Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

3 November 2015

Nuancing Engagement

Clark @ 8:14 am

I’ve talked in the past about the importance of engaging emotionally before beginning learning. And I’ve talked about the importance of understanding what makes a topic intrinsically interesting. But I haven’t really separated them out, as became clear to me in a client meeting. So let me remedy that here.

I’ve argued, and believe, that we should open up learners emotionally before we address them cognitively. Before we tell them what they’ll learn, before we show them objectives, we should create a visceral reaction, a wry recognition of “oh, yes, I do need to know this”. It can be a dramatic or humorous exaggeration of the positive consequences of having the knowledge or the negative consequences of not. I call this a ‘motivating example’ different than the actual reference examples used to illustrate the model in context. In previous content we’ve used comics to point out the problems of not knowing, and similarly Michael Allen had a fabulous video that dramatized the same. Of course, you also have a graphic novel introduction of someone saving the day with this knowledge. It of course depends on your audience and what will work for them.

Another story I tell is when a colleague found out I did games, and asked if I wanted to assist him and his team. The task was, to me and many, not necessarily a source of great intrinsic interest, but he pointed out that he’d discovered that to practitioners, it was like playing detective. Which of course gave him a theme, and a overarching hook. And this is the second element of engagement we can and should lever.

Once we’ve hooked them into why this learning is important, we then want to help maintain interest through the learning experience. If we can find out what makes this particular element interesting, we should have it represented in the examples and practice tasks. This will help illuminate the rationale and develop learner abilities by integrating the inherent nature of the task into the learning experience.

Often SMEs are challenging, particularly to get real decisions out of, but here’s where they’re extremely valuable. In addition to stories illustrating great wins and losses that can serve as examples (and the motivating example I mentioned above), they can help you understand why this is intrinsically interesting to them. They’ve spent the time to become experts in this, we want to unpack why this was worth such effort. You may have to drill a bit below “make the world a better place”, but you could and should be able to.

By hooking them in initially by making them aware of the role of this knowledge, and then maintaining interest through the learning experience, you have a better chance of your learning sticking. And that’s what we want to achieve, right?

26 August 2015

3 C’s of Engaging Practice

Clark @ 2:28 pm

In thinking through what makes experiences engaging, and in particular making practice engaging, I riffed on some core elements.   The three terms I came up with were Challenge, Choices, & Consequences. And I realized I had a nice little alliteration going, so I’m going to elaborate and see if it makes sense to me (and you).

In general, good practice is having the learner make decisions in context. This has to be more than just recognizing the correct knowledge option, and providing a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ feedback.  The right decision has to be made, in a plausible situation with plausible alternatives, and the right feedback has to be provided.

So, the first thing is, there has to be a situation that the learner ‘gets’ is important. It’s meaningful to them and to their stakeholders, and they want to get it right. It has to be clear there’s a real decision that has outcomes that are important.  And the difficulty has to be adjusted to their level of ability. If it’s too easy, they’re bored and little learning occurs. If it’s too difficult, it’s frustrating and again little learning occurs.  However, with a meaningful story and the right level of difficulty, we have the appropriate challenge. 

Then, we have to have the right alternatives to select from. Some of the challenge comes from having a real decision where you can recognize that making the wrong choice would be problematic. But the alternatives must require an appropriate level of discrimination.  Alternatives that are so obvious or silly that they can be ruled out aren’t going to lead to any learning. Instead, they need to be ways learners reliably go wrong, representing misconceptions. The benefits are several: first, you can find out what they really know (or don’t), and you have the chance to address them. Also, this assists in having the right level of challenge.  So  you must have the right choices.

Finally, once the choice is made, you need to have feedback. Rather than immediately have some external voice opine ‘yes’ or ‘no’, let the learner see the consequences of that choice. This is important for two reasons. For one, it closes the emotional experience, as you see what happens, wrapping up the experience. Second, it shows how things work in the world, exposing the causal relationships and assists the learner understanding. Then you can provide feedback (or not, if you’re embedding this single decision in a scenario or game where other choices are precipitated by this choice). So, the final element are consequences.

While this isn’t complete, I think it’s a nice shorthand to guide the design of meaningful and engaging practice. What do you think?

28 April 2015

Got Game?

Clark @ 8:15 am

Why should you, as a learning designer, take a game design workshop?  What is the relationship between games and learning?  I want to suggest that there are very important reasons why you should.

Just so you don’t think I’m the only one saying it, in the decade since I wrote the book Engaging Learning: Designing e-Learning Simulation Games, there have been a large variety of books on the topic. Clark Aldrich has written three, at least count. James Paul Gee has pointed out how the semantic features of games match to the way our brains learn, as has David  Williamson Shaeffer.  People like Kurt Squire, Constance Steinkuhler, Henry Jenkins, and Sasha Barab have been strong advocates of games for learning. And of course Karl Kapp has a recent book on the topic.  You could also argue that Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun is another vote given that his premise is that fun is learning. So I’m not alone in this.

But more specifically, why get steeped in it?  And I want to give you three reasons: understanding engagement, understanding practice, and understanding design.  Not to say you don’t know these, but I’ll suggest that there are depths which you’re not yet incorporating into your learning, and  you could and should.  After all, learning should be ‘hard fun’.

The difference between a simulation and a game is pretty straightforward.  A simulation is just a model of the world, and it can be in any legal state and be taken to any other.  A self-motivated and effective self-learner can use that to discover what they need to know.  But for specific learning purposes, we put that simulation into an initial state, and ask the learner to take it to a goal state, and we’ve chosen those so that they can’t do it until they understand the relationships we want them to understand. That’s what I call a scenario, and we typically wrap a story around it to motivate the goal.  We can tune that into a game.  Yes, we turn it into a game, but by tuning.

And that’s the important point about engagement. We can’t call it game; only our players can tell us whether it’s a game or not. To achieve that goal, we have to understand what motivates our learners, what they care about, and figure out how to integrate that into the learning.  It’s about not designing a learning event, but designing a learning experience.  And, by studying how games achieve that, we can learn how to take our learning from mundane to meaningful.   Whether or not we have the resources and desire to build actual games, we can learn valuable lesssons to apply to any of our learning design. It’s the emotional element most ID leaves behind.

I also maintain that, next to mentored live practice, games are the best thing going (and individual mentoring doesn’t scale well, and live practice can be expensive both to develop but particularly when mistakes are made).  Games build upon that by providing deep practice; embedding important decisions in a context that makes the experience as meaningful as when it really counts.  We use game techniques to heighten and deep the experience, which makes it closer to live practice, reducing transfer distance. And we can provide repeated practice.  Again, even if we’re not able to implement full game engines, there are many important lessons to take to designing other learning experiences: how to design better multiple choice questions, the value of branching scenarios, and more.  Practical improvements that will increase engagement and increase outcomes.

Finally, game designers use design processes that have a lot to offer to formal learning design. Their practices in terms of information collection (analysis), prototyping and refinement, and evaluation are advanced by the simple requirement that their output is such that people will actually pay for the experience.  There are valuable elements that can be transferred to learning design even if you aren’t expecting to have an outcome so valuable you can charge for it.

As professionals, it behooves us to look to other fields with implications that could influence and improve our outcomes. Interface design, graphic design, software engineering, and more are all relevant areas to explore. So is game design, and arguably the most relevant one we can.

So, if you’re interested in tapping into this, I encourage you to consider the game design workshop I’ll be running for the ATD Atlanta chapter on the 3rd of June. Their price is fair even if you’re not a chapter member, and it’s great deal if you are.  Further, it’s a tried and tested format that’s been well received since I first started offering it. The night before, I’ll be busting myths at the chapter meeting.  I hope I’ll see you there!

3 March 2015

On the road again

Clark @ 7:42 am

Well, some more travels are imminent, so I thought I’d update you on where the Quinnovation road show would be on tour this spring:

  • March 9-10 I’ll be collaborating with Sarah Gilbert and Nick Floro to deliver ATD’s mLearnNow event in Miami on mobile
  • On the 11th I’ll be at a private event talking the Revolution to a select group outside Denver
  • Come the 18th I’ll be inciting the revolution at the ATD Golden Gate chapter meeting here in the Bay Area
  • On the 25th-27th, I’ll be in Orlando again instigating at the eLearning Guild’s Learning Solutions conference
  • May 7-8 I’ll be kicking up my heels about the revolution for the eLearning Symposium in Austin
  • I’ll be stumping the revolution at another vendor event in Las Vegas 12-13
  • And June 2-3 I’ll be myth-smashing for ATD Atlanta, and then workshopping game design

So, if you’re at one of these, do come up and introduce yourself and say hello!



8 October 2014

The resurgence of games?

Clark @ 8:44 am

I talked yesterday about how some concepts may not resonate immediately, and need to continue to be raised until the context is right.  There I was talking about explorability and my own experience with service science, but it occurred to me that the same may be true of games.

Now, I’ve been pushing games as a vehicle for learning for a long time, well before my book came out on the topic.  I strongly believe that next to mentored live practice (which doesn’t scale well), (serious) games are the next best learning opportunity.  The reasons are strong:

  • safe practice: learners can make mistakes without real consequences (tho’ world-based ones can play out)
  • contextualized practice (and feedback): learning works better in context rather than on abstract problems
  • sufficient practice: a game engine can give essentially infinite replay
  • adaptive practice: the game can get more difficult to develop the learner to the necessary level
  • meaningful practice: we can choose the world and story to be relevant and interesting to learners

the list goes on.  Pretty much all the principles of the Serious eLearning Manifesto are addressed in games.

Now, I and others (Gee, Aldrich, Shaffer, again the list goes on) have touted this for years.  Yet we haven’t seen as much progress as we could and should.  It seemed like there was a resurgence around 2009-2010, but then it seemed to go quiet again. And now, with Karl Kapp’s Gamification book and the rise of interest in gamification, we have yet another wave of interest.

Now, I’m not a fan of the extrinsic  gamification, but it appears there’s a growing awareness of the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic. And I’m seeing more use of games to develop understanding in at least K12 circles.  Hopefully, the awareness will arise in higher ed and corp too.

As some fear, it’s too costly, but my response is twofold:

  • games aren’t as expensive as you fear; there are lots of opportunities for games in lower price ranges (e.g. $100K), don’t buy into the $1M and up mentality
  • they’re actually likely to be effective (as part of a complete learning experience), compared to many if not most of the things being done in learning

So I hope we might finally go beyond Clicky Clicky Bling Bling, (tarted quiz shows, cheesy videos and more) and get to interaction that actually leads to change.  Here’s hoping!

28 August 2014

Kris Duggan #LnDMeetup Gamification Mindmap

Clark @ 8:05 am

Kris Duggan spoke on gamification at the Bay Area Learning Design & Technology MeetUp. He talked about some successes at his Badging role and then his new initiative bringing gamification more intrinsically into organizations. He proposed five Goal Science rules that resonated with other principles I’ve heard for good organizations.


27 May 2014

Setting Story

Clark @ 8:15 am

I’ve been thinking about the deep challenge of motivating uninterested learners.  To me, at least part of that is making the learning of intrinsic interest.  And one of those elements is practice, and this is arguably the most important element to making learning work.  So how to do we make practice intrinsically interesting?

One of the challenging but important components of designing meaningful practice is choosing a context in which that practice is situated.  It’s really about finding a story line that makes the action meaningful to both the learner and the learning. It’s creative (and consequently fun), but it’s also not intrinsically obvious (which I’ve learned after trying to teach it in both game design and advanced ID workshops). There are heuristics to be followed (there’s no guaranteed formula except brainstorm, winnow, trial, and refine), however, that can be useful.

While Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) can be the bane of your existence while setting learning goals (they have conscious access to no more than 30% of what they do, so they tend to end up reciting what they know, which they do have access to), they can be very useful when creating stories. There’s a reason why they’ve spent the requisite time to become experts in the field, and that’s an aspect we can tap into. Find out why it’s of interest to them.  In one instance, when asking experts about computer auditing, a colleague found that auditors found it like playing detective, tracking back to find the error.  It’s that sort of insight upon which a good game or practice exercise can hinge.

One of the tricks to work with SMEs is to talk about decisions.  I argue that what is most likely to make a difference to organizations is that people make better decisions, and I also believe that using the language of decisions helps SMEs focus on what they do, not what they know.  Between your performance gap analysis of the situation, and expert insight into what decisions are key, you’re likely to find the key performances you want learners to practice.

You also want to find out all the ways learners go wrong.  Here you may well hear instructors and/or SMEs say “no matter what we do, they always…”. And that’s the things you want to know, because novices don’t tend to make random errors.  Yes, there’s some, owing to our cognitive architecture (it’s adaptive), which is why it’s bad to expect people to do rote things, but it’s a small fraction of mistakes.  Instead, learners make patterned mistakes based upon mistakes in their conceptualizations of the performance, aka misconceptions.  And  you want to trap those because you’ll have a chance to remediate them in the learning context. And they make the challenge more appropriately tuned.

You also need the consequences of both the right choice and the misconceptions. Even if it’s just a multiple choice question, you should show what the real world consequence is before providing the feedback about why it’s wrong. It’s also the key element in scenarios, and building models for serious games.

Then the trick is to ask SMEs about all the different settings in which these decisions embed. Such decisions tend to travel in packs, which is why scenarios are better practice than simple multiple choice, just as scenario-based multiple choice trumps knowledge test.  Regardless, you want to contextualize those decisions, and knowing the different settings that can be used gives you a greater palette to choose from.

Finally, you’ll want to decide how close you want the context to be to the real context.  For certain high-stakes and well-defined tasks, like flying planes or surgery, you’ll want them quite close to the real situation.  In other situations, where there’s more broad applicability and less intrinsic interest (perhaps accounting or project management), you may want a more fantastic setting that facilitates broader transfer.

Exaggeration is a key element. Knowing what to exaggerate and when is not yet a science, but the rule of thumb is leave the core decisions to be based upon the important variables, but the context can be raised to increase the importance.  For example, accounting might not be riveting but your job depends on it.  Raising the importance of the accounting decision in the learning experience will mimic the importance, so you might be accounting for a mob boss who’ll terminate your existence if you don’t terminate the discrepancy in his accounts!  Sometimes exaggeration can serve a pedagogical purpose as well, such as highlighting certain decisions that are rare in real life but really important when they occur. In one instance, we had asthma show up with a 50% frequency instead of the usual ~15%, as the respiratory complications that could occur required specific approaches to address.

Ultimately, you want to choose a setting in which to embed the decisions. Just making it abstract decreases the impact of the learning, and making it about knowledge, not decisions, will render it almost useless, except for those rare bits of knowledge that have to absolutely be in the head.  You want to be making decisions using models, not recalling specific facts. Facts are better off put in the world for reference, except where time is too critical. And that’s more rare than you’d expect.

This may seem like a lot of work, but it’s not that hard, with practice.  And the above is for critical decisions. In many cases, a good designer should be able to look at some content and infer what the decisions involved should be.  It’s a different design approach then transforming knowledge into tests, but it’s critical for learning.  Start working on your practice items first, aligned with meaningful objects, and the rest will flow. That’s my claim, what say you?

4 February 2014

Exaggeration and Alignment

Clark @ 11:05 pm

In addition to my keynote and session at last week’s Immersive Learning University event, I was on a panel with Eric Bernstein, Andy Peterson, & Will Thalheimer. As we riffed about Immersive Learning, I chimed in with my usual claim about the value of exaggeration, and Will challenged me, which led to an interesting discussion and (in my mind) this resolution.

So, I talk about exaggeration as a great tool in learning design. That is, we too often are reigned in to the mundane, and I think whether it’s taking it a little bit more extreme or jumping off into a fantasy setting (which are similar, really), we bring the learning experience closer to the emotion of the performance environment (when it matters).

Will challenged me about the need for transfer, and that the closer the learning experience is to the performance environment, the better the transfer. Which has been demonstrated empirically. Eric (if memory serves) also raised the issue of alignment to the learning goals, and that you can’t overproduce if you lose sight of the original cognitive skills (we also talked about when such experiences matter, and I believe it’s when you need to develop cognitive skills).

And they’re both right, although I subsequently pointed out that when the transfer goal is farther, e.g. the specific context can vary substantially, exaggeration of the situation may facilitate transfer. Ideally, you would have practice across contexts spanning the application space, but that might not be feasible if we’re high up on the line going from training to education.

And of course, keeping the key decisions at the forefront is critical. The story setting can be altered around those decisions, but the key triggers for making those decisions and the consequences must map to reality, and the exaggeration has to be constrained to elements that aren’t core to the learning. Which should be minimized.

Which gets back to my point about the emotional side. We want to create a plausible setting, but one that’s also motivating. That happens by embedding the decisions in a setting that’s somewhat ‘larger than life’, where we’re emotionally engaged in ways consonant with the ones we will be when we’re performing.

Knowing what rules to break, and when, here comes down to knowing what is key to the learning and what is key to the engagement, and where they differ. Make sense?

20 January 2014

Gaming Learning

Clark @ 7:08 am

Remember the game Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego? The game had you chasing an international fugitive, and you had to decipher clues about world facts to figure out where to go next to catch her, using an included world almanac. The claim for learning was that it developed knowledge of world facts.  And that was patently shown to be wrong by Cathie Sherwood, then at Griffith University (if memory serves).  What she showed was that kids learned how to use an almanac, but didn’t remember the information pointed to by the clues.  And this is a consistent problem with educational software.

I’ve been thinking about games for the simple reason that I’m keynoting and doing a panel and a session about gaming and learning at NexLearn’s Immersive Learning University conference next week.  I’ll be talking about how to design them, and lessons from games for the design of learning and assessment.  So when I read this recent article, while generally supportive, I had a problem.

The good thing with the article is that it argues that we should be doing more with games to support learning, and I couldn’t agree more.  When properly designed, games provide deep and meaningful practice.  And we could be tapping into much more of the facets of games for designing learning experiences. Challenge, decisions, and consequences in a safe environment.

So what bothered me?  At one point, the article does on about what skills are required in computer games, things like problem-solving, strategy, etc.  And, yes, games do require those skills. However, what many have done wrongly is say that the games develop those skills, and this is wrong.  For instance, when Kurt Squire was touting the learning outcomes of Civilization, it came from a teacher who scaffolded that understanding, not intrinsically from the game. Similarly, when my kids were playing Pajama Sam (a great series of games with interesting stories and appropriate challenges), we were scaffolding the learning.

For some, requiring skills will develop them. For the 10% or so who survive despite what we do to them ;).  But if you want to be sure they’re getting developed, you need to do more than require them, you need to scaffold them. And we could do this if we wanted to.  But we don’t. The existence of coaching for higher-level learning skills in the game environment is essentially non-existent. And I just think this is a shame. (Many years ago I was proposing research to develop a coaching environment on top of a game engine, so it could be available in any game designed with that engine, but of course it was deemed too ambitious.  Hmmph.)

And don’t get me wrong, the article didn’t make wrong statements, it just reminded me of the problem that has bugged me and also I think damaged the industry (think: why is the term ‘edutainment’ tainted?).  But we need to be careful what we say and how we talk about it. We can develop meaningful learning games, but we have to know how to do it, not just put game and instructional designers in a room together and expect them to know how to create a success.  You need to understand the alignment of elements of learning and leverage those to achieve success.  Don’t settle for less.

14 November 2013

Really Useful eLearning Instruction Manual

Clark @ 7:02 am

Rob Hubbard organized a suite of us to write chapters for a use-focused guide to elearning. And, now it’s out and available!  Here’s the official blurb:

Technology has revolutionised every aspect of our lives and how we learn is no exception. The trouble is; the range of elearning technologies and the options available can seem bewildering. Even those who are highly experienced in one aspect of elearning will lack knowledge in some other areas. Wouldn’t it be great if you could access the hard-won knowledge, practical guidance and helpful tips of world-leading experts in these fields? Edited by Rob Hubbard and featuring chapters written by global elearning experts: Clive Shepherd, Laura Overton, Jane Bozarth, Lars Hyland, Rob Hubbard, Julie Wedgwood, Jane Hart, Colin Steed, Clark Quinn, Ben Betts and Charles Jennings – this book is a practical guide to all the key topics in elearning, including: getting the business on board, building it yourself, learning management, blended, social, informal, mobile and game-based learning, facilitating online learning, making the most of memory and more.

And here’s the Table of Contents, so you can see who wrote what:

  1. So What is eLearning? – Clive Shepherd
  2. Getting the Business on Board – Laura Overton
  3. Build In-House, Buy Off -the-Shelf or Outsource? – Jane Bozarth
  4. Production Processes – Making it Happen! – Lars Hyland
  5. Making the Most of Memory – Rob Hubbard
  6. Blended Learning – Julie Wedgwood
  7. Informal and Social Learning – Jane Hart
  8. Facilitating Live Online Learning – Colin Steed
  9. Mobile Learning – Clark Quinn
  10. Game-Based Learning – Ben Betts
  11. Learning Management – Charles Jennings

If you’d like to purchase the book, VBF11 is the promotion code to get 15% discount when you buy the book at www.wiley.com, or you can get it through Amazon as a book or on Kindle.  I look forward to getting my copy in the mail!

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