Thursday, December 31, 2009

The end of a decade and a year to remember

I was trying to reflect on the year 2009, and was having a hard time with inspiration. I feel strongly about reflection and goal setting, but to be honest, I'm overwhelmed with the enormity of the events of this year for me.

Then I started to think bigger. I noticed a bunch of people on Twitter were reflecting on what they were doing 10 years ago, and it actually made me think about how my life has changed since the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2000.

I've bought two houses.
I've welcomed my 3 kids into my life.
My parents moved in with me.
I lost my grandmother.
I started a company.

I was really, really busy.

So 2009. Our sophomore year at Tandem Learning. It seems like personally and professionally, a lot went right and a lot went wrong this year. I think what I will remember most about 2009 is how I changed. I couldn't blog about my reflections on the year without talking about the amazing people, and some dear friends, that I met through Twitter--people who I'm now happy to say are also my "in the flesh" friends. I learned how to rely on and depend on people this year in a way that I never have before. I'm learning (sooo still in process) to be better at asking for what I need. I got better (again, a work in progress) at separating out my personal time from work.

Most important, I think 2009 was the year where I started to see who I really am. I say started, because I'm in no way thinking I have things all figured out. I confirmed some things I already knew, but discovered a lot of things I didn't even have a clue about. Momentum keeps you from slowing down and reflecting sometimes. Momentum has driven me through this decade but 2009 was a whole year of self-reflection. It wasn't an easy year, but it was an important year. I will remember this year for everything that I learned about myself and the foundation that it laid for the next year, the next decade...the next adventure.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

My name is Koreen Olbrish and I am addicted to immersive environments

I'm going to admit something here, on my blog, that maybe only 1 or 2 people in my life actually know. I am addicted to immersive environments and games. Not tic-tac-toe or football, but role-playing games, the kind that immerse you in the storyline and engage you with your character in completing an objective, scoring points, and ultimately, winning.

It probably started when I was a little girl, when I was obsessed with fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings and The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. I read all of those books, read all of the Wizard of Oz series...anything that I could find that could transport me to another world. My mom used to take my books away from me in the summer and make me go out to play. In college, I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons; I would spend whole weekends playing around the clock. I was finishing grad school when I worked at a camp for a summer and spent my days on the porch of the computer lab playing Magic the Gathering. And then, two years ago, I discovered Second Life.

No, its not a game. But I spent months and months in world, and now, in retrospect, I can see how it affected me and the people I love. I was working, yes, because I work in virtual worlds, but it went beyond that. I was truly immersed and it was impacting the rest of my life. After about 4 months, I started to ween myself out of my Second Life and re-engage with my real life. Its been a long process, and truly, the lure of games and immersive environments is still a constant pull (just this week I have been obsessed with Epic Pet Wars on my iPhone). But I've been managing to put down the laptop more and more.

And then last night. I got a 2 month subscription to World of Warcraft for Christmas. I was SO excited. I've been wanting to play WoW for a long time, and this was finally it! But...after spending two hours debating what race and class I would choose, I realized...I can't do this. I can't casually play RPGs and engage in immersive environments--they are an addictive lure to me. It also made more clear the reality behind the argument that a lot of people have against the use of virtual worlds: I don't have time. If I were to start playing WoW, I would want to really play. And that would require hours. Hours that I wouldn't be spending with my kids, hours that I wouldn't be working on my still relatively new business. I can't afford the time.

This is not to say that I don't want to play, or that I think there is anything wrong with people who choose to immerse themselves in MMOGs or virtual worlds. But I know what the trade offs are for me and so, I choose to battle my business competitors instead of Blood Elves and dance with my kids instead of Gnomes. But my pet sheep, BaadMaamaJaama, is level 16 in Epic Pet Wars. Just sayin' ;)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Virtual Worlds 2.0...a few humble predictions

I'm usually a big fan of bold predictions and grand visions of the future, maybe no more so than as they pertain to virtual worlds. I've thought, since the moment I first saw an avatar wandering through Second Life, that virtual worlds hold a promise for communication, collaboration, and learning that is uniquely different than any other technology.

But progress has been slow. The technology isn't quite elegant enough for widespread adoption and those of us who see the future have a difficult path to travel to convince the many naysayers armed with logical and reasonable objections to virtual worlds for serious applications. Its a small and quirky band of visionaries at this stage of virtual world adoption, and we all have our unique perspectives and area of focus. Obviously, my perspective has been from the side of content design, specifically for learning. But its given me a unique view, and ability to look across all of the virtual world technologies in the market and figure out what's working and what's not from a user experience and learning design perspective.

Yesterday, I read this blog post from Justin Gibbs, tweeted by @dshiao (thanks!), about the transition from virtual worlds 1.0 to 2.0. I agreed with Justin's take on the issues with the state of 1.0, but didn't really agree with his thoughts on vw2.0.

The thing is...I don't think we're at the transition to vw2.0 yet. And here's why...

The shift to 2.0 will occur when virtual worlds make a major transition, a technological breakthrough, that takes them mainstream. There are things happening now that will help that along (eg, browser-based technologies) but there are some major technology and user adoption issues that still have to be overcome. I'm actually NOT a believer that eventually virtual worlds will go "mainstream" in their current form. There will be a major change in how people view virtual worlds because of a big change in the technology. I think there are two current virtual world technologies that embody some of the future characteristics of virtual worlds 2.0: Vastpark and Multiverse. And there are two areas of technological innovation, augmented reality and mobile technology, that will be the catalysts to the 2.0 transition.

So here are my "bold" predictions for Virtual Worlds 2.0, and what will push the industry from 1.0 to 2.0:

  • Virtual worlds will be browser-based and seamlessly integrate with the Internet. This will mean that logging into a virtual world will be as easy as logging onto a website, and your avatar will be consistent across different worlds. It will mean that virtual world content will be searchable, and will come up in Google search results (or whatever the kids are using when this all comes to pass). It will mean that there will be standards and a common programming language, like html, but for 3D content. This is where Vastpark is thinking, and I think its a brilliant and forward thinking strategy that could push the industry mainstream.
  • Virtual worlds will rely less on user-generated content. The inception of virtual worlds was founded on "openness" and Second Life's success, and the bulk of their business model, is built on the development of community and experiences in an organic way from the residents themselves. It is really brilliant, on many levels, and an idea repeated in many 2.0 technologies today (eg, Twitter, Facebook). But the difference in virtual worlds is the visualness of the technology, the ability to develop contexts that someone can be immersed in. People have built beautiful 3D environments, and they are amazing to see. But then what do you do there? I just don't think we can rely on UGC to answer this question. We need to start thinking of appropriate design for this technology, and we need to stop just waiting for the community to develop. Just because you build it, doesn't mean they will come. We'll reach the 2.0 threshhold when enough experiences are designed in virtual worlds that accentuate what virtual worlds can do better than any other technology (real-time multi-user experiences) and we can show how communities develop around these experiences. This is actually what I like about Multiverse--it gives people something to do. A unique blend of a virtual world and a gaming platform, a lot of the features of Multiverse allow you to much more easily build engaging content that can provide a context for initial experiences in the world, which can then lead to community building. Of course, I'd like to see more examples for serious applications and less of an entertainment focus, but Multiverse has an interesting and progressive foundation for content development that allows for more engaging content design. And ultimately, content (well-designed content) will be key.
  • Of course it will be open source. Look at the success of Reaction Grid. 'Nuff said.
  • Virtual worlds will be an extension of the real world in a much more meaningful way. Augmented reality and mobile technology are the technology darlings of the day. I'll admit it, I don't know how (and even if I did, I'd probably be pitching it to VCs and not blogging about it :) but I do know that the future of virtual worlds, and their mainstream adoption, rests much more on the fate of augmented reality and mobile technology than anyone currently in the virtual world market would like to admit. Yes, one of the benefits of virtual worlds is that you are "immersed" but what I think we've all been missing is that they also need to be "integrated." Proton Media's Protosphere now integrates with Sharepoint. They get it. One of the tipping points will be when we can do all of the work we do now in the "real world" in a virtual world, but somehow in a virtual world we'll be able to do it better. And this ties into...
  • The user experience and navigation "in-world" will be more seamless. I'll be writing more about James Cameron's movie Avatar, but one of the aspects of the movie that I noticed right away was that the characters were either completely their avatars or completely disconnected. They weren't sitting at a computer, controlling their avatars while drinking their morning coffee...they were in a full body chamber with their consciousness shifted into their avatar bodies. No, I don't think that's how we'll interact with virtual worlds...but it does represent one of the issues with virtual worlds going mainstream. How do we "connect" to the virtual world, and our avatars, psychologically? There will be a shift, a technological advance, and a change in perspective on how this happens. When we can as easily picture ourselves in the 3D world as we can walking into our real life offices, we will have reached a critical step in user adoption. I think this will be prompted by technology as much as broader awareness and acceptance of virtual worlds and ourselves as avatars.
I'm sure I'm missing the one thing that will actually change the industry (like when Microsoft integrates a virtual world technology into their Office suite). But I believe these things will happen and that will be the transition from where we are now to where we see this technology taking us. I'm really looking forward to virtual worlds 2.0.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

What makes a great instructional designer?

Yes, I'm officially late to the party, but there's been a great discussion going on courtesy of an initial blog post by Cammy Bean, and great follow up discussion and posts by smart folks including Sahana Chattopadhyay, Brent Schlenker, and Karl Kapp.

To sum up in my own words, there's not one flavor of "instructional designer" and most of us who call ourselves by that title have ended up here through a mix of accident and intention. Some of us come from business backgrounds, technology backgrounds, some of us from education and teaching. Some IDs were subject matter experts who were tapped to train others in their organizations. Very few, if any of us, went off to college saying "I want to be an instructional designer!" And likely as a result of the long and winding road to becoming IDs, we all have interesting and varied backgrounds that inform how we practice instructional design.

Sure there are some commonalities...we all know what ADDIE is and we're all familiar with Bloom's taxonomy. But our process, our day to day responsibilities, and certainly our perspectives, are very, very different.

I've been so bold as to claim "instructional design is dead" and I've tried to explain my perspective on why. But as much as there is variation and possibly role confusion to our collective detriment in our profession, there are brilliant people who I meet every day who exemplify the best of instructional design. Here's a few of the characteristics I look for whenever I go a-lookin' for a great instructional designer...

  • Ability to conduct complex situational analyses in relationship to learning: if nothing else, IDs should be able to walk into a situation, assess if there is a learning need, what it is, analyze the intended audience, the resources available, and figure out what exactly needs to learned to address the existing knowledge or skill gap. No, its not easy. But if you can't do that, you're probably not an instructional designer by my definition - you're probably a writer or a developer. 
  • Technology-savvy: this one might draw some debate, but I would argue that in the current business environment, any good instructional designer should able to make technology recommendations to support learning and justify the need and cost to the organization
  • Talks business and doesn't throw around ID "lingo": this ties into Cammy's assertion that maybe instructional design might be better delivered through a business school. Business executives don't care about ADDIE or instructional models or even adult learning principles. They care about their business issues and how training initiatives will help address them. Good instructional designers don't talk about the theory much--its ingrained in their process.
  • Understands the difference between practice and assessment: I can't tell you how many conversations I have with clients where I say something like "you COULD measure that, but then it would be assessment and not practice. What is the goal of the learning experience?" Its basic but telling...I've met way too many instructional designers that agree to measure everything at the expense of the actual intent of the training.
  • Measures success by performance improvement: so, we all know there are things like SCORM and knowledge assessments aren't going away any time soon. But whenever possible, good IDs fight to measure how learners' behavior changes as a result of a learning experience. Its a really telling interview question, to ask a prospective ID how they prefer to assess the success of their learning programs.
  • Passionate: Its not much of a surprise that I'm a learning geek, and I think other learning geeks are pretty cool. In any profession, passion for what you do usually makes you a little bit better at it, because you care more. Don't let this be confused with ID snobs...the main difference between snobs and geeks? Geeks always want to learn more about what they are interested in...snobs already think they know everything. Guess who makes a better instructional designer?
  • Fights for a place at the table: You know what's the most annoying phrase I hear from instructional designers? "I can't." MAYBE that's true. But more often, these instructional designers aren't fighting to be heard, aren't positioning themselves as essential leaders in their organizations, or simply haven't tried to make the business case to implement innovative, large-scale solutions that they have identified as solutions to their organizations' problems. Any time I hear "I can't," all I see are red flags.
  • Has a little "sales lizard": its a special set of skills to be able to see the right design and the right tools to address a learning need. It takes another whole set of skills to be able to sell the right solution to stakeholders and business execs.
  • Sees the forest and the trees: Some instructional designers are really great at designing a specific solution for a specific problem, but have a hard time looking at the big picture to see if the specific solution is the right solution. 
  • Knows when to hold 'em: look, we all have to eat. And sometimes, you have to know when to just shut up, put your head down and give 'em what they ask for. Good instructional designers know when all of their knowledge, expertise, selling ability, data, evidence, etc., is just falling on deaf ears. No, we should never settle for designing ineffective or crappy solutions, but neither should we be expected to bang our heads against brick walls. Business savvy, I believe is what the kids are calling it...
So, do I think you need a degree in Instructional Design to be a good ID? No. Do I think some formal training helps? Yes. I like Cammy's suggestion that ID programs might be better delivered with a business degree. But ultimately, its not the degree that makes the ID...its the vision, the leadership, the creativity, the flexibility, and the ability to apply all of their "formal" knowledge about learning in varied and ever-changing business contexts. 

Monday, December 7, 2009

Where are all the new ideas? I/ITSEC 2009 re-cap

Last week I attended I/ITSEC, which (if you haven't been) is an awesome display of immersive learning environments for government and military. The conference is a veritable who's who of technology and service companies who work in the training and simulation market for government and the sheer scale of the expo floor makes most other conferences I attend throughout the year seem like intimate meetings.

This was my second year attending I/ITSEC. Last year was my first, and it was a massive learning experience--a crash course in how the government approaches simulation and learning in 3D. This year, I knew a little something going in. This year, I was ready to conquer that immense expo floor and soak in all of the new and exciting technologies. This year, I was ready to be wowed instead of just trying to remember all of the acronyms.

This year, I was completely underwhelmed and frankly, kinda disappointed.

I should frame my feedback by admitting that I only had an expo pass, so I wasn't able to attend any of the sessions. That said, most of the real action at the conference happens on the expo floor (at least the action that isn't private meetings...). Maybe some of my disappointment is because the expo itself was only 3/5 of what it was last year. Surely, its because half of the booths I visited were showing the same technologies and demos that they showed last year.

There were some exceptions. I was geeked out by the DaVinci virtual surgery equipment. There were some interesting games in the Serious Games Pavillion. I had a great talk with a kindred spirit from Lockheed Martin, I saw an amazing example of virtual worlds for learning (more on this coming soon!), and our dopplegangers at Hybrid Learning continue to awe me with their mobile learning examples.

But by and large, there was nothing earth shattering. Not too much that warranted a second look. Anything really cool, you had to really look to find it. So in an industry with so much money, and so much obvious interest in simulations, games, and virtual worlds...why was I so disappointed?

  • The government procurement process and the phenomena of SIs (systems integrators) squash innovation. Small companies with great ideas get chewed up and spit out in a system that is more about who you know than what you know, and relationships are rewarded over innovation. More than anything else, the process dictates the climate/environment for innovation and the environment is a tough one for small, innovative companies to navigate.
  • In many ways, its still a good ol' boys club. There were booth babes that looked like (I'll give them the benefit of the doubt) strippers and/or prostitutes. One party included "snow bunnies." If I want to go to a strip club, I'll go. I'm not of the belief that great learning design happens while I watch girls dancing on poles, though, and I'm pretty sure that's not the best way to learn about the most effect and innovative learning solutions for our government and military workers.
  • Everybody is still so focused on the technology, they don't focus too much on the design. DESIGN IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE TECHNOLOGY. Sigh. The ongoing beating of that drum continues...
  • Everybody thinks they can design effective training. Everyone says they have instructional designers, like checking the box is all that matters. And so I will say again, instructional design is not simulation design is not game design is not virtual world learning design.
  • As big a market as it is, government and military would do well to look beyond government and military.
I will say, in my second year at the "big show," that I finally got all of the acronyms down. But getting past all of the industry lingo and fanfare, what I saw this year was a lot of money being spent on concepts, but not necessarily effective solutions. I saw a lot of intention resulting in poor execution but masked by glitzy technology.

I'd like to see more research. I'd like to see more data. I'd like to see more innovation in design. I'd like to see new players in the game. And I'd like to see that next year...