Just for fun, I was perusing “The Science of Training and Development in Organizations: What Matters in Practice” by Salas, Tannenbaum, Kraiger, and Smith-Jentsch (available for download here). I came upon their list of their characteristics for well designed training that enhances learning and transfer. They list the characteristics as:

a)      Trainees understand the objectives, purpose, and intended outcomes

b)      The content is meaningful and examples, exercises, and assignments are relevant to the job

c)       Trainees are provided with learning aids to help them learn, organize, and recall training content

d)      Trainees can practice in a relatively safe environment

e)      Trainees receive feedback on learning from trainers, observers, peers, or the task itself

f)       Trainees can observe and interact with other trainees

g)      The training program is coordinated effectively

Nothing new here, right? This is all textbook stuff that we get in Instructional Systems Design 101 courses. The tricky part is putting it into practice. So, as a compulsive instructional designer, I’m always on the lookout for examples to reinforce lessons and new ways of viewing old information so it sticks better. With all the talk of “gamification” it only makes sense to look at online games as a model for how some of these characteristics might look. One of the most popular games online right now is Words With Friends by Zynga. It is a Scrabble-like game using letter tiles with varying point values on a board whose spaces have different multipliers (Double Letter value, Double Word value, Triple Letter value, and Triple Word value). Players draw 7 tiles and take turns using them to spell words that must connect with existing words. They earn a 35 point bonus if they manage to use all 7 letters on a single word.

So what makes this game so addicting (even more addicting than the actual online version of Scrabble)? I’m convinced that part of its success is due to a skilled application of the characteristics of well designed training enumerated above. I would like to take a detailed look at them in the context of the game in this week’s post.

Trainees understand the objectives, purpose, and intended outcomes

Words with Friends (WWF) installs with concise instructions on game play. It explains that it is intended as a social game between friends and that you win the game by scoring more points than your opponent. Clear, concise, and simple. There really is no ambiguity in why someone would want to play WWF.

Training needs an equally unambiguous reason for being. It need not be an enumeration of the course objectives in a bulleted list, but it could easily be a simple statement of, “At the end of this training you will be able to (simple statement of task).” I’m not sure a list of enabling objectives is actually helpful to the learner at this point. Perhaps an agenda for classroom training, but online training hardly needs such.

The content is meaningful and examples, exercises, and assignments are relevant to the job

If you look at the Help folder or follow along with the tutorial, you will discover that it does NOT provide:

  • A History of Word Games
  • A Comparison to Existing Word Games
  • A Rationale for Why You Want to Play This Game
  • A Long List of Terms That Require Definition
  • Credits and Acknowledgements
  • Pretty Pictures or Graphics Not Directly Related To The Game

I could go on with a huge long laundry list of things that WWF does not include that we have all seen in online training. For some reason ID’s feel compelled to include many of the items listed above in their training, all with the best of intentions, but counterproductive to the main reason for taking the course. WWF provides clear explanations on how to play, lets you practice a bit and then turns you loose to do the bulk of your learning in the harsh, cruel world of game play.

For some things, OJT is the best place to reinforce learning of a skill. For others, simulations are the way to go. If we are designing a simulation, we may  best serve our learning by providing very little in the way of background at the outset and getting their hands dirty as soon as possible with the nitty-gritty of what they are supposed to be learning.

Trainees are provided with learning aids to help them learn, organize, and recall training content

The Help Folder is available on demand through a menu and provides:

  • “Learn to Play” which includes the basic rules
  • “Support” for help with issues related to the software or installation
  • “Help Videos” which provide demonstrations to answers for the more commonly asked questions
  • “Feedback” to suggest improvements in the game

Context-appropriate help is the best way to provide relevant instruction on topics of immediate interest. Learners are intrinsically motivated to learn, particularly if we have designed a tricky bit of instruction or simulation that leaves them baffled and frustrated until they figure out what they are doing wrong. And that doesn’t mean a pop-up that says, “Sorry. The correct answer is…” or even multiple attempts at the same question until they click the right guess.

Trainees can practice in a relatively safe environment

Using the resources listed above, learners can lean about the game without exposing their ignorance, but this is not actually where the most learning takes place. This is only the initial introduction to the game.

For simulations, the fact that they are in a simulation is already a safe place. On the job is where the danger lies. We should encourage them to learn from their mistakes in the training environment. Put the mistakes to good use. And do it where failure is cheap and doesn’t involve the loss of products or revenue.

Trainees receive feedback on learning from trainers, observers, peers, or the task itself

This is the beauty of WWF. It has a chat function that allows you to converse with your opponent. I started playing WWF with one of my old biology students and he was deplorable at the game. Whenever he made a play that gave me the opportunity to play a big score, I would text him a message that he needs to play better defense. When he asked me what I meant by that, I said he shouldn’t give me opportunities to capitalize on bonus spaces with high scoring tiles. Since then, he has improved tremendously and has even beaten me on occasion.

A recent feature WWF added is a “Leaderboard” that lets you see how well you are doing overall compared to the friends you’ve played. It assigns you a ranking based on your scores. Feedback thus ranges from immediate (you see what your play scores) to mid-term (you can track your progress against an opponent through the game via the score) to long-term (you can check your ranking on the Leaderboard).

I’m not sure if this is helpful, but if CBT tracked scores and posted high and low scores, creating a sense of competitiveness in learning, it might enhance performance. Or allowed for online live help. Just a couple random thoughts that need to be fleshed out.

Trainees can observe and interact with other trainees

WWF allows you to play multiple games with as many friends (or even random strangers) as you like. It is fairly easy to see what level of play your opponent is operating at and you can either be a learner or an instructor depending on who you choose as an opponent. 

One of the things we fail miserably at is empowering learners to become instructors. This happens on its own all the time when folks whisper back and forth in class to see what page we’re on and get clarification on various points. In webinars this happens through the chat window, sometimes in private chat. We should encourage learners to ask one another questions and answer one another’s questions. Sometimes, they have a better insight into how learners think than we do.

The training program is coordinated effectively

WWF is distributed most often over Facebook. People are able to invite their Facebook friends to play or if they don’t have (or want) a Facebook account, Zynga allows users to create a WWF account. For the most part, it is a web-hosted app that is easily accessible through your Facebook homepage or as a stand-alone app on your smartphone, tablet, or computer. You can start a game on one platform and complete it on another. While users may complain about it, the fact is, it runs quite smoothly across most platforms with a minimum of interruption.

So what does that have to do with instructional design? It illustrates how well these principles work when they are applied correctly. I wish that my training were as compelling as WWF or the newest addiction from King games, Candy Crush Saga (which is a whole different concept and one worth exploring at a later date). Until then, I think it is worthwhile for us as IDs to look at these games to see what makes them so addicting, especially when similar games are not, and see how to incorporate the principles into our training.