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A Practical Example of an Instructional Alternate Reality Game (iARG) January 12, 2008

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
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10 comments

When you go to an industry conference, it’s fun to get excited and re-energized about your field. You often learn about new technologies, see great examples, and hear fresh ideas. The unfortunate reality is that you may only get to implement a very small percentage of this new stuff when you get back to work after the conference. At DevLearn 2007, I became really excited at the idea of instructional alternate reality games (iARGs). These games seem to take engagement to the next level; people live the experience, rather than just taking part in a mundane training activity. After DevLearn, I went back to work and tried for weeks to figure out ways to use iARGs. I just couldn’t think of a realistic scenario where they could work for us. Fortunately, the light bulb turned on this week.

I’ve written before about our upcoming PeopleSoft upgrade at work. It’s coming in the next few months, and it’s going to be a BIG project; we’re essentially upgrading the entire software platform for our whole organization. Our training department has been brainstorming ways to tackle this project. We came up with a new concept this week to draw in our users and keep their excitement level up, and holy cow, I think we may have stumbled upon our first instructional alternate reality game!

Here’s what we’ve got so far: We know we will be creating a large number of self-paced eLearning courses to deliver the material to the learners. Each of these courses will take approximately 30 minutes and will consist mainly of Captivate (and maybe Assima) simulations that show the learner how to complete a task, allow them to try the task, and then assess their ability to complete the task (show me, let me try, test me). Now, here’s the fun part: It looks like we’re going to wrap a contest/game around the whole experience. It’ll be called Crack the Code, and we’ll market this internally to our employees. We’re presenting them with a challenge: Once training begins, we will leave clues throughout our eLearning courses that the learners must track. We’ll come up with a standard icon that represents a clue (for now, let’s just says it’s a gold star). Whenever they see a gold star during training, they’ll know that they should investigate it to find a clue. (Of course, this clue could directly be linked to a learning objective or a key point in the learning.) We will build a companion web site where learners can go and "store" their clues. Each clue may be a single word, a phrase, or a number (we haven’t quite figured out the exact specifics of this part). On the companion web site, we will have a large image that slowly reveals itself to users based on the number of clues they find over a series of weeks; the ultimate objective of the game will be to figure out this image and crack the code. For example, the final image may be a simple cipher message or word scramble that must be solved. The first person to solve the puzzle will receive a big prize, perhaps $500 or $1000. We will also have weekly or monthly raffles for anybody who has recovered a gold star – so it’s a good incentive for them to stay on their toes throughout the training. We will probably keep a leader board that shows all top-ranked employees and how many clues they’ve recovered, too.

So far, what I’ve described is online-only, which wouldn’t qualify as an ARG. Here’s where it gets fun: Our company has hundreds of offices across the United States. We’ve discussed the idea of making gold star clues (ex. print a clue on gold construction paper and then laminate it) and then sending the clues to our office managers across the country. The managers would plant these clues throughout their offices where employees would stumble upon them. Employees would then go to the companion web site and enter their newly-found gold star clue. We’ve also talked about hiding gold stars throughout our company’s intranet site, and I’m sure we’ll come up with more ideas along these lines

Sure, this may not be as truly immersive as some high-end ARGs, but I believe this is a good start. Our employees will be on the lookout for clues, they’ll be more motivated to complete their training, and their attention-level should be heightened. And they may have a little fun along the way, too.

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Free Whitepaper: Using Alternate Reality Games in Corporate Training December 27, 2007

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
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2 comments

Enspire Learning has released a free whitepaper that outlines Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) and their role in corporate training. It’s an interesting read, and they present an interesting case study of an ARG they used internally. If you’re not familiar with ARGs, here’s a definition according to Wikipedia:

An alternate reality game (ARG) is an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by participants’ ideas or actions.

ARGs are games that you live; they are real-life simulations. As an example, if I am training to be an IT security consultant an ARG may be used to simulate a security breach that must be investigated resolved. It’s a way to train people without them thinking, "Oh great, more boring training…" And it embeds their learning in a scenario that is both likely and relevant.

I mentioned ARGs a while back in this post from DevLearn 2007. Check out the comments on that post. There’s good info there.

You can read more on the Enspire Learning blog, too.

Hands-on with Assima Training Suite October 27, 2007

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
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14 comments

We recently purchased Assima Training Suite (formerly known as Assima Wizard Training Suite) at work. We’re planning on using it to create training for our upcoming PeopleSoft upgrade. We evaluated several tools, and it came down to Captivate and Assima Training Suite (I’ll call it ATS from here on). We chose Assima’s product mainly because its simulations are much more realistic: ATS “clones” software applications and provides a very realistic working environment (sandbox) for the learner. It’s pretty amazing. I’ve written about ATS before, but now I’ve had a chance to take the software for a more thorough test drive (plus, I attended a 3-day training session). Let’s take a closer look…

Which version?

We’re using version 4.x of ATS, which seems to work fairly well, but I hear that a new version is in the works. From what I understand, the new version significantly improves the user interface, functionality, and reliability. Our training session went well, but we ran into several glitches. Sometimes the glitches were our fault, but other times they weren’t. My overall feeling is that ATS is a killer app that needs just a bit more maturation. It’s so close! I’m very much looking forward to the new version, hoping that it further solidifies the product.

Features

Here are some of the basic features of ATS:

  • Extensions
    ATS has two recording modes: object-based recording and screen capturing. Object-based recording is the ideal method by far, but it requires that you have a special extension in ATS for the application you want to simulate. For example, we needed a PeopleSoft extension. (Be aware that you may need to purchase additional extensions for the different applications you want to simulate. I think ATS only comes with one or two extensions by default.) Screen capturing can be used with any application (as long as you have access to its executable file), and it provides you with very basic screenshots of whatever you recorded.
  • Simulations and Tutorials
    After preparing a storyboard, you’ll start using ATS by recording a simulation. To do this, you’ll open your target application (ex. PeopleSoft) and step through your task; this part is very easy. Next, you’ll create a tutorial for your simulation. This is where you put in the narrative (instructional text) for the learner. This part is based upon the simulation you recorded, so you do not have to re-record your task (cool!). And again, it’s very easy. If you realize that you need to make changes to your simulation or tutorial, you can use the SimDoctor tool to edit individual objects on each page. SimDoctor lets you add form elements (ex. checkboxes, text fields, radio buttons, etc.), and you can also remove objects on the screen. The SimDoctor tool is definitely one of the highlights of ATS, and I’ve only described about 10% of its capabilities.
  • Demonstration / Practice / Evaluation
    After you’ve recorded your simulation and created your tutorial, ATS is able to output your learning materials three different ways: a Demonstration module is the show me, the Practice module is the let me try, and the Evaluation module is the test me. And remember, you only had to record the task once to get all of these outputs. Very impressive.
  • Microsoft Agents
    ATS uses Microsoft Agents to display information to the learner while they’re working through a module. You can select which character to use, or add your own. The most common one is Merlin, the wizard. You can use generic agents, too. There’s an option that presents the instruction inside a yellow post-it note, which looks pretty decent, just in case you’re not a fan of the Microsoft Agents.
  • Publish Types
    ATS has several publish options: pure HTML/JavaScript, an option using their ActiveX plug-in, a CD/executable option, and a “Java Loader” option which uses….you guessed it: Java. (Note: During our training session, we found out that each of these publish types has their own idiosyncrasies. Sometimes buttons, links, styles, and graphics would look slightly different between the publish types. For most people, it would probably not be an issue.) There is also an option to make your final product AICC- and/or SCORM-compliant. The file sizes for published simulations seemed to be fairly decent (ex. ~1-3MB for a simple task).
  • Documentation
    ATS also has a feature called GenDoc that can automagically create help documentation for your users. GenDoc can output to several formats, including PowerPoint, Word, and HTML. It combines your application screenshots and instructional text into a nice package, and it does it very quickly.

Pros and Cons of using Assima Training Suite

Here’s a run-down of the pros and cons from what I’ve seen so far:

Pros:

  • ATS has the best approach to simulation development when compared to the rest of the products on the market (Datango appears to be the only company in the same ballpark). Assima seeks to truly simulate software applications – and they do a very good job at it. When the learner interacts with the simulations, you’d swear they were sitting in front of the real application. For example, Assima often uses a demonstration of the Windows application, Notepad. In the Notepad simulation, you can click on each menu and explore many of the menu sub-items, just like you were working in the actual Notepad application. Apply this to complex software and/or web applications and you can begin to see the possibilities…
  • Using ATS, you can record once and output to several formats (ex. Demonstration, Practice, Evaluation), and then generate your documentation. This is a major time-saver compared to other tools I’ve used in the past.
  • Assima offers great training. Although we ran across several issues, our trainer did a great job of keeping things rolling and reporting issues to their support personnel. After attending the training, I’m confident I can use the tool with ease.
  • Assima really appears to have their act together when it comes to support and documentation. They offer an online support center that is very well thought-out and the help section within the application is great.

Cons:

  • ATS seems to be a great product, but it is priced WAY too high. I don’t want to give specifics, but I’ll put it this way: We purchased 4 licenses. We could’ve bought a house in the Kansas City area for the price we paid. Yikes.
  • ATS has been around for a while in Europe, but the product still seems…young to me. Basic tasks sometimes led to application errors (which we were able to overcome most of the time). For the price, ATS needs to be rock-solid. I hope they’re getting there soon. Assima will be unstoppable if they can make ATS bullet-proof and lower its price.
  • I don’t get the impression that there’s a strong ATS development community. I’m not sure if this is because Assima is a relatively young company (they started in 2002) or if it’s because the price is too high for average users. I hope this changes soon.
  • ATS can only be used to capture application simulations. So, if you want a tool that can create great application simulations, consider ATS. If you want a tool that can create good application simulations, good soft-skills simulations, and generic screen capturing abilities, consider Captivate.

For more information…

The Assima website is a bit vague. It is text-heavy, and it lacks demos, screenshots, detailed product information, and pricing details. That’s a major turn-off. We found out about the product through another vendor, who arranged a live demo for us. Otherwise, I probably would have ignored Assima after spending a minute or two on their site. If you are at all interested in ATS, I suggest contacting them for a demo (either in-person or via webinar). It is worth your time just to see what ATS can do.

We’ll keep working.

We’ll continue to explore ATS over the coming months. We hope to find out exactly what caused our issues – and solve the problems before we get too deep into development. If we can do that, I’m really anxious to see where this goes. ATS has so much potential.

Start the discussion!

Have you used ATS? Can you provide tips or tricks? Do you have questions about ATS? Drop me a line.

Large-scale Applications Training September 20, 2007

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
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14 comments

I’m about to face an enormous challenge at work: Our company is getting ready to do a major upgrade to our core business operating system (PeopleSoft). This upgrade has been in the works for quite a while now, and it’s time for our department to start discussing a plan to train hundreds of employees on the new system. I don’t know much about the new system, but I understand that it is quite an overhaul; one estimate said we would need 80+ hours of face-to-face training. However, due to logistics, time, and money, it appears we will be training about 80% of these employees using a combination of self-study eLearning courses and webinars (using Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional). Everything will be tracked in our LMS.

Sure, this is a big task, but here’s why I’m concerned: If you’ve ever used a system like PeopleSoft or SAP, you know that it’s not very engaging. In fact, applications training like this can be excruciatingly boring, especially when taken as a self-study eLearning course. These courses generally consist of step-by-step instructions where the learner watches a task as it is performed, and then they try the task on their own in a simulated environment. This type of training can be effective, but with this upgrade, we will have a HUGE amount of training for the end-user. I’m worried that we’ll bore people to tears and that they’ll mindlessly follow along with the step-by-step directions…and then not retain anything. Luckily, I’ve got a few more weeks to get my thoughts together.

How would you tackle this? What ideas do you have?

Free PDF: Top 100 Tools For Learning 2007 September 11, 2007

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
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3 comments

Jane Hart, from the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies, released a free PDF summary report of the Top 100 Tools For Learning 2007. Jane did a ton of work to gather, research, and organize this information – and it shows. This is a great reference for anybody who wants to learn about new and exciting tools for sharing and teaching information. You will undoubtedly learn about several new tools, and there’s an excellent breakdown that shows which tools are free, which cost money, and which platform each tool utilizes (ex. PC, Mac, or online).

The report is a fantastic resource. Take a look – and share it with your co-workers! (I did!)

Also, here is another reminder to take a look at Jane’s directory of over 1,700 learning tools. I’ve written about it before, and I continue to be a big fan. Thanks, Jane!

Assima Simulation Software: Initial Impressions April 19, 2007

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
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7 comments

I saw a demo of Assima today, which is a tool that can be used to create (nearly) fully functional software simulations for eLearning. Assima is considered to be a next-generation simulation tool because it captures application information at the object level rather than just grabbing screenshots*, and it gives the developer the ability to record the application’s functionality once and then output it as several different movie or simulation types.

In terms of eLearning, a simulation tool should allow you to create the following:

  1. Demo movies (Watch it.)
  2. Training simulations (Let me try.)
  3. Assessment simulations (Test me.)

With many of the products I’ve seen, such as Adobe Captivate, you have to record three separate movies to get all of this functionality. With Assima, it appears that you can capture information once for an application and then output it in any of these three formats. If an application changes, you can “doctor” it in Assima. For example, let’s say IT adds two new buttons to a PeopleSoft screen after you built all of your PeopleSoft training. You can simply go in to Assima and add form objects (ex. buttons), and then apply actions to them instead of re-recording everything. Your changes are then automatically made for your demo movies, training simulations, and assessment simulations. That could be a huge time-saver.

So, if you want to create a simulation of an application, such as Microsoft Word, you first need to allow Assima to scan the application and read-in the menus, shortcut keys, etc. This is a fairly quick process, but it does need to be done for each screen and/or dialog box within the application. Of course, the true functionality of the application isn’t automatically captured; you have to “teach” the application’s functionality to Assima. If you want to teach the learner how to create a bulleted list, you need to record yourself creating a bulleted list. After that, you can tell Assima how to display the demo movies, training simulation, and assessment simulation for this task.

I’m excited to learn more about Assima. They definitely have the right idea, but I’m concerned that the file sizes for simulations will be very large. We’ll see. I’m also curious to see how easily the simulations integrate with learning management systems (LMSs). The movies are supposedly SCORM-compliant and AICC certified, but I’ve yet to see them published to an LMS with my own eyes. Assima is also quite expensive compared to other mainstream simulation tools.

* For the record, I know Knowledge Planet’s FireFly product can grab application information at the object level, but I’ve never been a big fan of its output format: big Java applets**. Plus, from what I’ve seen, Assima’s additional functionality beats it, hands-down.

**See this post’s comments for more details.