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The Rock Stars of eLearning: An interview with Alicia Sanchez

By Rick Raymer / June 2013

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Alicia Sanchez truly understands the value of being a rock star. She knows being a rock star really isn't about being in the limelight simply because you have a desire to be the center of attention. Rather, she understands that the quality and innovation of her work in fact has an impact on how the future of our industry can be shaped. She's willing to take chances. Most of the time, they pay off, but sometimes, they don't. That is the nature of innovation—the very core of having a rock star attitude. However, being innovative isn't enough. Alicia's willingness to share her vision with others, to inspire others to be better, and to create a movement, these are the qualities that create fans. And, without fans, you can't be much of a rock star.

I'm a big fan of Alicia. While game-based learning and gamification can be contentious issues in our industry, I believe using a game-design approach to eLearning can be one of the best ways to break out of building monotonous, page turning product. Alicia, the Game Czar at Defense Acquisition University, has devoted her career to forging this ground. She is an important voice in eLearning. Listen to what she has to say.

With that, my next eLearning rock star is Alicia Sanchez.

When people ask you, "what do you do?" What is your response?

I usually say "a little bit of this, a little bit of that" or "I would tell you, but then I'd have to kill you." But the truth is a little more complicated than that. The easy answer is that I build video games for training and education, but that's not quite accurate either. My job is really to determine where and when games could have positive impacts on our courses, and then to contract the development of those opportunities out. It means I have to pitch, budget for, then manage a game development project. While I'm a government employee, I really also become part of a contractor team during the development of games, which gives me the unique opportunity to see both sides of the coin. I love it.

If you were going to classify the industry you are currently a part of, what would you identify this industry as? What motivated you to get into this industry?

I would say I'm part of two industries. I'm part of the serious games industry obviously, but I'm also part of the corporate education industry. They are both unique, with games really being a small subculture within the corporate learning world. This is great for me, because I'm not so niched and I get to still be part of larger organizational goals and objectives. Strangely, I kind of fell into games. I was working for the Institute for Simulation and Training, and some of the funding we were getting was to build games. It wasn't a long seated desire for me to get into games, but once I started, it was such a new industry that everything was amplified 100 times. We were trailblazers in a small microcosmic way, and that was exciting and new. So I decided to stick with it. I can't imagine doing anything else now!

Why are you passionate about what you do? What makes you enthusiastic about what you do?

I'm passionate about what I do because it's so much a part of my life. I love games. I love playing games, I love deconstructing games. I especially like looking for new board game dynamics. There are so many interesting ways to represent learning, and I learn so much for just reading game boxes at the local games store. I've always approached games from a practical simulation based background, but games give the opportunity to really motivate people in new ways. To provide experiences that people can relate to. To help people see things in a new way. Although the day to day can be very frustrating sometimes, I'm really lucky to love what I do.

What are some of your "big ideas" for improving yourself, your learners, the industry, society, etc.?

I've been thinking a lot about what the next step for me is. In some ways, games have become part of our standard now. I'm no longer living on the cutting edge, so what next? I think there is still a lot of uncharted territory in games, and I'm beginning to focus more on assessment and use of games as performance measurement. I think there's so much potential in mobile games that it would be hard to ignore that, but my approach to any project still starts from an old-school perspective. What's the simplest solution? Now, gamification is a field just filled with land mines that is starting to become more and more upcoming. My views on gamification are mixed; I think they have great potential for marketing and loyalty programs. We've been doing that for years. The use of gamification in learning, however, has a rather checkered past. I'm working on new ways to incorporate the game play dynamics of gamification and harness them for learning. If I were going to do any one thing to improve clients, it would be to make them understand that we are not all game designers. It's so easy to conceptualize a game, but execution and design is an art, and when companies don't hire the right talent, they often wind up throwing money away!

What suggestions do you have for "turning your learners into fans"?

My learners either hate or love me. It's not an easy thing to take required learning concepts and make learners want to learn it. Sadly, if I wanted my students to be entertained, I would ask their instructors to dress up like chickens. I can't afford to spend too much time considering their happiness; I have to focus on considering their learning. Of course I want my students to be happy and to be enthusiastic about learning, but I don't need to entertain them to do that. I choose to focus instead on helping them understand the consequences of not learning. And in my industry, those can literally be life and death. I prefer to empower my students by showing them what a critical part of a larger organization they are and how they impact the success and failure of real people.

What are some of the best examples of eLearning that you have seen? What is considered "state of the art" in our industry?

This can be a tough question for someone who has been around as long as I have. Sometimes in this industry it feels like we will never evolve! I think the new implementations in mobile learning are the most exciting for me right now, especially in the games area. In the games industry, I think a lot of the return-to-roots initiatives are pretty neat. Seems hard to say the next big thing is going back to basics, but in a lot of ways they are. I think it's easier to identify what isn't state of the art, and for me, that means rapidly produced, template driven online courses. I think there is some really great potential in ebooks and games, but none of this stuff is cheap.

What needs to change in our industry? How will it evolve?

Again, I'm not a big fan of rapidly produced page-turners for online education. I think that budgets drive what we're capable of, of course, but I would really love to see a few projects that don't cost a billion dollars and don't follow the common model to see what is really possible. I don't want to upset any contractors, but my pet peeve is game show games. I think they are effective learning tools in some cases, for memorization and retention of some topics, but to me, they don't count as real games. /Gasp/

To me, a game has to provide an experience. Those are mini games maybe, or micro games, but not real games. I think our industry will find its way out of this dark time we're in when we see some real innovation. We are forcing old educational constructs on students. Lets get rid of courses all together and start giving them problems. Let them do what they would actually do on the job to figure them out (Google…), then lets focus on educational energy on helping students find and apply the right strategies!

Who are some of the people that you consider to be the "rock stars" of our industry, and why?

I have so many great friends in this industry that it's really hard to narrow this down. I think Neil Lasher is a rock star because he chooses to use his expertise for good. I think that Kris Rockwell is a rock star because he sees through our current state and has a vision for a tomorrow. I think Rueben Tozman is a rock star because he's full of tattoos and has created new technologies to make our lives better. I think that Aaron Silvers is a rock star, because no matter how hard I listen, I still think he's talking about a different plane. I think that Jane Bozarth, Clark Quinn, Julie Dirksen, and Jay Cross are rock stars because they break down the things that we think are so complicated and make it understandable in their books. I think I'm a rock star because…well…I don't sugar coat the facts. I think that our industry is full of rock stars, just waiting to break out of their molds and show us their awesome.

About the Author

Rick Raymer is an eLearning consultant specializing in gameful design. Previously, he was a primary solution architect at Serco Inc., working with integrated product teams to design, develop, and deliver state-of-the-art learning games, interactive courseware, and simulations. In addition, he designed and managed production of eLearning, games, and simulations for the North Carolina Community College System's BioNetwork organization, and was the VP of Product Development for Oasys Mobile, a top 10 mobile games publisher. Raymer has been designing videogames professionally since 1996. He has produced more than 40 games, with titles on every major gaming platform including consoles, PCs, handheld devices, and mobile phones.

© 2013 ACM 1535-394X/13/06 $15.00

DOI: 10.1145/2491560.2491562


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