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Must e-Learning Be 'Cool?'

By Roger C. Schank / August 2009

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In 1989, when I was offered the opportunity to advise Andersen Consulting on how to do training and how to build what eventually came to be called e-learning, the first thing I encountered was role-playing. Andersen routinely brought new hires out to its St. Charles, Illinois, facility to role-play their new jobs. Later, when I was working with the Harvard "getting to yes" people who taught negotiation skills (to Andersen people among others), again I encountered role-playing as a teaching technique. There seemed to be no getting rid of it.

What is wrong with role-playing? Nothing as long the roles are being played by people who actually play or have played that role in real life. Telling two new hires that one should be the consultant and the other should be the bank manger is just silly. Negotiating for a role for the opera star you represent when you have never represented one and she doesn't exist and the person with whom you are negotiating is just as clueless is simply absurd.

I was thinking about this the other day after I was asked to give a talk in Second Life. I agreed to do it because it sounded weird and I like weird. I spoke to odd-looking avatars who made strange motions as I talked. It was kind of like talking to group on a conference call where you don't really know who is on the line but with lots of visual distractions. The group came armed with questions, some of which I heard, and some of which were typed, and with the overload of questions, I lost my train of thought.

Whether Second Life is a good venue for speaking, I will leave to those who attend meetings in that virtual world. I partook of this experience to see what the fuss was about and that is what I would like to talk about here.

My experience started some days earlier when the person who had invited me to speak took me around Second Life. Some years ago I toured EverQuest, the massively multiplayer online role-playing game, and realized that I was looking at pretty much the same technology as Second Life, minus other characters charging at me to chop my character's head off with an ax.

The idea that Second Life is seen as a training venue made me wonder. Since I work quite often in the shipping industry, I asked to visit a ship in Second Life. They had one. I could easily envision creating a working freighter in Second Life and running certain emergency drills on it as a way of practicing and discussing what happened. This would be non-trivial to implement so I wondered if people were spending a great deal of money to build that kind of application.

I was told that mostly, Second Life was being used for role-playing activities, which reminded me of the adage that the more things change the more they stay the same.

Second Life takes the idea of role-playing using amateurs a step further than Andersen did. They make it prettier.

This wouldn't matter so much except we know that one reason role-playing is used is that it is cheap. People who run training departments really like cheap. I understand this, but cheap and ineffective is a bad combination.

But Second Life is cool. You can show off what you're doing and people will say it's "cool." But, "cool" and ineffective is not necessarily a good combination.

One of my senior people had a proposal she had written criticized the other day because the client didn't think it was "cool." Here is what the client wrote:

"Nothing about this design makes us stand up and say, 'wow, that is cool'... although we think that's probably part of the reality of the approach we are taking. The "coolness" factor doesn't show up in the design itself, but in the learning that takes place and how it unfolds in the classroom."

Why should there be a coolness factor? Who said learning was anything more than hard work through practice? What does cool have to do with it? Isn't the only question that is relevant one about effectiveness?

So, then, this is my problem with Second Life. I know that people are using it because it is cool. I know there is a big demand for cool. I demand effective. Show me an effective application in Second Life and I will be the first to stand up and applaud. I believe it is quite possible to use Second Life to make something that is both cool and effective. But I doubt it would be cheap.

People who do e-learning need to learn to fight the demand for cool and cheap. Insist on effective.

About the Author
Roger C. Schank is one of the world's leading researchers in AI, learning theory, cognitive science, and the building of virtual learning environments. He is President and CEO of Socratic Arts, a company whose goal is to design and implement low-cost story-based learning by doing curricula in schools, universities, and corporations.


  • Sat, 24 Jul 2010
    Post by Charlie

    I agree that whatever method employed to learn must be effective. To me, learning anything that you have an interest in is cool. Trying to force yourself to learn something that you find boring or distasteful is not cool, so whatever the vehicle for learning is doesn't matter as long as the subject sparks your interest.

  • Wed, 02 Sep 2009
    Post by Eric Matas

    I have, personally, about 3 ounces of cool in my more than 200 lb body. I therefore find cool in technology.

    If cool, or clutter or bullet points, detract from the learning, then it needs revision, which could mean removal. I'll bet that there is a lot of elearning right now that is cool (visually or technically) but ineffective.

    Even so, when I sleep on a warm summer night, even though I can sleep just fine as is with my head on that pillow, I still flip it over for one simple reason: it is cool.

  • Sat, 29 Aug 2009
    Post by Shiv Rajendran

    We have been teaching English as a second language in Second Life since 2005. Developing effective pedagogy took years of R&D involving testing with hundreds of students from dozens of countries. The result is an effective online learning environment where students are immersed in an English City populated with roles players and instructors. Where appropriate the role players are industry professionals.

    Ineffective learning programs is caused by a lack of testing and QA processes. It is certainly not unique to Second Life, and can be said of any medium. How good, or bad, a given tool is depends entirely on how you use it.

  • Wed, 26 Aug 2009
    Post by roger schank

    Anders -- you are being unfair. First I did not "dismiss the thousands of learning professionals who are already finding tremendous value in virtual worlds training." You can't make statements like this next one and be taken seriously: "Anyone who's dismissing the coolness of virtual worlds, is declaring their own irrelevance to the new generation of digital natives who knows no boundaries between entertainment and work." Work is still work most of the time. Learning in SL would be work as well, if it were done correctly. You say that: "in an era of "the live web" and "the 3D web," you have to make learning engaging, fun, immersive, social and and cool to even get their attention" This is simply wrong. Children learn to walk and talk the way they always did, by trying and then trying again. The reward is in the success. The learning is in the recovery from failure. Please do go ahead and make learning applications in SL. I never meant to discourage that attempt. I meant to say that if we demand "cool" we are missing the point. If "cool" helps us learn, wonderful. We need to use "cool" when it is actually needed to teach what we are teaching.

  • Wed, 19 Aug 2009
    Post by Steve

    Hi all - Great comments, Roger, Clark, Anders, and folks. Totally agree: cool and ineffective is just a waste of time. And I agree that what Tony O'Driscoll calls the 'routinization' of new technology is a risk; we tend to try to replicate that which is familiar without adequately examining what the new toolset can provide in terms of cool AND effective learning experiences.

    Example: We recently did a teaming event in SL with about a dozen global managers for a company. The metaphor / activity for getting at the business issue (improving virtual teaming behaviors) was building a bridge in SL. Each team had a coach present to observe and give feedback as the teams worked in-world to position bridge parts. As you might expect, many of the typical teaming behaviors (desired and not so) were evidenced.

    But what was a bit more interesting was the fact that the virtual space (aside from providing the obvious collaborative presence and experience without any travel expense) allowed us to challenge the thinking in new ways: Objects in SL can have gravity or not. We rigged the bridge parts to not have gravity. Several teams spent a lot of time trying to build supports for the bridge, when in the end none were needed. This led to a very productive conversation about innovation, and testing assumptions about the nature of the problem and the environment itself.

    You get the idea : )

    Steve Mahaley / Duke CE

  • Wed, 19 Aug 2009
    Post by George Hathaway

    Coolness will help you sell the program to participants. Effectiveness will help you sell it to organizations. Coolness and effectiveness will help you sustain the sale.

    Like any other medium, there is room for abuse. We shouldn't be mis-using a medium just because its cool. Sometimes plain old telephone is the way to go. If you want to do remote experiential learning, applications like Second Life really work well. I have conducted some very basic experiential programs in SL and they have been quite successful.

    Two problems with Second Life: 1) the basic avatars are too cartoonish for many people; 2) Organizations are afraid to put it behind the firewall. I have friends who have had their computers fried by nasty stuff from SL griefers. I never go into SL without wearing a security device on my av. Until this is fixed, or the enterprise aps are perfected, Second Life will continue to be blocked by organizational IT people.

  • Wed, 19 Aug 2009
    Post by Anders Gronstedt

    Thanks for speaking at our Train for Success in Second Life Roger, it was an awesome meeting! We have a video recording and a downloadable audio podcast from the meeting at: I'm a huge fan of your work and your learning philosophy.

    You ask about an effective application in Second Life, how about Loyalist Colleges finding that Second Life role playing improved the number of border agent students who passed a final evaluation from 56% to 93% when they moved it from the class room? Or Stanford Universitys finding that emergency response exercises in the virtual world is as effective as live emergency response training at a fraction of the cost. There's plenty of evidence of the effectiveness of virtual world learning already. As for cheap, well, Second Life is a consumer application, accounts are free, holding meetings are free, hosting an entire island costs $300 per month. Hiring a firm like mine, the Gronstedt Group, to develop 3D learning programs is not free, but our Second Life projects are frequently a lot less expensive than our 2D simulations.

    I don't think it's fair to dismiss the thousands of learning professionals who are already finding tremendous value in virtual worlds training. It's like dismissing the Internet in 1997 because there was no hard evidence that it worked. I'm certainly not going to apologize for the coolness factor of Second Life. Anyone who's dismissing the coolness of virtual worlds, is declaring their own irrelevance to the new generation of digital natives who knows no boundaries between entertainment and work. I would point anyone to Professor Ed Castronovas latest book "Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun Is Changing Reality," for a persuasive case that we're entering a "fun economy" where the real world may begin to model its institutions on virtual worlds because the general populace finds them more fun, or dare I say, cool :-) It's not that cool alone makes learning effective, but in an era of "the live web" and "the 3D web," you have to make learning engaging, fun, immersive, social and and cool to even get their attention.

  • Tue, 18 Aug 2009
    Post by Guy Boulet

    Simply using 3D environments because they look cool doen't add any value to your training. There are, of course some applications where virtual environments can add a lot of value to the training. I can understand that decision makers want training to be fun but they must understand that having fun is not warant of effectiveness. Bells and whistles may be cool but they can also be very distractive especially if they do not serve any learning objective.

    Having to walk into a virtual world to a virtual theather to attend an online conference may be cool but it does not add anything to the content of the conference. The same result can be achieved using an online conferencing application with way less distractions. On the other end, using a 3D model of a ship to familarize new crewmembers with the layout of the ship before they can get onboard sounds like a usefull way to use virtual environments for learning.

    When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. As instructional designers we must make sure that our toolbox contains many different tools so we can use the right tool for the job; not the coolest one but the most effective one.

  • Fri, 14 Aug 2009
    Post by Clark Quinn

    Roger, I've seen a real nice Second Life example. When I look at the unique affordances of 2nd Life, it's about being together in 3D, and take those elements to be additive. The example I saw for insurance adjusting, and had a damaged house (tree fell on it) to be assessed (water damage). You could wander around to examine (3D) and make your recommendations about how much of the observable damage came from rain due to the damaged roof, and if there might be other factors.

    A mentor could observe you, and then you could open up the wall, and see how your hypotheses matched the observable evidence and the underlying causation. The social wasn't necessary, but added a powerful learning adjunct to the active practice.

    I agree that there are far too many examples of powerpoint presentations in virtual worlds, but there are powerful learning opportunities as well, with the right match of capability to need. And it might not be cheap, but it certainly could be high value for outcome.

    As you would probably agree, you've got to look at the total learning context, including resources as well as meaningful practice, but 3D social practice has some real opportunities in virtual worlds.

  • Thu, 13 Aug 2009
    Post by Dave Ferguson

    I agree with your thought that an immersive environment like Second Life offers the possibility of simulation, as in your shipping example. I've seen an SL demo of trauma-room training, with an instructor operating the avatar of a patient (so that he could present various symptoms), and the learners having to both diagnose and response.

    Even in the short demo, learner errors led to misdiagnosis, and the patient's condition deteriorated rapidly. The demo didn't try to simulate details (attaching a cuff or physically inserting a drip), which I thought made sense in context. Instead, it highlighted the interaction between patient and trauma specialist: asking questions, choosing tests (e.g., by clicking an instrument), assessing results, and selecting treatments. But your remarks sprang from "giving a talk." I'm not sure I'd equate talking with training, let alone learning. Did you have time beforehand to, um, learn how to present effectively?

    Yes, it's a challenge to juggle both the live audio and the text chat. That's why many people who conduct synchronous online sessions have a partner: there's too much going on for most solo acts.

  • Thu, 13 Aug 2009
    Post by Guy W Wallace

    Bravo! I too would like to see some data on the effectiveness of Second Life - and all sorts of other Web 2.0/Internet-enabled learning technologies. And then compare that with the speed and costs it takes to implement each. That would be "cool."