“Teenagers and gaming are a natural fit”

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Two innovative platforms use gamification to motivate student learning, while providing teachers with an overview of the progress of individuals as well as the class as a whole. Caroline Smrstik Gentner talks with innovators at Sapientia in Brazil and Siyavula in South Africa about these platforms.

Caroline Smrstik Gentner: Games are a popular tool for encouraging young people to do more homework. What motivated you to develop your platform?

Mark Horner, Siyavula (South Africa): More than 60 percent of students in South Africa go to schools that charge extremely low fees or none at all, and lack proper resources. Our project began by putting textbooks online so that schools and learners could access them free of charge. To complement the books, we added interactive questions and a baseline assessment. Siyavula is used in math, physics and chemistry, and focuses on the average learner. We leveraged the bank of questions to facilitate other functionalities, such as analytics.

Jorge Elô, Sapientia (Brazil): As a teacher, I saw that students were losing interest in learning just when they needed to be preparing for university entrance exams. We created the Sapientia platform as a way to increase student engagement through gamification. It’s not based on book content, as Siyavula is, but it is aligned with the national common-core curriculum and can be used for any subject.


MH: Our focus on the average learner in the African context has a lot of knock-on benefits. Any learner, anywhere, with any device that can connect to the internet can use our platform; it does not require a high-end device. We’ve been working with mobile networks so that there’s no data cost for using the platform in South Africa. This helps us reach the audience we’re trying to help.

JE: It’s wonderful to see how engaged the students are. We are able to compare the student data that we capture and store with data from their peers, and monitor students’ development in all of their classes.


JE: When I started using the platform, I had 12 classes and was working with more than 100 students, all at the same time. But I could see that they were engaged, and I was able to monitor their engagement and progress. It was easier for me, as a teacher, to assess their progress. I started to think, “Oh, this works!”

ATS: We have a team that regularly visits some of the schools, and they come back with pictures of kids holding up the certificates they have earned. They look so proud! They’ve worked really hard to achieve their goals, and I’m so happy to see their success. It’s heartwarming.

CSG: How have teachers responded to your innovation?

JE: Our education system in Brazil is very traditional, and teachers tend to be resistant to using technology. But teenagers and gaming are a natural fit! We went to students directly with our platform of games and challenges, and they approached their teachers about using it in the classroom. 

Alexandra Trinder-Smith, Siyavula: Introducing teachers in South Africa to new things can be quite challenging – they’re so overwhelmed by all of the demands on their time. As a former teacher in the state system, I understand. But once they try out our platform, their reactions are incredibly positive because they recognize that it’s a tangible way of easing their day-to-day burdens.

“We went to students directly with our platform of games and challenges, and they approached their teachers about using it in the classroom. “

Jorge Elô, Sapientia (Brazil)

CSG: What aspects of games are most motivating for students? And do you differentiate between the performance of individuals and that of the whole class?

MH: When learners reach a milestone, they earn a Siyavula certificate that they can print out. In addition, we make our data available to scholarship providers as well as to colleges and universities, enabling students who show progress to continue their education. The functionality in our system for the teacher has expanded to include an extensive learner management system. Teachers can manage classes, move learners around, and run analytics for all of their classes.

JE: Sapientia works with a points system. Students start the year with a certain number of points that increases or decreases depending on the students’ engagement and behavior in class. They compete with one another, but they can also donate points to help a classmate. This fosters a sense of collective responsibility. We are able to watch as individual students develop their academic and social skills.

CSG: Does your platform increase the amount of studying students do?

MH: I don’t know what it’s like in Brazil, but in South Africa only about five to seven percent of students do a reasonable amount of schoolwork on their own. With Siyavula’s recurrent campaigns, leaderboards, and special badges, we can increase that share to up to 40 or 50 percent participation.

JE: We have found that 90 percent of our students do more homework and more work at school after they start using Sapientia. And we have preliminary data showing that these students stay motivated to study for university entrance exams and continue their education.

“In South Africa only about five to seven percent of students do a reasonable amount of schoolwork on their own.”

Mark Horner, Siyavula (South Africa)

CSG: What are the next steps for you?

Ariel Roque, Sapientia: We are developing our analytics. We already have a prototype running, but plan to introduce more teacher dashboards like those you have in Siyavula. We’re also expanding teacher training. Now that students have convinced teachers to use Sapientia, we are explaining to teachers how the gamification approach can work in the classroom.

MH: In South Africa, 80 percent of children in fourth grade and up are taught in English. In countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Zambia, and Botswana where English is spoken, they could also benefit from the materials we’ve developed. We may embark on a translation project in the next year or so, with the goal of building the infrastructure needed to manage the translation of our materials to other languages more efficiently.

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