Distance Learning in the Time of Coronavirus

How To Engage Students Using Gamified Live Video

Jeroen Elfferich
Mar 19 · 7 min read

Join our free webinars for educators and insiders interested in using interactive, live video for distance learning — for options, see the end of this article

Education has been doing the same thing for ages: we listened to teachers, made notes, studied our textbooks, did our homework, were tested and eventually received a piece of paper that allowed us to move on to the next level. The Internet blew all that up. Or at least it was supposed to. We have access to near infinite amounts of information, any time, wherever we are. Our kids first go online before their first day of school. Education departments, publishers, and schools have caught up to offer a variety of digital learning tools, both for use in the classroom as well as at home.

We have access to near infinite amounts of information, any time, wherever we are.

However, in essence, our educational system still relies on classroom-based education, linear lessons and written tests. It’s a proven model, and a ‘just add tech’ mantra clearly isn’t going to magically solve it. So if it ain’t broke, right? But classroom-based education has been facing major challenges for some time now. There’s a shortage of qualified teachers. Class sizes have grown, reducing teachers’ motivation, individual attention for students, and increasing sick leave. It doesn’t scale downward well either — areas with aging populations struggle to keep their classrooms filled. In addition to that a digital transformation requires investments not many schools can afford.

For students, with great information technology comes great distraction. The smartphone, this pocket super computer that gives us access to all the information in the world, reduces attention spans so much that most schools forbid them in classrooms. Kids live and breathe mobile video, games, memes, scrolling timelines, and spend most of their time outside of class on them. Their teachers are neither trained nor equipped to create teaching materials fit for their students’ mobile devices, let alone video or interactive content. And have you ever met a parent who said: “I wish my child would spend more time on her phone?” Our education system, like our society at large, is scrambling to figure out the consequences of the biggest social experiment ever conducted on minors: giving them smartphones.

Of course there always was and always will be a tension between new media and technology, education, and culture, but today, we have an additional, unexpected, disruptor. COVID-19 is turning whole societies upside down and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Schools around the world have closed down, forcing children to stay at home with schools and teachers left to figure out how to make distance learning work.

Many teachers have now started to live stream their lessons, which sounds like a great idea. To do it well however takes more than pressing the ‘start stream’ button. It takes preparation, a script, gear, and some tech savviness. And while facing a webcam might sound less scary than dealing with a room of 28 teenagers, not everyone is a natural in front of a camera. On the tools side, a video conferencing system designed for business people to share powerpoints is functional, but boring. And if it’s already difficult to get an executive to mute while they slurp their coffee, imagine getting two dozen kids in a many-to-many video call to behave. Of course teachers are smart and resourceful and will make the best of it. And video clearly is the best way to compensate for the lack of physical presence. So despite the challenges, any video is better than no video.

Getting video-based distance learning going may actually be the easy part. Schools, teachers, and students are all excited to give this new approach a try. The key challenge comes a couple of weeks in. Once the novelty wears off, students will get bored having to watch yet another talking head on their screen. As their motivation decreases, ever-resourceful students will find ways to do other things they enjoy more without being detected. And if you weren’t able to establish your students’ level at the start of the distance curriculum, it will be hard to track progress over time and see if learning objectives are met.

…live, interactive, gamified video can help to lighten the burden on teachers, ensure schools better reach their objectives, and for students to have way more fun doing it.

Fortunately, there are lessons learned elsewhere that can be applied here. At Ex Machina, over the past ten years we found out how to make video and live events more attractive, engaging, and valuable by integrating interactivity and game mechanics. We learned these lessons across projects in interactive television, games, sports, and Twitch streams. Applying these lessons to create live, interactive, gamified video can help to lighten the burden on teachers, ensure schools better reach their objectives, and for students to have way more fun doing it.

In media, ‘live’ implies a sense of urgency. You have to be there to experience the moment that is created. A thrilling sports match, a keynote revealing a revolutionary new device, finding out which talent won the competition. And live content engages the most — it triggers trending topics on social media and can motivate hundreds of thousands of people to download an app to vote or to play along. At least as important, ‘live’ offers a sense of community, of belonging. The fact that you know that others, especially if they’re your peers, are experiencing the same thing at the same time makes all the difference in motivation. Other benefits are that you can prepare and schedule events, and notify them to remind them to tune in. As teaching is in its very essence something that happens live, in real time, this is a natural fit.

Of course you can use online video to just broadcast your live stream for passive consumption. But the internet is not about one way; it’s a network, created for communication. Live video combined with communication means interactivity. Chat is an obvious example and can work great, but as it’s open-ended and unstructured, may suffer from spam and trolling and can be hard to follow for larger groups. We learned that structured interactivity, things like polls, quizzes and predictions, are the best way to integrate user feedback into the main narrative and to challenge, engage and test the audience. The educator hosting the session can seamlessly combine explanation segments with interactions so students find out if they got it. Instant feedback is given, so there’s flexibility to decide to move on to the next topic if everyone gets it, or to explain more if the feedback shows many students didn’t quite get it yet. Interactivity also lets the presenter answer students’ questions on the fly and acknowledge everybody’s input, further reinforcing the sense of community.

Ask any young person what their favorite pastime is and the most popular answer will be gaming. From Minecraft to Clash of Clans to Fortnite to GTA, games fill the spare time and minds of all school-going ages. Popular games today are designed to be played together, to collaborate, and compete with others. Playing games together is a key ingredient of how friendships are formed and maintained. Including game mechanics is a no brainer if you’re doing live, interactive video in education. Even grinding and mundane tasks can be made more interesting if you’re rewarded for completing them, and if you can score better if you work together with others or beat your friends doing it. And people are more motivated to complete something if they’re not just playing on their own but playing as part of a team where everybody is responsible to contribute to a shared goal. If a teacher acknowledges the individual and collective efforts, the incentive to complete tasks and come back for the next sessions grows even further.

Anyone with a smartphone can produce video today with a quality that required tens of thousands worth of gear and a dedicated studio just a decade ago. But you need to prepare if you want to offer more than an educator’s head in front of a camera. Consider how to enrich your video by including pre-recorded sections and archive material that explain the topic in more detail. See if you can get experts in your field involved and use graphs to visualize information. And think about what sections lend themselves to active participation, for rewarding completion of tasks, and for letting students do challenges and compete or collaborate in games.

Another key question is how you plan to distribute your video. You’re probably thinking about platforms like Instagram, Twitch or Youtube, but any of these binds you to their terms and available features. This means you will not control or own your students’ data, unknown advertising may be added, and possibilities for engagement, interactivity and game mechanics are limited. And forget ever talking to a live human in case you have questions. If you can, we recommend you choose a solution that lets you be in control of your content, how it’s accessed and by whom, and its privacy policies. A solution that offers easy to use tools to stream, create, rehearse, and produce interactivity and game mechanics, to track and analyze students progress and to integrate this into a user-friendly interface accessible on all relevant devices.

If you’re working in education and related areas, we’d love to hear from you! This is a time of great challenges, but also offers opportunities to introduce new technology and practices from other fields to address the needs of teachers, students and other stakeholders. Ex Machina is organising several webinars to discuss this topic. Join us and several other experts to find out more about live, interactive, gamified video for education, check out a hands-on demo and participate in Q&A and discussion. Register at ignitionstudio.live. We’ll have a session in Dutch on Monday, 23rd March at 13:00 (CET) and in English on Thursday, 26th March at 16:00 (CET), and more sessions may be added later.

For more info about what live interactive video can do for education, visit our website.

Live, interactive, gamified video can help to lighten the burden on teachers, ensure schools better reach their objectives, and for students to have way more fun doing it.


The best insights from the Ex Machina Team.

Jeroen Elfferich

Written by


The best insights from the Ex Machina Team. We develop innovative, interactive, multiscreen solutions for brands, media, and e-commerce companies. Our concepts, designs, apps, and platforms reach tens of millions of users, powering thousands of hours of interactivity worldwide.

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