People You Should Know: Steven Johnson

Professor pits students against each other in friendly online competitions by using social media as a playing field.

Steven Johnson teaches Social Media Innovation, a course that educates students on using social media platforms to network. Johnson also uses gamification to encourage students to go the extra mile. | COURTESY STEVEN JOHNSON
Steven Johnson teaches Social Media Innovation, a course that educates students on using social media platforms to network. Johnson also uses gamification to encourage students to go the extra mile. | COURTESY STEVEN JOHNSON

Steven Johnson, a professor in the management information systems department, has taken to using social media in the classroom through gamification. Students take part in friendly competition by earning points and online badges through completing tasks for class.

The Temple News caught up with Johnson to see how gamification came about and how he has adapted it for the classroom.

The Temple News: What is gamification?

Steven Johnson: Gamification is using the elements of games in non-game situations. An example we do in the department is that we have a point system for our majors who earn points for things they do going through the major, for example you get a lot of points for an internship, and filling out your online profile. There’s a leader board that shows who has the most points, and they get recognized for that as well as certain levels you have to go through to achieve point totals in order to move forward through the major.

Another example is what I’ve been doing in my own class the last three years, which is using what I call “the social media quest.” Students earn quest points by doing different activities, and they get badges for those activities. We have a leader board where students get recognized for having the highest scores, and in class each week I recognize students for leveling up by earning more points than the last week.

TTN: How did gamification begin?

SJ: I started three years ago in the Spring of 2011. Previous to that I had been teaching similar content in special topics courses which were taught in computer labs in the basement of Tuttleman with relatively small classes of 20 students. The course was popular enough to become its own numbered course and opened up to 40 students.

At that point I adopted gamification because I needed to find a way to help motivate students during the semester to explore things in a self-paced manner. Another reason for this is gamification is one of the engagement strategies that has become more and more popular in any kind of online setting or digital product so students experiencing that have a much better sense of what it must really be like and what might work well and what might not work well. They’ll have a much more informed position if they are involved in implementing gamification if they are invlolved in implementing gamification in an organization in the future.

TTN: How has it been received by students?

SJ: One of the things that’s been beneficial to me is getting student feedback. Through that feedback I’ve been able to continually refine things, make it more exciting. One of the things that I found, especially after having done this multiple semesters now, is that the student feedback is overwhelmingly positive. There’s always some students that opt out of that portion of the class as soon as they realize it’s not graded. So the gamification element is a separate, parallel system.

TTN: How do students earn points?

SJ: Earning points occurs through two major channels. One is that all of the class  activities are done through a WordPress multi-user website that we have and when students do things like post comments on the website, or make a blog post, they get points for those. And that’s all automatically scored through the achievements [rubric] I use on the WordPress site. [Students also] get points for doing activities, some of which are required, and a lot of which are on a list that they can choose. Those activities [offer different points] depending on how complicated or involved that activity is. For those they submit an online form to me saying they completed the activity. Then I decide if it was successfully completed or not.

TTN: What kind of activities do students have to choose from?

SJ: Activities are related to the course content. A major portion of the course grade is based on how these activities are completed, and from the grading standpoint, we look at the number of activities as well as the quality. For the quest points they basically get it for submitting the activity up to a minimum level.

Examples of activities would be creating their blog, which they do at the beginning of the semester; another would be setting up the blog with Google Analytics later in the semester. They can also get points for exploring different social media sites. So if they set up a board on Pinterest, post a photo to Instagram or post to Vine, those are kinds of activities they can earn points for.

TTN: Do students use their personal accounts, or do they need to set up a new  “professional” account on social media sites like Twitter?

SJ: It’s kind of a mix but the idea is students are learning how to practice responsible image management. So it’s not professional from the standpoint they’re representing some brand or company, but [my students aren’t required] to use their personal accounts unless they want to.

As an example, this semester students are required to create their own Twitter account, and I tell them if they have their own Twitter account that they just want to keep highly personal then for the class purposes I need them to create a separate account. The idea for any of these social media sites they’re using throughout the course, is that they are things that would reflect well upon them professionally if a potential employer was seeing it.

TTN: What social media platforms have you been exploring in the course?

SJ: Vine and Pinterest are the more exploratory ones. The  main things we cover in the class  are WordPress blogging, so the students are responsible for creating their own blog on their own topic. They promote their blog through Twitter. We do some things on Facebook – I have a Facebook page set up for the class, although there’s not a large focus on that. Students are required to make at least one video on a group project so that’s something they end up posting to YouTube.

We also talk a lot about things like LinkedIn, although they’re not required to use that, but we talk about how you might use that effectively in looking for a job. We also use a tool called Piktochart, which allows students to make infographics. Infographics, along with videos, are examples of students learning how to create compelling content online. So another big theme of this is [students] are seeing what all the building blocks and elements are for content marketing.

Luis Fernando Rodriguez can be reached at or on Twitter @theluisfernando.

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