Archive for March, 2010

Games Based Learning Conference, day 1 [updated]

I had a number of people ask me to report back on the Games Based Learning (GBL) conference this year, so I thought I’d do it in blog form instead of sending out emails!

First up we heard from Ed Vaisey, MP. To be perfectly honest I didn’t hear anything of real interest from him, other than an acknowledgment that video gaming is recognised as an important UK industry. I would have been pretty surprised had he said otherwise!

We heard from LittleBIGPlanet, a best selling commercial game. I must admit I haven’t ever played the game, so a lot of it went over my head. However, at the core of the game is the ability for players to create their own levels, their own games and their own scenarios with other players. I’m going to go and get a copy as the work they’ve done is very interesting and the number they’ve reached are astounding.

Derek Robertson spoke next, this time on the use of commercial games for primary school kids. No doubt this is a cost effective way of doing things – slotting curriculum around suitable commercial games. Primary school teaching in Scotland sounds nothing short of a revolution at the moment; a Wii in every school. Not exactly Bill Gates’ dream, but certainly close to mine.

Gill Penny built on this talk later on in the day, talking about her experiences as a head teacher of a primary school in Scotland. She touched on a lot of points but at the heart of her argument was that a £30 investment in a video game can create a great level of engagement amongst students, given a well planned structure, put around the game. These kids are blending the video game with complete experiences – when they play Wii Winter Olympics they not only played the game, they researched the countries, they created their own teams, designed uniforms, learnt foreign languages and had a web-chat with a school in Canada. Creating stories was at the heart of Gill’s presentation, the games themselves simply helped build the engagement.

Following Gill, “Made In Me” built upon the story theme with their software which allows for early years education to become a collaborative experience between the adult and the child. To be honest I felt a lot like you needed to actually have kids to appreciate what was bring said – its not my area. That said, the software looks great and its premise of essentially being a User Generated Content game is right up my street, only a different demographic. It’s a work in progress, but the demo was pretty awesome. Fantastic style and animation coupled with some nice pedagogy, interaction and exploration. Did I mention it looks awesome? Cbeebies wants to watch out, this is certainly worth keeping tabs on, especially if you do have young kids.

We also heard from Matt Mason, author of “The Pirates Dilemma”. His talk was hugely engaging and the points he made were really original. I can’t do him justice here, so go read his book (for free if you want), but the gist of it is that piracy isn’t all bad and there is a lot a company can do to capitalise on it, without resorting to smacking their customers around the head. At one point he was asked if he got any utility from giving away his book for free online and his response was priceless – apparently Jay-Z’s producer read a bit of the book online, then went down to his local bookstore and brought every copy before handing them out to Jay-Z, Kanye West and the entire Def Jam records senior management. That’s a fair return!

Later on in the day I left the main room for the breakout sessions downstairs. By all reports I missed a great presentation by Tim Rylands and an equally engaging session by Ewan McIntosh, but I think the Alternate Reality Gaming session I attended was probably more relevant to me.

First up, Kris Rockwell from Hybrid Learning talked about their use of an Alternate Reality Game to get people engaged in a state-side conference. This was all about subtle hints that a game was in the off’ing – a seemingly random web address being posted somewhere, a place to meet, a stray business card being left around the place. This is lo-tech gaming which scales well, if you can get enough people interested in the game in the first place. Lots of opportunities for the utilisation of free web tools here – Facebook, Flickr, Ning, Twitter and so on, although Kris did mention they avoided Facebook thanks to the amount of corporate firewalls blocking it.

This was followed up by a 2nd ARG session by Alex Moseley and Simon Brookes, who had completed a couple of different case examples. Again its early days for this sort of thing, but I immediately connected with Simon’s example, where-by students are immersed into an alternate reality as a business simulation. Simon and his team have basically created a fictional town online to play out the game, with websites (with relevant domain names) for various businesses and even the local council. Again, all done cheaply (WordPress mostly) and all re-usable. I took away from this the importance of not “shattering the illusion” of the alternate reality; once the game has started it must be seen through, almost on the same principles of not breaking the 4th wall. I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of money to be made here, but that’s kind of the point and I’ve already got a project in mind where we could use this approach. We drifted away from the concept of “Digital Games Based Learning” in this session, but then again, that’s not the title of the conference!

Interestingly I’ve gotten the impression throughout the conference that “E-learning” is something done by other companies in a different industry. There’s a limited number of corporate E-learning developers here, perhaps just 4 or 5 of us total. It seems a little like the two sides are somewhat juxtaposed to each other – GBL thinking that E-learning is just page-turning, boring, unengaged corporate garbage and E-learning thinking that GBL isn’t a credible alternative; too expensive and with little proof of its reliability in a work learning setting. Both views are of course right and wrong, with examples littering the pathways before us. But it’s this “difference” which fascinates me.

The only people I’ve spoken too at the conference bridging this gap are Caspian Learning, with their product Thinking Worlds. I downloaded a demo a year or more ago and had a play around with it – long story short, it’s a GUI engine for building immersive 3D learning games. Speaking with them it sounds like they’ve had quite a lot of success in getting their product into a range of companies, licensing it for the in-house development of games. But at least half of their income will actually come from the servitisation of this product; building the games themselves, offering up training and implementation assistance and so on.

I suppose on one-hand you might think of Caspian as a competitor to HT2, but realistically we aren’t going to be competing for the same projects. Far more likely is HT2 as a customer of Caspian and perhaps even visa-versa when it comes to the service. There is a business model for those e-learning developers who would choose to become “expert” in developing games using this sort of engine. Lord knows how much time, money and thought have gone into developing the product thus far and it would seem an unlikely path to tread, trying to emulate the software.

This is an area the E-learning industry has been historically bad at. You don’t tend to see E-learning developers becoming experts in others software (it does happen, but not as often as the alternative). Far more likely is that a situation is deemed “too unique” for any of the current market offerings and a new piece of software emerges. You only need to look at the array of LMS, VLE and the like that are offered in the marketplace to see this happening. We’re just as guilty as the next here, but then again we are looking to innovate beyond simple LMS’ and we’re also looking towards things like Moodle integration.

I’m out at a client meeting this morning, but should be back for the final afternoon’s session at #gbl10 so will report back more later…

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Powwow Water bites the dust

Well, I think we all knew it was coming. According to a few news reports Powwow Water was taken into administration on Thursday evening. Deloitte were appointed and decided that the business could not continue operating in its current state.

My heart goes out to those staff who have been made redundant – especially anyone who has been working all month for no pay!

As you may or may not know, I had a bit of run-in with the previous owners over this blog. The running theme amongst those people who responded to that post in the comments (now closed) was that the company “could not be long for this world”.

Turns out they were right. I suspect history will record that cash flow was the cause of death. But we all know that awful customer service policy was the underlying disease…

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Managing the Social Learning Mess: Auto-curating content

Let us suppose that we’ve created a social approach to online learning, where-by our users not only take content from our Learning Environment, but actively add content to it as a part of their participation. One of the biggest problems facing those tasked with administrating such a platform is going to be information overload.

I admit this stage is somewhat ‘down the line’ in terms of a successful social learning environment, but to ignore planning for this would be short-sighted.

Simply leaving the task to administrators is not often a viable option; online learning is supposed to cut administration work, not make it worse. Developing a good taxonomy and naming convention can certainly help to spread the load, but this too has limitations.

What is required is a method of ‘Curating’ the content that your learners contribute. The role of the Curator is a vital one; sorting the wheat from the chaff and bringing some sort of order to what would otherwise be chaos.

Curators also go beyond these functions and use learning objects to tell us a story, providing deeper insight into what would otherwise be just a collection of ‘things’. But the job is a difficult one, requiring a subject matter expert and a good deal of time; see this post by Jeff Cobb on the need for good content curators.

In developing our new software, we’ve been looking into ways of “auto-curating” content which learners contribute to the learning environment. This is just one piece of a much larger puzzle that our latest product seeks to address, but it is a vital piece none-the-less.

A bit of background on how our learning environment works:

Learning objects are first of all organised into collections. Collections can be as be as big or as small as the editors of the learning environment deem appropriate. For example we may have a “dinosaur” collection, or perhaps we would look to do things at the level of the “T-rex”. Indeed, for those of us very involved in palaeontology we might choose to make our collections at an even ‘lower’ level, for example “the foot bones of the T-rex”.

Within collections sit objects. One object can exist in many collections. Objects can be any piece of digital information, from a web-link to a video, to an animation.

These objects carry with them an array of metadata, including details such as keywords. It is relatively easy to suggest that an object is like another object by using these details, but it is not a perfect match. And when we open our learning environment to contributions from all-comers, it is not easy to enforce a metadata tagging system which is always used, or always used correctly. Such data also fails to take into account the perceived quality of a learning object – do a lot of people view this object and rate it as a worthy object?

What if we could tell that an object was like another object without it actually sharing any metadata at all? We would be then in a position to automatically suggest which learning objects were related to each other and to start the Curation process without the need for human intervention.

Using a range of semantic web techniques, this is what we have attempted to do. Firstly, by adopting the Resource Descriptor Framework (RDF) in storing our learning objects, we are able to discover a lot more about the objects.

For example, think about Wines (I tend to veer towards alcohol metaphors when things get complex). The following statement breaks down the Stonleigh Sauvignon Blanc into an RDF readable format: (example taken from W3C)

SauvignonBlanc rdf:ID=”StonleighSauvignonBlanc”
locatedIn rdf:resource=”#NewZealandRegion”
hasMaker rdf:resource=”#Stonleigh”
hasSugar rdf:resource=”#Dry”
hasFlavor rdf:resource=”#Delicate”
hasBody rdf:resource=”#Medium”
SauvignonBlanc

Because of the way in which the information contained here is broken down, we can tell on a number of levels what a Stonleigh Sauvignon Blanc is like. It could be grouped with other Wines which are of Delicate flavour. Or perhaps we just want to group it with other Wines produced by the same Maker – Stonleigh. Or we can use combinations of multiple nodes to infer which wines the Stonleigh is most like.

Outside of RDF, we can also infer an amount of information about an object given other objects that we know connect to it in someway. Our software allows users to connect objects together as a part of their own “guides” – a way of knitting objects together to create a logical sequence of learning. Where these guides include some objects which share metadata, and some which do not, we are able to infer if an object is like another object.

Taking a crowd-sourced approach to grading our learning objects, we can also discover more about the usefulness of an object and its quality. This allows us to curate objects to not only find like objects, but also to find like objects of a certain quality.

In short, by utilising a number of semantic web techniques, we are aiming to create a learning environment that has the ability to organise any amount of content into suitable categories automatically. There remains a need for human intervention at some levels – for instance, the final “sense” check before things are sent live – but the workload is vastly reduced.

This is just one of the innovations we are looking to introduce with our new software, which we’ve aptly named Curatr. I’ll be blogging more on the features of Curatr in the coming weeks, but its safe to say we’re pretty excited about it.

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How should vendors sell to you?

Community halls are cold places at the best of times. The hard, hollow flooring, bordered by dull, white-washed walls. The strip lighting, harsh with the occasional flicker, bathing the room in a sickly yellow hue. These are cold places for cold people, those with problems. Those people with a confession to make.

The refreshment table was laden with extra bitter coffee, like it alone could cleanse the souls of those within its reach. The biscuit tray lay beaten, already pummelled into submission by the gaggle of desperate looking zombies who filed into the room slowly, sullenly. The chairs creaked and squeaked against the hard floor as people took their seats in the circle. It was time. I rose to my feet, hesitant, but expectant as to the relief that would follow my confession.

“My name is Ben” my voice trembled. “And I’m a Vendor”…

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It’s not easy to admit it, but give me a chance and I will sell you something. Whilst I am also an academic researcher, my job first and foremost is in the retail of E-learning products and services.

One of the toughest aspects of my job is working up decent sales leads. I myself loath cold callers. I hate advertising. Networking is painful. Events are boring. But come what may, it’s still got to happen somehow.

Today I’ve seen loads of tweets passing my eyes on the subject of social learning software and how to be weary of vendors selling you snake oil (see Harold Jarche, Jane Hart and Jay Cross). There’s a similar theme elsewhere too.

The bottom line is, vendors talk a lot of shit and generally screw up a good idea.

I can’t disagree, it’s true.

But vendors still need to appeal to consumers in ways that differentiate themselves from the competition. If I tell you that my social learning software is great, but it won’t create a culture of informal learning without a massive behavioural change effort and that, at best, you’ve got maybe a 25% chance of seeing a return, I’m not going to be in business long. So how can I get noticed without the hyperbole, without the empty promises?

We’re in the midst of developing a new piece of software which we are all quite excited about. It’s not going to “formalise informal learning” or anything like that. It certainly won’t transform your workforce into a legion of web 2.0 advocates, blogging their way into profits. But it will look to abandon the old “E-learning Course” structure, encourage users to connect concepts together and add new learning objects to create a unique learning environment. Engage, Connect, Contribute. That’s our tag line for it. Catchy eh!?

But we’re already following down the same path as those vendors which went before us. So how can we do it differently?

• Cold calling doesn’t work for this sort of thing; no one has a clue what you are talking about and the number of “shots on goal” you have to make before you score is absurd.
• Advertising is expensive and poorly targeted.
• Expensive networking events are generally snake oil in and of themselves.
• Exhibitor events are full of vendors shouting about their informal, formal, social wiki, learning enterprise platform.

So what’s left? Where do I submit my software for independent, transparent review which can be trusted? And how could I get the PR required to get my software reviewed without resorting to hyperbole?

The bottom line is this: Given that there is an outside chance that my products could significantly alter your organisation for the better, how should vendors, like me, sell to buyers (or potential buyers), like you?

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