Thursday, October 23, 2008

eLearning Games - It's All About Learning Motivation

When I was about 9 years old a large dump truck backed into our yard and dumped a mountain of dirt over a large portion of our back yard. I grew up in a family with nine children, we had a large backyard that we used for everything from football to tag. So we were horrified to hear that Dad was going to turn about half of the back yard into a vegetable garden to teach us something about gardening. As part of the effort he brought in dozens of bales of hay as well. One day he found me and my friends behind the house building a two-level "fort" out of the hay bales. For some reason, what he said when he saw us back there working so hard has always stuck with me: "You know, if I had asked you to build that, and even offered to pay you money, you'd be complaining the whole way through."

The lesson is obvious enough. When work is a game, motivation goes through the roof.

Fast forward about 25 years. I was the Training Manager for a software company in Washington. This company had been around for over 15 years by the time I came on board, but they were still doing new release training for customer support by having the top developer in R&D come to the large training room and drone for three hours about "Now let me explain feature 3.2.4...". Everyone dreaded those annual "training" meetings and the long feature document that came with it. Consequently, support personnel knew very little about the new features that the customers began implementing.

At that time I was the only training person in the training department with no budget. What to do? I decided to implement a Knowledge Bowl format competition between customer support teams. Every week for four weeks we had support teams come down and compete against each other in the training room. Even I was surprised at the result.

Instead of holding training, we held the games and gave out the same boring feature documentation. But now, with a six-foot trophy and bragging rights on the line, we found people reading the document on their lunch break, studying in the bus to and from work, practicing with each other for the competition. They ended up knowing that content better than they ever had before, and we didn't even implement any "training". Moreover, it created better team camaraderie.

So I guess there are two lessons here. First, pushing training through traditional means may not be the answer to the performance or training problem. Look for innovative ways to solve that question.

Second, if you choose to create e-learning content, adding games can be a powerful motivator. We've found in our informal observation, that if you include the word "Game" anywhere in the Table of Contents, most learners will jump to that first and start playing.

With this in mind, I encouraged my 7th grader last year to do a science project where she tried to find out whether or not putting a game-style quiz at the beginning of an e-learning course as a sort of pre-assessment activity would have any impact on test scores compared to a standard quiz with the exact same questions. She created a course on New Caledonia using Unison, Rapid Intake's browser-based course authoring system (yes, even a 7th grader can use Unison) and built a Jeopardy-style quiz game at the front of the course and had the students log in from her school.

Granted, it was a junior high science project and the sample was fairly small, but the students who had the game for the pre-assessment fared about 10% higher on their scores on average than the ones that had the regular quiz-style pre-assessment.  I know that's far from conclusive evidence, and I would sure like to see a real study done to explore the same question, but logic predicts that we all would do better with games vs quizzes.

The trick becomes how to create e-learning games quickly without needing to be a programmer. That's where Rapid Interactive eLearning development tools come into play, like Rapid Intake's Unison and ProForm. To build a Jeopardy-style quiz e-learning game from scratch in Adobe Flash, for example, would take even a seasoned developer hours if not days to design, program, and test. With the form-based rapid interactive e-learning development approach, you simply fill out the forms associated with the template that is based on the game, then preview to test it. Again, the magic of this approach is you get to focus on the content, not programming.

Go ahead and sample some of the e-learning games you can create in minutes using these tools:
  • Scatterbrained (Jeopardy-style multiple choice quiz game)
  • Concentration (Traditional matching game with tiles--good for things like terms/definitions)
  • Risk It All (My favorite multiple choice quiz game where you are given a certain number of points, then you place a bet with as many points as you like on the idea that you'll be able to answer the next question correctly)
  • Categories (See if the learner can identify which category a fact belongs in...good for depth of learning questions between similar but different areas of knowledge)
  • Trouble With Triples (A kind of "multiple correct" game where you have to identify which three items among many distracters pertain to the description)
Here's my final tip. Some organizations think "games" aren't professional enough. One colleague suggested they get around that by calling them "immersive learning activities". Hey, whatever works!

How have you used games in your organization? I'm fascinated by the subject. I know there is a wide variety of game-playing being done and I think this will continue to grow and broaden over time.

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