A little while ago I led an Agylia team that completed a research project, conducted for the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD), on alternative methods of teaching basic cyber security skills.
The MOD operates a small, fast-moving department called the Centre for Defence Enterprise (CDE), which funds innovative research into defence and national security topics.
We examined two approaches: a conventional eLearning course and a pure online game.
First, we decided to design and build a fairly traditional eLearning course. You turn the pages, click and drag the different interactions, then answer the quizzes and surveys. We included text, lots of nice visual images, animations and sound – in fact, all the usual elements that you might find in a modern eLearning course.
Example of the eLearning cyber security course
In parallel, we designed and built a pure game from scratch. There were plenty of game formats for us to choose from – we ruled out some of them as too patronising or juvenile; others were too expensive to create within the project budget.
Eventually, we decided on a series of highly visual game activities, featuring lots of movement and demanding digital dexterity, timing and concentration. All were linked by a slightly ominous and threatening spy-type scenario, behind which lurked a shadowy enemy mastermind. The game was built in HTML5 so it would operate smoothly on tablet devices.
Example of the gamified cyber security course
We then tested it on different target groups and compared the results using both qualitative and quantitative analysis.
The research results
Creating a pure computer game is expensive to design and build and it’s costly to maintain. The number of learning objectives had to be pared down to fit both the budget and the game format. In comparison, creating traditional eLearning is faster, costs less and you can cover more of the training topic.
However, the important question is: how effective were each of the methods in teaching the audience and in changing vital behaviours?
You may not be surprised to learn that the millennials who made up our target audience enjoyed playing the game more than sitting through the eLearning course. No surprises there. The game used more repetition of themes and repeat activities, which tended to drum in the message in an unobtrusive way.
This helped to get the knowledge across, as well as encouraging higher knowledge retention and a significant change in behaviours. Because a lot of thought had gone into the game design, there was very little resistance to playing it. In fact, learners were returning to play it for fun!
The eLearning course covered more ground and was cheaper to produce, but the general feeling was that people did it because they were asked to – it was more of a chore. The effectiveness was reasonably good with zero dropout rates (this could be explained by the audience’s awareness that they were part of a research project). Knowledge retention was good in the short term, although it tended to fall away after a period of time.
After completion of the game and the eLearning, a quantitative assessment showed that carrying out both in combination achieved better results than doing one or the other in isolation. The best sequence was to complete the game first, followed by the formal eLearning.
What are the lessons of this research project?
Games are great, but it takes a lot of effort to get them right – and a patronised audience will resist the message! However, if you find a winning formula, games are good for engagement and affecting behaviours. In contrast, more traditional eLearning courses can articulate problems and answers more successfully than a game – but, inevitably, they are less popular. Each form comes with its own advantages and constraints, so be aware of these before embarking on your chosen route.
My final conclusion is that it’s possible to combine the best of both worlds. With some good gaming experience, a clever instructional designer can design and build eLearning that incorporates gamification principles. That means taking some of the things that make good computer games compelling and using them within an eLearning course to make the topic engaging and relevant. This might include elements of competition, scenarios, drama, exploration, collection / gathering, and even real world activities – or it might include some social interactions with other learners.
The research project taught me a lot about how people like to learn and what works in practice. It convinced me that devoting a little more time and creative effort at the inception stage can pay big dividends in terms of making an impact on your audiences.
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