Since video games have become a primary form of entertainment, the use of game design elements has gained massive influence in non-game contexts. What started as – by today’s standards – seemingly innocent gamification to increase customer engagement and retention, has now merged into the excessive use of persuasive design in many tech applications (first in the so-called social media) to encourage compulsive behavior of the users. The question now is whether it is ethical to use similar (behavioral) mechanisms in education?

The latest generation of digital educational applications has the power to increasingly engage users in terms of quantitative (duration) and qualitative (intensity) metrics. Following the latest research in behavioral psychology, gamification of education seems to work. Game features are now more and more applied in educational products to make them more engaging, exciting, and enjoyable.

However, this very positivistic and even technocratic view on (digitized) education is again too short-sighted. Ultimately, the good old desire for greater efficiency (and scalable business models) can often be seen behind these efforts. And that often stands in blatant contradiction to the goals we proclaimed with teaching 21st Century Skills. Let alone the question if this automatization of learning can lead to a more fulfilling, rewarding and therefore happier life.

Learners (children and adults alike) are therefore well advised to look twice when a very, very fun and short-cutted remedy to learning is advertised somewhere. It is absolutely true that learning should and can be fun. But that it can be done faster and without effort is an outright lie. In a nutshell, behavioral-enhanced mechanisms in learning are great; as long as the goal is to produce better results for the learner, not for the institution selling it. Good content is easy to scale, but good education is not. The goal of a school is therefore not to make learning more efficient, but to implement behavioral design elements wisely to create lasting learning experiences that lead to the curiosity, creativity and courage we all seek in ourselves and others.

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