Better Participation Through Rewarding Users


You’ve probably seen a horse trainer reward his horse with a cube of sugar after a successful performance of a new trick. This simple gesture holds the key to better engagement and participation in your e-learning courses.

Of course your users aren’t horses (except if you’re pioneering animal e-learning), but the principle, which behavior psychologists call “positive reinforcement”, still holds.

Users need to know they’re getting something out of this e-learning thing, and they need to be assured that they’re making progress. That’s important, because if users are not confident that they are making progress they tend to withdraw and see the course in a negative light.

There are several ways to go about rewarding users.

Game the system

The notion of “gamification”, for example, is all about adding game elements to a service or application in order to boost competitiveness between the users and increase their engagement. Grades, with all the rivalry they can cause between top students are already a kind of very basic “gamification” (they’re essentially “keeping score”), but as we all know from school, grades are not enough of a motive.

Modern gamification systems take this up a notch or several, to the point that some e-learning apps can hardly be distinguished from actual games (this is especially true for those targeted at younger children).

For an enterprise e-learning service you should probably not take it that far. A few subtle elements can work wonders. You could follow the example of StackOverflow, a programming service that was an early pioneer in gamification on the social web.

StackOverflow offers a set of levels, badges and achievements to encourage users to use it more. The more involved you get, the more badges you collect and the faster you’re climbing the ranks.

It’s a privilege

The “rank climbing” doesn’t have to be constrained to artificial honors like “badges”, but can also involve giving users actual privileges in your service.

Long standing users, for example, that have displayed serious commitment to the service can gain the ability to create new discussion threads in your public forums, or even moderate comments. This not only gives users a sense of achievement and creates a more engaged community, but it also frees you from having to perform the moderation yourself.

Tread carefully, though, as it’s a fine balance between encouraging users to engage more to gain such privileges and alienating users that don’t have them by creating a user “elite”.

People can be extremely passionate (which includes enraged) for something as small as a deleted comment, especially if they believe some privileged user abuses his power. This is something inherent in any hierarchical community though, so you just have to be prepared to deal with it. (For an in-depth look of online community dynamics, Clay Shirky’s classic “A group is it’s own worst enemy” is required reading).

Give me money (that’s what I want)

Another option for giving more substantial rewards to users would be to offer free lessons, deductions and special offers to the best of them, or to those who complete some modules, etc.

This of course is only applicable if you run a commercial e-learning service, but even in an enterprise setting you can arrange to have some monetary rewards for the users, such as a bonus for those passing a course with the top grades.

Another option you have in an enterprise setting is to offer time off work to the users you want to reward for their e-learning performance. This could be a regular day-off or the chance to attend some learning seminar (something which furthers their skills and still beats having to work that day).

Love is all you need

Above we took a look into various ways to reward your users, mostly based on the literal meaning of the word “reward” — offering gifts, badges, days off and so on.

But of course there’s an even more basic sense in which you can reward your users and that’s the simple act of taking their suggestions and complaints into account, and adapting your e-learning courses and service to suit their needs.

See, all the badges you can invent in your gamification plan are meaningless if the users are actually discontent with your base offering. Fixing things they complain about not only removes pain points that make participation difficult, but also makes them feel that your e-learning service is something they have a stake in and that they can help shape and grow.

Stuff that you can (and should) fix includes class schedules (e.g. making sure that real-time online sessions are in hours that are convenient for them), helping them with tech problems (how to connect to the system, what tools they need etc), fixing course content that they find particularly difficult to comprehend or badly worded, etc. In general, keep your ears open.


Finally, there’s always sugar. Well, maybe not in the horse trainer’s sense, but how about rewarding the whole group with a small celebration when they finish a module?

And just because your e-learning is online, doesn’t mean the celebration has to be virtual. Get some snacks, cupcakes and drinks going, and they’ll be a lot more favorable towards the service in the future.

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