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Knowledge Guru Sharon Boller On Games, Learning, and MOOCS

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

I recently had the opportunity to connect with fellow Indiana University Instructional Systems Technology alumnus Sharon Boller, founder and president of Bottom-Line Performance, to discuss her use of games in learning. We also discussed her recent experience taking a MOOC, the impact of badges on learning, and the future of education. Here are the highlights, but please watch the video below for the entire interview.

The Power of Games to Motivate and Engage
While Boller believes, as all good IU IST grads are trained to, that the best solution to any educational or training problem may not always be the most hi-tech one available, she is a firm advocate for the efficacy of games for learning. In particular, she sees amazing results in her own work when using game-based interventions rather than other more traditional training methods. She discusses both qualitative and quantitative evidence that supports the use of games as an engaging medium that far surpasses lecture-based or CD-ROM methods.

Boller sites two specific examples of the power of games to motivate when she discusses learner posture and attitude while engaged in play-based learning. She also references a specific sales force training example in which participants were taking great care to follow the materials being presented and actually taking more detailed notes on their learning than in other settings she has experienced.

Why MOOCs probably aren’t for the Masses
One unplanned interaction in the interview provided unexpected support for my own critical opinion of the MOOC phenomenon. Boller had recently taken a MOOC on Gamification offered by the University of Pennsylvania. Her review of the experience was mixed. For starters, she noted that of the approximately 80,000 participants who began the course only 8,000 finished. Her opinion of why this happened was because the course format (the MOOC itself) was not tremendously engaging and was only motivating to her because of her intrinsic professional and personal interests in the topic. For those who did not have an immediate and obvious use for the course, she believes that it would be quite uninteresting.

In fact, Boller reports that the best use of the MOOC resources for her was to listen to the podcast lectures while walking her dog. She further found that the idea of having 80,000 people in an online discussion was simply ridiculous. She found it generally worthless and eventually stopped checking the forum altogether.

What she found of use from the MOOC was the ability to pick and choose resources a la carte and ignore the rest. She also appreciated that the video lectures were generally brief and easily digested. As an experienced instructional designer who prides her work on being engaging, this opinion of the MOOC as a marginally useful delivery mode is extremely telling.

Badges Don’t Motivate for Very Long
Considering the amount of work that Boller does with the corporate sector, her dismissal of badges as not having any real impact now or in the future as viable credentials for employment was in line with the recent lack of emphasis that the badges movement has received in the media and higher ed. Boller’s assessment of badges was that they may work in the short term, but they do not keep learners motivated or engaged for any significant amount of time. They certainly do not keep learner’s attention long enough to allow for knowledge to be internalized and remembered. Basically, the incentive for learning is not significant enough to make them a usable tool.

This view of the shortcomings of badges carried over to Boller’s assessment of their impact as indicators of skills and abilities to be considered by employers. She simply does not believe that they are anything more than a passing fad and that their usefulness in assessing a potential worker’s competence is very limited.

The Future of Higher Education is in Doubt
Boller views higher education as an institution that is currently at a critical juncture in its history. Citing the exorbitant costs and the seemingly diminishing return on the investment that students are receiving, she believes that we are at a tipping point in the relevance of higher education. Boller’s opinion is that less practical educational options such as the liberal arts (her example, not mine) are likely to be supplanted by vocational and technical training programs that have a more directly translatable job outcome.

She does not, however, see elearning or MOOCs as sole solutions to this problem. Rather, Boller believes that there needs to be a correction in the system, both in terms of the cost of higher education and what our societal expectations for educational our needs are. Essentially, a diversification of what is expected of higher education is in the works according to Boller.

Summary
What I enjoyed the most about my conversation with Sharon Boller was her ability to draw on her extensive experience in instructional design and gamification to give concrete examples about the power of games. In particular I appreciated the perspective that she brings to the discussion of MOOCs, badges, and the future direction of learning. Please check out the links to upcoming presentations on game-based learning that Boller will be giving in the near future.

A Primer on Play: How to Use Games for Learning
Learning Game Design: Lessons from the Trenches

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