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Reflections on LEEF 2011

By Koreen Olbrish / July 2011

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I work in a specialized but growing area of training generally referred to as immersive learning design. As more organizations begin to understand the value of looking beyond basic eLearning and training that stops at knowledge acquisition, I have experienced a shift in the types of questions I field about what I do. No longer do people ask me to explain what immersive learning is; now people want to see examples of what immersive learning looks like. They want to hear case studies from organizations that have implemented immersive learning programs.

In its third year, Harrisburg University's LEEF conference continues to be the conference I refer to when asked where to see current examples of games, simulations and learning experiences in virtual worlds. LEEF (Learning and Entertainment Evolution Forum) has carved a niche in bringing attendees up close and personal with presenters who are doing the real work. This is not a conference for people who want theory; LEEF is a conference for learning professionals—whether in corporate, government, or academia—who are interested in learning about projects, case studies, and the application of new technologies. In other words, come to LEEF ready to get your hands dirty.

Held last month, LEEF 2011 revisited its previous structure of hands-on learning. In the 12 case study sessions, attendees actually played through the games, simulations or virtual environments being debriefed. High-tech demos allowed attendees to try out new learning technologies intended to support immersive learning experiences. Intermingled were 12 strategically targeted design sessions intended to address the unique challenges of immersive learning design.

In addition to the sessions, LEEF featured three keynote speakers that brought to life their own unique perspective in the immersive learning industry. Nathan Verrill from Natron Baxter Applied Gaming opened the conference with a look at the design of serious games, including alternate reality games (ARGs). You can watch his keynote, "Fun is Not the Enemy of Work," along with SAIC's Mike Macedonia on virtual worlds, "Immersive Education and Training," and Phaedra Boinodiris from IBM on "How IBM Leads Change with Serious Games."

For the second year in a row, LEEF also ran an ARG during the conference. This year, Space Vikings were the foe, uniting conference attendees in a shared experience to increase their engagement and learning, while exposing attendees to the value of ARGs for learning.

Full disclosure: I did three presentations at LEEF this year, which prevented me from attending many of the other sessions that piqued my interest. In my first session, I co-presented with Melissa Peterson on the topic of ARGs for learning. I talked about many of the ARGs that Tandem Learning has developed for corporate clients and events, and Melissa discussed the ARG she developed for Elmwood Park Zoo. The key takeaway from Melissa's case study was that game design doesn't have to rely on the most high-tech, cutting edge technology. She was able to create a storyline-based game experience for kids and families to play as they visited the zoo that increased engagement, increased the amount of time players spent at each exhibit, and increased players' knowledge about the animals featured in the game.

Many people talk about gamification, but for learning, the goal shouldn't be to overlay rewards and achievements, the goal should be to get people more involved in experiences in meaningful ways.

Other sessions I presented were a case study of The Change Game and a session on organizational adoption of new learning technologies. There were sessions that I really missed seeing. Kel Smith's "Reaching Digital Outcasts through Virtual Worlds," and Julie Dirksen's "Designing for Flow: Creating Compelling User Experiences for Learning," both received great feedback on the Twitter backchannel and featured areas of focus that are often neglected by learning designers.

Immersive learning is an emerging trend in the training industry and a much-needed area of focus for organizations, learning professionals and designers. With its focus on people, process, and technology, LEEF 2011 provided both a snapshot of the current status of immersive learning and strategies to move the learning industry forward.

About the Author

Koreen Olbrish founded Tandem Learning to demonstrate the untapped potential of immersive learning design. Applying her background in experiential learning and technology for education, Olbrish advocates new ways of leveraging technology for enterprise learning with emphasis on performance improvement and behavioral change. She has strong ties to education, having received her M.S. in curriculum and instruction from Penn State University and helping start Freire Charter School in Philadelphia in 1999. Her recent experience has been in the development of enterprise learning solutions, with particular expertise in simulations, games and the application of virtual worlds for learning.


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