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Gamification of Learning : Level 2 – Team Treehouse

Matt Grantski
Development Lead

Library

Team Treehouse is a technology education website, like Lynda.com, Codecademy, and Khan Academy before them, that models their lessons as a simple interactive experience. Watch a short video, and then take a quiz or participate in a challenge, repeat as the difficulty increases. Before you know it, you’ve learned a fundamental piece of whatever technology you are learning.

As a developer, it’s good to be aware of new technologies, languages, and paradigms in development. Team Treehouse combines game elements with a library of various courses, allowing the player to participate and complete any of them without a background in the field. By slowly introducing topics and gradually increasing difficulty, Team Treehouse gives players the tools they need to embark on their own adventure, but how far do they take their gamification of the lessons, and is it enough?

Many features of Team Treehouse share similarities with, and remind me of, some old school games, and—taken as a whole, the experience can emulate the journey of starting at level 1 in a game to becoming more powerful and able to conquer the most difficult challenges in the game.

If we look at Team Treehouse literally as a game, then some questions we can ask are: how fun of a game is it? How effective is it in teaching incredibly useful skills in a relatively easy manner? When are you going to make your point? How long is this post going to take? Do they still make Peanut Butter Captain Crunch? I’ll highlight the RPG aspects of using Team Treehouse, and speak to my experiences in using it as a powerful learning tool. And yes, they still do make Peanut Butter Captain Crunch.

The Library

Game Equivalent: “The World” / Sandbox

Megaman Select
Metal Man’s theme is the best theme music. You are wrong if you disagree.
Team Treehouse’s library is home to all of the courses they offer, categorized by their field of study. It’s very web development heavy, but there are also courses for business and design. This is the world view, a simple map of everything there is here. Feeling like learning how to create an iPhone app with no prior experience at all, or do you want to bone up on your web development skills by learning some CSS tricks or improving your jQuery skills? The library is your gateway to learn or improve your knowledge. Like coursera.org, I imagine that this library could eventually grow from offering a limited range of subject material to teaching a myriad of fields of study.

Learning Adventures/Deep Dives

Game Equivalent: Jobs/Classes (Knight/Mage/Thief)

Learning Adventures
Character Classes
When I played games that had only three standard classes (Knight/Magic User/Thief) and three separate experiences for them, I always went with the thief. I enjoyed sneaking around and stealing character’s stupid possessions and selling them, and just generally moving in the shadows and not talking to or confronting people. My love of not talking to people or confrontations has led me on a long, lonely road to web development. Whoa, psychology, stay out of this! This is getting too deep. Anyway, Treehouse offers different paths to further or start your career in the technology landscape. You can learn how to start a business (starting a business means lots of tough conversations and bravery, this is kind of akin to a fighter class). You could also learn how to use Photoshop and tools like that to become a web designer (being able to Photoshop yourself into a picture ), or learn programming skills to build iOS/Android apps, websites, or Ruby on Rails / Javascript / PHP applications (web Developers are like thieves, as mentioned before). You can mix and match or just pick one style of learning and get as much out of that as you can. Soon they will be offering a class called “How To Really Stretch an Analogy Beyond The Realm Of Believability” but I probably won’t need to take that course.

Achievements & Badges

Game Equivalent: Level Up

Granskis account Achievement
The usefulness of achievements and badges in a learning context is debatable. It is not a sustainable desire to learn something if it’s based on badges and achievements received in participation. There needs to be a motivation. If that motivation is already in place, then adding rewards or badges can be a sweetener; badges could incentivize players to “collect” all possible badges. This is a delusion, but a useful one. In a normal, non-gamification context, this equates to motivation and thorough diligence, i.e., focus. Gamification just makes focus sexier by giving you cool-looking badges you can be proud of and have something tangible to point to as an indicator of your progress. It can also encourage the player to continue racking up badges. It’s a reason you have millions of kids good at Guitar Hero and not at the actual guitar. They receive feedback in stars and points in the game, while the feedback with a real guitar is buzzing notes, crappy versions of the already crappy Stairway to Heaven, and actual feedback.

Videos

Game Equivalent: Storyline

Compliments
Just to have a little fun, Team Treehouse has a dramatic storyline involving finding a web design job, with videos that get unlocked as you complete more projects they offer. It doesn’t add much to the learning experience, but it’s kind of a fun way Team Treehouse brands (oh god, I said that word. HORK! BLUHHHHH!) themselves as a fun educational site built upon video lessons. But it’s the video lessons themselves that set the site apart. They are short and get the point across. Some of the older videos, however, are guilty of getting into the mundane: There is one Ruby on Rails video in particular where the instructor literally spends 3 minutes reciting the reserved words in the Ruby grammar. I would like to see them go back and freshen some of these up. But back to the positives, the videos are fun enough to stay intriguing, and informative enough to learn by osmosis. And by osmosis, I mean by watching, not by equalizing concentrations of liquids by passing the fluids between a penetrable membrane.

Learning Curve

Game Equivalent: Easy battles

Slime
Slimes in the Dragon Warrior series served no other purpose than to waste your time. Except the metal slimes. Those guys were jerks.
If you have a motivation to learn something Treehouse offers, investing a few hours to learn and practice all the skills will help you get there. However, side affects may include drowsiness, boredom, and lack of interest in the first few videos for any deep dive or project. The learning curve is VERY gradual, especially in the earlier lessons. Sometimes the worst part about games is dealing with the easiness presented in the beginning of the game, but it’s sometimes necessary to help get you up to speed when the real challenges begin.

Quizzes & Challenges

Game Equivalent: Battle System (loss aversion)

Like I mentioned in the last section, some of the videos can be extremely monotonous if you have any background in the field in question at all. It’s not necessary for any programming class to list all the words reserved for controlling the program, but this leads the player to take part in code challenges and quizzes that test this knowledge. But if you were not paying attention in the videos, you might become confused on the difference between responsive and adaptive web design, or what the correct conversion of pixels to percentages would be in a given HTML element. If the player fails these code challenges or quizzes even one time, restarting it might not give them a better chance since they are still being quizzed on the same snippet of material. If they want to earn the badge, they might have to watch the video again to refresh their memory. Maybe the player became briefly distracted at how strange and alluring Allison’s half tanktop, half scarf, and half cleavage highlighting blue shirt is. Is it supposed to highlight that area? Is there something we’re not seeing because of the pink blazer? We may never know. Anyway, this is a good example at how being distracted in battle can cause a player to lose, die, and doom the fate of the world. Thanks for destroying the world with your shirt/scarf, Allison.

Future

What’s missing?

Now that I’ve gone into very deep detail on how Team Treehouse is similar to old video games, I should also mention, how is it different? Video games have a great sense of replay value and nostalgia, and any elements missing from Team Treehouse could be beneficial if it were included to complete the experience.

Boss battles

Mike Tyson
When I completed the Responsive Web Design course, I was expecting something grander. In a matter of hours spread over a couple of days, I learned how to create a fluid grid, how to adapt and use media queries to get websites looking good in all stages between a large desktop layout to a phone, and even some deeper things like vector graphics and viewport sized typography. Surely, with this new acquired knowledge, I’ll be able to exercise all of these tools on one final and epic code challenge? Well, no, not really. Not at all. Even though the code challenges iterated through a site bit by bit, the grand finale was a drab and uneventful message: ” You completed Responsive Web Design.” Well, now what? I know I can go take these tools and apply them to sites I work on in the future, but one final undertaking project would not only feel more rewarding, but it would reinforce the skills I’ve just learned.

Party system

Leeroy Jenkins
Another thing missing from the “Team Treehouse as an RPG Video Game Concept That Matt Just Won’t Let Die” is a party system. No, not 7-layer bean dip and pink sombreros, but a group of people working together to achieve a goal. My friend and coworker Heidi is on Team Treehouse, but I can’t add her as a friend. There is no concept of connecting with other people on the site apart from knowing they exist. I think it would be cool if Heidi and I could team up on a project or a deep dive. Not only would collaborations help motivate and hold people accountable to work on their share, but the difficulty of the project could increase, depending on the number of people working on it.

Way TL;DR version: Team Treehouse is a fantastic web technology education tool that employs gaming elements to keep user’s attention and motivation to help them learn very valuable skills they can leverage in real life. I think that if they added massive project undertakings and allowed players to collaborate with each other, they would effectively mimic a real life workplace/freelance scenario. Once the players overcame such a challenge, they’re ready to take on real world challenges. And get gold.

Matt Grantski
Matt Grantski, Development Lead at eROI.