A journey to the e-learning heartland of America
“Where to, sir?” my driver asks.
“The Aria,” I mumble, half asleep after a rather restless flight.
It’s technically 120 minutes since I left Melbourne and the midday heat is an oppressive change from the air-conditioned world I’ve been living in for the past 17 hours. We pull out of the airport carpark and the flashing, shining, neon skyline of Vegas comes into view juxtaposed against the desolate, uninviting desert.
Aside from the friendly concierge, the Aria isn’t too dissimilar to the landscape outside and I’m instantly greeted by the electronic symphony of a hundred excited slot machines. Tomorrow marks the beginning of Devlearn 2011, and I wisely spend the remainder of the day preparing for the coming intellectual onslaught.
9:00am rolls around quicker than it feels like it should and we’re off to a flying start with a left field keynote from futurist, Michio Kaku. He’s obviously had a lot more coffee than I have and dances excitedly across the stage as he describes a world of infinite technological advances, powered by the soon-to-be abundant one-cent microchip. Visions of intelligent clothes, self steering hover cars and consciously aware toothbrushes stir up the eager crowd.
“But that’s not where these advances end,” he says. “We are social animals, and most of us require socially grounded environments, interactions and supports to learn.
The abundance and capability of these cheap microchips of the future will provide a ubiquitous and affordable digital environment to immerse people in while they do this. Think of it as an invisible LMS.”
At this point my imagination is running wild. Thoughts of an all-pervading Philip K. Dick style environmental LMS (one that can provide a constant information network to guide, support, congratulate and connect learners as they go about their day) fill the remainder of my morning. I applaud the perspectives of this slightly crazed physicist from Japan before moving on to the next session.
A few room changes later and I’m in an engaging (and slightly less manic) session by Rick Raymer, an ex-game developer turned e-learning consultant who strongly advocates the inclusion of game mechanics in online education.
As the minutes evaporate, Rick is quick to move beyond the typical perception of games and the superficiality of terms like ‘serious gaming’ (where workplace safety might be turned into an epic RPG), and looks at the elements that make games so rich, fun, engaging and addictive (and such a great model for learning).
Funnily enough it’s not mind blowing, Avatar style 3D environments or characters voiced by transient celebrities that do this. No, it’s the motivational principles hidden behind these typified game elements that truly encourage cognitive engagement, including competition, anxiety, challenge, recognition, reputation and mastery.
Rick describes the benefits of a paradigm where online education designers, and the platforms they deliver through, employ these principles to enhance and drive a more engaging and meaningful learning experience.
And it’s not hard to imagine. Visualisation aside, these methodologies can be (and in a lot of cases already are) implemented with relative ease. The simple inclusion of public leader boards or reward systems (like badges and certificates) can encourage competition, recognition and the idea of reputation, while timed activities can introduce enough anxiety and challenge to motivate learners and foster an emotional investment in a particular learning experience.
Obviously the use of these principles may not always be appropriate, but as Rick reiterates, even in their simplest form, the thoughtful inclusion of game mechanics can improve cognitive engagement and program enjoyment.
So DevLearn continues, and while the day introduces some inspiring speakers and ideas, I’m surprised at the number of community members still advocating the exclusive use of rapid development tools.
Speaking later to Marc Hellinger, CEO of Xyleme, I begin to gain a better understanding of the frustration that this focus on speed is causing many e-learning organisations looking to lift the quality of, and engagement in, digital education in the States.
Certainly we both agree that there are always situations where a message, critical business update or piece of information needs to be delivered in an efficient and uncomplicated manner, however, the question that we both circle back to is: why should these savings often occur at the expense of program quality, learner engagement, or possibly even the reputation of both the author’s brand and e-learning in general?
I conclude the day with a much needed Peroni and pizza, feeling a little disappointed that there is still the belief in such a mature part of the market that quick and dirty will suffice. When will the saturation of high quality media and experience already touching many aspects of our digital lives penetrate the e-learning mainstream?
Day two comes to life with a sugar infused croissant (buzz!), super sized coffee and another window into the future, as acclaimed author Steve Rosenbaum discusses the state of web based content creation and the notion of content curation.
He opens with an all too familiar description of our digital lives and the overwhelming amount of data we are confronted with on a daily basis. Emails, tweets, pokes, blogs, IMs, videos and posts shower us at every turn on the information super-highway, and there often seems to be very little respite, even for the seasoned veteran.
For the benefit of the statisticians in the crowd, Steve mentions that the five exabytes of data created in total before 2003 is now created every two days. I stop writing and breathe a Keanu like “whoah”.
However, despite this abundance of good, bad and ugly content, we still seem to be caught up in creating more, adding to the virtual heap that is the internet. And unfortunately, the same can often be said for educational material. Sure the delivery mechanism might change, but the ‘content’ is often essentially the same.
But Steve’s not here to tell us we’ve all been wasting our time reinventing the wheel (which he adds is sometimes a good and necessary thing to do). No, he’s simply highlighting that the delivery of information (or educational content in our case) is not a one dimensional undertaking.
“Making content is easy”, he states. “Finding what matters is hard.”
And this is where he introduces the term ‘curation’. For Steve, a large part of our function as digital educators isn’t simply about creating great material. It’s also about assisting learners to efficiently connect to relevant and already existing artefacts out there on the internet ‘heap’. It’s to ‘curate’ content and provide a broad, rich and targeted tapestry of information and experiences for our learners.
While Steve admits this is indeed a challenging undertaking, he highlights that the semantic web is enhancing our ability to quickly seek out specific information through an expanding sea of metadata. Additionally, web applications like Digg, Delicious and even Twitter, provide vivid examples of community based content curation platforms in action.
I think back to Michio’s keynote and am excited (and a little scared) by the prospect of a ubiquitous educational environment that also mines and curates the wealth of knowledge and information in the digital world to provide learners with contextualised support, recommended materials, relevant communities and a measurement of their competency.
Rounding out day two is Phil Ice from the American Public University System, who recounts his experiences applying web analytic tools to online learning design.
Through the use of Google Analytics and some crazy statistical software called Tableau, Phil is able to perform what he calls a ‘latent semantic analysis’ on learning materials. He goes on to explain that the numbers and graphs on screen (the byproduct of this two punch combination) help him to identify improvements in user experience, educational effectiveness and audience suitability while also confirming the success of key strategies.
Finally a way to assist program improvement and measure ROI! Now if I can just overcome my irrational fear of Anscombe’s quartet…
Still feeling a little bloated from the previous nights sojourn to The Cheesecake Factory, I make my way past the Elvis store to the final morning of DevLearn 2011.
For anyone who’s familiar with the communication backbone of the digital learning industry, you’re probably also become familiar with the challenges it brings to e-learning development and reporting.
Fortunately Mike and Aaron’s new joint project, affectionately named TinCan, aims to bridge some of SCORM’s inadequacies by providing a simple, humanistic model for describing learner activity. Based on the principles underpinning Activity Streams, project TinCan offers a granular framework for capturing and presenting a learner’s activities in an easy to understand format (noun, verb, object) that, when strung together, form a narrative that describes a particular person’s learning journey. This might look something like, John watched a video on safe lifting, John completed the OHS in the Office online module, or John successfully set up a safe work environment.
learner_id = John
course_id = OHS in the Office
completion_status = completed
So DevLearn comes to a close for another year. The expo is gone, the Vegas initiates are off to find Elvis impersonators, and the Aria is back to its chiming, whirring business as usual.
As for me, I’m left with a head full of ideas and hands that are itching to continue shaping the e-learning landscape. I head back to my room and steal a quick glance at Vegas’ almost blinding skyline before sitting down at my MBP and tapping out the conclusion to Learning Seat’s bright vision for the future of digital learning. Keep your sunglasses handy and watch this space — exciting times are ahead!
The e-learning Guild was kind enough to build a highlights video from of the event. Check it out below.