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The Rock Stars of eLearning: An interview with Karl Kapp

By Rick Raymer / September 2013

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In the realm of rock'n'roll, there are few musicians who accomplished as much as Frank Zappa. He was a highly productive and prolific artist, whose career spanned more than 30 years and 60 albums, bridging a diversity of genres including rock, jazz, orchestral, and what can only be described as experimental. As if that weren't enough, he was more than just a musician. He was a composer, songwriter, engineer producer, and film director.

So, why am I writing about Frank Zappa and not Karl Kapp? There are very few people in our industry, or in general, who have such a broad range of skills and knowledge, or are as prolific as Karl. Like Zappa, Karl has produced a lot of material. He is about to publish his sixth book, and he has authored many articles, courses, and guides. In addition, this material isn't just on a single subject. His work spans many areas of expertise such as instructional design, game design, emerging technologies, manufacturing, and management practices. He's a coach, a facilitator, a writer, a teacher, a designer, a speaker, and so much more. Zappa was always known for pushing the boundaries of music, and in my opinion, Karl's work has had, and will continue to have, a similar effect on instructional design.

Frank Zappa once said, "The computer can't tell you the emotional story. It can give you the exact mathematical design, but what's missing is the eyebrows." If there's one area of software development that has been most successful in bringing emotional experiences to computer-based interactions, it has been in games, and Karl's work on gamification in eLearning is groundbreaking. As Karl's work evolves, I predict he will be on the forefront of building "eLearning eyebrows." If you were not already familiar with his work, I'd encourage you to pick up his books, and become a fan.

With that, I'm proud to present my next eLearning rock star, Karl Kapp.

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

Ah, good question. I usually laugh and say I wear many hats. But primarily I tell people I am a "Knowledge Broker" working at the convergence of learning, technology and business. Knowledge broker is a term I learned from Tom Peters work. A knowledge broker is someone who gathers and shares ideas combining them into new ideas and innovations. I think sharing knowledge and ideas is what the field of learning and development is all about and I am passionate about sharing knowledge. But, depending on the circumstances, I tell people I am a Professor of Instructional Technology at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA. (Then I usually have to explain that Bloomsburg, PA is NOT Bloomington, Indiana.) I also tell people I am a consultant working with large and small organizations improving learning and making it more effective. I am a writer; I enjoy sharing ideas but also, writing helps me to clarify thoughts, expand my ideas and explore concepts. I view writing as a process not an end to itself. I am a blogger; I enjoy the community and connections that comes from blogging. I'm a father of two awesome gamers and, occasionally, I even call myself a triathlete but only because I am able to finish the event.

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 view myself and my work to be within the "learning industry" an industry dedicated to helping people learn more efficiently. This includes instructional design, online learning, classroom facilitation, social learning, mobile learning, and other ways in which people design learning platforms. Specifically within the learning industry I am technologically focused in the area of immersive learning, which includes games, gamification, and virtual worlds for learning. My motivation for entering into this segment of the learning industry was my kids. They were so enthralled with games and learned so much from games, I knew there had to be a way to tap that energy and those design sensibilities to increase the enthusiasm and learning potential of within organizations and corporations since most of the learning designed for them is not very exciting or motivating.

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

I am passionate about creating engaging learning events because I have witnessed too many mind-numbing, page-turning eLearning modules to know that something can to be done. And the concept that learning has to be boring memorization of policies or facts or procedures drives me crazy. Never, in all my years of work experience has my boss given me a series of multiple choice questions in which I had to get eight out of 10 correct to proceed throughout a day-so the way we create learning modules is unreal (literally and figuratively). We have all the tools and knowledge necessary to make learning more effective, powerful, and impactful and, yet, many times we ignore this information or are unaware of it. I see my job as making people aware of providing "evidence" of the effectiveness of non-page turning solutions and promoting the idea of engagement, enthusiasm and even fun in the learning space.

Engagement and learning go hand-in-hand; we really can't have one without the other. And games and gamification are a large part of engagement. This philosophy guides my work in helping others to understand that good, effective design is something instructional designers can do simply and effectively when they take the time to think about creating meaningful learning events.

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

My big idea for designing learning is "gamification" and when learning is more effective, every level of society will be more effective. To help learners improve themselves, the designers and creators of instruction must provide an authentic, engaging learning experience. We must include the right context, the right cognitive activities, meaningful challenges, and the right feedback to allow them to be successful. In other words, we need to add game elements to learning. Not the superficial elements of points, badges, or leaderboards but the elements that truly make games engaging. Learners can improve themselves when they face and overcome challenges, when they correct their behaviors based on feedback, and when they understand the context of the learning. My big idea to help learners improve themselves is to "gamify" learning in the right way. Now that doesn't mean turn everything into a game, but it does mean designers need to focus more on engagement, feedback, and storytelling instead of memorization, grading tests, and telling others what to do. Schools could do with more gamification and less memorization. I always say the game "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" doesn't show how smart someone is, it demonstrates how much useless information is taught in fifth grade. For society, kids, the industry, and even ourselves, we need to focus on the things naturally contained in games, challenge, problem-solving, cooperation, health competition, reacting to feedback, and understanding strategy and context of actions. These are all big ideas from games can make a huge impact on people when applied properly.

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

I don't think of my learners as fans, in fact, some of the graduate students in my classes are not fans at all. They don't like the challenge of the course, are constantly concerned with points, and want to have the information given to them instead of "discovering it" themselves. Yet, at the end, these students learn and learn a lot (and still don't always like me). So I don't think striving for fans makes for good learning. But I do think striving for meaningful experiences creates learning and growth. If you want learners to appreciate the learning experience, learn from that experience and grow, it needs to be meaningful, challenging, and authentic. Creating these types of learning experiences will create learners who have truly learned the content and been engaged in the process. This creates what I guess you would call "fans."

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

Fortunately there have been a growing number of really high quality eLearning examples I have seen lately. One example is the use of a game to teach negotiating skills. The game centers around negotiating with a ship captain. It is called Merchants. In the learning game, players assume the role of Carlo Vecchio, an aspiring Venetian merchant in the late 15th century. Under the guidance of a trusted mentor, Carlo navigates his way through a series of increasingly challenging negotiations, with customers, partners, and employees. It is a six-level game-based learning experience. As learners progress through the course, the negotiation cases get more complex. Most of the time spent in the course is focused on practicing and internalizing the negotiation skills being taught. It takes about nine hours to complete and it is intense. The skills it teaches are real and applicable in many different environments. This game has many of the elements I discuss in my work and provides a strong tool for learning the difficult task of negotiation. Another interesting innovation is a game engine called The Knowledge Guru. The idea behind the concept is that it provides a game format for learning facts and terminology; it's been tested and researched so it has a good foundation. I've seen a number of custom eLearning modules that do some really interesting things in terms of learning such as making the learner a detective, creating a virtual SimCity-type environment with different types of stores that the learner has to go into to make a sale and even a board game used to teach people about the concept of helping the homeless. The creativity of learning designers, when given the time, can be impressive. My interest is in really in watching the creation of "generic" games and game engines to teach skills necessary in every type of organization such as negotiation skills, interview skills, managing skills, etc.

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

The main change I would like to see if more emphasis on thinking like a game designer. Game designers constantly think about a player's experience, the level of challenge, the degree of difficulty, adding help if the player is stuck, authentic interactions, and other considerations that would make the design of instruction more effective. Many people worry about the technology but, really, that's the easy part. The technology tools are constantly becoming easier and easier to use, the technology is becoming easier to integrate with other technologies but, the really difficult aspects are not the technology. The difficulty in moving the industry forward in the area of game-based thinking is changing how eLearning designers think. The traditional methods are highly linear and are content-based and not transactionally or experientially based. For example we call people we get information from subject matter experts (SMEs), I'd rather see us call them "job experience experts" (JEEs) or "task experts" (TEs), something that reminds us that what we want more than content is "how to" information. We need to mine the experience of people and translate that experience into learning events. We want to know how the job or task is done and how we can teach others to do it. When we learn how to better teach this type of design, experience, or game-design then we will move the field forward. There are pockets in universities, professional organizations, and corporations who are doing this type of thinking now. We just need to expand those small pockets so that the entire learning industry focuses on the right kind of thinking.

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

The real "rock stars" are the people who every day are in the trenches creating effective learning modules in spite of budget squeezes, time deadlines, and uninformed managers. These are the people who take ideas from people like myself and make them reality. Those are the alumni from Bloomsburg University, where I teach, but also alumni from hundreds of instructional design programs and even folks who have become "accidental" instructional designers with no formal educational background. These are the rock stars who day-in and day-out create meaningful learning that help save lives, money, and property. I have seen so many examples of people who have taken little resources and created astonishingly effective, engaging, and inspiring learning events. Those are the rock stars.

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.

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