Flow learning and gamification

Flow learning is a concept originally designed by Joseph Cornell for sharing learning about nature. The stages of the flow learning process lend themselves well to gamification and great storytelling. Here are the 4 stages of flow learning and their intended outcomes:

Stage 1: Awaken enthusiasm – in this stage playfulness and alertness are the key. The objective is to get people involved and active about a topic. It also intends to create a rapport between the learner, the topic and the teacher if there is one. Games and play are really useful in this even for adults.

Stage 2: Focus attention – in this stage the objective is to nurture receptiveness, to deepen awareness and increase attention and concentration. The energy in this is more calming and puts more emphasis on observation, it is a way to positively channel the enthusiasm from stage 1 into something more focused.

Stage 3: Offer Direct Experience – giving a real life experience to create deeper learning and an intuitive understanding. By tapping into strong emotions, you create a long lasting bond with the material. Ideally you feel part of the solution or able to come up with the solution.

Stage 4: Share Inspiration – processing the previous stages into feedback and conversation, which ultimately reaches a shared understanding among others in the group. It also increases learning to have multiple perspectives.

I like this model, because it confirms my personal experience as a trainer that you really are responsible for energy management around learning. If you create the right kind of energy for enthusiasm, focus, trials, inspiration and reflection, then you are actually facilitating learning. It is also what I have from the early days in gamification tried to re-create in my designs.

As part of my personal development, I trained with some of the successful motivational speakers and observed and volunteered at their events to learn how they managed the room. At one point I was responsible for bringing energy up in the room, before the speaker would start. It always amazed me, how willing people were to participate and how effective the technique was. We started with fun music, dancing (yes, it involved dancing) and generally creating a happy enthusiastic vibe in the room. It always started with easy rhythms and gradually hyping up to a more quick energetic beat, the movement started low key and became more power pose linked as we built up. Depending on what followed it could go straight into new learning or even experience of practise. From those experiences, I know the theory outlined above works in practise, even with rooms of up to 5000 people present.

When I then look at e-learning in a lot of cases, we only find stage 2 or 3 present. Enthusiasm building is often the missing piece, but it can still be done. An engaging host for the learning, an exercise to show how much you know or don’t know, scenarios that bring home why something matters, a game to illustrate how something matters. If you manage to make people stop and realise, that they better pay attention because they have something to learn, then you are ready to move them on to what is important. Offering a safe chance to test things out, especially with todays technology of VR and AR, you can add a dose of realism and heighten the experience. Feedback and conversation about the topic are crucial for all adult learners, by the time we are adults we need context to make sense of new materials. It tends to be how we organise our information.

In gamification design for learning, we have an ideal opportunity to build in these 4 stages of flow learning. Most good storytellers do this intuitively. When I give live workshops, we start with an element of play as simple as story cubes to introduce yourself, then we go into some material and often we discuss things as we go. Some of the courses I have designed over the years started with a movie, a story, drawing, etc. to get people out of their normal thinking and into a new energy, where exploring is safe in numbers and it typically led to better results. Online by setting a similar trajectory for your learner, you may not have the closeness you achieve in person, but you can achieve a similar flow of energy, which is ultimately creating the conditions for learning in my experience and opinion.

When does learning happen?

As I was scrolling through my twitter feed (@GamificationNat if you want to connect with me there), I came across this question “when does learning happen”? The person who created the tweet, Tanmay Vora (@tnvora) also had an adjoining picture drawn out, which captured a lot of the instances on when we learn. I feel it captures the range of moments of learning very well and even at this it may not be the complete list yet.

When do we learn blogpost on GamificationNation.com

In my learning gamification framework I talk about, level 3 proof of learning or mastery of a skill. When you look at these moments when learning happens, some will come as answers to posed questions or the satisfaction of a need. Others will give you a gentle aha moment along the lines of “oh that’s how this works”.

Most of the moments of learning are active either by actively reflecting or actively doing something even if some of the things are more mind than body focused. Learning comes in more that one way and this is what the image clearly illustrates. Our reasons for learning can be equally as diverse, whether they are an in the moment need, based on feedback, curiosity or other drivers such as career advancement or wanting to know what people are talking about when they mention something.

The key in all learning is that the learner is the core decision maker. When does learning happen, when the learner chooses to be open to learning or actively pursues learning. Most children come into the world with a learning mindset, they have everything to gain. They learn from experimenting and feedback and once they are able to speak, they become masters of the “why” question. Typically it takes an active dislike, a fear or a strong belief in something that stops us from learning more. If you have consistently been told you are no good at a particular topic, then eventually the willingness to learn more may wane. If you strongly believe that the world is flat (when you lived in the Middle Ages for example), then any other contradictory information would be challenging your world view and often rejected.

Learning related gamification can stimulate learning to happen for the open minded learner and provide nudges forward for them to reflect, connect the dots, spot the trends etc. For the unwilling learner, it may not be the solution, but merely a vehicle that helps them get started again. Or makes the process less tedious. The openness to learn though is still under the control of the learner. As a trainer I often found my enthusiasm for a topic rubbed off on the learner. The days I struggled were also the days we were tackling things I found harder to share. In training design we looked for actions, feedback loops and reflection opportunity. If you look at games, you will learn new skills as you play, but not all at once, gradually more is being introduced and periods of just practise and reflection are also built in. You could argue losing all your lives in a game is a moment of reflection until they refresh and you start with a new strategy. For casual mobile games this may require little effort, for multi player online games the impact is bigger and may require team input.

In online learning what I see is a lot of the same energy, game play and methods being used, which may only stimulate a fraction of the people we target. So building in challenge, proof of existing skill, levels and nudges to move the learner forward are part of good design.


Gamified learning example: Py

I like trying out new gamified applications, to see how designers have used gamification. On the recommendation of Andrzej, I tried out a teaching to code application called Py. I have to say I love the simplicity of the gamification and how it motivates the learner forward. Before you enter the application on a laptop, you go through a confidence boosting sequence to show you coding is easy. Even if you know how to code already, it’s fun to see how simple reinforcements make you feel good about something that a lot of people find daunting to learn.

The application starts by asking you which coding language you want to learn. You can select as many as you like on the mobile application and give an indication of your level of competence in each. Once selected you can start your first free to learn lessons. Somewhere after the first lesson you are also asked about your personal preferences on how much time you want to dedicate to learning each day, I chose 3 minutes, knowing my schedule at times, coffee length is good. Then it measures your streaks or daily goal achievements against your own chosen goal. It is rare to have your personal preferences measured and yet very motivational.

The lessons are small bite-size chunks that I can complete in my daily goal time or close to it. The visual progression layout, gives a clear indication as to how far you have come. As you complete a lesson the visual grey box turns green and you move forward. Inside each lesson you will have an element of teaching and then immediately putting the learning into practise, sometimes by simply running the code to see how it works other times really testing if you are following the concept that was just explained. Each item you get wrong, gives immediate constructive feedback, but no opportunity to immediately retry and sometimes I knew the moment I pressed the run button that I had chosen the wrong answer. I think it is actually good to not give me an immediate chance to re-take it, but force me to wait until I complete the lesson. Learning that failing sometimes is part of learning.

If you had wrong answers, you have a review button activated at the end of a lesson and it asks nicely “review if you would like to complete the lesson with three stars”, aka allowing all learners to feel they can earn top marks. In my view this is good confidence building which is good to balance the consequence of not getting something right first time.

From a  gamification design perspective, the mechanics used are sparse, yet very appropriate and in my view they facilitate the learning objectives of the individual.

I have to say it is the first time I have managed to keep up a daily learning streak and I actually look forward to completing it every day. It is one of those easy controllable factors that give me a positive boost.



Chatting about gamification in learning

Yesterday, I had the fun experience of being the guest on TLDchat, where learning and development specialists come and hang out online for one hour every weekday to discuss topics and challenges in the industry. Obviously, my topic involved gamification, some great questions came up, which I found very relevant, hence I am sharing the full replay for you to enjoy.

What is always fascinating when talking to learning specialists about gamification is that points, badges and leaderboards come up, because it is still what a lot of vendors in the learning management systems and even the gamification platform space promote, yet they are not necessarily the most effective for learning purposes.

What I also learned that dashboards and leaderboards tend to be used inter-changeably, which in my mind are two very definite different concepts. In my view a dashboard is something that lists several achievements, progression, and like the dashboard in your car has multiple dials for different purposes or in the cockpit of an aeroplane. A leaderboard in the learning environment can list the top rated courses, rather unfortunately in most implementations it also measure people and their consumption of quantity of courses in learning. I find the latter useless in learning and demotivational for anyone that is not in the top. Learning should build your confidence, not take away from it. We all learn at different paces, which is why quality of retention and implementation of learning is what really should be measured and not consumption.



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A lot of great questions came up and I invite you to watch the full replay and join the chat #tldchat every day at 4pm UK time.

Here are some of the links to things I mentioned:

My learning gamification framework

Leaderboards in learning

Gamified journalism

Learning skateboard style

Every so often, I am asked to review an application for its gamification merits. ZonedIn a learn to skateboard app asked me to have a look at how they implemented gamification for learning to skateboard. I downloaded it and brought it along last weekend to my partners family, where the nephews happened to have a skateboard lying around. We played around a bit with the app and the skateboard. I have to admit I never mastered the art of skateboarding before, so I entered as a complete beginner. My snowboarding skills did help somewhat even if our surface with wheels was not so easy to navigate as snow with lots of padded clothing for the inevitable wipe outs.

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The gamification in the app is totally obvious and transparent. Each activity earns you experience points and you need to prove with a video upload that you have mastered the trick. Each trick is explained with a video from a pro demonstrating how to do this. Each level contains a few tricks to master. The first five levels are available straight away and the rest you unlock with progress. The same if you want to move up in the world of skateboarding, you have the chance to go from the beginners world, to amateur, to pro to legend. Only the first two are readily available (or at least to me because I chose beginner).

The fact that uploading a video with your trick serves as proof, I find a great way of showing you are able to do it. Video review can also teach you where you are doing some things rather different than the pro and allows you to fine-tune your skill. Saying that my early efforts were so far off that getting it on video is embarrassing, so I may the kid practising in secret until I fully master the skill before recording it on any video. However for the target audience, totally appropriate.

The application also contains challenges you can take part in, to win prizes, which I think can be quite stimulating when you are learning new tricks. You can be part of something else too. The leaderboards in the app are kept separate from the learning area, which I personally think is great. They are then divided into local, regional, national and global leaders. I have to say as a beginner in a new app, I was surprised to feature after just logging in and playing around a bit. I am sure the avid boarders will very likely dominate this space very soon and my profile will disappear.

What I would suggest adding is some kind of regularity streak, because training regularly is how the muscles will remember to do tricks and master movements. Like with all learning it takes a bit of practise before you get it right. Video is great, but feeling it for yourself and seeing you do it is more powerful. The app is created for viewing in vertical mode mainly which made it a bit harder to work with, because we were using our iPad and had to make it stand, it was obviously made to be handheld on mobile. In general, it is a great gamified learning app for those of us who want to master skateboarding.

The reason why I would urge anyone in the learning field to have a look at this app, is for the proof of skills mastery and how that is worked into the application. In soft skills learning, the same method can easily be applied with video uploads and then requesting peer reviews when you are comfortable you are happy with your skills display.



Passive learning is not sticky

Ever had the situation where you read an article or watched a fascinating video or even clicked through an e-learning session, and then you couldn’t remember most of it apart from the general topic? Well it turns out, you are in the majority of people. The least effective ways of learning are to just passively take in the information even when you are highly interested in it.

A study by Dunlosky (Kent State University), Rawson (Kent State University), Marsh (Duke University), Nathan (University of Wisconsin–Madison), and Willingham (University of Virginia) reviewed the effectiveness of 10 commonly used learning techniques. They also added in student age, reason for learning and ways of learning. For each technique they outlined who would benefit the most from this method and who wouldn’t.

The least effective learning techniques across the board were underlining, rereading material, and using mnemonic devices. The reason for the lack of effectiveness, was because these techniques were difficult to implement properly and often resulted in inconsistent gains in student performance. On the flip side learning techniques such as taking practice tests and spreading study sessions out over time — known as distributed practice — were found to be much more effective because they benefited students of many different ages and ability levels and enhanced performance in many different areas.

When we are looking at gamification for learning, the level 3 gamification of learning in my framework, focuses highly on the application of knowledge, which is a form of practise testing, have you really learned the new skill. Other forms of gamification for learning can be quizzes or practise tests rated by peers or against algorithms with feedback on performance.

I actually believe when learners already have a base level of knowledge in a subject, putting their knowledge to the test through questions and more creative variations on this theme, will give first of all feedback on what you already know and often install a sense of wonder or frustration about the things you missed or didn’t know. From a design perspective it starts with adequate content, structured in a questioning fashion. People will go and explore when they have a reason to dig deeper, great teachers have known this for years that inspiring questioning is much more valuable than factual transfer of knowledge. In todays world facts can be retrieved relatively easily thanks to search tools. However the motivation to go and learn more is harder to create, because it goes down to the core values of the learner.



Trendwatch: Big data and gamified learning

Big data is a buzzword, that has entered the frame of enterprise applications in the last number of years. It is in recent months that it is also entering the realm of learning technology. Saying that very few learning technology providers are able to provide the service just yet.

The places where you have likely been exposed to big data are Netflix, which recommends best content for you based on what you have viewed before and Amazon, who add the information of other buyers of the same products have also looked at. Now imagine your corporate learning system providing the same feedback. Suggestions based on the courses your took before and then what your colleagues then went on to learn about. Let’s not stop there though, linking it to HR and other enterprise applications would then allow you to make further suggestions, based on the projects you work on and the competencies required for those, your personal interests and your managers and peer feedback.

Now how does gamified learning enter the picture here? Well in gamification we track all events and some are actively encouraged, others discouraged, typically with a business outcome in mind. Each tracking event is a data entry point, where analysis can take place. It requires typically a bit of data cleansing to have a real user picture and trends analysis over time and over a number of users. The more users are active, the better the data and its potential analysis.

So when you are working in the field of learning and development, having knowledge of data analysis will become a required skill for people int the team. Looking at it from a wider enterprise viewpoint, a data analysis team or robots which are programmed translate human commands into algorithms that can search for data trends and habits users are showing with their use of enterprise applications.

Currently what I find when working with HR and L&D teams is that either no data is gathered nor analysed, just merely providing a service, which you hope is hitting the mark and somewhat effective. Or on the other side data is being gathered and the analysis of it is not made, used nor acted upon. Effectively what big data can bring to the table is predictability about your people. From whether they are likely to stay or are actively looking to leave, whether they will grow and turn out to be your next high potential leader, whether they are a good fit in a team or project or not, whether the course you just wrote will be hitting the mark or not etc.

Possibilities to use the data are amazing. I personally find it very interesting to watch data flows about my business. I do what I can to find ways around it and in every case data will tell me if my efforts are successful or not. We have found a few ways of being able to provide some of these seemingly futuristic elements to business customers and we hope to see more of the same coming our way.

If you like posts like these, you may love our Technologies Update specifically for HR & L&D professionals


Learning to code in a fun way

In one of my previous blogs I am sure I mentioned I am on a mission to learn to code and I am dipping my toes into a variety of languages. Yesterday I bumped into an iPad based course for Apple’s Swift coding. I thought whilst it was on iPad, it would be a good second screen activity after work. Well I got so engrossed that the first screen became my iPad.

Effectively the whole learning experience promises to teach anyone from 13 to 103 to code for apps in swift. You are invited to download playgrounds and then select the level you are at and start playing. Check it out on this link: https://www.apple.com/swift/playgrounds/

Immediately you are given a few basic concepts with hooks back to things you already know. From a learning perspectives this enables you think that you may actually understand these concepts. Then after a few basics it asks you to take a coding challenge and there are a few to choose from. I took “Hour of code” to find out what I could achieve in an hour. Much to my pleasant surprise I was able to complete each step of the challenge with relative ease.

The screen was on one side split with instruction and on the other side you saw Byte and animated character in a virtual world collecting gems on your written commands. There was just enough instruction to teach me the basics, so I could try for myself. Then on the play side, it tells you that it is normal to not have it fully correct first time and you can try as often as you need to, to get Byte to move the right way. The feedback of whether your code worked was effectively if the game played out the way you were asked to design it. I had a few iterations and then worked it out.

It did require a bit of thinking through at times, yet it was enjoyable to see your progress. This morning I happened to show my partner and I was surprised how easily I remembered the steps and how I could now flawlessly pass through the levels. So obviously my iterations with feedback and also embedded the learning. Last night I did wonder if the information would then stick and it did, much to my delight. So guess what break time will be about for the rest of this week?

How is this gamification? Well first of all it is structured as a challenge or quest, the feedback is in the running of your code game. Each level builds on the previous, so you do realise a sense of progression and achievement when you work your way through.

Let me know your examples of great learning.


Struggle as a learning method

In most online learning courses, struggle is not built in by intent. Yet in real life, the biggest lessons have come through periods or moments of struggle. Struggling to get to the next level in a game, makes the player consider different strategies or brings into consciousness where they are going wrong or right.

Remember the last time you faced a struggle, where you felt at one point or other that you may not make it through in your usual easy fashion. How did you work your way out in the end?

We always have options, we either learn how to deal with the situation, we find help from others that have gone before or we choose a completely different path. Either way it teaches us something rightly or wrongly. Experiences have taught us most of our skills. We may even learn about our emotional responses to struggle itself, which can range from resourcefulness to creativity to frustration and anger to freezing and indecision. Again the emotional response usually adds a dimension to the struggle and when we learn to recognise the response we can take corrective action if the said response isn’t actually helpful in this situation.

In my earlier business I had a coach, who every time I got stuck on something asked me to write out a list of 20 ways of overcoming the struggle. He said include all the illegal, unethical stuff, just brain dump options without filter. By going through a struggle in this mindset, you keep options open and typically a legal and ethical option does come to light. His advice was then action 1 of the suggestions, which you are willing to live by. In games we can often see players take to rather drastic measures to overcome struggles all within the constraints of the rules of the game.

I do find it fascinating however that when we look at designing learning experiences, that a natural level of struggle is not built in by intent in the majority of programs. As a former corporate trainer, I used to have challenges built into my programs. They didn’t always give me the best popular marks on a the happy sheet (technical term for training evaluation form at the end of a live class), but I did receive feedback that I made people think and reflect on their own behaviour in relation to a subject matter. In online learning we have the same opportunity, yet especially in the corporate sector we see it as disruptive or potentially losing people because it is too hard. The irony is, you probably lose them because it’s too easy and boring instead.

Struggle is how problem solving behaviours are triggered. In most organisations and for most roles that is a valuable skill. So in my view it is a duty of the learning design teams to build in struggle as a learning method to have your people hone their problem solving skills. Most of use choose to play games in our spare time or in our thinking time, meaning we voluntarily opt in to taking challenges and overcoming obstacles. The game type doesn’t matter, because all kinds of games involve some element of challenge. Challenges you overcome in a game, may not have the same life changing consequences as you may experience with real life problems, but they hone a similar skill.

In gamification design, I find it important to build in challenge in order to trigger the resourcefulness for individuals and if appropriate to create a relevant reward environment. Something you need to work harder for and struggle for, you will appreciate a lot more after you have overcome it. I distinctly remember finishing my firs marathon, whereas I can only vaguely remember my first 5k race.

In a recent learning related gamification project, a player was struggling to overcome a specific learning level. I could see the determination of getting through it increase as he re-took the module. He did after 3 individual tries start to consult others and together they made it. The module was short enough for re-takes to take place quickly. The relief when he then managed to unlock the next step was great.

How will you be integrating struggle as a learning method into your gamification designs?

The future of gamification in learning

Gamification or at least the term is being used by a lot of e-learning providers and learning management systems, to create the illusion that they have indeed created something that has game mechanics in it. In a recent experience with a technology provider, their idea of game mechanics was counter opposite to what we would recommend, the main difference was that we had done user analysis and interviews with people in the role the training was for. We had shared it with the provider but they never read it nor could they deduct from that what actually works.

We still see a lot of the superficial style gamification happening where people throw a bunch of random game mechanics without prior investigation into what is fitting in the culture, for the role and for the individuals targeted with the learning. Early buyers of this style of gamification are now turning to gamification designers like us because they have realised superficial and gimmicky doesn’t work. We know that some mechanics are an absolutely waste of time in some circumstances and highly appropriate in others. How we find out what to put in or not is through behaviour analysis, analytics, interviews and focused design workshops.

Now that the first wave of bad gamification is starting to realise it doesn’t work, a few of them will stop offering it as an option and run after the next big buzzword … big data maybe or machine learning or augmented or virtual reality. In any case those people will keep chasing the next bright shiny object and look to make a quick buck through it until they realise it isn’t their core competency and they have to start from 0 or re-invent themselves.

Those of us that do it thoroughly and well, will gain further fall-out business and will continue to grow our client base. I believe we have reached and even gone slightly beyond the tipping point in Europe where gamification has found a dedicated space in employee and learner engagement. The corporate professionals looking for solutions have also become wiser and are learning from those of them that have gone before. Word of failure just like all negatives travel a hell of a lot faster especially in the small world of L&D.

In my view the next wave of innovation will keep coming from edtech, unlike multinational corporations schools and teachers are often at the early cold-face of new users. They see trends and behaviours before the corporate sector sees them. The growth of smart devices from phones, watches to all sorts of robots will provide our next wave of interesting applications. Real world training by a specialist robot, because you are curious about a certain function, role or how something works. That instruction being added to your school report or development map in the cloud, which in a very smart way recommends further items based on previous choices and preferences you may have given it.

The days of classroom based learning are numbered. Even blended learning (classroom + online learning) will receive a stretch and the whole idea of the flipped classroom where the learner drives what he wants to do is a source of change. Traditional education was initiated to create workers for factories, that reality has dramatically changed. Digitisation makes work and learn anywhere whenever and wherever the individual wants a reality. Gamification has a role to play in the tracking and nudging forward towards skills mastery if the individual wants that choice or option. It can also open the gates to further discovery and positive reinforcement of effort put into mastery of new skills.

The superficial game mechanics will be lost in favour of more personalised and stylised messaging based on preferences, choices and consequences. The whole idea of learning with only positive feedback is an illusion that I hope will go away fast, because ultimately most of us learn more from the feedback that something was wrong, hurt or didn’t have the effect we wanted. It is how as children we explore the world and as adults we try to avoid experiencing the world.  The power of gamification will be in the feedback loops and paths to mastery reinforcement.

What do you believe will be the next step in gamified learning?


If you like posts like these, you may love our Technologies Update specifically for HR & L&D professionals