Move over Hogwarts, Harry Potter takes on Syracuse University’s business school

September 12, 2014, 10:17 PM UTC
WSOM Impress Launch Event
Photo by Stephen Sartori—Syracuse University Photo by Ste

The next chapter in the “Harry Potter” series is being written at an unexpected place: Syracuse University. Instead of magic, there’s technology. And instead of wizards-in-training, there are 400 future business whizzes getting their undergraduate degrees.

Syracuse’s Whitman School of Management has started to encourage students to attend extracurricular events by giving them points in a competition that mimics the house system popularized by Hogwarts, the school Harry Potter attended. The Syracuse house that wins the most points is gets a party thrown by the business school’s dean – maybe with some (non-alcoholic) butter beer and chocolate frogs – two Harry Potter delicacies.

The program, called Goodman IMPRESS, uses a smartphone app that texts notifications to students who earn points for extracurricular activities. The goal is to become more well-rounded and, of course, win the competition.

But how does one get a dose of Potter-themed points? It’s as easy as attending a lecture and swiping a student ID. There are five fields that the game focuses on including personal and professional leadership development, community engagement and gaining expertise in various areas important for business like learning how to make Excel spreadsheets.

At the end of the year, the house with the most points wins the Goodman Cup (not Rowling’s House Cup, as in “Harry Potter”) named after 1970 alumnus Kenneth Goodman whose donation ensured the program’s start. Amanda Nicholson, associate dean and professor of practice, declined to disclose the program’s cost, but said it was significant.

In Harry Potter, the Hogwarts school was divided into Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Slytherin and Hufflepuff. At Syracuse, it’s Adams, Marshall, Waverly and Harrison.

Each group of business students is headed by a house master, or a faculty advisor within the school. Each house is composed of a “heterogenous” mix of students picked from varying majors, according to Nicholson.

Depending on the points earned, students can attain one of ten different levels. An online leadership board shows the rankings of individual students according to points won.

The idea for the program came last October in a brainstorming session which included students, alumni and faculty. “Our goal was to figure out a way to get more of our students really engaged,” said Nicholson. “We also wanted to build a sense of community and teamwork and fun – really fun.”

The students at the day-long session devised the idea to make a game to increase extracurricular participation. Harry Potter, of course, was the Millennials’ motivator of choice.

Incorporating mobile apps and having a points system easily tracked were also key requirements for the students. To make the theory a reality, the school teamed up with Bunchball, a company that developed the program’s app. While the company has worked with corporate clients such as Toyota (ADR), Mattel (MAT)and T-Mobile (TMUS) in its nine years, this is the first time it has partnered with higher education institution (and likely first Harry Potter-themed project at that).

Schools are places that fit well with Bunchball’s work, according to Molly Kittle, the company’s vice president of digital strategy who worked with the school. The company has popularized gamification, or “the process of taking something that already exists – a website, a business application, an online community – and integrating game mechanics into it to motivate participation, engagement, and loyalty.

“It’s a wonderful use for gamification because it aligns so nicely with what these types of institutions are trying to achieve,” Kittle said. She added that the program helps students stay motivated and become well-rounded in an innovative way.

“The Harry Potter theme is what got them to galvanize and rally around the project,” she added.

Nicholson, from Syracuse, said she is cautiously optimistic about the program, calling it a potential game-changer. And it may also point to a sign of what’s to come for business schools elsewhere. Could it be a game changer for other universities, too? “It could be. But, hey, we’re doing it first,” she said.