Several weeks back back I got the chance to try out an example of gaming technology attempting to deliver on a real life skill agenda. The expectation was of exploring team building in a virtual environment but it turned out that Novicraft has quite a lot to contribute to discussions of the benefits of virtual worlds for education.
The opportunity came about because I had written a post about the apparent potential of applying gaming scenarios to business skills. Teamingstream describe themselves as specialising in
utilising game technology in leadership, teamwork, multicultural collaboration training for corporations, public sector and training institutes.
In response I was contacted by their business development manager Tomi Väisänen who asked if I wanted to give it a whirl and could I get together a small group. (Incidentally my first experience of Doodle to handle the who-can-meet-when problem without twenty e-mails. – neat)
Together with a couple of expert e-elearning / EFL colleagues and a possible business consultant customer, we met on the day once we had negotiated the serious client download and less than smooth installation. One colleague had to drop out as the only Mac route is via bootcamp and this wasn’t an option for her.
No need to be virtual – just do virtual
Once over that though there is a very intuitive, if initially quite limited, game environment. I’ll come back to its limitations which are deliberate and a strength. Two male and female avatars to choose from, the controls are basic mouse and keyboard with a couple of keyboard shortcuts. A default view which can make you feel travel sick unless you are told how to change it. Overall though, given how quickly the participant who we had just met in game got used to the environment, there is a real sense of an off the peg virtual training service as it were. Doesn’t matter if you haven’t been inside WoW, Second Life much less wonder how much of you in invested in your avatar. No need to be virtual to do virtual.
Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration
Using skype for voice – the game is for a max 7 players – we then negotiated a series of challenges. There is a nice sequence of tasks starting off with an excellent team building scenario. From there things get more complicated and it quickly becomes obvious there is no silver bullet in getting through the tasks, no aha! Moment from when we all relax and everything moves smoothly. In fact the real cleverness of the design is on the deliberately fuzzy task. The group first needs to achieve a group understanding of the problem and the best way to approach it before any solving can happen. Lots of discussion, lots of listening and there has to be trust in the other members of the team. This is in fact supported by the limited controls I referred to earlier. Because there is no part of your brain devoted to ludic skills, everything is focussed on solving the problem. Teamingstream picked up a couple of gongs at an annual award ceremony from the Finnish E-Learning Center – not without reason I suspect.
New hope for in-company training
When I compare the Novicraft experience with quite a few dull management or business training courses, it really does seem like a leap forward. Remember, Novicraft’s competitors aren’t Second Life or Halo – it is training companies doing things in a more traditional fashion. But team building is a very hard thing to develop in a structured way, requiring a real openness which can be difficult because of team interpersonal status quo which is immune to a short training course. By way of comparison I think back to discussing many a dry project management scenario in a training room limited as much by the trainer’s lack of instructional prowess as well as the underwhelming nature of the material. Then the Novicraft scenario which gives a decent sense of the real stakes of not solving a problem in a meaningful situation where those project management techniques are tangibly useful.
The fact that this mode of training is complementary to the classroom is another real strength and should be reassuring for training providers. One 30-60 minute virtual scenario could be bookended with several hours of preparation or reflection. Also, depending on location, two or three people could sit at a PC discussing their avatar’s next moves thereby making this more than viable with larger groups. Plenty of real life, measurable advantages over standard, classroom based approaches.
Application to language learning
Ok, how about that claim I made at the start regarding what educators interested in virtual worlds can learn from this? Firstly from the perspective of my area – language learning – a lot. Teambuilding really lends itself to language exploitation. The key success factors of sharing descriptions and guesswork, sense checking, negotiation of meaning, collaborative discussion all speak, as it were, for themselves. Language teaching likes problem solving and also makes use of creativity but very often separately: the problem solving has a solution which, once discovered, quickly gets tied up. Creativity is often kick started by imagery or literature. Rarely do they come together in needing creativity and good use of language to just define the problem, never mind solve it. Certainly my group could see multiple applications for language learning straight off.
. .and education generally
In terms of its wider educational application, it surely wouldn’t be difficult to orient some of the problem solving activities towards particular specialisms.
.. and with Second Life
As I’ve said above, the competition isn’t Second Life or other gaming environments. Nonetheless as Second Life is the medium which my group has been working with for the last few years, it is impossible not to make several observations. Antonella got hers in first. Firstly the role of limitations in spurring creativity. Second Life starts as a blank canvas on which almost anything is possible but, ironically, this often appears to make people reluctant to define an experience or task as tightly as they could or to assume that many will want to help create their own environment. Inspiring for some but off-putting for many.
Second Life is very strong on helping your build the environment but much less so on interacting with it. I can resize and re-colour a ball but it can be much more difficult to just pick it up and put it in my pocket or put it down on top of the wall over there.
Stimulated by the virtual ‘holiday’, I will be trying over the next few months, along with a friendly group of collaborators to devise language learning tasks in Second Life which draw on Novicraft’s collaborative problem solving design principles. Anything interesting and I’ll post it here.