What I learned about eLearning from The Master Chief

I remember fondly when I got my first Xbox. (I say “first” because I’ve had several since due to problems with the original one and the famous red-ring of death that plagued its successor). I also recall the intimidation I felt with the significant learning curve that faced me. My kids had been schooled in this technology from a young age but, you see, I was an old PC gamer from the days of “A Mind Forever Voyaging” and “Kings Quest” and couldn’t quite get a handle on the transition from mouse and keyboard to console controller.  As a good father, however, I was committed to this paradigm shift. I didn’t want to be like all those TV dads who were never there to blow stuff up with their kids.  I am proud to say that today, I am pretty comfortable with the console control scheme but I still tend to flail my arms around as if conducting an orchestra when playing more action oriented games. Consequently, I am not what you would call an elite player of console games.

The Master Chief

One of the most popular games of all time soon found a happy place in our home.  The Halo series by Bungie, featured an engrossing epic sci-fi story and iconic character called The Master Chief.  Even though in the real world I am more committed to peace than Ghandi, for a brief time, after cleaning the bathroom on a Saturday, I could be the Master Chief – a Spartan super soldier. He didn’t have to take out the garbage or separate the compost from the recyclables.  But, oh yes, he did take out the “trash” — in the form of our insidious galactic enemies.

Halo was a very popular game during its initial release, yet it wasn’t until after Bungie mastered the multiplayer aspect of the game in Halo 2 that it really took off.  Bungie and Microsoft, through Xbox Live enabled large amounts of players to get into “maps” and play together. They could talk to each other with microphone and a headset, add friends to a list, and collaborate online — yes and shoot each as well. My son, (gamer tag: killer_emu) was a virtuoso with a controller and quickly ascended very high up in the ranking system created for the game.  I remember watching him in awe while at the same time bemoaning the hand-eye coordination that age had pillaged from me.

Below is my fierce Gamer Tag

What really got my attention, however, was when I noticed that my son and his online friends had suddenly abandoned the game as it was intended to be played and started to collaborate to do something completely new. To my amazement, they began to cooperate and take advantage of “glitches” in the system to do things the designers did not intend. These were not things you could accomplish on your own.  You would need to stop shooting each other, at least for a while, and work together.  Because the Halo 2 game mechanics were very physics-based, players could do some very creative and interesting things within the “sandbox” environment. They could get outside of the 3D map boundaries and get into and on top of places that they were not supposed to go. They found ways to fly across maps, perform amazing jumps with vehicles, and arrange spectacular acrobatic demonstrations complete with pyrotechnics.  Teams of gamers would get together and record movies in which they displayed their creative prowess and post them on the internet.  Some, like the people who did the Red VS Blue movies, even created short films using Halo as a Machinima tool.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying this was necessarily a new phenomenon.  It had been done with other games before. But somehow I noticed it more.  Here are a couple things I learned that relate to online learning:

Freedom Fighters

Some people just like to break things — especially the rules.  For an online learning environment, this means that we need to be aware that some learners are not content to be driven “along the rails” of our learning environment. They want to get off the ride and explore on their own.  Sure, many will still follow the more linear narrative of our course like those who would play the single-player version of Halo; however, we also need to give them at least the opportunity to feel the freedom in some way.  Web 2.0 has the idea of flexibility at its core. People want a multi-faceted learning environment where they can get their own information and not necessarily be forced into single-sourcing their experience.

This means that we need to provide learners with interactivity options. We should provide the freedom to navigate around so that learners can focus on what interests them at the time instead of always driving them to a destination.  Obviously for some content, we want to make sure learners absorb critical information but we may provide branching paths or even the same information delivered in a different way to accommodate these freedom fighters. What it definitely means is that we need to be careful about forcing people to do stuff whether it’s forcing them to take multiple tries on a quiz before they can proceed, or forcing them to perform long “click this, type that” simulations in order to get to the next section.  I am not just saying we need to provide the latest cool innovation, sometimes it means scaling back our dreams for a more conservative audiences who like a simple text-based elearning course with clearly presented, accurate and succinct content.

The Principle of Accommodation

When Bungie and Microsoft saw this growing community of “glitchers,” instead of totally clamping down on this new way of playing, they decided to build the Forge system into their next release of the game. This allowed users to customize maps by changing variables in such a way that those hosting the game could create very unique game experiences. Even in Halo 2, there was a lot of customization but with Halo 3, Bungie upped the ante. Bungie responded to what was happening instead of forcing people to play it like they wanted it to be played. Game companies that fail to respond to the new ways the community thinks about their experience will quickly find themselves losing ground in the industry. Too often this still happens in education. We force people to listen to audio with no way around or crowd the screen with reams of text not essential to the learning. We don’t provide good enough navigation so users can’t find what they are immediately interested in and we sometimes don’t provide enough options for different types of learners.  Consequently learners tune out and miss some creative learning opportunities. I’m guilty of building this type of learning.

Community is King

A lot has been made of Social Networking these days. Many eLearning professionals are grappling with what this means for their training. The Master Chief taught me that people in community can accomplish things beyond what we can teach them through traditional methods.  Once gamers were given the means to collaborate online, they shared information, planned, learned and cooperated instead of competed. What I think helped was the fact that the game integrated the social networking technology. Users didn’t have to leave the game in order to learn.  They could just ask others how to do it or get them to show them. Users were involved in the material and could explore right then and there without going out of context.  For me, this means that social networking technologies must be as integrated as possible into our learning environments for those who need it. If I am doing an online course, I might want others who are taking the same course be available to chat with me if I had questions. I might want an expert available to me at set times to get more detailed information. Maybe people need to start taking elearning courses “together” in some way.  I’m not exactly sure how this would look given the various budgets and time constraints but it’s something to think about.

I realize that organizations often implement eLearning in order to cut costs and that having an online trainer available at all times might not work. But we must look for ways for people to learn from each other. When that happens, creative solutions arise. Learning should not be single-sourced.  Maybe, in large companies, we need to build in incentives for subject matter experts to share with others and the mechanism to make that possible. Maybe it’s regularly scheduled time to work on a Wiki, moderate a discussion forum, or conduct an online web seminar. Can we make teaching others part of everyone’s job instead of leaving it to the trainers?  Whatever way we can do it, we need in some way to provide that social aspect to learning for those who learn that way. Good software will enable this – but an organizational mindset that makes learning everyone’s responsibility is essential.

So these are a few things I learned from The Master Chief.

Now, anybody know what I can learn from Mario?


Articulate Engage 09 – Do the Monkeys Love it?

If you want a simple way to interject interactivity into your eLearning courses, check out Articulate Engage.  The folks at Articulate describe Engage as  “a quick and easy tool that lets you create lean-forward experiences that learners love”.  I’m not exactly sure what lean-forward means ;) — but they’re right on the money with the fast and easy part.

Even a monkey could use it

An intuitive, uncluttered interface makes Engage mind-numbingly simple to use — Not being one who likes to expend unnecessary brain power, this alone makes it a worthwhile purchase.  It’s so easy most people won’t need any instruction to use it — most simians won’t either.monkey_business

Engage comes with ten flash-based interactions that will jazz up even the most basic page turner.  Just pick one, enter your content in the template, press a button, and Bob’s your uncle.  The only challenge, and part of the fun, involves figuring out which interaction to use for your content. Just because an interaction was designed for FAQs doesn’t mean you have to use it for an FAQ.  Articulate provides excellent tutorials, demos, two really great blogs, and online forums to help get the creative juices flowing.

You can publish your content to several formats.  I especially like that you can publish to Microsoft Word.  We use this option a lot as a way to distribute the content for review although we did have some issues with Engage crashing when trying to generate the Word documents.

Here’s a labeled graphic interaction that I put together in about 5 minutes.  It uses the default settings for the colours, fonts, navigation and labels.


Click here to see the Engage interaction

We often use the labeled graphic interaction for software training — we insert a screen image and then use the labels to highlight key elements.  The really cool thing is that you can add audio and media (image, video, Flash, even another Engage interaction) to enhance the experience.

If you explore the posted interaction, you’ll see that I nested the Engage interaction within itself a couple of times just for fun.  Some of the other interaction types handle this better but this one should give you a taste of what can be done with just a little imagination.  Ah but I digress.

A little yoga wouldn’t hurt

The thing that makes Engage great — its beautiful simplicity —  also poses a limitation. Take the presentation template for instance.  I can adjust the elements such as the colour scheme and fonts, but I want more flexibility.  Give me the ability to change the style of the player controls, the title bar and import my own buttons and arrows for the labeled and guided interactions.  We rarely use Engage on its own so would give anything (well almost) to be able to hide the title bar when integrating the interaction into a larger course.  It’s funny, you can make the background transparent but not the header bar.

I modified the colour scheme in a guided image interaction to illustrate what I mean.


10 out of 12 monkeys wanna do this

Within each interaction type, there are only a few places to insert text or media. This could be construed as a good thing as it forces consistency and makes it harder to screw up the design.  I find it a little restrictive.  Take my simian (sorry, I mean monkey) example for instance.  I could only add one main image in the labeled graphic interaction.  This meant that I first had to use another tool to combine all my separate monkey pictures into a single image.  I’d rather just insert the separate images and have the flexibility to move them around to get the optimal positioning.

In some interactions, I can’t re-size the imported images, videos or Flash files.  In others, I can.  Why not make them all function the same way?  There is a work around in which I can edit the sizes in the data.xml file that is produced with the published output, but this is inconvenient as I’d have to make this edit every time I publish the file.

There are options to control the playback.  Unfortunately, we rarely use the one that sets the presentation to advance by itself because there is no way for the learner to pause the playback or step back to review something they missed.  Seems to me like something people might want to do.

At the risk of sounding cranky, (I love this product honest), I have to mention the file naming convention.  When publishing an interaction, Engage always names the output file engage.swf and the content folder engage_content.  This isn’t an issue when using Engage with Articulate Presenter, but we often import multiple Engage interactions into other authoring tools such as Lectora.  Each time we publish an interaction, we have to manually rename the output files to give them unique files names; otherwise, they will overwrite one another when exported from the authoring tool.  This makes dealing with revisions a pain.

The importance of the company one keeps

Some products have great potential only to be ruined by poor marketing, sales and support.  Some companies hide their products from view forcing you to buy them before you can even see the list of features.  Here I’d like to give a shout out to Articulate.  This is one awesome company.  Not only do they provide a fully-functional 30-day trial version of  Engage, they do an excellent job of showcasing their products and building a user community. Everything from the design of their website to their excellent demos, blogs and customer support reinforce the message they believe in quality.

How to make a monkey happy

Aside from an unlimited supply of bananas, the following enhancements would really make Engage rock.

  • More interaction types  — an interactive flow chart or work flow diagram would be nice for starters. To their credit, Articulate makes the SDK available. If you have some Flash knowledge and a little imagination you can make your own interactions and even share them with the wider Articulate community. People have not grabbed on to this yet, at least the sharing part anyway. We’d like to hear what other people think might make a good interaction or any feedback from people who have tried working with the SDK.
  • Give us the option to name the output files/folder
  • Give us an option to hide the title bar.
  • Add an easy way to link different Engage presentations together.
  • Add an easy way to synch the audio with graphic labels.
  • How about a rollover option in the labeled graphic interaction?
  • Engage output currently displays at 720×540.  Give us an option to change the default size when we publish.
  • The ability to publish to PDF  or other formats — maybe even where self-playing interactions can be exported to iPod/Blackberry video or any video format for that matter.
  • The ability to publish partially “skinless” (sans border, title, etc.) — this is a feature in Adobe Captivate that I really like.

I’ve prattled on long enough.  Do the monkeys like Engage?   Why yes they do — in fact they love it.

10 out of 12 monkeys like this product