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Well 2007 is now nearly over and having submitted, just yesterday, our final client proposal of the calendar year I have started reflecting back on the last twelve months or so. One point of note is the sheer range of reasons that clients and partners have approached PIXELearning with a view to getting an ILS or serious game project off the ground. I thought it might be interesting to compile and share a quick list of all of those that I can remember…..and here it is.

  • Audit intern induction training
  • Diversity awareness & inclusion
  • Marketing fundamentals
  • Introduction to finance
  • Understanding complex sales processes
  • Using the CRM tool (what’s in it for me?)
  • Call centre (IT product awareness)
  • Promoting careers in the retail sector
  • Basic retail concepts (training aid)
  • General business awareness
  • Consultancy skills for public sector workers
  • Customer care (several industry sectors)
  • Front line sales skills
  • Awareness of financial products (for consumers)
  • IT skills
  • Personal finance skills
  • Company induction training
  • Project management (several industry sectors)
  • Business studies (education)
  • Health & safety in office environments
  • Operating a franchise
  • Sexual health (helping parents to help their kids)
  • Aircraft cabin crew training (dealing with passengers etc)
  • Basics of international trade
  • Promoting enterprise to young adults
  • Training holiday reps in everyday and emergency skills
  • Defensive driving for sales engineers
  • How to run a not-for-profit enterprise
  • Virtual bottling plant – product management
  • SAP implementation roll out (for a specific industry)
  • Leveraging research and IP for university tech transfer staff
  • Virtual work experience in six different industries
  • Lean management training
  • Six sigma concept training
  • Understanding how different business areas affect each other/interdependencies

Whilst not all of these projects went ahead – some were lost, some cancelled and others are still being worked on – this list illustrates, albeit in a not terrifically scientific way, that people/organisations are now seeking to apply game and simulation design techniques to help tackle many many different learning, communication, marketing and other problems. 

I look forward to compiling another list in 12 months time and I cannot wait to see what challenges and opportunities lie ahead. 

Have a great New Year.

Interview to: Kevin Corti, CEO PIXELearning Limited from Learning Review Espana

Learning Review Spain – Issue N° 2 Jan-Feb-Mar, 2008

Subject: Serious Games

1. Nowadays, what are the companies that are more interested in Serious Games? Why do you think this happens?

Generally I don’t see any particular industry sectors dominating the demand side of the serious games space. The finance sector is rapidly becoming a strong part of it but we can also see interest in consumer brands, food and drink companies, petro-chemical and many other sectors. There is also much interest from publicly-funded governmental organizations and NGOs.
I think that if you were to describe a dominant type of serious game adopter, it is generally medium to larger organizations that are well-versed in the use of technology to enhance learning (as well as marketing, recruitment and other business functions), which understand that the younger (<30) age groups have different communication/ICT demands and which have a business culture which is open to change and new approaches.

2. What is the acceptability that Serious Games are getting as corporate training mode?

I can say, based on our experience at PIXELearning and from conversations with several industry peers, that since 2006 the interest in serious games from the corporate sector has most definitely surged. That is not to say, by any means, that it is yet an easy sell but many larger organizations now have people in training/HR functions who are at least aware if games and simulations as learning tools and who are prepared to evangelize internally as well as to start to foster vendor relationships. 2007 has been a great trading year for us (150% growth) however I strongly believe that it is in the next 18 months that we shall see an explosion in acceptance and adoption.

3. What are the main challenges that business developers and implementing companies have to cope?

It used to be that the biggest challenge was to get training/HR professionals to even consider serious games. That no longer seems to be the challenge (in general). Where I would say our challenges lie going into 2008 is around being able to coherently align serious games to specific organizational needs/problems and to build a level of customer-vendor trust that will enable sales opportunities to be closed. Whilst price, or more accurately cost-effectiveness, will always be an issue, I have seen a trend towards the need to prove added value and expected performance/quality improvement over other approaches (such as eLearning). This demands that serious games service, technology and content providers must be able to demonstrate prior case studies, assessment proof and ROI examples.

4. Do you consider that the Serious Games market is still lack of maturity? Which factors do the market requires to get mature?

Absolutely! The market (if it is indeed a single market) is no longer a new-born but is still very much a toddler. I think 2008 will see a rapid acceleration in adoption but I think it will be at least 2010 before we can claim any credible level of ‘maturity’. In order for this to happen it demands a broad level of awareness amongst the customer/commissioning community, a transition of many serious games vendors from being perceived as ‘games’ companies to being recognized as (learning) solutions companies and a large body of successfully implemented serious games implementations of all shapes and sizes in many organizations across many different industry sectors.

5. What is your vision for the medium term (2 years approximately) regarding the Serious Games market in Europe? And the rest of the world?

Although I am absolutely certain that we will see a strong increase in serious games activity in Europe I do not, unfortunately (for Europe) see the continent catching up with the level of activity in the US within the next two years. This is no different to the adoption cycles of many other technologies it simply reflects that the US has, for many reasons, gained a head start. This is particularly true of the military and health sector-orientated serious games projects. I do, however, believe that in general European serious games specialists often provide a better solution to traditional corporate training needs. PIXELearning – which focuses on corporate training & business education – generates, for example, around 75% of its revenue in the US despite the obvious perceived barriers of distance and time zones.
Europe has a strong track record in innovation but, generally speaking, a weakness in marketing compares to North America companies.

A further issue is that many European serious games companies are undercapitalized which makes it hard to generate and sustain growth. I would like to think that this is an area where European companies can overcome these issues and compete on an equal and positive basis with US competitors.

Serious games, GBL, immersive learning sims, call them what you will, hold tremendous potential for reinvigorating, enhancing and, possibly, revolutionising education. Save for a few rare examples (usually stimulated by incredibly dedicated teachers and/orshort term research projects), however, we have yet to see any signs of primary or secondary schools (K12 in the US) adopting, or being able to consider adopting, ‘serious games’ in any significant way. 

Why is this? 

Those of us in the serious games space that actually care about the quality and effectiveness of the school (factory) system that our children each spend over a decade in would simply love  to be able to make a big difference. The problem, it seems to me, is that the commercial environment makes it nigh on impossible for any private commercial entity to bring their technology, services and/or product to bare in this extremely fractured marketplace. 

When Suraj Rana and I founded PIXELearning we initially set out to create a suite of educational serious games which would be matched to a large proportion of the UK National Curriculum. We both felt a huge sense of excitement and drive and, initially at least, felt that there was a huge potential in the schools education market. We realised quickly, however,  that this wasn’t going to be a commercially sensible strategy and shifted our focus to corporate training, a decision that ensured we would still be around and thriving five years later in 2007. 

I have talked about this at length with many people I know in this space in several countries including the UK, USA, Canada, France, Denmark, Sweden and Germany. In all cases I hear the same issue identify itself over and over again; namely that:

  • A single serious game product requires not insignificant capital investment
  • Most companies in this space are currently undercapitalised.
  • The customer base (schools) is huge but made up of largely independent budget holders
  • Curricula vary greatly by geographic territory and many subjects (e.g. English history) do not transfer to other territories
  • The price point per school is low (£50-£500)
  • The cost of sale is uneconomic if a direct sales model is adopted
  • Traditional channels are ill equipped to sell serious games and have catalogues bursting at the seams with different products
  • Schools really want it all provided to them for free
  • Teachers are resistant to change, over-burdened and have little time to experiment 

In a nutshell, you could spend anything from £25k to £250k in creating a good educational serious game. The chances are, however, that this would be useful only for a narrow age-range, for a specific subject and for a few short lessons in an over-crowded curriculum. Still, you may find that this doesn’t preclude obtaining a price point of, say £499 (the annual price of PIXELearning’s ‘The Business Game’).

Now, in order to sell this directly, for example, to a single school, a sales person probably needs to spend the best part of a day travelling to and from the school and in demonstrating the product and how to use it in class.  Factor in the sales person’s base salary, sales commission, travel costs, associated overheads and the amortised part of the product development budget and….trust me….there is little profit margin remaining. 

Fair enough, sell through a channel I hear you say. The challenge here is that in order to differentiate your serious game product from bog-standard CBT, edutainment and eLearning content, a sizable marketing investment is required. Likewise the channel partner needs to be trained and particularly motivated to push and support the serious game product over the more traditional products that make up it’s “bread and butter” revenues. This isn’t easy, takes time and results in a heavy slice of the sales revenue going to the reseller not the developer. 

Part of the seeming attraction of the education market is it’s overall size and the fact that it generates ‘repeat business’ year on year. Many vendors probably won’t admit it but it is also a market that is less demanding in terms of updates and enhancement (long shelf lives). This is all true however the challenges probably outweigh the attractions.  So what is the answer? 

Companies need to be able to address a large proportion of the marketplace directly through a unified purchasing body such as a Local Education Authority, county or, preferably, national agency that can leverage aggregated spending power to finance a purchase large enough to ensure commercial viability for the vendor. 

If this were to happen I am certain it would benefit our schools, our teachers and our children. £250k would finance a terrific learning product (10 hours of highly immersive and effective learning) yet, when spread over all of the UKs secondary schools would amount to a paltry £50 each. Spread that over five years and you’re talking ten quid ($20) per school per annum.

That is absolute peanuts.  Is it likely though?     

I’m at the Online educa conference in Berlin and have just thoroughly enjoyed a powerful session delivered by Donald Clark (ex of Epic).

The session will no doubt trigger hundreds of entries to the blogasphere – several from me – but one message that I decided to start with which Clark eloquently delivered concerned the blind acceptance of the plethora of theories around cognitive and behavioural science. Clark quickly highlighted several very well-known people and their respective theories including Vygotsky (constructivism), Gagne (9 steps of instruction), Mazlow (motivation) and Kirkpatrick (learning assessment).

Given that Clark’s session was entitled “19th Century Practice; 21st Century Learning”, it will come as no surprise that he was strongly critical of the current day relevance of these people/theories or, as in the case of NLP and Learning Styles utterly rejected them as carbuncle. 

The problem, according to Clark, is that educators and training professionals blindly accept (my words) these theories many of which are without any sound basis and that by doing so we, as a community, are running the risk of applying learning approaches which are outdated or, most dangerously, were wholly inaccurate from the moment that they were published. 

He illustrated this with the very commonly referenced chart that indicates that “we remember 10% of what we are told, 80% of what we do” – the ‘statistic used to back up the ‘learning by doing’ mantra chanted by many, myself included, particularly in the games and simulation-based learning movement. It seems, according to Clark, that Chi, the author of the original research upon which it is supposed to have been based, completely rejected the notion that this simplistic graph had anything to do with her. BTW, this doesn’t in any way shake my own personal belief that ‘learning by doing’ is a strong learning strategy (where appropriate) but it seems now that if Clark is correct then we will need to revert back to the much older but highly poetic Confucius saying which carried the same message until some (hopefully) respected university seeks to bring some efficacy to this notion. 

A provocative presentation such as Clark’s leads to an awful lot of nervous laughter when delivered in a hall bursting at the seams with about 1,000 eLearning practitioners but leaves the serious games (and wider learning technologies) vendor community with a more worrying problem:

“Supposing Clark is right; when the vast majority of our customers subscribe to these theories….do we seek to question their judgement and techniques when at the end of the day we’d really quite like to earn a living?”

 Erm….can I plead the 5th amendment on that one? 

I have long had a copy of Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives pinned to my wall and I know that this is a common tool for many others. Clark stated that Bloom himself rejected this model within two years of publishing it yet the (very strong) Chinese Whispers that pass across the learning and development world have singularly failed to include this ever so slightly important nugget of information.  

When I thought about it (Bloom’s Taxonomy) whilst grabbing a short cigarette break between sessions, it seemed suddenly obvious that there is no simplistic stepped graduation of cognitive complexity in real life.

So here is Corti’s Taxonomy of Stuff That Affects Educational Objectives………

The theory is thus: that there is not graduation that relates to the supposed relative complexity of the cognitive activity i.e. where being able to ‘recall’ is a shallow/easy task whereas to ‘evaluate’ is a much more taxing and deeper task which requires a much heavier ‘Human CPU processor load’.  Rather one’s ability to successfully complete any of the various cognitive activities very much depends on factors such as: 

  1. How recently I had last carried out a similar cognitive activity
  2. How often I carried out this type of cognitive activity
  3. How interested I am in the nature of the task that requires this cognitive activity.
  4. Whether I happen to enjoy that type of cognitive activity.
  5. My stress level.
  6. My current emotional state.
  7. Whether there is a time constraint.
  8. Whether I am in an environment that is conducive to thinking.
  9. How much sleep I got in the hotel last night.
  10. How much German beer I have consumed before going to bed last night.

In a nutshell I guess what I am trying to say is that it is a multitude of physiological and psychological factors that affect my ability, not some hierarchical ‘stepped’ model that has, at it’s underlying basis, an assumption that you need to be cleverer than most to be able to successfully carry out ‘higher level’ cognitive activities.

Seemingly complex cognitive activities such as evaluating the viability of a project plan can be undertaken in a second simply because intuition or ‘gut feel’ generates a conclusion without any determined effort. Similarly, a ‘simple’ task like trying to recall a simple fact such as, for example, my cat or child’s name, can often take a worrying amount of time. 

So there you have it: Corti’s Taxonomy of Stuff That Affects Educational Objectives®.

Please spread it around the interweb without questioning it and (tongue in cheek) hopefully it will become accepted practice within 27 weeks!

The Online Educa conference session which well-known UK eLearning industry figure, Donald Clark delivered this morning featured a passionate (and entertaining) attack on the core assertions of Andrew Keen, author of Cult of the Amateur; How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture, who had himself delivered a strongly-worded ‘presentation’ on the previous day. 

If Clark’s presentation appears on the Online Educa conference web site I urge you to watch it.  He has talked about it himself on his own blog here.

I read Keen’s book a couple of months ago and have to say that some of what he argues is, indeed, food for thought. I was quoted in eLearning Age magazine on the subject just last month (and wrote about it here) and I confess that I do have concerns around the potential for the spread of ignorance, the deliberate subversion of facts for personal, political or commercial aims or even more worrying criminal purposes.

However, Keen’s in-person delivery of his argument was felt by everyone whom I spoke with, as nothing other than a grossly ill-informed, bitter, arrogant and inaccurate summation of what is, in actual fact, happening in the ‘web 2.0 world’. 

An obvious example is the often quoted justification for asserting the validity of a questionable fact that is:

It must be true… I read it on the web”.

I have heard this said dozens of times BUT in each and every example it was used in a (typically British) sarcastic tone to signify that the person who said it recognised the obvious inaccuracy of the statement.

I don’t doubt that many people will accept inaccurate web-based ‘facts’ without question – and that is unfortunate – but isn’t this true of all sources of information which have not originated from a “14-year old keyboard thumping monkey” (Keen’s caricature) but from private corporations, public sector agencies and, dare I say it, quite a few governments? 

Clark clearly disagreed with Keen’s ‘patronising’ view of, in particular, children and stated that he very much believed that children already possess the ability to judge the validity of the information and the information source. In a way he was agreeing with Keen, who had stated that we should prioritise building ‘media literacy’ over computer literacy with the distinct difference that Clark credits the internet generation with already possessing that ability. 

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