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Gamification continues to gain front-page prominence among LMS and elearning experiences as a whole. But Director and Founder of Motrain, Jeff Campbell, wonders if trying to promote “Motivational Design” over the “Gamification” brand is a better way for their flagship elearning engagement solution.

The newest gamification motivational design platform, Motrain, is a seamless LMS integration through a plugin, mobile app, and dashboard bundle. Students earn “coins” (you can name them any way you choose) through activity and course completions on their Totara or Moodle LMS, which they can exchange for prizes in the client-run Store.  Learners access the Store in the LMS through a block and/or through the free Motrain mobile app. Motrain has quickly captured the hearts of HR and L&D departments looking for ways to engage learners in the often arid subjects of training and compliance. By extending the concept of incentives and rewards, Motrain enables organizations to tie learning achievements directly to Store items that reflect people’s experiences and interests.

Campbell sat down with LMSPulse in the last days of December.


I was a high school Physics teacher, here in Vancouver using Moodle in a blended environment.  I became interested in leveraging the LMS for improving student’s theoretical understanding so I could spend more face to face time on practical, hands-on learning.   I spent a great deal of time and energy trying to get students to learn the theory on the LMS, but it was clear I needed an elearning engagement tool which led me to the gamification space.

I started to play with the plugins that were already available and started using Level Up!, the most popular plugin at the time. Over time, I could see the concept behind it, and I wondered how it could be pushed even further. For example, I saw my students were given points for submitting a quiz, regardless if they passed it or not. There surely was a better way to go about this, especially when it came to incorporating feedback on the gamification design.

Badges were also popular at the time. I even created my own, but they didn’t seem to improve student motivation considering all the work I put in to making them. Level Up! got better responses initially, thanks to its “laddered rewards” system, and it got students interested on the first levels, but they lost interest as the points were earned on interactions, not completions.

Vancouver has a well developed video game industry so I turned to it to explore a unique approach to improve learner motivation. Through some networking I got to sit down with studios and ask for their feedback on adding game play elements to an LMS. After spending time with developers and studios, I learned the most common issues they face in game design are “reward fatigue” and “reward indifference”.  It took me a while between hearing those words and examining the behaviors of my students, but the revelation was clear in relation to gamification mechanics: Students were getting tired of earning the same things or simply didn’t care about digital badges or stickers. The way traditional gamification systems work is they provide a systematic reward mechanism that becomes predictable. As a result, learner behaviors over time are not changed as the effects of reward fatigue and indifference set in.

With the idea of adding game-like elements to “encourage the behaviors that lead to learning”, I thought of a reward system that is always changing, that gives people choice, is specific to a given group of users, and adds elements of uncertainty for maximum appeal. These strategies led to the creation of the “Store.” A place where items or opportunities are offered to specific cohorts in Moodle (or audiences in Totara), allows learners choice as to how they spend their coins on these items, adds elements of uncertainty through item raffle draws and auctions, and drums up friendly competition by using leaderboards.

Choose Your Name

I am not 100% on board with the word “Gamification.” People who have been aware of the term are sometimes more familiar with ways in which it has been implemented poorly and there has been some overhype on some of its aspects. My preferred description is “Motivational Design.” I think of Motrain as a customizable platform with a suite of tools designed to maximize the motivation to continuously learn new things. Adding game-like elements such as earning coins to behaviors that lead to learning, for example, passing a quiz, makes Motrain fall into the “Structural Gamification” category for those purists out there.

There are people that disagree with using games or gamification in learning.  It seems as though many of these people feel that “the love for learning” should be enough to motivate learners and that if courses are naturally engaging, learning will take place.  The problem with that framework is there are many biases we develop about how engaging our activities and courses are when we are the ones developing them. Additionally, many adults did not have a great experience when they were in school, so any new learning program is a continual reminder of this.  For these reasons, Motrain plays an important role in continuously “nudging” users back to their LMS and helps add an appealing dynamic to learning. It provides frequent feedback through the earning of coins, which supports and positively re-enforces small achievements such as completing micro-learning opportunities.

Before Motrain, Mootivated was created, a similar platform for K-12 schools which, among other things, enables avatar creations through a mobile app in addition to the Store. Students earn coins in the same manner and exchange them for updating parts on their avatars.  There is also an educational component where students (through the approval of their teacher) can create and upload new digital art parts to the mobile app, specifically for their school.

About a year and a half ago I got a knock on my door. It was a corporate trainer telling me, “Have you looked into the corporate space? Drop the avatars and come with us with the store concept.” I didn’t know anything about the corporate space, but it made total sense, so I decided to expand. That’s when Motrain took off.

Extended Enterprise

At first I thought Motrain would be implemented internally, for employee training and onboarding. While it is being used for that, over the past 6 months our bigger developments have involved customer training, or what is called “Extended Enterprise.” Our aim for 2020 is attracting companies and organizations interested in motivating customers, such as channel partners, wholesalers, and distributors.  Companies are finally realizing the strategic advantage of training these non-employees about their products and services, but the hard part is getting these people to engage with and complete this training when it’s not required. That’s where Motrain has proven to be so successful. Companies are getting their marketing teams involved with Motrain as this new “educational marketing” paradigm is emerging.

Our flagship project is with Totara partner Kineo USA and their client Watts Water, who leverages the Motrain Store with branded items, where their customers learn about their products and services, earn coins, then redeem the coins for Watts branded lifestyle products. We have connected the Store to the Watts fulfillment/shipping provider, so now we’re sending customers these items in the mail all over North America. The marketing opportunities do not stop there as coins can be manually added to users for any reason. Customers can share and tag their photos wearing or using branded items on social media to earn even more coins for more branded products.  The results have been amazing, with more than a 6x increase in customer registrations and over a 14x increase in course completions in ONE-THIRD of the time of their previous customer training program.

A complete description of this project can be found here:

Shipping physical goods to customers is in vogue, but Motrain can also handle item redemptions in person and through the notification systems in the LMS.  Motrain leverages the cohorts/audiences functionality to create unique and separate rewards for each of these distinct users. An elearning manager can leverage this multi-tenancy by creating separate Stores for employees and for customers while sharing the same LMS.

Best Practices

While Motrain allows for a broad and varied set of rewards, we encourage people to think of rewards that are more experience based, enhance the learning further, or provide opportunities for altruism. As a motivation designer managing the Store, you should consider offering registration for a conference, a free course, donations to charities, or passes to yoga classes.  Offering opportunities that enhance learning, supports worthy causes or the health of the learner can greatly increase the learning behaviors we’re trying to encourage while helping enhance the personal connection to the learner.

In any case, no matter the reward, there is always the potential for reward fatigue looming.  The point of the Store is to encourage a dynamic and continually changing reward mechanism to keep the learners coming back.  In terms of the motivational design, we want learners to work in the LMS to gain coins, then use the Store to drain those coins to develop a continuous learning-motivational loop.

I do play some games (my favorite games are Catan and Starcraft), but I do not consider myself a die-hard gamer. I am however aware of some of the trends in the industry, in part thanks to living in Vancouver. Games are increasingly social, and challenges are designed to be accomplished as a group or a team. This mirrors my experiences on workplace trends, where there’s a marked emphasis on group-based learning and success. Both paths are well lined up and we’ve been mindful of that.

Motrain allows you to create individual leaderboards, to track the best students in a cohort. We also have collaborative leaderboards, which stacks cohorts/audiences against one another in “team” cumulative coin collecting. This is an area I want to spend more time on, hopefully with the help of people currently working in social learning.

Motivational design and authentic learning

A persistent challenge in motivational design is the alignment of the feedback/rewards systems with meaningful learning. One of our main areas of focus since the beginning is to tie earnings and prizes not just to actions on the LMS, but to real learning achievements. This helps close the gap between motivation and learning, but it is only through deliberate design efforts that you can fill in all the blanks. You have to think about what are the particular behaviors you want to encourage, the structures, and the rules that you want to put in place.

I started working closely with Remote Learner, another Totara partner and a provider of custom elearning solutions, who utilize Persuasive Design Strategies in their solutions. Persuasive Design Strategies, among other things, make sure the student is active and focused by making sure it’s clear where they should go next. While always enabled with choice, the student gets a “tunnel” that keeps them on a path that minimizes distraction and second guessing.  Remote-Learner is a key ally and opened our doors towards Totara, which today is the largest open source community focused on corporate and workplace learning. We feel we have been embraced by them and we are actively looking to form partnerships with more partners in the Totara network.

Our open API also allows us to extend beyond open source LMS, and hopefully will give us more ideas about new elements and structures to put in place that incentivize behaviors in other settings and other LMS’s. For developers of integration solutions,Totara and other platforms also have the benefit of being in a less crowded field. Using our open API in other systems is possible but isn’t a trivial task, both technologically and practically (Ex: none of our developers are versed on Ruby on Rails, Canvas LMS language). So for now Totara hits all the right marks and we’re excited about the progress and success we’ve had.

Motivational design mechanics: An elementary challenge, mobile twists and going forward with partners

While Totara and Moodle makes it easy to use Motrain with our existing plugin and block, designers of other systems wanting to use Motrain face the same basic challenge: A way to display Motrain on the platform, and above all, figuring out the mechanics behind earning coins. It sounds easy, but that’s actually the hard part: What are the behaviors that you want to encourage? How many coins should be awarded and for which achievements?

Going forward, we are working with another partner who is building their own learning platform. They are exploring the possibility of making the Motrain API compatible with xAPI statements. This would allow Motrain to go beyond SCORM/completion tracking, potentially opening another learning use-case. These types of conversations are really exciting since Motrain was built in such a way for it to flourish in many different scenarios.

Mobile learning is a promising space, and we are hoping to see more growth there.  Strangely enough, it seems Africa, Latin America and pretty much all of Asia are very interested in mobile learning, while North America and Europe are still very much stuck in desktop mode. I found it particularly surprising and somewhat frustrating because at the beginning I started with our mobile apps. “This is clearly where things are going,” I thought, so we even embedded our platform within the Classic Moodle mobile. Then Moodle changed the structure of their mobile app and Totara discontinued their mobile access. (Totara currently supports a web API designed for mobile development by partners, and a new official app is reportedly in the works.)

We had to go “back” to put Mootivated and Motrain into the LMS as a block which makes sense in terms of the UX. We’ve since re-worked the Motrain mobile app to work in both Moodle and Totara and it offers interesting features such as the rewards store with QR code “redemptions”: The student shows their QR code to the teacher (the “cashier”) who aims with the camera from their own app, to validate the redemption and remove the item from the student’s cart. I love this functionality and I still don’t understand why QR codes haven’t caught on more in this part of the world! The Motrain mobile app has further QR code functionality, where you can aim your phone at a QR code in the block on the LMS and it logs you into the mobile app automatically.

Our partnership model has been at the core of the platform from the start, and ongoing conversations with our partners fuel our technical and marketing efforts. We knew we needed to get Motrain in the hands of partners and service providers so they can easily introduce it to their clients.  We are actively looking to expand our partnership network and are proud to offer our platforms as a tool to help acquire new clients and to generate a generous recurring revenue stream. We are focused on some of the most common and critical LMS needs: Increasing course enrollments, improving course completions rates, and enhancing the personal connection between organizations and their learners.

If you’d like to learn more about our platform or partnership opportunities, please check out our websites:

Feel free to contact Jeff at:

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