have to be an all or nothing design implementation. Educators can incorporate as little as one gamified element or as many as a course can reasonably accommodate. Also, a gamified online course does not have to be super high-tech. Gamification is more than leaderboards, badges, and points. Fully online courses can make use of good, sound pedagogy as strategies for adding gamified elements instead of relying heavily on technology. What I thought I knew all along was flawed. It was not gamification in the form of technology that I needed, but sound pedagogical strategies that aligned with QM Standards and gamification elements. To prove this, I started implementing gamification elements into my Introduction to Leadership Studies course, which I had recently developed using the QM Rubric.

I began by referencing a set of gamification cards, which I purchased about a year prior. You can find the cards here. The playing cards are great to learn gamification elements. I began by shuffling the playing cards into three groups, which were based on my teaching needs and those of the courses I was designing. Your groups can differ based on your own needs and those of your course. In group one, I added the playing cards that depicted gamification elements I could easily add to my course. In group two, I added the playing cards that described gamification elements I could add in the next semester. In group three, I added the playing cards that represented gamification elements I could add within two years.

Badges, Onboarding, Signposting, and Progress/Feedback

The playing cards in group one consisted of those gamification elements I could easily add to my fully online courses and included Badges, Onboarding, Signposting, and Progress/Feedback. I picked these four because I was already doing some form of these elements in my previous semesters’ online courses. For example, I had already used the Blackboard Achievement tool for about two years, and students had been very receptive to receiving "Badges" as they progressed through the course. I decided to keep them in my courses but renamed the link from “Achievements” to the gamified term, “Badges”.

Onboarding was another thing I was previously doing except I called it "Welcome Page". In Onboarding, students get access to everything they need to know when starting the course. Students have mentioned that this was very helpful. For Onboarding, I combined several content areas into one single area.

For the gamification element of Signposting, which is a method of pointing students in the right direction, I added a guide to navigate students through each course unit. This included information about what students needed to read and view, and which assignments to complete within each course unit.

While every online course should have frequent feedback, it is also a key element in gamifying your course. Students work best and are more motivated to progress through a course when they receive frequent and consistent reinforcement about how they are doing in their online course. I was already providing students with progress and feedback through the use of Grades, Badges, Rubrics, and Announcements, but I decided to do even more.

I added the Blackboard Goal Performance tool to my courses. To achieve this, I added the course objectives to Blackboard Outcomes Assessment and then linked the course goals to the course assignments using the Add Alignments Blackboard tool. Students can follow the Goal Performance link in my courses to get up to date information on how they are doing in all their completed assignments and overall on the course.

Theme, Points, Levels, and Certificates

Group two represented gamification strategies that I considered implementing next semester. These included the gamified elements of Theme, Points, Levels, and Certificates. I am further developing my courses to have a common theme centered around Leadership Studies where students can earn points as they progress through the course. These gamification points will be handed out to students as they successfully complete additional course assignments, for example, case studies. The more case studies students complete, the more points they earn. Once they earn enough points, students can progress up the various levels of Leadership starting from entry-level all the way to CEO or somewhere in-between. After the successful completion of each level, students would be provided with a Certificate of Accomplishment through the Blackboard Achievement tool.

Narrative Story, Quests, Boss Battles, and Branching Choices

Group three represented gamification elements that I may be able to implement in one to two years. These elements included Narrative Story, Quests, Boss Battles, and Branching Choices. These elements do not require a lot of technology, but would require a lot of planning on my part. For example, if I add the gamification element of Narrative Story, I will need to write a story that directs students through the adventures of a leader, slowly progressing from intern to CEO.


While developing the course, I realized the following three outcomes:

  • I discovered that gamification could be a promising new pedagogy for fully online courses, but faculty should caution that the implementation of gamification does not become overwhelming.
  • I realized that I had already incorporated, under different guises, gamification elements such as Badges, Feedback, Onboarding, and Progress and that I could easily add Signposting, Social Discovery, and Goal Performance.
  • Finally, I concluded that it's not about which gamification elements can be incorporated, but which ones best fit the course.

Implications for Future Practice

Gamification as pedagogy can be the new norm, but only when appropriately designed. It’s been this faculty's experience that gamification as pedagogy can promote learning and deepen student understanding. It can empower students to be more collaborative, engaging, and imaginative. When developing fully online, gamified courses, faculty can keep a few tips in mind. First, gamification is more than using technological wizardry; it's about well-planned pedagogical strategies that can create an engaging course. Next, faculty can incorporate as little as one gamified element or as many as a course can reasonably accommodate. It's about quality and not quantity. Finally, faculty can examine what they are already doing in their courses and build them into gamified pedagogical elements.


Burke, B. (2014). Gamify: How Gamification Motivates People to Do Extraordinary Things. New York, NY: Routledge.

Farber, M. (2015). Gamify Your Classroom: A field Guide to Game-Based Learning. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Kapp, K. M. (2012). The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-Based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

About PAUSE for Pedagogy

PAUSE for Pedagogy aims to connect leadership education theory to practice and seeks to take lessons learned in the classroom to expand our theoretical knowledge of teaching and learning. Written for both the experienced educator and those new to the profession, this column will add tools to readers’ pedagogical toolboxes. Most columns are accompanied by a video interview with the author exploring the ideas raised in the article in more detail. The series is edited by Lisa Endersby and Dan Jenkins, members of ILA’s Leadership Education Member Interest Group. Have you implemented an innovative practice in your leadership education? Contact Dan and Lisa at pauseforpedagogy@ila-net.com

Dan Jenkins Photo Dan Jenkins is Chair and Associate Professor of Leadership & Organizational Studies at the University of Southern Maine. He received his doctorate in Curriculum & Instruction (Higher Education Administration) from the University of South Florida. Dan has published more than 30 articles on leadership education and assessment and is an associate editor for the Journal of Leadership Studies. Dan is also a past Chair of the ILA Leadership Education MIG, Co-Chair of the ILA Leadership Education Academy, and enjoys numerous volunteer roles with the Association of Leadership Educators. Follow Dan @Dr_Leadership.


Lisa Endersby Photo Lisa Endersby is a speaker, educator, and storyteller exploring the intersecting realms of technology, leadership, and assessment in higher education. Her current role as an Educational Developer at York University involves supporting faculty in exploring and implementing innovative best practices for teaching and learning. Her doctoral work examines the relationship between professional identity development and communities of practice. Lisa also volunteers her time as the EDC Institute Coordinator for the Educational Developers' Caucus (EDC). Lisa can be reached at lmendersby@gmail.com.