Walled garden

From ivory tower to walled garden

Reda Sadki Thinking aloud

Question: “So what learning platform do you use?”

Answer: “The Internet.”

I first remember hearing the phrase “Everyone hates their LMS” from a defrocked priest of higher education.

That made so much sense. At the time, I was wrestling with a stupid, clunky corporate learning management system designed for the most paranoid kind of HR department, touting its 10,000 features, none of which could do what we actually needed. Moodle seemed equally clunky, its pedagogical aspirations lost in the labyrinth of open source development.

The first breakthrough happened when, inspired by connectivist MOOCs, I figured out we could run an open learning journey without an LMS, using nothing more than a blog and a Twitter account. (That defrocked priest dubbed it “FrankenMOOC”, but he was also trying to sell me on using his preferred LMS.) There was something profoundly liberating about working outside the confines of a platform. However, the connectivist ideal proved to be a different kind of labyrinth, with only a chosen few who enjoyed wandering around or getting lost in it.

Digital market share is often measured by the size of your walled garden. By that measure, Facebook rules them all. In education, Moodle must certainly have the largest, albeit balkanized, walled garden.

This is not about the merit or demerit of an LMS or a learning theory. You are missing the point. And my vantage point sits outside of higher education.

Google’s ubiquitous search provides an interesting exception. By default, its “garden” is the entire Internet. This is how I understand the failure of Google+ as a missed opportunity. Why build a wall when search results could have gone social? (There are smatterings of this in search, for example when results show you reviews or enable you to connect with your search results.)

There is no parallel to this in higher education, where the market is driven by aggregators who partner with universities to leverage, as Burck Smith summarizes it, the “‘iron triangle’ of input-focused accreditation, taxpayer subsidies tied to accreditation, and subjective course articulation”.

It is a fundamental mistake to start building a digital learning system with the choice of platform, for at least two reasons.

First, there is no one platform that will do the job. This is especially true if you are interested in doing more than offering “high-quality learning” and competencies but want to fully leverage the potential of the digital transformation to drive change to tackle complex, global problems. The “course” is the commencement, not the end point. Implementation and impact are no longer the horizon. They are the rational goal that justifies investment in professional education.

Second, focusing on the platform inevitably devolves a learning initiative into a technology project. This is what happened to Moodle. It is akin to e-learning development in which media production metastizes into costly bells-and-whistles.

I know of only one platform that is the pure implementation of a strong pedagogical model. Unfortunately, despite the relevance of its pedagogical model for our future, its technology framework was also built on assumptions of the past, and it is just as proprietary as otherwise inferior commercial platforms.

What few saw coming was the digital transformation that, ironically, has made learning technologists and their learning platforms obsolete.

As technology embedded into the fabric of our cultures, it makes increasingly little sense to refer to a learning initiative as “digital” or “online”. It is just learning. The platforms used to support it should be either those that are already embedded in daily work or whatever the best available product happens to be at the moment, except where specific processes can be automated or facilitated by a specialized tool.

So, what about assessment, credentialing and record-keeping?

The first two benefit from being uncoupled from the process that supports knowledge acquisition and capability development. Sure, we can build separate assessment and credentialing based on direct observation and other forms of testing. This is where subject matter experts can be useful. However, dedicating resources to assessment in an artificial environment may not be nearly as good as figuring out how to do assessment in situ, in line with a philosophy of education that is about fostering leadership and innovation to drive change. Getting results and achieving impact should be the new credential of value.

Why are badges and other forms of micro-credentialing going nowhere fast? First, cracking the armor of accreditation is difficult given the capacity of higher education to resist change. Second, credentialing skills, knowledge, and competencies is no longer the signal that carries value.

The last one is a data problem. Build a modern database. Figure out how to get the data you need in and out. You do not need a learning management system to do that.

Image: Walled garden. Personal collection.

Subject matter experts as a learning problem

Reda Sadki Writing

Copenhagen. I chat with two “learning consultants”, whose job it is in their respective universities to help faculty improve how they teach.

Much to my dismay, I understand that their role is perceived as being about the adoption of new tools (“Should I use Adobe Connect or Zoom?”). Yet they are a case in point that learning technologists provide a rare opportunity for university faculty to think through how they teach.

In such institutions of teaching and learning, guess who is paid more?

Cue Felder’s infamous quote: “College teaching may be the only skilled profession for which systematic training is neither required nor provided – pizza delivery jobs come with more instruction.”

Subject matter experts are a problem.

They are expensive. If they are good, they tend to be too busy to contribute.

They often confuse knowing with teaching.

Their best intention is to transmit what they know.

They are disappointed and stymied by the apparent passivity of learners. “I wish my students would participate more!”

This problem is compounded by peer learning. It is legitimate to yearn for validation from an established expert. However, the shining light of expertise can blind learners to the potential of what they might achieve together.

What if we flipped convention on its head? Subject matter expertise becomes one input. An important one. But it is pedagogy in the driver’s seat. How we come to know trumps what we know. (What we need to know changes so fast, the former is more important than the latter.)

Renewed relevance of subject matter experts may be in supporting implementation and progression to impact, not in teaching and learning. The expertise that matters is in knowing how to get business done, how to get to a result, how to negotiate the context.

But, then again, teaching and learning that is relevant should encompass that journey to implementation and impact.

If it does not, it is not teaching and there is no learning.

Photo: Bryggerness Plads, Copenhagen (March 2019). Personal collection.


Reda Sadki Writing

We struggle with the measurement of learning.

Elaborate frameworks compete for attention. The sophistication of complexity theory or fractals, the business speak of ROI, levels, pyramids, concentric circles… every learning guru peddles a model to describe and diagnose the effects of what we try to do – and what learners actually do most often on their own.

How can we possibly describe the complex chain of correlation and causation between a learning intervention or incident and an outcome?

Is there an important distinction separating knowledge or skills “transfer” from the progression to implementation and, ultimately, impact? How much of a difference can we actually make on performance outcomes or human capital development, when so much is related to the environment’s learning culture?

I described a few of the outcomes we are observing for our most advanced global programme. Learners are transmuted into teachers, leaders, and facilitators. In some countries, learners are self-organizing to take on issues that matter to them, evolving course projects into a potentially transformative agenda.

“What you are doing is magic.”

Some are afraid of magic. Others try to mimic it, trying to replicate the secret sauce.

We are not, in fact, magicians. There is no secret sauce. The tool does not enable the process.

It is not about the platform, nor about the network. These outcomes result from modestly intersecting the science of learning with real, lived learning culture and from reframing education as philosophy for change in the Digital Age.

That, and a lot of elbow grease. Also known as execution.

Impact becomes something tangible once we start connecting the dots between course, context, and individuals.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” states the third of Arthur C. Clarke’s three laws.

So maybe we have discovered a corollary law about “sufficiently advanced” learning.

Image: The 600-MeV Synchrocyclotron, which came into operation in 1957, was CERN’s first accelerator. Personal collection.

Humanitarian Leadership Academy merges with Save the Children UK

Reda Sadki Writing

I asked three questions, four years ago, as a sympathetic observer eager to see a learning organization – launched with much fanfare and 20 million British pounds of DFID support – help improve humanitarian work.

Never really got an answer. Until today.

It turns out that the Humanitarian Leadership Academy is being absorbed into the UK’s largest international NGO. (Save the Children originally lobbied for the Academy’s startup funding and hosted it, yet never entrusted the Academy with its own training…)

The Academy consistently touted the snake oil of gamification or fads like the “Social Age” under the guise of “innovation” (often seemingly for its own sake), fig leaves for a startling lack of strategic thinking and an eerie vacuum of learning leadership. Never mind the questionable donors, it is now clear that the Academy’s roots in charity and “free training” made it mission impossible to not just explore but invent and then execute new business models to generate revenue from training. However, the worst contradiction, in my view, is that the Academy chose to focus on transmissive learning models (such as “click-through” e-learning, known to be ineffective, limited to improving recall, which may be one of the least-needed skills needed by humanitarians) aimed at cramming global knowledge down the throats of local actors… while preaching the localization of aid. This was unlikely to lead to a sustainable approach, to put it politely. (Unfortunately, it is unlikely that such poor choices will be reconsidered in the merger.)

It requires a leap of faith to hope that the many strengths of the UK’s Save the Children might enable what is left of the Humanitarian Leadership Academy’s mission to find more productive paths to make a difference, given these choices of the past.

I wish Saba (a brilliant Save the Children career executive who, in the past, excelled at navigating its internal politics) and her team (those that remain, as the smarter senior managers jumped ship early) the best and continue to fervently hope that they will find productive ways to advocate for the strategic relevance of new ways to learn in order to achieve impact.

Photo: Inside the Globe of Science and Innovation, CERN, Geneva, Switzerland. Personal collection.

The next big thing in learning

Reda Sadki Writing

Will it be virtual reality (VR)? The promise of immersive, experiential learning is tantalizing. What about artificial intelligence (AI), if only to relieve humans of the drudgery of the more trivial part of assessment and feedback? Will neuroscience lay bare cognitive process? What if the blockchain stored distributed learning records? How about building a successor to creaky Moodle?

Predicting the future tends to be a losing bet. In the past, for example, some learning gurus bet on gamification. That went nowhere fast – although the humanitarian sector is still figuring this out.

Some learning leaders see innovation where others see obsolescence or transition. In 2018, one learning leader specializing in innovative educational technology still included MOOCs as a “brand-new” innovation…

Such predictions all miss the point. Here is why.

They overwhelmingly focus on a specific technology and its transformative potential, in the eyes of its proponents, for education.

The biggest change to come in learning is not about scale, medium, or technology.

It is about the relevance of learning interventions to accelerate the progress of individuals, organizations, and networks (not necessarily in that order) to impact. Change. Results. Value. (What it is called depends on where you work and learn.)

This is about more than the classic training dilemma of applicability or knowledge transfer. Nor is it about lifelong learning, that makes it sound as if we are stuck in school forever.

Let us build the learning system that does not end when the bell rings, nor after the exam, the term, or the (micro)degree.

Alumni communities are not new. What is new (and changing rapidly) is the opportunity created by the economy of effort of the Digital Transformation. It is about tapping the potential of learners-as-leaders, connected to one another, so that they progress toward impact faster than ever before.

This is the only future of learning that matters.

Process trumps product.

Photo: Inside the Globe of Science and Innovation, CERN, Geneva, Switzerland. Personal collection.

Two trees in Manigot. Personal collection.

Missed opportunities (2): How one selfish learner can undermine peer learning

Reda Sadki #DigitalScholar

The idea that adult learners have much to learn from each other is fairly consensual. The practice of peer learning, however, requires un-learning much of what has been ingrained over years of schooling. We have internalized the conviction that significant learning requires expert feedback.

In a recent course organized by the Geneva Learning Foundation in partnership with an international NGO, members of the group initially showed little or no interest in learning from each other. Even the remote coffee, an activity in which we randomly twin participants who then connect informally, generated only moderate enthusiasm… where in other courses, we have to remind folks to stop socializing and focus on the course work. One participant told us that “peer support was quite unexpected”, adding that “it is the first time I see it in a course.” When we reached out to participants to help those among them who had not completed the first week’s community assignment, another wrote in to explain she was “really uncomfortable with this request”…

That participant turned out to be the same one demanding validation from an expert, speaking not just for herself but in the name of the group to declare: “We do not feel we are really learning, because we do not know if what we are producing is of any quality”.

Yet, by the third week, other participants had begun to recognize the value of peer feedback as they experienced it. One explained: “I found reviewing other people’s work was particularly interesting this week because we all took the same data and presented it in so many different ways – in terms of what we emphasised, what we left out and the assertions we made.” Another reported: “ I am still learning a lot from doing the assignments and reading what others have done [emphasis mine].”

Here is how one learner summed up her experience: “Fast and elaborative response to the queries. […] The peer system is really great arrangement [emphasis mine]. The course is live where you can also learn from the comments and inputs from course participants. I feel like I am taking this course in a class room with actual physical presence with the rest.” (She also acknowledged the “follow-up from the organizers and course leaders in case of any lag”.)

This is about more than Daphne Koller’s 2012 TED Talk assertion (quoted in Glance et al.’s 2013 article on the pedagogical foundations of MOOCs) that “more often than not students were responding to each other’s posts before a moderator was able to”, which addresses the concern that peers may not be able to find the one correct answer (when there is one). It is not only about peers learning from each other, but also about the relevance of artefact creation for learning.

Week after week, I observed participation grow. Discussion threads grew organically from this shared solidarity in learning, leading to self-directed exploration and, in a few instances, serendipitous discovery. This helped above and beyond my own expectations: “The more we work with peers and get validation, [the more] confidence grows.” After having peer reviewed three projects, one participant wrote: “This is a great experience. Every time I comment to a peer, I actually feel that I am telling the same thing to myself.”

And, yet, that one lone wolf who displayed negatives attitudes stuck to her guns, reiterating her demands: “I would really like to get more feedback on the assignments. I know individual feedback might not be feasible but it would be great to see a good example to see what we could have done better. I would like to learn how I could improve.” Furthermore, she then ascribed her negative attitudes to the entire group… while completely ignoring, denying, or dismissing the group’s experience. (A request for expert feedback is entirely legitimate, but this does not require disparaging the value of peer feedback.)

Admittedly, for various logistical reasons, the course’s subject matter experts were not as present as we had intended in the first three weeks of the course. This, combined with aggressive, negative clamoring for expert feedback, put the course team on the defensive.

That led to a week in which subject matter experts impressively scrambled to prepare, compile, and share a ton of expert feedback. That they were able to do so, above and beyond expectations, is to their credit. As for me, it was startling to realize that I felt too insecure about peer learning to respond effectively. There are substantive questions about the limitations of peer learning, especially when there is only one right answer. “Peer learning” sounds nice but also vague. Can it be trusted? How do you know that everyone else is not also making the same mistake? Who would rather learn from peers with uncertain and disparate expertise rather than from an established expert? Doubts lingered despite my own experience in recent courses, where I observed peers teaching each other how to improve action planning for routine immunization, analyze safer access for humanitarians, improve remote partnering, or develop sampling procedures for vaccination coverage surveys.

Learning technologists‘ interest in peer review is premised on the need for a scalable solution for grading. They have mostly failed to acknowledge much less leverage its pedagogical significance. Reviewing the education research literature, I find mostly anecdotal studies on K-12 schooling, interesting but unproven theories, and very little evidence that I can use. This is strange, given that peer education is nothing new.

This reinforces my conviction that we are breaking new ground with #DigitalScholar. Building on Scholar’s ground-breaking system for structured, rubric-based peer review and feedback, we are adding new layers of activity and scaffolding that can more fully realize the potential of peers as learners and teachers. I do not know where this exploration will take us. It feels like uncharted territory. That is precisely what makes it interesting and exciting. And, following this most recent course, my own confidence has grown, thanks to the audacity and invention of those learners who learned to trust and support each other.

Image: Two trees in Manigot. Personal collection.

Mother and child. Fountain on the roundabout, Kigali Convention Centre, Rwanda (personal collection)

Missed opportunities (1): making a dent requires rethinking how we construct medical education

Reda Sadki #DigitalScholar

“We are training 30 people to become doctors. My focus is on developing content for open educational resources (OER) that we can use to transmit foundational knowledge.”

Training 30 people at a time is not going to make a dent. Cost and scale are related. Quality does not need to diminish against lower cost or higher scale.

OER are obviously about producing knowledge, but seldom question agency in epistemology. How do we know what know? Who knows how we know? Is the democratization of learning about producing new resources by conventional means, albeit in an African context in partnership with a U.S. university?

I realize then that we understand the content trap in very different ways. For me, it is avoided by embracing pedagogical transformation from transmission to knowledge co-construction. The trap is to remain mired in transmissive modes in a world of content abundance. For various reasons, some people cannot see this distinction or its significance.

“Imagine if you could convene 1,000 doctors,” I say, “to take this foundational knowledge and develop localized guides, grounded in their indigenous expertise. In four weeks, they would produce hundreds of high-quality, peer-reviewed guides with the synthesis of their collective, practical experience of how to challenge health inequity in practice, in situ…”

They know what others do not know. Imagine connecting medical students to such a global network of practitioners who find it immoral that they can only treat those who can pay – and who are already doing something about it. The standard of care may be the same everywhere, but how you drive change to achieve it is so dependent on context. Surely, he will grasp how transformative this could be?

“You may want to speak to our colleagues who do in-service training. They do a lot of that. They may have a real interest in what you are doing here.”

We have already done this with topics completely disparate from each other: pre-hospital emergency care, safer access for humanitarian teams, immunization… But this confuses those who still think in silos of subject matter expertise. There is no topic specificity to what I am proposing. Yes, my proposal breaks with the conventions of medical education. You do not connect students to global action networks. You confine them in a controlled environment to train them, tell them what they must do and how they must do it in order to avoid killing people who are sick, and ensure that they can recall (or look up) the information they need to do this without you.

Is that really all that we can do? Is that really all that must be done?

He ends by boasting how the new campus will have fiber optic. By this point, I can only smile wrily. Fiber enables two-way knowledge flows. Ideological or epistemological limitations confine us to using only half of this potential.

Changing medical education is more than changing locale, revising enrollment criteria, producing “free” resources (subsidized by university endowments), or considering political economy as part of medicine. It requires a change in education as a philosophy.

Image: Mother and child. Fountain on the roundabout, Kigali Convention Centre, Rwanda (personal collection)

Efteling gold fish. Personal collection.

Why learning professionals should strive to be leaders, not just service providers

Reda Sadki #DigitalScholar, Leadership

The learning landscape is changing fast. Even the most jurassic face-to-face trainers I know are now embracing the digital transformation or at least trying to. Ephemeral fads such as the Social Age or gamification are proliferating alongside newer, more sustainable and productive approaches that match the learning contexts of humanitarians and support the development of their capabilities in a volatile world. Everyone in workplace learning – save a few proverbial ostriches going the way of the dodo bird – is trying to learn the new skills needed to operate in new ways to do new things. This is like a dream come true.

But rethinking our roles, I believe, is going to be far more important than learning to run a webinar. Are we service providers? Are we a support service (like HR, security, and finance)? Who are really our clients, when those who pay are seldom those who learn? Can the business models of the past sustain us in the future?

The relevance of training is being questioned. In Profit & Loss (P&L) terms, we represent a cost center with often intangible return and consequently shrinking budgets. Cooking up a new evaluation framework is not going to change that. There are more people learning in the workplace than in universities. Yet it is higher education that remains a juicy business with 60% or more gross margins and lush endowments. (How did you think universities erect all these buildings?)

Years ago, a defrocked high priest of corporate learning called me a learning leader. Conflating leadership and authority, I had never been pretentious enough to see myself as a “leader”, much less one for learning. Yet, within my organization, I had become an advocate of learning innovation, building the case, gathering evidence, engaging with stakeholders, and doing everything else I could think of to help the organization improve how it learns.

The idea of learning leadership initially seemed merely inspirational and aspirational. That changed once I met Karen Watkins and discovered that her research over the last three decade has demonstrated that the strongest correlation to strengthened learning culture is exercising leadership committed to learning.

Thinking in leadership terms enabled me to see beyond my narrow job description. To truly serve the organization’s mission, I had to transform from a technical manager overseeing a procurement pipeline of over 80 dull, single-loop e-learning and find the courage within myself (there was none in management) to stop the assembly line. As the first Ivy League MOOCs made headlines, I struggled to figure out what these changes in higher education might mean for humanitarian workers and communities strengthening their resilience. Increasingly, the realization came that I would have to challenge the boundaries, to explore new approaches. And then George Siemens‘s clarity in describing what the changing nature of knowledge means for learning blew my mind.

And so I took a webcast lecture series and was astonished by how easy it was to transmute it into an open, scalable learning experience connecting a thousand staff and volunteers from over 100 countries. The hard part had been to overcome resistance from the gatekeepers and then helping stakeholders grapple with the significance of both the economy of effort and the potential of impact. This drew on what we were already learning from MOOCs, but without mimicking a higher university model that is not directly transposable to our context (as some are trying to do now, six years later). It cost nearly nothing and was more inclusive and productive than the face-to-face, three-day event that happened concurrently. Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis visited me in Geneva shortly thereafter.

It became morally wrong to do what I had been tasked with by a clueless manager. I left the relatively-comfortable seat and position I held to jump into the unknown. The rate of internal change was simply too slow.

By then, I had found like-minded leaders and innovators to forge a new, unbeaten path, leading me to create LSi and then, in March 2016, the Geneva Learning Foundation. Along the way, my understanding of the significance of leadership for humanitarian work in general and for learning in particular grew tremendously, mostly thanks to the vision and clarity of others walking on the edges.

I understand that instructional designers and other learning professionals need to eat. Acquiescing to a client who has, for example, become a gamification zealot may be easier than challenging them to consider other approaches. Requests for proposals (RFPs) may leave no room for suggesting quality improvements, to put it mildly. Some people prefer to bet on slow career progression, hopping from one role to the next, biding their time. These are very individual choices. Not everyone can afford to be a risk-taking maverick. There are many ways to exercise leadership for learning, regardless of position, rank, or experience.  I do question, nevertheless, whether slow-and-steady survival strategies remain as viable today as they were in the past, given the volatility and uncertainty of change.

In 2016, during the Foundation’s first #DigitalScholar experiment, tutoring a young learning leader quickly morphed into mentoring. She initially described her role as figuring out which tool to use for e-learning production in relation to the learning needs she had identified, to then apply sound principles of instructional design, and finally to deliver a high-quality learning product. There was nothing wrong with her thinking, except for a startling lack of imagination about her own potential. Within ten or 15 years, she will be in a decision-making role. If the learning function is to achieve relevance and impact as a strategic business partner, she needs to think critically beyond her own role and explore what future roles are likely to demand. She needs to make her best effort to see look around the corner, to anticipate what is coming next while managing the unknown. And she needs to challenge her own capabilities by looking beyond her current but obsolete learning technologist role to a more holistic view of herself as a leader for learning, growing her skills to wield multiple lenses that can shape learning culture to not only drive performance and results but also help her blossom and thrive.

Image: Goldfish in Efteling. Personal collection.

Partially-melted chocolate

Hot fudge sundae

Reda Sadki Writing

Through their research on informal and incidental learning in the workplace, Karen Watkins and Victoria Marsick have produced one of the strongest evidence-based framework on how to strengthen learning culture to drive performance.

Here, Karen Watkins shares an anecdote from a study of learning culture in which two teams from the same company both engaged in efforts to reward creative and innovative ideas and projects. However, one team generated far more ideas than the other. You won’t believe what turned out to be the cause of the drastically disparate outcomes.


I recorded Karen via Skype while she was helping me to perform my first learning practice audit, a mixed methods diagnostic that can provide an organization with new, practical ways to recognize, foster, and augment the learning that matters the most.

Recognizing that the majority of learning, problem-solving, idea generation, and innovation do not happen in the training room – physical or digital–, is a key step in our approach to help organizations execute change.

Karen is a founding Trustee of the Geneva Learning Foundation.

Sinistar Wallpaper – Beware — I Live! (Retroist.com)

Why gamification is a disaster for humanitarian learning

Reda Sadki Thinking aloud

Is gamification an advantageous strategy that can help increase knowledge and application when it comes to humanitarian responses? What are these advantages? Can gamification contribute to better humanitarian preparedness?

Certainly, if you have been forced to maniacally click through 500 screens of a boring “e-learning” from the past – dressed up with multicolored bells and whistles or cute little Flash animation – to finally get to the stupid quiz that is insulting your intelligence by asking you to recall what you will have forgotten tomorrow but that you need to pass to earn your stupid gold certificate before your field deployment, “gamification” sounds enticing. After all, you figured out how to game that e-learning module… so maybe games are the key to the future of humanitarian learning? Not.

Is gamification one of the “current innovations in the field of learning”? Well, arguably, this may have been the case… over a decade ago. And it has long since been debunked. Can gamification help tackle some of the challenges we face in humanitarian learning? These challenges include scale (we need a lot more people ready to face disasters and volunteering to strengthen their communities’ resilience), reach (all the way to the last mile to people on the receiving end of aid), strategic relevance, and using new learning methodologies that model how humanitarians work together with and within communities, solve problems, and grow as leaders.

Is there potential in using game elements for increased engagement and effective training of humanitarian staff? Often, “gamification devolves to just creating competitive experiences based on some sort of point-scoring model that is at-best glorified industrial psychology and not necessarily a great, giant outcome of innovation or game design,” explains Ben Sawyer, the founder of Games for Health. (Ben convinced me five years ago that serious games not gamification are a viable approach for some needs – just an incredibly complex, costly one.)

My twelve-year-old son is a gamer. I observe and ocasionally participate. The immersive qualities of recent games are amazing, and the way they work your psychology is mind-blowing. Game studios understand the intricacies of human behavior and motivation at least as well as casinos do. So, yeah, imagine if we could put that power to use for the good of humanity…

There are three obvious problems.

The first problem is that building quality learning experienced as a game is very expensive. Creating a fully-cognitive experience with a more encompassing model of engagement and interaction starts at 50 million U.S. dollars (Final Fantasy XII) and there is no upper limit (200 million for Star Wars: The Old Republic).

What could you do with the shoestring budgets available for learning and capacity building in the humanitarian sector? At best, try to short circuit the experience and use just a few elements in hopes that creating a ‘game’ or an experience that instills some of the core ideas of what a game is by definition will generate a bump in engagement. And that, my friends, is a recipe for failure in so many ways, but above all because it is disconnected from humanitarian learning needs.

That, in fact, is the second problem. “For all staff, the abilities to learn, to reflect, to negotiate, to critically examine and analyse what they are seeing and hearing, are crucial,” wrote Connell Foley in 2008. Creating a game that is about more than stimulus-response is difficult (requiring talent that does not exist in our sector), costly, and therefore unlikely. As a learning approach, it is not the one you choose if you want to support the development of analytical capabilities or critical thinking.

Increasingly, humanitarians, like other knowledge workers (cf. Robert Kelly’s longitudinal study), can only get things done through collaboration, because the knowledge they need is no longer stored in their brains. This is not the “Social Age” (another dead end I have previously debunked) but part and parcel of the Second Machine Age. Many video games are self-contained worlds, closed systems that fail to model the very complexities that matter the most in the messy real world that we live in – and that can make the difference between life and death when you are working on the edge of chaos.

Robert Kelly: % knowledge stored in your brain needed to do your job from 1986 to 2006

Robert Kelly: % knowledge stored in your brain needed to do your job from 1986 to 2006

The third problem is that the diverse culture of video games contains a dominant strand that is just awful – full of racism, sexism, and violence that is deeply ingrained. The hottest video game right now is called Battlegrounds. It is a Battle Royale where the ultimate purpose is to kill the other 99 players and be the sole survivor whose reward as a “Winner Winner” is to earn a “Chicken Dinner”. Is this really a culture that can be reshaped to serve humanitarian needs, where a lone individual may be trying to save 99 others?

We undoubtedly need new ways of learning and thinking for humanitarians. This has to include both core abilities and value skills. Gamification cannot deliver either of these, and forces us to work from a culture in which the dominant values are difficult to stomach.


New ways of learning and thinking

New ways of learning and thinking

Gamification is about behaviorist rewards for selfishness, where you earn points for killing others. It is often innately, to the core, about competition – and contortions to make friendly, peaceful, collaborative forms of gamification are lipstick on the ugly pig of behaviorism that hides beneath the supposedly “innovative” character of gamification.

Behaviorism is a widely-discredited learning theory. It might be relevant for humanitarian workers only if the nature of the work was “do this-do that.” It is not. Problem-solving, navigating the unknown, strengthening the connections between us, developing contextual knowledge that we can use… gamification cannot do any of that. And that happens to be precisely what we need the most.

This brings us right back to the boring e-learning of the past. Clicking through screens and taking a quiz also contains behaviorist assumptions. And, in fact, some of gamification’s strongest advocates in the humanitarian space spent years building boring, one-dimensional, and ultimately ineffective media-heavy content before becoming enthralled with gamification.

The fascination with the video games industry is easy to understand. This industry is already bigger than Hollywood and growing much faster. The potential of virtual (VR) and augmented (AR) reality, artificial intelligence, and other emerging technologies show that this it just the beginning. But “gamification” is precisely not what will help us harness this potential to support humanitarian work.

The fetichization of gamification in learning is akin to that for “story-telling” in communication. Yes, humans play games and tell stories. That both are part of our experience and cultures poses a challenge for learning leaders, certainly. But gamification zealots seem to see every problem through their single, reductive lens – and what was originally an innovative idea full of potential becomes one more rote, knee-jerk response set of blinders.

We need to say “game over” to gamification and commit resources to approaches that foster new learning and leadership to support humanitarian work – not sink precious resources into what was once a fad in the corporate learning space, more than a decade ago.

Featured image: Sinistar Wallpaper – Beware — I Live! (Retroist.com)