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Extreme Makeover Elearning Edition October 22, 2009

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
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This article, by Eric Matas, is the third of a three part series on the Psychology of Elearning. (The first post is Cognitive Load vs. Load Time and the second post is Don’t Look at the Designer Behind the Curtain.) Eric is an Instructional Designer at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Thanks, Eric!!

I grew up in a colonial Tudor house built in the 1880s in Pelham, NY. It was a house with a front and back porch that ran the width of the house. By the time we moved in (in the 1980s), the back porch had been enclosed to create a family room. The family room was therefore long and skinny like a porch, creating a decorating challenge worthy of today’s HGTV gurus.

What happened was a split. One half of the room was dedicated to the TV with couch, chairs and beanbag chairs aimed at the screen. (Yes, beanbag chairs.) The other half of the family room was dedicated to a game table. A perfectly square table with four chairs and a bar chandelier hanging above.

I spent a lot of time at that game table.

I didn’t know it then, but that game table prepared me for elearning development. (Yes, elearning was not around in the early 80s, but the game table knew.) Here’s how it prepared me:

Unlike the TV area of the family room, where people were observers of a screen, the game area put people in the middle of the action. Elearning should put learners in the middle of the action. Elearning should be game-focused. And that is the extreme makeover. I say stop trying to sneak little games into an already packed module. Instead, make the entire module a game.

In literature classes, we use the Latin in medias res to describe a story that begins in the middle of things. The best stories do that: they don’t slowly start “Once upon a time…” or by setting the back story. Elearning needs to implement in medias res. If elearning starts in the middle of things, learners will benefit in three ways.

  1. Curiosity Pinged: as with any game, players tap into the best kid-like qualities. They want to just start instead of going over all the rules, and their natural curiosity, essential for learning, goes into overdrive as they play and learn the rules at the same time.
  2. Intelligence Acknowledged: I have done it as a learner; I start an elearning module and get fed-up with the introductory material. I am perturbed by all the direction, which seems like unnecessary hand-holding. So, right from the start I am a learner with a bad attitude, judging the elearning: in short, not prepared to learn. So, do the opposite. Avoid the intro matter and avoid learners with bad attitudes. Instead, learners feel respected like they are intelligent and capable of engaging with the learning. As a learner, feeling this way is not really noticeable—but without copping an attitude, learners just get into the material.
  3. Cognition Activated: With curiosity up and attitude down, learners can learn. Games put learners in a position to think. In contrast to the position of observer at a screen, games put learners in the position of actor. Learners must act and interact to move forward or succeed. The psychology of their thinking includes an excited desire to figure out what to do next, a competitive desire to get it right, and a contemplative curiosity to determine how the game teaches them.

I would also say that designers benefit through saved bandwidth by omitting most of the front matter that is typical of information-based CBTs, but for the type of learners who need to know the big picture, it is wise to have instructions and overview statements somewhere for learners to find. I like a simple question mark icon that branches to instructions, which I can place off in a corner—and throw a hint pop-up for added color.

Just as gamers jump into new video games and just start playing, elearners play along. Certainly, some will complain that a game was difficult to figure out or that they couldn’t get a high score because of how the game was set-up. But won’t those people complain about any elearning?

How about a challenge? Try it and see.

If you have information people should know, let them play a trivia game; if you have behaviors people should learn, let them practice in a role-playing game; if you have processes people should understand, let them build a conveyor belt to simulate the process. Being curious and engaged, learners will have fun and think while playing the games.

Still, using “games” in training makes eyebrows raise with a “Games! Here in the office?” type of objection. Understandably, people still think games and think teenager alone in the basement. (For hours at a time.) It is certainly not easy to avoid that defamation. I’ve seen the grimaced faces in meetings when designers suggest using games in elearning.

Perhaps we need to be as creative when pitching elearning to our business connections as we are when designing. We need to wordsmith our way around the word games until the grimacing faces recognize the semantic shift that word has undergone.

I had less time for specific tips in this post due to a bout with H1N1, which I won! I hope some readers can comment about games they have made whether completely successful or not.

About the Author

Eric Matas designs elearning, teaches college composition, and writes for several blogs like Kidundated! and Blah Blah Bleric. He welcomes you to meet him on Twitter by following @tweric.

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1. Joe Deegan - October 30, 2009

Great post. I avoid the objection to games in training by simply not using the word game. I prefer to use “scenario” or “challenge.” The fancier word you can come up with the quicker you’ll get buy in from executives. Then when you present it to learners you call it a game so that they are not scared off by fancy words like “Immersive Learning Environment.” As salespeople say, you need to dance to the music being played.

2. Eric Matas - November 25, 2009

So true @Joe – I love to tell people that there is a language solution for every problem. You offer great examples of synonym shifting. 🙂

3. Ami Caster - November 25, 2009

It seems like it could work…but it also sounds like craziness. I dunno.

Maybe you could do another post about the conveyor belt idea for training a process…I can sort of picture it (and I keep thinking about Mouse Trap, which never worked).

Anyhow, I remember hearing about in medias res in lit classes and I do recall how those stories would draw you right in, so I am sort of half believing you! Thanks.

4. Cathy Moore - November 26, 2009

Great points, Eric. I especially agree that plunging learners directly into a decision-making scenario or other challenge shows that we respect their intelligence. Way too much elearning is aimed at the least knowledgeable 1% of learners. Instead, as you point out, if we make the basics optional we show all learners that we recognize their intelligence and their ability to think for themselves.

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