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5 Ways to Inject Magic into Digital Learning

May 8, 2014

By Tess Robinson, Director, LearningAge Solutions

My favourite teacher from my high school days, Mr ‘Geography’ Jones, died recently. I remember his enthusiastic anMagicd, at times dramatic teaching style as if it were yesterday. He brought Geography alive for us and his theatrical demonstrations of a glacier powering through a valley have stayed with all of us – we will forever know our terminal from our lateral moraine. I’ve pondered on what made him such a great teacher and after watching a TED talk by self-styled Education Pioneer, Christopher Emdin, recently, have come to the conclusion that it was the magic that he injected into lessons. He employed subtle but effective techniques to keep us awake, listening and most importantly engaged. He made us feel excited about Geography – no mean feat when dealing with a bunch of teenagers.

Christopher Emdin argues that educators are not taught to ‘perform’ in a way that will really engage their audience. Instead, he suggests that they should learn from watching hip hop or going to, what he terms, a ‘black church’. The magic for him is all about body language, inflection and participation. It’s certainly true that many of the most memorable performances I have seen have, the ones you could truly call magical, have not been in school or in a training session, but when some of the techniques Christopher mentions are employed in those settings, they can be very powerful and can stay with you for 20 years or more.

What has all this got to do with digital learning? Clearly, with digital learning you rarely have a ‘trainer’ or ‘teacher’ standing in front of an audience, unless you are doing something like a webinar, so how can we inject the magic into online learning?

  1. It is worth investing in beautiful graphics. As humans we are a superficial bunch and we will automatically make assumptions about content as a result of how it looks. A well designed piece that looks fantastic and resonates well with the audience will automatically be better received.
  2. Be playful. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of fun. Fun can be extremely memorable. Mr Jones once delivered a whole lesson on how they were breeding multi-coloured sheep in New Zealand without any of us batting an eyelid. He even had photos and graphics. His (very well made) point was to encourage us to question things, to develop critical thinking and not to take things at face value.
  3. Encourage participation. This might be through networks, wikis, peer support or through asking questions or contributing ideas during a webinar. It’s the equivalent to Christopher Emdin’s preacher asking for an ‘Amen’ now and then in terms of waking the audience up. It also has the added benefit of making them feel that their opinions are valued and that they have something worthwhile to contribute.
  4. Mix up the learning. For example, have your high impact ‘arm-waving’ scenario-based learning but combine it with the ‘hushed voice’ of resources.
  5. Include the WOW factor. Don’t be afraid of being creative with your learning design. As long as you include users from the beginning and make sure you build user testing into your project plan, you can ensure that it will be well received.

ReD is Dead

May 8, 2014

This month we bid a fond farewell to our much cherished and long-running Rapid eLearning Development (ReD) course. BacMID Crestk in mid-2009 the concept of a fictional Ministry of Instructional Design with a secret mission became an itch that I had to scratch.

It consumed me and I loved it. Jane Hart, Clive Shepherd and Patrick Dunn all helped to shape ReD in the early stages. It included eccentric characters (a hell-raising brain in a jar and a thespian pirate, amongst others), 3D games in tombs and deserts, collaborative mindmaps, videos, rapid elearning, interactive webinars and more, all accessed from a social network. It was ahead of it’s time and also a heap of work – eight assignments over 12 weeks, if you did everything!

Over the years we’ve had hundreds of people from all over the globe pass through the (virtual) doors of the Ministry of ID, many of whom keep in contact. On several occasions people have come up to me at a conference or event who are ReD Alumni.


Screen Shot from the MID Network which hosted the ReD Course

Screen Shot from the MID Network which hosted the ReD Course


So why did we retire ReD? Technology has moved on and so has my thinking on design. Plus I wanted to develop another open course (or two) in a goal-based learning format. ReD will eventually have two children; Digital Learning Design (DLD) and Digital Learning Production (DLP).

In Digital Learning Design I want to cover the strategic design of a learning or performance solution – essentially, what I do when we’re commissioned to undertake a project. My ideas are beginning to crystallise and as I analyse what I do it’s part process and part art. Too much process and you squeeze the creativity out of a solution, too much art and nothing ever gets built. Strike the right balance and you design something exceptional. This is where I want to help people get to.

We offer courses for free as a way to get our name out there and to upskill and enthuse the elearning community for the greater good, particularly those who are new to it. We’d much rather create something of genuine use to people rather than spend a load of money on Google ads or exhibitions. However, the trouble with things that are free is that people don’t value them. Subsequently a lot of people sign-up but then don’t complete the course. We’re toying with the idea of charging a small fee, 100% of which would go to a selected charity. That way, participants will be more committed, plus they get to feel good about giving to charity.

You can sign up for the Digital Learning Design course by emailing

Don’t use the G-word!

April 3, 2014

Gaming Buisness Man

There are some words that it is not good to use in polite conversation; the F-word and the S-word for example, are generally best avoided. In Learning and Development we also have the G-word, by which I mean “gamification”. The unrestrained use of this term tends to provoke strong reactions:

“Games? My kids play games. I’m an adult and learning is a serious business.”

“What can a game teach me? Just tell me what I need to know!”

Gamification (like ‘social learning’) is a term I tend to avoid unless the other party uses it first. The reason is that it leads to the common misconception of “So you want to make a game?” Gamification is simply the application of gaming techniques to encourage people to adopt certain behaviours.

We don’t have flip-top heads. We can’t absorb large quantities or information. We commit things to memory that have great meaning for us, or that we repeat multiple times. Any approach that encourages a user to repeat and reinforce the right behaviour is a good thing and many game techniques mimic the way we as humans naturally learn – through trial and error;

  1. We try something – we get an outcome.
  2. We try again, adjusting our approach – we get a different outcome.
  3. We repeat and adjust until we achieve the outcome we desire.

Here are some examples of how we’ve used concepts from games in our work:

  • Rewarding people for completing their profiles.
  • Recognising their effort or success with a badge.
  • Giving people a sense of progress towards a goal (and no, a progress indicator Page 23 of 231 doesn’t count!).
  • Rewarding the right behaviours or decisions with points.
  • Reducing the score for multiple attempts.
  • Having users indicate their confidence in their answer and this acting as a multiplier to their score.
  • Tasks that must be completed against the clock.
  • Tasks that encourage repetition.
  • Making assessments visual and competitive.
  • Having different outcomes depending on the decisions made.

These examples come from many projects but very seldom have we explicitly discussed the idea of games. Game techniques, as with social learning functionality, should be designed in to the solution only where they help the user achieve what they, or you, want them to achieve.

On your current project consider the behaviours you would like people to adopt. How big or complicated a change is it for them to make? What might motivate the users to make that change? Are there any techniques from games that might encourage them to do so?

The black listing of the G-word may be changing. Recently we’ve been approached a number of organisations who, much to our blushes, confidently and repeatedly use the G-word. This is very refreshing and I hope a change across our industry.

Game-on! How to gamify your learning

April 3, 2014

by Tess Robinson, Director, LearningAge SolutionsStar Award

I have to admit that if you say ‘gaming’ to me, it still immediately brings up images of spotty youths barricaded in their bedrooms, slowly developing RSI in their thumbs from their controllers. Increasingly, however, gamification is creeping into the mainstream and particularly into learning. If you look at the basic principles, it isn’t really anything particularly new. Gamification is essentially about:

  • Setting goals and breaking those goals down into simple objectives and steps
  • Setting rules within which those goals can be achieved.
  • Giving feedback – giving learners a sense of progression and achievement and, of course, the opportunity to learn from failure.

Probably not so different to what you are already doing. However, an IBM survey for the Metro found that 71% of people use game-like processes and approaches in their everyday lives but only 23% had experienced gamification at work – why is that? Is it simply that it is so embedded that they don’t recognise they are doing it? Or is it that many organisations shy away from what they see as a frivolous way of learning, deeming it not serious enough for the weighty learning tasks in hand?

Gamifying a subject does not necessarily make it light-hearted or fun in a ‘ha-ha’ sense. It is more about playing on intrinsic human motivations such as competition, achievement, challenge and even cooperation, in that learners may be rated in group output or on their ability to inspire others. Adding an element of play to that, may make learners more willing to try out new behaviours in a ‘safe’ environment

Ben Betts in the Really Useful eLearning Instruction Manual identifies 5 types of games for learning:

  1. Drill and Practice

These are usually fairly limited and more an ‘interaction’ than a game. Players/learners perform a basic task with repetitions with the aim of reaching rote retention. A bit like learning spellings at school. This type of game is often found as an app with a single mechanic (the actions players take in order to progress in the game) and a basic storyline.

  1. Serious Games

These games are played for a specific, real-world purpose. They embody multiple mechanics, a well-defined virtual environment (space) and a compelling story.

  1. Commercial Off-the-Shelf Games

Off-the-shelf commercial games may well contain valuable lessons for the workplace, particularly those that involve strategy and decision-making. You don’t need to have a massive budget then to use the kind of game quality that learners are used to outside work.

  1. Alternate Reality Games

These are based on transmedia principles. Usually rooted in the internet they create a fictional narrative that players can interact with. Often in the form of a kind-of treasure hunt with a set of clues to be followed.

  1. Simulations

Perhaps the most useful type of learning game. Simulations reproduce real-world situations, particularly in terms of rules and conditions and increasingly in terms of look-and-feel as well. Simulations allow learners to practice new behaviours and skills in a safe environment before trying them out for real. Simulations are particularly useful where the new behaviour involves a level of risk or where the repercussions of getting something wrong could be disastrous.


It is helpful to set out these five types of games in terms of clarifying the landscape, but gamification doesn’t have to be a big budget, epic virtual world or even a specific type of ‘game’ in order to be effective. The simplest gamification might include things like scaffolded learning with increasing challenges, levels to be achieved, badges, progress bars, virtual currency or points – things that you can build in to all kinds of digital learning.





The Art of Simple Design

February 20, 2014

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” – Mark TwainMaze

The same is true of design, and for the purposes of this article I’m going to focus on the design of learning experiences, websites and apps.

The secret to great design is simplicity. The challenge is that designing a simple solution to a complex problem is usually a long journey. It is far easier to design something complicated with every bell, whistle, doodah and whatnot, than to focus in on the minimum critical functionality and doing that really well.

So firstly, why is there a tendency to over complicate designs?

The customer wants it – if a customer has a decent budget and you have a reasonable timescale, almost anything is possible. It becomes tempting to include ‘cool’ functionality just because you’re able to. This is rather like, in course development, adding far too much content – the user can’t see what is important.

Unrealistic expectations of users – when you are totally submerged in a project it’s easy to forget that what might seem ‘intuitive’ to you may not be for your users. Getting their heads around your workshop, course, app or system is something they will expect to be easy. They will have high expectations of usability from the apps they use in their personal lives. If your design falls short of this, they will quickly switch off.

Not allowing time to think it through – boiling something down and making it really simple to use takes time, thought and effort. It is far easier to design more than less. In the pressure of a project it is tempting to rush the design phase so that you can get going on the build. The trouble is that this will lead to a sub-standard, over-complicated product.

 So what can you do to address these three situations?

The customer wants it – the constraints of time and budget are your allies here and even if a budget is generous, it won’t be bottomless. This helps you to focus in on the key functionality that the app / system / course / whatever must have. I often ask customers to prioritise functionality as this gives a really good steer on what it vital and what is secondary. Also focus on the behaviours, skills or outcomes that you want users to achieve. Wireframes, mockups and prototypes are great ways to help customers appreciate the level of complexity of something without having to build it.

Unrealistic expectations of users – what you need here is empathy. Empathy is the single most important ability for any designer to have. How can you develop empathy? Get to know your users. Spend time with them, talk to them, observe them, run focus groups and studies and use them as sounding boards. User testing early and often will help uncover if something is confusing or over-complicated.

Not allowing time to think it through – we typically separate out the design from the build phase of a project. The design phase is done for a small fixed cost, the output of which is the design, specification, costs and timescales for building the solution. Even before we begin the design phase, from discussions with the customer we are able to give an indication of the build cost (usually a range) which the design phase then specifies precisely. This approach mitigates the risk of the project for both parties. I like to work on a design over a period of weeks whilst working on other stuff too. If there is a particularly knotty design problem I don’t throw my self at it. I do a little work, leave it for a few days, then do a little more. I let my mind rest against the problem and wait for a solution to appear. It always does.


I challenge you to look at whatever you are designing right now – it might be a document, a presentation, a workshop, course, system or app – and ask yourself “is it simple?” If the answer is no, invest the time to make it so.

Back to Basics – What is eLearning?

February 20, 2014

by Tess Robinson, Director, LearningAge SolutionsBack to basics

‘I absolutely loath elearning with all of my being. I just spent 1hr 40 answering stupid F-ing multiple choice questions in the attempt to gain a poxy bit of paper for work and the blinking site crashed. I get nul points; no poxy bit of paper; no recognition for the time lost, opportunity cost and not even a chance to go back in and waste another couple of hours of my life because of error x2032 – as if I’m supposed to know what to do with that bit of information f%$H, f%!£, f!£$!!! Workers of the world unite – it must be time for another Luddite revolution!’

This was one of my friends, a nurse, on Facebook last week, venting her anger against learning technologies. This is still such a common perception of elearning; dull, mandatory training, done on your own, using technology that doesn’t quite work properly. Such a shame, when there is such a wonderful, eclectic, creative and interesting wealth of approaches and technologies out there. Certainly what my friend regards as ‘elearning’ is not necessarily the same as what I mean when I use the term (although I’m clearly enormously biased in favour of elearning).  So what exactly is eLearning? Let’s go back to basics…

What is eLearning?

Clive Shepherd in ‘The Really Useful eLearning Instruction Manual’ describes elearning as ‘when we use computers and the networks to which these are linked, to in some way support the learning process’. He has kept his definition deliberately broad to take in everything from self-study lessons on a PC to social learning on mobile devices, use of video and virtual classrooms which deliver live group workshops.

Clive argues that there are five basic forms of eLearning:

1. Self-study lessons (sometimes still known as CBT).

This is ‘traditional elearning’ and the form that often elicits the most swearing. It does, however, have some important advantages in that it can deliver learning at the learners own pace and allows them to learn on-demand in small chunks. As far as the employer is concerned, it can be a very cost-effective and fast way to train large number of people. As Clive points out, we’re still in the ‘one size fits all’ stage but there is vast potential for personalising the learning experience and improving this form of elearning. In the same way that large companies, such as Amazon, personalise your buying experience based on your previous buying behaviour, there is no reason why self-study lessons couldn’t, in future, be more tailored to fit.

2. Simulations and virtual worlds.

Simulations allow learners to rehearse skills in a realistic environment without risk before doing it for real. This can be as simple as some online step-through branching scenarios or as complex as a multi-player virtual world. It’s true that gaming-type technologies are still rarely used in learning, but perhaps it’s only a matter of time before this is commonplace. No one could deny it would be a lot more fun and arguably more memorable than working through a bunch of Powerpoint slides.

3. Virtual classrooms

Live, real-time learning where participants all make themselves available at the same time. This might take the form of a web conference or webinar. It allows people from all corners of the globe to come together with no traveling and allows the sharing of ideas in real-time. It also enables a facilitator, trainer or expert to be present. Experts are more likely to give an hour of their time to run a webinar than traveling and taking a whole day out to attend an hour’s meeting. This type of synchronous learning also allows the session to be tailored to the audience as their reactions to the material can be gauged within the session. Clive predicts that virtual classrooms will become more and more widely used as a response to budgetary, environmental and time pressures.

4. Online resources

Whereas we already know how vital interactivity is in learning, passive learning resources definitely have their place. When I want to know something, the first places I’ll look are Google, Wikipedia and YouTube. Learning resources can include things like web articles. Videos, podcasts, PDFs, screencasts etc..  They can be crowd-sourced, written by experts or enthusiastic amateurs. We’ve become accustomed to accessing information on demand in our everyday lives, why not in corporate or educational learning too?

5. Online collaboration

Our online experience has changed massively over the past few years – we are now interacting with each other online as well as passively consuming. The massive popularity of social networking and sharing sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Yammer, Pintrest, Flickr… the list goes on and on, is testament to the fact that we humans love to use the web to interact with other people. As Clive points out, this could turn out to be the most significant form of learning for the future if organisations can overcome their fears that allowing access to social learning on-demand will distract from the business at hand.

In summary elearning is a ‘particularly versatile medium, capable of delivering a high quality and highly-adaptive multimedia experience on a wide range of devices and with unprecedented scaleability’*, so perhaps it’s time it lost its dull, boring and frustrating image?


*Clive Shepherd p16 The Really Useful eLearning Instruction Manual 2013



Reflections on the eLearning Network

November 21, 2013

I have now officially stepped down as the Chair of the eLearning Network. My four years on the Board are up and I will be handing on the mantle to another dedicated soul.eLN Logo

It has been a privilege and pleasure to have worked with so many lovely, talented and committed people over my term. I can’t deny that it’s been a lot of work, but when I look back on what the Board has achieved I feel very proud. I was there for our 25th anniversary celebrations and the setting-up of our mentoring scheme, which is unique within the industry and which has helped many, be they seasoned professionals or newbies, negotiate their way in the wonderful world of elearnng. We’ve published the first ever eLN book, with contributions from the most fabulous world-renowned authors, such as Clive Shepherd, Jane Hart and Charles Jennings, revamped our online presence, run a successful guerrilla marketing campaign and seen the popularity of the eLN increase.

I am genuinely sad to go, but I know that the enthusiasm and dedication of Board members will continue and that the eLN will go from strength to strength. It’s been a blast!


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