Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Year-End Reflections

The end of a year is traditionally a time for stock taking and reflection. And the end of 2006 is also the end of eLearn Campus' fourth year in existence. My business partner, Michael Grant, and I set up eLearn Campus to fulfill what we perceived to be a need to help guide people through the eLearning maze, doing what we could to help them realize better training results through online learning. We have learned a lot through our first four years. Here is a brief summary.

eLearning is Still in Its Infancy

When we started eLearn Campus we were concerned that we may have been too late, that the eLearning train had already left the station. Well, we soon got over that delusion as we discovered that there are many organizations just starting to find their feet with eLearning, and many more just now ready to try it out. Even a full decade after the birth of the World Wide Web as we know it, eLearning only accounts for 15% of training expenditures. If the eLearning train has left the station, it is leaving it in slow motion, but we are confident that it will pick up speed very quickly.

Perception is Reality

If people do not believe that eLearning works, or do not believe that their people are "ready" for it, that is their reality. We try to address these perceptions head on with facts, and reason, and research. But in the end, if someone is not ready to believe that an alternative training method can produce results, it is no use banging your head against the wall. There are enough people who see the promise and realize that it can work.

Technology Obsession Persists

There are still many in the eLearning field looking to technology for salvation. They believe that the answer to all their problems lies in finding the right LMS, LCMS, or authoring tool. But tools are tools are tools.....what you really need are talented people with the right competencies who can use these tools to create learning environments that meet organizational goals.

Unrealistic Expectations

Related to the point above, most organizations have highly unrealistic expectations regarding the range of competencies required to produce high quality eLearning, especially at high volumes. I have seen far too many large organizations that expect two or three people to do it all in terms of eLearning design, development, delivery and evaluation.

Off-the-Shelf Losing Favour

People are starting to come to the realization that there are not many off-the-shelf eLearning solutions that will meet their organization's specific needs. The days of buying a library suite of online courses that no one in the organization utilizes are drawing to an end. Organizations are starting to realize that customized solutions are the way to go.

Time is the Most Precious Commodity

Time is a scarce and precious commodity these days. This phenomenon affects eLearning in two ways. Developers are expected to produce and deliver eLearning much more quickly than was acceptable in the past. And learners have much less time to do eLearning, resulting in eLearning being delivered in smaller "chunks" and via at-the-point-of-need electronic job aids, rather than courses.

Blended Learning on the Rise

Related to the point above, organizations are now much more open to creative mixes of face-to-face vs. eLearning, asynchronous vs. synchronous learning, and self-service vs. facilitated eLearning, in order to meet their training needs.

Future is Still Exciting

All in all, eLearning has a bright future. As organizations do more eLearning and gain more experience, they are starting to realize what approaches work best in what situations. Still more effort could be given to evaluating results (see Will Thalheimer's blog on this), but the field is slowly building an understanding and appreciation of best practices in eLearning. So, the future is still exciting, as we have only just started scratching the surface of eLearning's potential.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Learning Should be "Hard Fun"

When surveying the 100 folks we had in our webinar this week on how to integrate gaming and simulations into eLearning, I wasn't that surprised that a great many were computer gamers themselves. They played games like World of Warcraft, The Sims, Sim City, Civilization, Flight Simulator, and various sports-related games. It's not just kids playing computer games, many adults also enjoy the challenge and stimulation of games and can become as thoroughly engaged with these as the young'uns.

And, as I mentioned in previous postings, real learning takes place while people are playing these games and simulations. They are analyzing situations, reacting, making decisions, getting feedback, and trying again. It is also important to note that gamers rarely succeed at first. For most games and simulations, you have to learn from your early failures and apply that learning to succeed the next time. And people do play games and simulations over and over in trying to master their intricacies. They are fully engaged in doing this, not because it is easy, but because it is hard. It stretches them and forces them to improve. One participant in our webinar referred to games and simulations as being "hard fun."

Why can't more of the eLearning we produce also be "hard fun"? Why can't we produce learning environments that engage and motivate users to reach success, as they do when they are playing games? Well, we can do this - with a little bit of imagination and a willingness to approach training from a different angle.

Our special webinar guest, Christopher Keesey (left) of Ohio University Without Boundaries, shared a demonstration of an eLearning course they developed to train Risk Managers in the health care sector. They could have just laid out all the key elements of risk management, liability and negligence issues and tested learners on these. Instead, they created a simulation whereby the learner is placed in the role of new Risk Manager at a hospital wherein the learner must react to a series of realistic events.

In one instance, for example, a patient has a bad fall. You, as the new Risk Manager, must examine all the relevant documentation (e.g. incident report, interview transcripts, radiologist's report, definitions of liability and negligence, etc.) and then decide what you will do. Along the way, you have an experienced mentor (in the form of an avatar) that provides feedback on your decisions.

The point of showing the Ohio university example was to emphasize that we do not have to invest a fortune in the development of games and simulations as do the gaming companies when they create a retail product. It is not the glitz and production values that make a training game or simulation successful. Sure, engaging the eyes and ears in creative ways is helpful, but the most important task is to engage the learner's brain. And that is what good eLearning is all about. Like any good adult learning, you must provide a realistic context for the learner to be exposed to and in which to apply new concepts and information. That's how learning can become "hard fun."

If you missed the webinar, here is a link to the recording:

Beyond Blah: Using Games and Simulations to Keep Learners Motivated

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Engage or Enrage

Marc Prensky, author of Digital Game-based Learning, delivered a keynote address at this summer's Desire2Learn Users Conference titled "Engage Me or Enrage Me." He talked about the great divide between digital natives (the kids who have grown up in the digital age) and the digital immigrants (folks like me who came of age well before the dawn of the digital world as we know it). Prensky's thesis is that many kids are thoroughly bored and uninterested in school because the nature of schooling has not changed much in hundreds of years. The digital natives face the same old rote memory approach to learning that we did. However, in their lives outside the classroom they are using digital tools (e.g. WWW, wireless text messaging, electronic games, MP3s, PDAs, high end software) to be creators and active participants in activities, not just passive receptors and regurgitators of information. Hence, their rallying cry at school is "engage me or enrage me."

Prensky (left) says that many very bright and creative kids have to turn off their brains and slow down when they go to school because they are not challenged in the ways they are, for example, playing electronic games. And lest you think that games are a waste of time, Prensky points to research that shows that kids are developing many important cognitive skills in analysis, pattern recognition, problem-solving and decision-making. In short, they are learning. And they are learning in very fun and engaging ways.

I think that many of the ills of education today are very similar to the ills of the training field. Much training today also mimics the old tell 'em and test 'em approach that is, for the most part, mind-numbingly boring. This is true for much of eLearning as well...we use new technologies to keep doing what we have always be doing (presenting information and testing on it). Prensky calls this "walking backward into the future."

We in the training field have much to learn from the gaming industry. According to Prensky, games are engaging because they are:
  • fun (giving us enjoyment and pleasure)
  • rule-based (giving us structure)
  • goal-based (giving us motivation)
  • interactive (allowing for learning-by-doing)
  • problem-based (sparking our creativity)
  • outcomes-based with feedback (giving us learning)
  • competition-based (giving us adrenaline)
  • story-based (giving us context)
I am not advocating a games-based approach to eLearning merely so that learners can be entertained. The point is always about realizing learning outcomes in the form of changed behaviour. It's just that you are more likely to get there if your learners are engaged in the learning.

If the folks experiencing your training are not yet yelling "engage me, or enrage me," remember that it's just a matter of time before the digital natives start outnumbering the digital immigrants. We will focus on these issues in our December 14th webinar titled Beyond Blah: Using Games and Simulations to Keep Learners Motivated.