Archive for June, 2007

Who’s Playing Games Now?

For those who don’t know, Thiagi (short for Sivasailam Thiagarajan) is a education and gaming guru. For those who had the opportunity, he was a speaker at this year’s ASTD conference in the Legends track. He was great, as always. If you get a chance in the future, be sure to check him out. In the mean time, T&D Magazine‘s June 2007 issue does a quick interview with him. This needs to make it to my favorite quotes list (if I had one of those):

Q: Have you encountered any companies or cultures that do not accept game playing?

A: While there are cultural differences, here is an interesting fact: All human beings play games. There is no culture in the world that doesn’t play games, other than some middle managers in Chicago who think it’s beneath their dignity.

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Cool Audience Response Technology

I just got back from the Society for Pharma and Biotech Trainers (SPBT) annual conference in Miami. They decided to implement an audience response system (ARS) for the first time this year. For those that don’t know, ARS allows the audience to vote during presentations much like the “Ask the Audience” lifeline in Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

SPBT chose Turning Technologies as the vendor for this event. While there are certainly dozens of providers out there including Quizdom which I’ve used quite a bit, Turning Tech has a few advantages over their competitors including the most obvious…size, or lack of size to be more precise. At about the size of a stack of 5 or 6 credit cards, their devices are the smallest on the market, as far as I know. (The USB part in the picture is the receiver. Even that’s tiny). Unlike other providers, they also have the option to rent them so that a company could keep a base set for normal sized classes and the rent a few extras when the occasional bigger meeting comes along.

Over the last few years, several conferences have implemented this technology for the general sessions, but SPBT took it a step further and offered it to all of the presenters in the breakout sessions. Thanks to the small size, it’s pretty easy to just keep it in the normal conference name badge. About 25% of the sessions (including Karl Kapp’s), took them up on the offer. Having been involved in running several conferences, it’s always risky to add new technology like this for the general sessions more or less offering it to 90 other presenters. However, with a brief bit of training from the on site support staff, presenters seemed to gravitate to it pretty easily. Interestingly, Steven Levitt (keynote and author of Freakinomics) didn’t know it was available until he walked in the room about 5 minutes before his session where he added 3 polls on the fly which were incredibly helpful in getting the audience involved.

The software has advanced a lot since the last time I looked at it which was only 8 months ago or so. One of the best new features was the ability to slice and dice the information. In Karl’s session, he asked a basic question near the beginning to gage the audience’s opinion on a topic. The result was a pretty standard normal curve. However, he then used the software to display the same data broken down by role. The normal distribution went away and there was a clear difference between the roles. Had he not been able to dive a little deeper, the audience would have missed an important story. Another cool new feature is to compare the results from one question to the results of the next question on the same slide. One idea would be to include an opinion slide at the beginning and end of a meeting and see how perceptions change.

All in all, I’m really impressed with how far they’ve come and how fast they’re growing. Look forward to a new feature that lets remote attendees to participate by voting over the web allowing for a mixed in person and remote user ARS. Now that’s pretty cool.

Leaving Out the Good Stuff

It occurred to me as I was watching the game at Tiger Stadium yesterday, that our schools may actually already have a solid metaphor in place for the use of games and simulations for learning. Our music programs and our sports teams make extensive use of a practice-based approach for learning. In fact, it’s almost the only way kids learn in those classes. Out of all the sports and music I’ve done in my life, I don’t think I’ve sat in one lecture or seen one PowerPoint (or whiteboard or blackboard or whatever). Sure a quick play illustration or song list might be jotted down, but not much more.

We already know that both sports and music programs are not just great ways to learn the domain areas themselves, but also develop transferable skills such as team work, collaboration, motor skills, observation skills, and even strategic decision making. (See a related post from kwhobbes). Interestingly, there’s also been a lot of research done on the parallel capabilities that come with music development such as mathematics and language.

OK, so I’m not stating much new so far. What occurred to me today, though, was that while sports and music provide both tangible skills, transferable skills, and great metaphors for all learning, sadly, they’re the first thing getting cut in most of our schools budget crisis. What a shame it is, if we cut some of the best learning activities and examples and replace them with more lecture. Hopefully, maybe we can take some of the learning approaches from the ball fields and music rooms and take it back into the classroom rather than what seems to be our current approach of leaving out the good stuff.


Games as a Metaphor for Learning

Sure, we talk about this all the time. Games and simulations are a great way (possibly the only way) to actually learn. For this post though, I want to take a little bit different spin. Surprise, surprise, Web 2.0 (I can’t stand that term) is impacting all types of industries, not just learning. [For clarification purposes, when using the term Web 2.0 in this context, I mean the ability to have user-generated content and various related social networking tools]. In fact, the impact is being felt possibly more strongly in the movie and gaming industries.

Take a listen to Raph Koster (game guru extraordinaire)’s rant for the Game Developer’s Conference, a conference for those who build games (artist, programmers, sound engineers, designers, etc). His 68 minute, PG-13 call to action is quite compelling. What made it interesting to me (besides the fact that I’m a gamer and am interested in the field) is that a simple swap of the word “learning” every time he mentions the word “game” and the presentation becomes exactly what the learning industry is struggling with.

For years, we’ve created monumental, enterprise systems. Web 2.0 is changing all of that. How do we respond? Raph has some great insights into how to survive, adapt, and even thrive in the changing world.

Here are the links:

– Gamasutra (a leading gaming magazine) post about the talk
– Raph’s post about the talk
– The audio for the talk
– The associated PowerPoint slides

As a side note, take a look at his PowerPoint. I think there are quite a few slides that turn out to be great uses of PowerPoint. Of course, to balance those, he’s got several that should be reworked. On average though, he definitely uses it to illustrate or emphasize his key points.


PLEase Stop

Lots has been said about the topic of Personal Learning Environments in recent weeks. Certainly, Ray Sims has been doing a lot of writing about it with thoughts added by Jay Cross and Tony Karrer, but not until Stephen Downes recent comment did the blogosphere light up. Here’s a snippet from his post:

I will mention in passing that I am opposed to the trend coming from the corporate learning side of the house to treat PLEs as work tools. What is it about people in corporate learning that they feel the need to perpetuate the attitude of servitude it seems all learners must adopt.

While Stephen’s twist on that (which comes out a little after the quote) is a little different than mine, in some ways, I agree. I don’t really understand the need or desire by corporations to standardize or systematize this topic. Sure companies want to gain efficiencies by standardizing everything, but some things are best left messy. By searching for or creating standardized corporate systems and processes, we remove the P from the PLE.

I think PLEs are a great topic for people to discuss and understand. It’s helpful for me to understand what Jay or Ray use in their own PLE. However, the discussion is not so that I can standardize it for all employees, but so that I might be exposed to something I hadn’t thought of and try it in my own PLE and possibly recommend it to others to try. Certainly, corporations should make a wide array of tools available and encourage their use, but can we please stop trying to standardize something that is inherently personal?


Networking the Old-Fashioned Way

I know we all work in virtual networking environments, but I don’t think we can ever underestimate the power of getting together face-to-face. Sure, everybody reading this uses the phone and e-mail. A little fewer use chat/IM and web conferencing (Elluminate, WebEx, Connect, etc) from time to time. Then a yet smaller group is involved in one (or likely more) social networking tools like LinkedIn, MySpace, etc or involved in writing blogs, editing wikis, or contributing to social bookmarking (i.e. del.icio.us). My point is we’ve got a lot of ways to connect virtually.

Yet, with all of these tools, I enjoy the face-to-face encounters so much more and ASTD was no exception. It was great to run into all the usual faces and also to make quite a few new friends. Maybe I enjoy it more because it’s a time almost exclusively focused on networking without the distractions of day-to-day work. Maybe it’s because the conversations move faster or that the reactions are more immediate. Maybe it’s just really cool to hang out with smart people who can challenge my thinking and collectively generate a bunch of great ideas on where we should be going both as individuals and as an industry. Maybe Innovations (September), DevLearn (November), or TechKnowledge (February) will be good times to catch up.

Thanks to everybody who contributed to all of the great conversations. I’m looking forward to doing it again.

Improv for Learning

I’m a huge fan of improv comedy. I watch old episodes of Whose Line is it Anyway (wikipedia), the new (and still trying to find its way) Thank God You’re Here (wikipedia), and especially support my local improv troops in Ann Arbor (Improv Inferno) and suburban Detroit (Second City). For those who don’t know much about improv, the performers (usually 2-4 people at a time, though it varies a lot) take a suggestion from the audience and then play any one of a number of games to create a scene/story generally with the intent of being funny.

What’s interesting to me about improv is that while “everything’s made up”, it actually follows a series of rules that all of the players follow. The rules act as rails that guide (yet don’t restrict) the content. One of the most basic rules is called “accepting the offer”. Each of the verbal and non-verbal actions of a player are “offers”. So, for example, an offer might be one character standing up, stretching, and saying “Good Morning”. Accepting that offer would require building on those clues to continue the story. So to accept, the second player might say “It’s about time you woke up. You’re going to be late for work.” The yawn and the morning were accepted and work was added. So the responsibility of the original character is to then accept all of the previous offers (morning, waking late, and work) and build the next part of the scene with them. Rejecting the initial offer might have been “It’s not morning, it’s evening. You’ve missed an entire day.”

This activity requires the players to provide focused listening and observation skills and take on the posture of collaborative building rather than analytical dissection and destruction. What would if everybody on the team worked to create and build towards a common goal? Interestingly, many local improv troops (probably the most famous being Second City) have picked up on this and began to offer it as an option for corporate training. However, one company here at the show, Performance of a Lifetime, is trying to take it national and work with larger companies rather than local teams. Jay just blogged about a different experience with them as well. I attended their session earlier this week where we were able to try out several of the games and begin to learn some of the basics. It developed practical skills (listening, observation, teamwork), explained more philosophical ideas (collaborative creation, interactivity), and frankly was a lot of fun. I definitely want to go back and take the classes with my local improv troop.

On a side note, a few years ago Cornell was working on a project to animate virtual characters using the rules of improv. In simulations and virtual worlds, the computer controlled characters are almost always pre-scripted. Their actions, paths, and words are predetermined by the creator and the characters can often feel stale and unrealistic. The research was trying to determine whether the rules of improv could create characters with more realistic behaviors. I haven’t seen much about that recently. If anybody knows more about it, send it my way. I’d love to write a bit more about it.

In the mean time, check out your local improv troop and jump over to Performance of Lifetime. Very cool.


Ruth Clark v. Mark Oehlert

So, I just got out of the repeat of Ruth Clark‘s presentation called Beyond Fads, Fables, & Folklore. Mark went to the session yesterday and already blogged on it. So, I thought I’d referee the debate between the two of them. Of course, right now it’s not much of a debate since she hasn’t had a chance to respond, but that won’t stop me. So, without further ado, here’s a summary of Mark’s major points and my thoughts on who wins that side of the debate:

1. It’s ironic that Ruth’s presenting herself as unbiased when she has stuff to sell.

Truly, everybody has biases and everybody has something to sell (in one way or another). It’s impossible to eliminate bias or not sell anything when presenting. By nature, every presentation has bias and every presentation is selling something. However, I think where Ruth went wrong is both implying that scientific methods make the results unbiased and by continuously pushing her books. Nearly every point either started or ended with “and this can be found in this book I wrote”. I probably am going to buy one of those books of particular interest, but still…this round goes to Mark.

2. Face to Face v. E-Learning Debate is not a valid question.

It’s not about one or the other. In fact, most topics shouldn’t be one or the other. Between pre-work, in class work, on the job practice, mentoring, etc…good learning happens over time in a variety of ways. Why are we even talking about this? It’s the wrong question. This one goes to Mark.

3. Much of this research is obvious.

Sadly, a lot of people in the room didn’t know that visuals improve learning or that the selection/use of visuals matter. A lot of people didn’t know that learning design matters. I hate to say it (and it makes me sad to do so), but despite the things that seem intuitive to some, people are still struggling (as evidenced by their votes on what was good during the session) with these basic concepts. People clearly still need to hear the research. These aren’t the interesting questions, but clearly they still need to be answered for many. This round goes to Ruth.

So, where does that leave us? 2 for Mark, 1 for Ruth. This debate goes to Mark. I’d love to see a face-to-face rematch!


Welcome to ASTD

Greetings from ASTD in Atlanta. This is the first year in the many that I’ve come where I’ve been able to attend several of the sessions. It’s interesting compared to other conferences in that about half of the content is really basic or are sessions that have been done every year forever, it seems. Of course, with over half of the participants new to the industry (less than 1 year), it’s probably useful to many. However, I’ve been lucky to find a few good sessions so far.

Yesterday, I sat in on Doug Stevensen’s session on the use of drama and story in learning. He’s the owner and founder of an organization called Story Theater. They blend the world of theater with the world of training. I’ve been aware of them, but haven’t really had the chance to look at them closely. Originally, I thought it was more of what John Cleese does in his awesome training videos, but instead what they do is help teachers and speakers do better presentations by integrating storytelling and drama techniques. There were a few major take aways for me. First, good stories have a structure:

1. Set the scene
2. Introduce the characters
3. Begin the journey
4. Encounter the obstacle
5. Overcome the obstacle
6. Resolve the story
And for learning, add the following steps:
7. Make the point
8. Ask the questions (application questions)
9. Re-state the point

What was really interesting to me (my own realization) is that not only should the stories inside a course (online or offline, doesn’t matter) have a flow, but the whole course should follow a story arc. If people evaluated their courses to see if these 9 steps were followed (both in the small stories and the overall story), I think we’d end up with a lot better courses.

A couple other key insights included:

  • Replace narration of a story with acting/drama at the key moments to pull people into the story
  • All stories contain one potentially powerful moment. Know where it is and hold the moment. Don’t rush out of it.

Off to more sessions and the expo floor. More insights as I go…

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