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An Interview with Koreen Olbrish and Kristen Cromer

By Jill Duffy / December 2010

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An Interview with Koreen Olbrish and Kristen Cromer

December 21, 2010

Pennsylvania-based Tandem Learning designs training and education programs, with an emphasis on games-based learning and alternate reality games, for a wide variety of organizations and corporations. Founded by Koreen Olbrish, CEO, and Kristen Cromer, vice president of learning design, the company has been creating and rolling out e-learning content since 2008.

I was first introduced to Koreen Olbrish at a backyard party in Berkeley, California, where her bubbly personality and kick-back attitude kept me close by her side for most of the evening. We talked about social media (and how we both keep separate profiles for our personal and professional alter egos), alternate reality games, and blended learning. The exchange left me wanting to ask more about her professional work. By having relationships with so many diverse clients, from the Constellation Academy of Wine to the U.S. Department of Defense to pharmaceutical giants, surely Olbrish and Cromer pick up on trends in e-learning that many of us cannot. I interviewed the two co-founders last week about what kinds of things they see and hear being repeated from one client to the next, as well as how they know a client is truly ready to take on a games-based learning approach.

—Jill Duffy

Jill Duffy: Can you please describe briefly what Tandem Learning does, specifically mentioning one or two clients if possible and perhaps an example or two of what you've done for them?

Kristen Cromer: Tandem Learning designs learning experiences that leverage the benefits of new technologies and learning strategies. While we believe there is still appropriate use for traditional learning methods like live classroom and traditional e-learning, our focus is on serious games, social media, virtual worlds, and immersive learning experiences. We work in government, academic, and corporate industries, including several pharmaceutical companies and the Department of Defense.

Koreen Olbrish: Tandem Learning is an experiential learning design company, which means that we design learning solutions that allow people to practice and gain experience as part of the learning, not just present information. We like to think of it as technology-enabled hands-on learning. We have expertise in applying adult learning theory and game design strategies to create immersive and experiential learning solutions that leverage tools such as social media, virtual worlds, game platforms, augmented reality, and even more common tools like PowerPoint and web sites. Because we're technology-agnostic and focus our design on creating appropriate solutions to address organizational learning needs, our projects vary in outward appearance, but the common thread is that we design experiences that take learners beyond simple knowledge acquisition. Our focus is on facilitating behavior change by providing opportunities for application of knowledge and skills in realistic environments.

For example, we work with a lot of pharmaceutical companies who need to train their sales representatives on a consistent basis. Instead of just providing instruction in a standard learning module, we create a realistic practice environment, a "Virtual Territory." For example, sales reps in the Virtual Territory can call on virtual physicians and practice applying what they've learned.

Our clients vary as much as our projects do, from pharmaceutical companies like Endo Pharmaceuticals and Merck to the Department of Defense to Constellation Academy of Wine. All of our clients are looking for the same thing: how technologies can be better leveraged to provide opportunities to engage in learning experiences more effectively.

JD: Tandem Learning does a fair amount with video and computer games. How often have you—or have you ever—pushed clients away from commissioning game-based learning and training? Is it ever the case that clients are excited about the potential of games, but are clearly not ready or prepared to implement it in their true environments? Developing a great game that will be effective takes a lot of work upfront, and probably many months more time than other kinds of training.

KC: When there is even just one advocate for learning games in an organization, we consider that an indication of readiness. Often, it takes the advocacy of one person or group to spearhead the initiative and "sell" the idea internally. We try to harness that excitement and interest in games for learning and coach the advocates with tools, techniques, and strategies to gain acceptance and establish adoption in the organization.

The bigger issue when considering games for learning is the content area, audience, and learning goals that are involved. There are times when a game strategy isn't the most appropriate to meet the client's needs, and in that case, we help steer them to a solution that's a better fit.

In terms of timeline, designing and developing an effective learning game often isn't very different from other learning strategies. Depending on the scope and complexity of the content, the process doesn't necessarily need to be extensively longer than traditional training methods. However, the skills, knowledge, and experience of a learning game designer as well as the game developers can be very different than what is required for traditional deliverables.

KO: As Kristen noted, there are definitely times when an organization thinks they want a game, but they really need a simulation, or just a more engaging learning solution. Single-player games should be designed for repetitive play, but that means organizations need to be comfortable with games as practice and not as assessment. We've had clients who start out thinking they want a game, but they want to assess everything the learner does.

It's interesting that when it comes to training, people often devalue play and practice. I see it as our role to remind organizations about why and how they play games and help them apply those concepts to learning games. When you have that conversation, sometimes the resulting conclusion is that they just need more engaging training, or more realistic assessment environments.

JD: Do you have game designers and developers on staff then, or is this outsourced?

KO: We have designers on staff and outsource our development. Because our designers are focused on designing learning experiences to meet our clients' needs and budgets, outsourcing our development helps us keep our costs low and prevents us from having to push for a particular technology solution. It really frees us to make the best recommendations for our clients.

JD: In a perfect world, what would you like to see happening in the world of education and learning?

KC: One of the biggest opportunities for improvement I see in the industry is the education and training of instructional designers themselves. There are so many related but overlooked areas of study that can really broaden the skills and mindset of learning experience designers, including psychology, neurology, user experience design, storytelling, and even marketing. Incorporating study of these fields can help develop a class of designers who are adept at implementing serious games and immersive learning environments, and creating new and compelling learning strategies.

KO: I really think people are still underutilizing the technologies that are available to support learning. Many organizations have invested in tools that they aren't using to their full capabilities, and worse, lots of organizations just simply don't know what their options are. There are so many misconceptions about how technology can be used for learning experiences, and much of that has to do with limited examples of good, effective design and research to show efficacy.

In a perfect world, I'd like to see education and learning professionals rethinking how technology is used for learning design. Too often, tools are used to replicate classroom learning models. But who's to say that classroom models are better? Technology is allowing us to replicate apprenticeship models of learning, with safe practice environments and realistic learning environments enabled through technology. People claim they learn best by "doing"—technologies are now available to enable just that.

JD: I don't think you are literally advocating that instructional designers should be mandated to study neurology to get certified; so, is it that you think there is value in having instructional designers who are "Renaissance men," people who know a lot about a lot of different subjects and have a very fertile brain full of cross-pollination?

KC: I don't think that instructional designers need to study any of the related topics in-depth, but there should be a more holistic approach that incorporates more than just learning theory and processes. With the new trends, technologies and strategies that we're talking about, the knowledge and skill requirements of IDs are also evolving. Regarding the neuroscience example, the research about brain plasticity is fascinating and can lend insight into how we learn and recall memories.

JD: Can you share some trends you've seen in e-learning, either new trends that are a little ahead of the curve, or ones that have been around for a little while now but are finally catching on more broadly?

KC: I'm excited to see that games are becoming more accepted as a relevant, effective strategy to address learning needs. The concept of serious games has been around for a while, but a majority of the corporate sector has only recently begun to see how it can impact their learners. Now, we are seeing a lot of clients who are not only open to the idea of a game for learning, but who also act as advocates in their organizations to garner wide adoption of the strategy. New research about the effectiveness of games [see for example a recent news report in ScienceDaily, "Video Games Can Be Highly Effective Training Tools, Study Shows" (October, 2010)] will certainly help to continue progress in that area as well.

KO: The trend I'm most excited about is that people are thinking of learning less in terms of happening at a specific time, but instead, happening all the time. Technology is really enabling this kind of thinking. Mobile devices are allowing us to carry our "learning" with us. The trends I'm most excited about are tools that are gaining mainstream adoption, such as Twitter and Facebook, mobile games like Angry Birds and Osmos, and augmented reality technology like QR codes. People are really looking at how these tools can be leveraged for learning. People are already engaging with these technologies, and it's important that we look at how we can be utilizing them to achieve learning goals.

JD: Any other trends? What else? I hear a lot about formal versus informal learning, social learning but especially Twitter and Twitter spin-offs, like Twiducate. These kinds of things seem to be quite different from games—except maybe alternate reality games, where a game might be on-going and not confined to a specific platform or online location.

KO: Alternate reality games (ARGs) are a really cool emerging trend, and one that's not dependent (necessarily) on cutting-edge technology. ARGs are all about the design, the storyline, the user experience, and they shouldn't be technology-dependent. ARGs are a great example of a different way of designing an immersive experience. Immersion doesn't have to be a visual 3D experience. Immersion is really speaking to the feeling that the learner has while engaged in the experience.

JD: Can you share some thoughts on trends that people seem to be excited about but have no idea what they really mean? For example, a friend of mine who works in advertising said that in the last two years, his boss has been insistent that they "do more viral marketing," but has yet to put into words what exactly he wants to see happen. It's a buzzword that people caught onto with such fervor that many people don't know what it is.

KO: I'd say the biggest trend that's toward the top of the hype cycle right now but that few people understand is augmented reality. I think a lot of people think of very space-aged headsets and goggles, something out of a science fiction or spy movie.

The reality is, people see augmented reality in every televised American football game when they see the big yellow first-down line on the field. That's a really basic example, but it fits my very simple definition: augmented reality is an overlay of information over a real world location.

There are so many possibilities with augmented reality, and I think we've only just begun to scratch the surface. But just as social media tools, virtual worlds, and game engines have created design challenges for learning professionals, so too does augmented reality. We can't keep thinking of learning as a linear or discrete process. Learning is dynamic, messy, uneven, and our design using new tools needs to adjust to take advantage of the unique capabilities of these new technologies.


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