Elearning Pioneers: Taming the new digital frontier together

In many ways, digital learning design is in the same place that digital game design was in the 1980’s. We may be working with more sophisticated base-level technology, however, in terms of design and implementation, digital learning design is still very much a frontier space. If you are an L&D manager or a learning design practitioner this is both a blessing and a curse. There are so many possibilities, but also so many things to figure out; the result is joint exciting and terrifying.

In the same way that breaking down digital games allows us to borrow from them in form of gamification, a broader view of the game industry can also give us a useful basis to understand and expand the burgeoning digital learning medium. So what can we learn from the path that game development has forged over the past four decades?

In short: to be different, to share what we know and to collectively think long term.

The need to do things differently and the confidence to be unabashedly different

When digital games emerged they borrowed from existing ideas to form the basis of the medium. Pong, one of the earliest games, was a simple replication of the pre-existing physical game of ping-pong but rendered in digital trappings. However, game designers soon began creating new types of experiences that moved beyond anything possible outside of this digital space. A generation of freewheeling programmers hooked on Dungeons and Dragons role playing experiences and this new exciting form of digital alchemy stretched the bounds of the medium, doing things that created commentary and moral panics, but also opened up new worlds. The diverse game ecology we have now owes itself to this hacker attitude and these individuals who constantly broke the mould of what a digital game was allowed to be. Their new perspectives and disregard for traditional frameworks enabled them to do things differently and expand the bounds of their medium.

So what can we learn from this as we work on establishing the nature of the eLearning medium? I would say that this shows that we must be willing to go beyond traditional digital experiences but also, and importantly, beyond traditional learning experiences. In many ways we are still in the ‘Pong’ phase of eLearning development; still heavily anchored in an ‘I’ll lecture to you and then you can do a test/exam/quiz to show that you were listening’ style of learning. This is just a direct replication of traditional panopticon style classroom learning and there is no reason that we need to use that model anymore. That framework was defined by its situation – now we have real-time feedback and the capacity to provide a much wider array of interactive experiences. It’s time to change things up, see what our medium can do to make better ways of learning.

Need to share what we know to allow us to grow in collective skill and capacity

Game development is built on a culture of sharing. From the original hacker inspired bedroom coder cultures to today’s Game Developers Conference which sees industry vets and up-and-comers gather together to share lessons learned, game developers have established their medium based on largely open information and shared experience. They know that there is something entirely different knowing about a process and how someone else worked their way through it than the skill required to navigate that process yourself. You are not talking yourself out of a job by telling people about what you do, you are showing your unique value.

The eLearning industry has a lot to learn from this outlook. There is a good deal too much professional vanity; the sentiment that ideas are precious, valuable and marketable. In reality, these thoughts and skills are cheap and have more value if shared openly than if they are contained in a paid training workshop with branded pens. Universities fight to have the best online programs, businesses want to be thought well of by senior management for having successful/award winning/industry visible L&D programs, platform creators want you using their software to increase their market share in the hope that they will come out on top as the industry standard in the eLearning platform wars.

If we want the medium to grow we need to share what we know at a grassroots level. It’s the next generation who are going to be doing the really great learning design and the more we keep what we have learned under our elbows, the more we are hampering the medium and our capacity to be successful within it. And this future focus leads to my final point.

Acknowledge the long now of eLearning

Game design is always focused towards the next experience – the next interaction will be better, more immersive, more emotionally impactful, more visually spectacular. The focus is on the progression of the medium rather than any one project.

By contrast, those stakeholders who create eLearning seem to be resisting the transitory nature of what they are creating. Instead, there is the desire to put something in place that will last in perpetuity. The short of it is that trying to get to the ultimate articulation of learning design with any one project puts unrealistic expectations on designers and the medium itself. We need to think about the medium as a whole and the iterative process we are using to improve it.

It’s this mindset that I try to take into my learning design work at Wavelength. The fact that the medium itself is still amorphous and we will not be able to get to the final stage of development in one step, it’s logistically impossible. Let’s figure out how the interactions work best, then we can collectively think a bit more about pedagogy. And so on. Everything is an iterative step and a further opportunity to explore the nature of this medium, and at the same time how we can refine to production systems that we use.

In 20 years time there will a book telling us what we are doing correctly now, and what we are doing badly wrong, but the only way we are going to get to the place where someone can write a book about it is by continuing just to do things and very much doing things wrong a good deal of the time.

So saddle up everyone, there’s wide frontier to explore, together.