Motrain Welcomes You To An Era Of Motivation Design And Gamified Customer Education — Interview With Jeff Campbell, CEO

Jeff Campbell Motrain Motivation Design Totara

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Gamification continues to gain front-page prominence among LMS and elearning experiences as a whole. But Founder and Director of Motrain, Jeff Campbell, wonders if trying to promote “Motivation Design” through 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. It also captured our readers hearts, who chose them among the best premium integrations of 2019. 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 us in the last days of December. The following are his answers.


I was a high school teacher, here in Vancouver. I was using Moodle in a blended environment, and I got interested in it on a practical as well as on a theoretical level. I wanted to do more practical, hands-on work on class time. From the first uses it became clear that teachers were not getting what they wanted. This is what would take me to the gamification space.

I started to play with the plugins that were already available. I was using Level Up! as my main one. Over time, I could see the concept behind it, and I wondered how it could be pushed even further. In that example, the student was given points for submitting a quiz, regardless of how well they were doing on the quiz. 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 created my own, but I didn’t get that much excitement from my students out of it and all the work I put in. Level Up! got better responses initially, thanks to its “laddered rewards” system, and it got students interested on the first levels. But they quickly lost interest.

I realized that Vancouver has a well developed video game industry. Through some networking I got to sit down with studios and ask their feedback on adding game play elements to an LMS. Among talks with developers and studios, the most common issues they mentioned are what is called “reward fatigue” and “reward indifference.” It took me a while between hearing the words and put it all together. But the revelation was clear: Students were getting tired of earning the same thing. Related to it, they were “consumers” of the rewards, which didn’t have any interactivity or surprise with them.

With the idea of “getting them to come back” in mind, I thought of a system that is always changing, that gives people choice, and is specific to a given group of users. This is what led to the “Store.” A place with items or opportunities specific to a cohort in Moodle, along with ways that allow students to interact with them.

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, there was Mootivated, a similar platform for K-12 schools which, among other things, enabled avatar creation. Students would earn coins from classroom to exchange for parts to complete their avatars.

About a year and a half I got a knock on my door. It was someone 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 after looking into it and trying for over a year, I decided to pivot. That’s when Motrain took off.

Unexpected thrills

At first I thought Motrain would be implemented internally, for employee training and onboarding. While it has been through for the most part, over the past 4 to 5 months our bigger developments have involved customer training, or what is called the “Extended Enterprise Space.” Our new aim for 2020 is attracting companies and people interested in motivating customers. In a way we are pushing into the corporate space.

One of our larger clients leverages the Motrain Store with branded items, in a customer training initiative. Customers earn coins to buy branded merchandise. We have tied the Store to the services of a fulfillment shipping provider, so now we’re sending people items on the mail all over the U.S. And the marketing does not stop there: Customers can share and tag their photos wearing branded items to earn even more coins for more branded products. Shipping physical goods, or physical giveaways on a workplace, is in vogue. Motrain can handle either kind of giveaways, the connection with a fulfillment shipping provider and the redemption process.

The cohorts functionality in particular is essential to create rewards that speak to specific groups within the LMS. An elearning manager may not only design courses, but the items that will be available for their specific students, and differentiate customers from employees.

A side quest

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.

Is the cake a lie?

While Motrain allows for a broad and varied set of rewards, we encourage people to think of rewards that are more experience-based, or that frame learning as a reward in itself. So people can claim goods, but also opportunities. As a motivation designer, you should consider awarding tickets for a conference of your choice, a day off or the theme of your next office party; as well as the ability to choose who would enjoy these kinds of experiences. No matter the reward, there is always the peril of reward fatigue looming. The point of the Store is to encourage new ideas.

I do play some games, but I do not consider myself a 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. 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 student of a cohort. Then we also have collaborative leaderboards, which stacks cohorts to one another. This is an area I want to spend more time on, hopefully with the help of social gaming experts.

Betting on insights

A persistent challenge in motivational design is the alignment with the actual learning experience and the structure of the learning. One of our main 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 engagement and motivation, but it is only through deliberate design efforts that you can fill in all the blanks. You have to think about the particular behaviors you want to encourage, the structures and rules that you want to put in place.

I started working closely with Remote-Learner (Totara Partner, former Moodle Partner), who are really keen on their “Persuasive Design” strategy. They have adopted a comprehensive process for learning success, which among other things it makes sure the student always finds a way and motivation to keep them active and focused by always having a place to go next for them. You “tunnel” them, while always enabling choice, but easing them along a path that minimizes distraction and second guessing.

Here’s where Motrain comes along. It can give students a “nudge” to keep them active and coming back. Remote-Learner was 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 it’s connecting us with more partners.

Our 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 learning behavior in students. For developers of integrations solutions, Totara and other platforms also have the benefit of being a less crowded field than Moodle. But setting the API in other systems isn’t a trivial task, both technologically (none of our developers are versed on Ruby on Rails, Canvas LMS language) and possibly with patterns and structures I’m not familiar with. So for now Totara hits all the right marks.

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

While Totara and Moodle makes it easier, designers of all platforms face the same basic challenge: A way to display Motrain on the platform, and above all figuring out the mechanics behind the rewards. It sounds easy, but that’s actually the hard part: What are the behaviors that you want to encourage? How much coins to give for what kind of accomplishment, how often?

Going forward, we are working with a Totara partner who is building their own LRS. They are exploring the possibility of making the Motrain API compatible with xAPI statements. This would allow Motrain to go beyond the completion tracking, potentially opening a whole can of worms. It’s so open so we have to tread lightly so we don’t get carried away and lose our purpose.

Mobile learning is a promising space, and so is the Augmented Reality on mobile, which makes it more accessible than VR in terms of the hardware. 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 frustrating because at the beginning I started with mobile apps. “This is clearly where things are going,” I thought. Then Totara discontinued development for their own app. (They currently support 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 platform. The Motrain app still works and offers interesting features such as the rewards store and QR “payments”: The student shows their code to the teacher (the “cashier”) who aims with the camera from their own app, to validate payment, process the purchase and deduct student balance. Mobile learning makes all the sense in the world to me. I still don’t get why QR codes haven’t caught on this part of the world! The Motrain plugin has QR code functionality, where you aim with your phone and it logs you in.

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:

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