GAMIFICATION – PLAYING AT (NOT) LEARNING

When I first heard the term ‘gamification’* I had the sensation of a spider wiggling down my shirt at a picnic. It’s in the same league as ‘monetization’ and ‘level set’ and, ‘incubator’, words coined to make professionals sound, well, professional. I’m not against jargon in general; shortcuts are good if they are pithy and have substance. Not so ‘gamification.’ Defined originally as ‘funware’, it demeans both game playing and education. For the most part, game playing aims at developing recall. For lower level objectives, I suppose this would be tolerable if it weren’t distracting from higher-level intellectual outcomes.

For clarity, Games are well-crafted stories built in digital form with learning objectives frequently placing the learner in real life decision-making situations. They use the best practices of education and peda-androgogy and because they are dynamic and built to the same standard as say ‘World of Warcraft’ I find them admirable. I wish there were more and were applied with greater frequency but they are, as you might expect rather pricey.

Gamification is not Games. They’ve be clearly invented by instructional designers/educators in lust with technology. I have a wonderful cliff near my house they can be lobbed off. Its parallel in the public school universe is extrinsic reward schemes granted to students for showing up for class on time, good behavior and completing homework. In other words…as I see it, bribery. (I know this is contentious). I know there are many gamification fans and supporters out there and I respect your desire to improve public and corporate education. Just prove that the time, energy and money pays quality learning dividends and I’ll rethink my position.

VALUE

Let’s set the record straight: If game design is used to make learning through technology more interactive and engaging, count me a fan. When gamification means achievement badges, reputation points and virtual currency, contests, Farmville, or systems for rewarding the acquisition of knowledge or skills—especially in a professional enterprise—I raise an eyebrow at the quality of employees and the (lack of) management resources that sees the need to move them to action with these techniques. A little immature, don’t you think? Reward systems are best used, and have been employed as marketing tools by product managers and marketers to move stuff off the shelves or entice people into chasing a purchase. Wrapping this around new metrics like ‘engagement analytics’ purveyors believe they can empirically demonstrate positive results—commercial and educational. Gaming is a tool that’s become a practice morphed into an industry with commercial drivers. (By the way, note I have not given any space to naming these enterprises…I’m not shilling for them. Look them up if you’d like but don’t be swayed by the hot graphics, testimonials and the robust claims).

Frequent readers of this blog know I am a skeptic. So using any metrics, I challenge Gamification builders to reveal learning performance improvement by users in their real work achieved by Gamification techniques alone. And within a reasonable time period.

A last point: In a learning environment, game interactions become not just exploitations of the basic human trait towards distraction, but will defocus the learner from the real content to be transferred.

*(The term may have been first coined by Nick Pelling in March 2004 for his gamification consultancy startup Conundra Ltd, via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamification). I presume Pellings’ was a commercial venture process.

Seth Godin has recently written, “Knowing about a tool is one thing. Having the guts to use it in a way that brings art to the world is another. Perhaps we need to spend less time learning new tools and more time using them.” (Emphasis is mine).

In any learning environment, this is the common process applied, whether called A.D.D.I.E. or an analogue:

  • There are Problems
  • Preferred solutions are known and become objectified targets
  • Learners acquire knowledge and skills to practice solutions, first guided and then independently
  • They revisit decisions to modify solutions were they learn they have fallen short
  • Recap: A summation of the learner’s solutions aligned to the preferred solutions
  • Look back: Review for changes in performance shortly after the learning and at intervals as necessary

Here is a brief taxonomy of learning techniques in use now and when designed to meet objectives quite useful. They also obviate the need for games and reward systems. Also, while most are part of traditional computer-based elearning they can easily be designed as disruptive, via migration to tablets/smartphones.

Low Level Online Learning Interactions
These are used primarily as checks for understanding, previews, and reviews. Once coded the content can be dropped in matching desired outcomes.

  • They include– Rubber Bands, Fill In’s, Drag & Drops, Matching, and both verbal and visual constructions are typical. The names are generic with many names for similar actions
  • The media has traditionally been Flash when built locally
  • Off the shelf products, e.g. Articulate, Captivate, Camtasia, Lectora, and other rapid authoring tools support basic interactions but are somewhat superficial given the need to employ these in a variety of environments
  • Mass market availability permits any instructional designer with knowledge of the tools to design for a series of learning based checks

Mid Level Interactive Techniques – as Guided Practice

  • Scenarios: For instance: Replication of ‘Office Events,’ Selling, Soft Skills, Application Use (Step by step w/correction)
  • Simulations: For example: Decision Making > On point, real time type action –oriented Sims with feedback loops for self-correction
  • Media: Static Images w/Voice Over, Avatars w/Voice Over, Simple Animations, Flash, HTML5 Most are one-offs where the content is very specialized, e.g., healthcare, though most can be generated using an authoring template.

Higher Level Techniques – Best used when moving from guided to independent practice

  • Virtual Realities w/Active Role Plays as Real Time Events
  • Stop Action Realities – Decision/Crisis Points
  • Real actors/real dialogue, built as a ‘digital shorts’
  • Could be avatars as actors but roles and actions are true to life and specific to the client’ need
    Media: Video, HTML5, Flash
    Quite a few of these become fully realized Games as the content is completely bespoke – custom made for each experience.

SUMMARY

If these are done well, and have meaning and utility for the delivery of knowledge, skills and behaviors, in content as diverse from salespersons to management training, the concept of gamification is superfluous – rendering it cartoonish and beneath the intellectual and cultural status of the learners.

The reality is elearning is best when it is highly interactive with an emphasis on true situations. Gamification, with its emphasis on rewards for achievement is not a learning tool. It is an attempt to motivate; to actually move learners from passivity to those who are committed to the topic at hand. I trust that well designed instruction requires neither badges, awards nor competitive scoring to create effective learning uptake and performance improvement. Let’s do a great job of developing compelling elearning and leave the Gamification on the shelf where it belongs.

Revolution or Evolution?

I’m a big fan of “Learning Without Frontiers.”  I believe Graham Brown-Martin, et. al. is interested in a learning revolution not evolution.  And if that’s the case, count me in.  Disintermediation and disruption.  In fact his latest blog posting [See http://bit.ly/e154ef – I don’t think Graham really cares if you watch the whole excerpt from ‘The Matrix” – fast forward to the pill scene] lays out a case for this very position.

I believe we agree that changing corporate learning and school-based instruction will require more than pilot programs all based on some version of what currently passes for learning delivery methodology.

It’s only a revolution that will fundamentally redress the debilitating arthritis in learning.  But for such a massive change, many elements must come together at the right time and place.  Is this the time?  I believe this is our ‘Sputnick’ moment-and we’ll have to act quickly before it get’s weighted and watered down.

Let’s inventory what we have before us:

1. Leadership: Firstly, individuals who will ensure the philosophical foundation is solid.  They are followed by learning politicos who will carry the vision of what can be to the masses.  Then practitioners who will align the practical with the realistic by which the revolution will be carried out and perhaps most vitally, the mentors who will work with learners to maximize their capacity for individual growth while providing a baseline of knowledge, skills and behaviors we as a society require.

2. Attitudes: In “Learning Without Frontiers” (the blog, website, conferences) we know revolutionaries are gathering in places around the globe.  Realizing that mere adjustments to the learning process have yielded the usual results – with few exceptions – we are growing tired of tweaking the system rather than disrupting the system at its core.  Moreover, from acolytes like Guy Kawasaki to Salman Khan, Sir Ken Robinson to Daniel Pink’s anointing Karl Fisch’s teaching technique ‘Flip Thinking,”, there is a ready movement expressed in these attitudes of change.  And I would be remiss if did not call to the fore Steve Jobs recognized for his vision and creations – products that enabled a dissembling of information as well as recreation and have instigated changes everywhere.  Here is a fine tweak that for all its unassailability is only a riff on what is, in a limited way for a limited few) http://nyti.ms/fTFnSD

But that’s not this:

3. Tools: From YouTube videos to gaming, tablets to the simplicity of interconnection, the awakening won’t lack for methods of communication.  Students of history – and warfare – will agree that without the ability to deliver messages and receive replies in a timely way, all necessary actions are in either jeopardy or collapse.  Look at today’s young learners and then at the GenX and Millenials in the workforce.  They are linked by their amiability using technology – no anxiety there for they never knew a world without it.

4. Situation: This country and most of the world is approaching a tipping point where not only the educational status quo is unacceptable, but trying to massage it into something that passes for learning but with better tools (more computers) socialization structures (class size) or physical spaces (schools that reflect a new social/technology order) is only putting a shine over rust.  Because the conventional economics of learning – organizational or school – come with a growing price tag, a plummeting ROI and still sliding economy, they will cross each other on the graph.  It would be fair to ask, what now?  By then however, it’s too late.  Sort of like climate change.

My argument about schools is the same as when I was a 21-year old neophyte art teacher.  Schools are not working and cannot be fixed incrementally — tear them down.  Start fresh.  Same in corporate training; if we turn out even the most exciting learning using the most interactive and compelling technologies, it will pale before one :30 second television commercial.  No, let’s not make better commercials (not that we could afford the production costs), instead let’s do something completely different.

And that could be this:  Provide a technology toolkit and ensure users are capable of using their new ‘pencils’; set up the problems to be solved, provide a mentor to guide, probe and question and let kids and adults have at it.  Each learner will first attempt to resolve problems usually working within their own learning styles (thanks Howard “Well-Ahead-of-My-Time”) Gardner, individually or collaboratively, in or out of a place called a “school” or a “learning conference center.”  By the way, that’s not to say we abandon goals and objectives, nor vital content, just utilize different tools and walk through a different door. See #1.

And the term for this approach?  One I believe will cause less hand wringing.  I suggest “decentralized” learning. Each individual or collaboration is a producer of content, policies, rules, methods, devices, models, visuals, video, and audio in order to resolve, explain, and defend a solution from a problems designed to integrate both historical, present-day and future revelations of what might be.  When put that way it seems straightforward, almost simplistic.  Of course, it’s not and will challenge both students and adults to solve problems and learn on occasion to work as teams.

Welcome back to the 60’s – where the “The Whole Earth Catalog,” Stewart Brand, Marshall McLuhan, and his flock predicted this would come to be.  Moreover, they based their thinking on the technology of what today would be a joke; a Sony black and white camera with no monitor, a separate tape deck, and little ability to edit.  But when I loaned the two I had for kids to take home and experiment, magic started to happen.  I can only imagine what lies ahead if we have the courage to take on this challenge. It’s said that in architecture, every act of construction begins with an act of destruction.  Think about it – whether tearing down a seedy motel or digging up empty land for a new firehouse, it’s the same.  Why don’t we have the determination to carry that analogy into the realm of education—tear it down—and build it up?

ELearning is Dead, Dormant or in Denial

It’s no secret that coming from leadership positions in public and corporate education I am very critical of substandard learning; ‘e’ or otherwise. Without vigorous advocacy at the top you’ll never get great results. So I ask, where have the learning leaders in major corporations gone? I asked a colleague who was quite sanguine about this and we agreed there are virtually no new positions for directors, managers or above in the big leagues — organizations are just playing musical chairs with execs. In the NY Metro area the same 5 postings have been playing roulette for 4 weeks with an occasional newcomer.

Why? Well, mostly salaries, etc., but there is something a bit more insidious. Let me begin with a caveat. Please voice up if you disagree – nothing would make me happier. What I believe is occurring is the ‘good enough’ factor taking hold. That is, instead of real leadership that can pilot courseware, guiding development through its most dynamic phase (e.g. social media, tablet computing. mlearning) most companies have neither the will nor the belief that any of these technologies and approaches to reinventing learning have much value. Ergo, who needs to spend big bucks for leadership? Instead, pay for more and less expensive instructional designers. Senior IDs are being asked to incorporate meager amounts of new technologies whenever they oversee their peers and only in a small part of the project. Of course putting a toe in the water should require little investment and won’t rock the boat too much. But overall it’s like “Leiningen Vs the Ants.” IDs will keep coming over the hill in droves at $25 an hour. “Look at the production – wow – we’re pumping out those courses”. (Here’s the radio show of the short story).

What we have right now are courses (and in that big bucket I include webinars, collaborative learning models, synchronous chat, etc.) constructed using the democratic tools of design. In other words, anyone can learn, by example, Articulate or Adobe Connect to develop credible learning. This permits CXOs to tout a robust learning and training department with 15 trainers (whose directive to keep the cost down would not dare incorporate tablet computing) and 5 IDs who can pump out online material to resolve distributed learning using regular gas instead of premium.

Rapid e-learning tools don’t offend me – they are the hammers and nails of production. It’s the smug satisfaction that the end results can be every bit as compelling, dynamic and deliver the requisite knowledge, skills and behaviors equal to that of a Flash (or HTML5) based, interactive gaming, high concept custom developed course. Cost savings in the corporate mindset are justified because there is no hard evidence a custom design really does THAT much more than a bunch of Captivates, glued on to a PowerPoint with sound. Sometimes off the shelf makes sense. OK, for small bits of lower level knowledge or skills transfer I’m realistic. Give unto Caesar, etc.

However I can draw a straight line from the diminishing amount of NEW talent in learning leadership to corporate reluctance to build custom courseware to the slow uptake and incorporation of technology, social media and collaboration inside learning. Explain away the dormancy of e-learning. At the very pinnacle of opportunity, with a palette of stunning colors from which to create a rainbow of courses there’s no renaissance in the offing. Maybe CXOs are holding back to see if the technologies will stick – or the dollar investment has not yet been proven to shoot forth spectacular people performances – those who can reinvent the company, bolster the bottom line and energize the stock price.

So to those of you who are in denial about what is happening in our field I offer a challenge. Show me a course, webinar, tablet-driven interactive learning app and I’ll publish it with a link to my 10,000 or so LinkedIn connections and Twitter followers, etc. Even if I get a pie in the face – I’ll be satisfied providing a model for excellence that is worth the whipped cream and gooey junk inside.

A Criteria for (Not) Hiring

Kudos for trying to build screening tools using video and other media for selecting viable candidates.  http://bit.ly/fuqSIq [Using New Tools For Screening Candidates – Ty Abernethy‘s Blog, ERE.Net].

It might, however raise the specter that pictures and sound might be more a weapon to keep certain candidates out?

I’m sure you’re quite aware that when the recovery takes place the recruitment process will be a huge funnel; many, many potential candidates will get in at the top; make the first cut.  During the process the funnel gets narrower and criteria more stringent winnowing those whom you believe can not only do the job – but must also please your client, your Hiring Manager.

That said what do the first acceptable potentials at the top of the funnel appear as?  Well, presumably all have the chops to do the job, have the recommendations, and, entertain me here – will differ only by subjective intuitive intangibles.  No, not gender, race, ethnicity, appearance, even comfort in front of the camera — age is what’s left from which to distinguish them from the coming hordes.

Age is the unspoken shibboleth among hiring managers and recruiters.  There’ll be four, maybe five distinct age groups shoulder to shoulder at the top of the funnel.  Moreover, by the time the few distilled candidates drip out the bottom you can bet age will be determining criteria for promotion to the next stage.

Mark this down: Age related issues will come to dominate the hiring process.  It will be the talk of broadcasters who will pick up on the story pronto.  Remember older workers are politic and not unfamiliar with how to start and feed a movement—we’re talking boomers here.  There are few ways.  e.g. the law, to restrict classes of people from employment.  Though mature workers are a cohort recognized in non-discrimination statutes – it only has teeth after hiring – that is, you can’t classify a worker as too old, nor terminate strictly for age.

But at the top of your funnel, when candidates have to stand up before a camera and discuss their qualifications and make their case – recruiters and hiring managers will play the age card – and after looking at the video, for sure.

The tragedy is, I’m willing to bet, older workers will never have their key cards validated.  And forced to the beach will be hundreds of thousands of experiences, intelligences, skills, and humanity never to be seen nor heard from again.

So, hey, use what tools you need to process the tsunami predictably hyped up by the talking heads.  For those 18 million or so unemployed or underemployed who are over, say 55, need never change into their swim trunks.

Especially when you get a good look at them first.