Forget the Classroom: Turn to the Web for Innovative Learning Techniques

Trainers told to embrace games, social media and virtual worlds

By Aliah D. Wright March 2, 2010

Your com​​​pany has just announced that, instead of going to the conference room to take a mandatory training seminar, you’re now required to watch a video at your desk. You groan, go to the site posted by HR, don your headphones, click the link and tune in.

But this is no ordinary video session where you’ll simply read a series of slides or watch talking heads and answer questions intermittently.

You’re going to play a video game intended to capture your attention as it imparts knowledge through a memorable experience.

Or, once a week for the next 12 weeks, you’ll watch a humorous five-minute serialized “webisode” series patterned after NBC’s hit series “The Office,” designed to help youimprove your sales. Or you’ll participate in a Facebook-like demonstration that will help you understand how the company sells its core product.

“Think Facebook Meets Grand Theft Auto.” This is how employees should be trained, Anders Gronstedt, president of The Gronstedt Group, Inc., told attendees at the American Society for Training and Development’s (ASTD) TechKnowledge Conference held in Las Vegas recently. He encouraged training professionals to use more sophisticated training tools, to delight as they enlighten employees by harnessing the power of gaming, social media, and virtual worlds in favor of slides and conventional classroom environments.

Move Over, IT

Gronstedt says companies must first get beyond their fear of embracing new technologies by encouraging IT departments to be more lenient. “IT people—they were against the laptop in the marketplace; they were against the mobile device; they were against BlackBerrys; they were against IM (instant messaging). Tell me any technology they were not against? We’ve had to fight tooth and nail to use new technologies in the workplace,” said Gronstedt, whose global firm customizes training simulations, podcasting, Second Life virtual experiences and other innovative learning solutions for clients such as Dell, ADT, FedEx and Volvo. “And we have to step up and continue that fight for these new technologies. If it were up to them, we’d still have the mainframe computer chugging in the basement and we would still have typewriters.”

Gronstedt says using new and innovative techniques can help make employees brighter and better trained.

Think of it this way, he says: “If we’re going to train pilots to fly planes … we’re going to put them in an airplane simulator, not just once, not just twice, but every six months. If we’re going to have a surgery, we don’t want a doctor who has just read the stuff in a book and been to lectures. … We want a doctor who has actually been out and done some of these things. We need to get back to that; that’s what learning is all about.”

As an example, Gronstedt referred to an ice hockey coach who, instead of donning heavy equipment to demonstrate moves to neophytes on the ice, whips out a video iPod and shows his young charges how professional players do the moves he wants them to learn.

Failure of Classrooms

“The classroom never worked. It was a terrible idea. It was a product of the industrial age,” Gronstedt says of teaching people technologies solely in classroom settings. Students of the future should get hands-on training from the comfort of the computers in their cubicles, right at their desks.

“When we really want someone to learn a skill we don’t want to put people in a classroom; it’s fatal to mimic a classroom when we want someone to learn technology.

We’re in a position now where we can reinvigorate learning and truly do something new instead of automating what we do.”

Gronstedt said most of the innovation in learning these days happens outside of traditional conferences, “on places like YouTube … where you can watch on a handset as well as online.”

For example, The Gronstedt Group’s webisodes modeled on “The Office.” For 12 weeks, employees watch the webisode series each Monday and answer questions during each one.

“Instead of the boring, old instructional designer approach [of] having a coach telling you what’s right and wrong, we have the actors looking into the camera and reflecting over what’s happening.”

Compelling Storytelling

In order to train employees at Ericsson, Gronstedt’s firm developed story-centered, character-rich, video-based simulations. For Canadian telecom giant Telus, the company created an alternate reality game using short video clips in which viewers are presented with a sales case where “you have to go out and find various pieces of information hidden in clues out on the intranet in order to close the deal. It was a way in which to launch a new SharePoint-based intranet portal. So you have to find the hidden password [and] enter the password, and the next mission is unlocked for you.”

American Eagle Outfitter’s e-learning program was done in the form of a fictitious, Flash-based customized Facebook page. In that hour-long training simulation on product management, players were encouraged to follow and “friend” team members as they developed a pair of jeans during the course of one year. “You see the updates of the team members that appear on the Facebook page, read their conversations [and] see their videos, and you follow the whole development process,” he says. Quizzes were interspersed throughout.

“This is all about telling compelling stories in a new medium,” he said. Podcasts, too, are particularly useful because employees can learn without interrupting work and can take advantage of downtime—whether they access them online or on handheld devices.

Virtual Worlds

In 2003, Linden Labs created Second Life, a technology platform that lets organizations customize virtual world environments and applications in which individuals, researchers, educators and businesses congregate to save money and time by conducting meetings, conferences and training sessions in virtual online worlds. According to Linden, IBM saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel and meeting costs in 2008 by holding two training events on the site.

An IBM representative told Gronstedt during a demonstration at the conference that IBM has used Second Life for three years. About 16,000 IBM employees use the site behind a firewall for learning and people development.

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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