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Outgame Your Online Students

I am the digital equivalent of the obnoxious student in class, jumping out of my seat, proclaiming, "Done! Done! Finished!!!" Whenever there is even the slightest uncertainty about anything, I have to be the first to Google the answer. And no, I am not smirking when I find the answer while others are still debating. Ok, maybe I am, but just a little.

My high school years were the beginning of the end of the paper-age. I first searched for a digital image at 15 (Remember Dan's Gallery of the Grotesque, anyone? No? Well, don't look it up.), entered my first chat room at 16, got my first email address at 17, and bought my first eBay item at 18. The digital age still blows my mind.

Jump forward 20 years, and now I'm not entirely sure that my phone hasn't grown into an extra appendage. 

I love online learning. I love everything about it. I love blogs and articles, quizzes, videos, and social media. Clearly I'm not the only one, or we wouldn't have Google, Blogger, Instagram, Huffington Post.... There's something very exciting about the spontaneous nature of digital environments, with its capabilities for learning from friends, families, professionals, and amateurs. The online platform is the perfect host for authentic is natural, engaging, meaningful, relevant, learner-driven. One easily moves up and down the levels of learning, from concrete to abstract. It is truly the ideal learning environment!

Official online courses (at universities and for training) are obviously far more structured than this and understandably so, as they are still greatly dependent upon traditional classroom foundations. They are typically linear with all students learning the same thing within a set period of time. The class moves together and the instructor controls the learning.

Many tout the benefits of convenience for online learners, especially for non-traditional students - those constrained by time, money, or distance. But, I think that is the wrong angle to market. Online learning isn't just about busy schedules; the real emphasis needs to be placed on transforming the educational experience. A great online classroom should only mildly reflect its predecessor.

I've taken far more university-based online courses than I can remember (probably around 40) and several massive open online courses (MOOCs). Most of them were very similar to an in-person class....readings, video lectures, forum discussions. Some are merely ticket-stamping events, with little teaching and no learning. A few have been exceptionally novel, especially considering the designers were older tenured college professors.

Here is what I have learned:

a great online program > a great traditional class
a good online program > a good traditional class
a mediocre online program > a mediocre traditional class
a bad online program < a bad traditional class

Bad online classes are far, far worse than bad traditional classes. In a traditional class, I have the benefit of learning by osmosis. By listening to a teacher drone on, I more than likely will pick up at least a few pieces of knowledge. But in a poor online class, I won't learn anything. Not a single thing. This is a REALLY important concept to understand if you have or are thinking of creating an online course. I cannot stress this enough. If your course is poorly designed, your learner won't learn a single thing. You are better off not creating it.

The first online course I took was a hybrid course at a state university. We still had the traditional massive lecture hall of 500 or so Freshman, but our homework was to be submitted online. I went to this class exactly three times. All the questions for the midterm and final came from the online quizzes. The quizzes could be taken as many times as I wanted but new questions would populate each time. I "took" the quizzes enough times to generate all the questions from the bank and saved them on a file. (Yes, this was a 3.5" floppy, if you must know). I memorized the answers before the midterm and the final. I got an A in the course and was asked to be an undergrad teaching assistant for the next semester.

I had outgamed this very novel (for the time) course.

I am not averse to learning or hard work. Actually, I am quite the opposite. But, if I am in a course I don't really, really care about (i.e., mandated training or prerequisite course), I will do my best to outgame it. I will click on the boring, unnecessary videos and go do something else. I will memorize the quiz answers and retake it. I may very well be learning, but it won't be what the instructor wants me to learn.

Check out my video about engagement....

But, if it is a course that is well-designed (regardless of my interest in the topic), I will engage. Think about this. We do this all the time. We watch movies about things we couldn't care less about, if they are well-made. We listen to brilliant songs outside of our typical genre. We read books from unknown authors. We build farms and we click flappy birds repeatedly. It is all about the design, the structure, the flow, and the engagement.

To further illustrate, let's compare board games to video games. Board game sales have declined significantly with the rise of video games. Why? Both are premised in fun, competition, advancement. So what's the difference? Video game makers did not simply take a board game and place it online. That would have been dreadful! Instead, they took those same elements of fun and transformed them into an entirely different experience.

If you are creating an online course, do not simply put your board game online.

When moving from traditional to digital, the experience must not be copied or moved, but transformed entirely. 


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