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Are You Using Gaming for Learning?

According to Xerox research, consumers see about 3,000 media messages a day, pay attention to 52 and only remember four. With those stats, odds are slim that learning messages will make it to the employee’s final four. For this reason, many learning organizations are embracing gaming as a way to break through the clutter.

Gaming is prevalent online, and elements of it can increase the likelihood that learning will be effective when paired with adult learning principles and gamification research.

An April 2011 press release from technology research organization Gartner said half of all organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify them by 2015. In 2010, Scientific American reported in its article “Innovations for a Bright Future: Better Living through Gaming” that gaming is one of 10 world-changing ideas. In 2009, Tom Chatfield of The Observer reported that games outperformed Hollywood movies as the primary source of global entertainment. Essentially, gaming is here to stay, and it has implications for the workplace.

Why Gaming for Learning?
A report by the Pew Research Center, “Adults and Video Games,” said 53 percent of American adults play video games. Virtually all American teens are engaged in gaming, according to a separate but similar report also from Pew, “Teens, Video Games and Civics.” The survey finds almost all youth ages 12 to 17 play games, and at least half play games on a given day. This next-generation workforce is comfortable playing games, making them more willing to accept or expect gaming in the workplace.

Many employees now in the workforce also grew up with electronic gaming — starting with “Pong” in 1972. “Pong” was the first commercially successful video game and is credited with starting the video game revolution. Iconic games followed: “Pac Man” in 1980, “Halo” in 2001, “World of Warcraft” in 2004, “Farmville” in 2009, which lead to “CityVille,” and now “Angry Birds,” which has been downloaded more than 500 million times, according to Reuters. Baby boomers, Gen X and Gen Y comprise the majority of the workforce and are the target audience for organizational learning, and most have experience with some form of online gaming.

The ease of development also has contributed to a heightened interest in using gaming for learning. From implementing complex platforms such as BreakAway games to simple game providers such as Bunchball, there are a plethora of learning game partners available. Game shells are free or low-priced templates that allow anyone to quickly create a game. Traditional learning can be enhanced through use of a game element or game mechanic, such as awarding points for team performance or creating a sense of discovery or adventure as learners progress through a program.

Improved technology for network infrastructure and devices also has promoted gaming in the learning industry. The processing capability for devices and bandwidth to support data all have improved while the cost to access the technology has come down through opportunities such as using the cloud to deliver video.

The infrastructure and analytics also enable multiplayer experiences. Aside from game consoles and laptops, some of the most widely used mobile apps are games. Mobile learning providers such as OnPoint include game elements to accompany their mobile learning apps and LMS. Each time a learner accesses and completes a course on his or her mobile device, a completion badge is awarded and displayed on the learner profile in the mobile application.

Game Mechanics and Dynamics
Social gaming website Gamify.com lists 24 different game mechanics or constructs of rules and feedback that create good gameplay. According to the site, these building blocks can be applied and combined to gamify any non-game content. A simple game such as “Jeopardy” uses several game mechanics such as leveling with increasing difficulty of questions, points accumulated for appropriately answering questions and countdown for task accomplishment within a timeframe. A robust learning simulation will use game mechanics such as combos for practicing multiple skills simultaneously, quests where a learner completes a series of challenges, and discovery where a design element enables learners to discover information as they progress through the simulation.

Xerox used game mechanics in a manager course offered to 1,000 newly promoted managers. The course doesn’t look like a traditional game such as “Jeopardy” or an adventure game such as “Halo,” but it uses similar game mechanics that are easy to deploy. The content was originally a series of eight one-hour modules on traditional managerial development. In addition to offering a blended solution of bookending and interspersing the online course with live coursework and webcasts, Xerox Learning added game mechanics to increase engagement, completion rates and data retention.

Learners were put into cadres, and their names and badges posted on a leaderboard where those with the most badges had their names on top, utilizing a game mechanic called status. After completing the online modules, learners are given assignments to apply the content on the job, then they report back to their learning cadre using the firm’s microblogging tool, Yammer. These assignments are quests, and the reporting to a social group is called community collaboration. The quests are increasingly difficult as the learner progresses, which is called leveling. The company was able to create and deliver an effective course with gaming elements without a complex or expensive game engine design.

Xerox Learning uses a three-phase foundation, immersion and reinforcement model to determine a blended learning approach and whether or not gaming can be used for each phase of learning.

Foundation: Foundational knowledge is the pre-work to formal learning — content that must precede the main event. Games can be used in the foundational learning phase as pre-assessments to guide learners’ focus or as an eye-opener, helping learners find value by identifying what they don’t already know about a topic.

Immersion: From live workshops to webinars, online learning to books, games can help engage or encourage the learner to apply content or act as a knowledge check along the way. Complex games can immerse the learner and allow the individual to apply skills.

Reinforcement: Games can be an engaging way to bring the learner back to the content after formal learning is over, which can increase retention and application.

Retaining knowledge from learning events can be a challenge. The Research Institute of America reports that 33 minutes after completion of a course, students retain only 58 percent of the material covered. By the second day, 33 percent is retained. Three weeks after the course, only 15 percent is retained. If the information is reinforced, knowledge gains increase. Common learning retention strategies include job aids, post-course assessments or post-course discussions, yet these strategies may not be successful if the learner doesn’t follow through. Games are designed to be engaging, to challenge the learner and to encourage the individual to try again; they have a built-in motivation advantage to support a retention strategy.

Retention also increases when the content has real-world performance contexts and learners view it as relevant to their jobs. If learners can use the knowledge conveyed, they are more likely to apply it when the situation arises. Therefore, some form of practice, feedback and repetition over time is essential. In traditional learning environments, repetition is not typically associated with engagement. A well-designed game can increase retention without sacrificing experience or engagement, with a structure mirroring real-life performance.

Gaming Improves Learning
Instructional designers often rely on an intuitive sense that gaming supports adult learning principles. The game dynamics of achievement, rewards, points and bonuses support learner motivation. The other game mechanics — progression, urgent optimism and cascading information — evoke the principle of readiness to learn. Games designed to mirror real-life problems or challenges engage the adult principle of orientation to learning. Finally, games designed as skill practice or knowledge reinforcement allow learners to use what they know and to be acknowledged for having that knowledge.

On a theoretical level, more than one type of learning and gaming can support the traditional instructional design learning domains. In 1956, a committee of colleges, led by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom, identified three domains of educational activities: cognitive — mental skills or knowledge; affective — growth in feelings or emotional areas; and attitude — psychomotor, manual or physical skills.

Simple games allow learners to assess content at the knowledge level of Bloom’s cognitive domain. Complex games allow the learner to practice skills at the application level and enable learning across the learning affective domain from the lower end of receiving phenomena to a more complex experience around internalizing values. For example, a virtual lab is a kind of game where service technicians practice software set-up and server configuration from a distance via their desktop computers.

On a practical level, there is no formal study to quantify the effectiveness of gaming for organizational learning. Even for youth and young adults, there is limited research, although Microsoft has created the Games for Learning Institute, a multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional gaming research alliance intended to provide scientific evidence to support games as learning tools.

Xerox recently conducted a research project to test the effectiveness of gaming. For the aforementioned manager development curriculum, 60 percent of those who started the curriculum dropped out. Further, it was difficult to gauge how well learners transferred the online content learned back to application of skills on the job. In partnership with Xerox Innovation Group, managers/learners were divided into three groups: A — those who took the online course without any game elements; B — those with half of the game activities; and a C group that had game activities for every module.

Preliminary results are positive. Group C had the highest completion rate of the three groups. Further, group C was twice as active in engaging their managers in their learning, contributing to discussions on webcasts and posting insights and experiences on Yammer, showing double the willingness to apply the skill on the job through completion and feedback from their quests. Besides completion and performance, the feedback scores for group C are higher than group A. Stakeholder groups for the manager course said the added gaming elements doubled the course success.

The key for any organization developing a gamification learning strategy is to establish when, how and what to use in its gaming initiatives. Xerox uses a framework around people, process, content, technology and measurement. For people, the goal is to learn more about different gamer and learner profiles. For process, the goal is to look at how game mechanics support the overall learning experience. For content, the goal is to look at the appropriate game mechanics that support content and learning objectives. For technology, the requirements, if any, are important: knowing how to support the learning game from spreadsheets, calculators to track points for classroom game-to-game mechanics, and supports for online learning and robust virtual world learning for simulations — all are evaluated.

A game is only worthwhile if it helps to achieve a learning project’s objectives, either by increasing retention, engagement, effectiveness or some other performance indicator.

Caroline Avey is the director of innovative learning for Xerox Learning Services, a professional learning services and outsourcing provider. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.