Should learning pros shift from sector specific tools? #1 : Visual novels for branched activities and storytelling

This will likely not develop into a series but I am being brave and adding a #1 to this post.

Trying out some visual novels

I recently played a couple of ‘visual novel’ games and they immediately made me think about branching eLearning scenarios. From a little bit of research online, it is clear that there is an identified gap here between current visual novel markets and their potential use. A 2020 paper describing this thus “there are genres with untapped potential for teaching, such as narratively driven…visual novel games” (Oygardslia et al, 2020).

The games I played noticeably achieved a few things, including:

(1) Strong character development through storytelling.

(2) Narrative choices for the player that really impact on the story and resulting scenes (albeit that this is not always obvious until you play through multiple times, look online for the different options, etc.).

(3) Motivation for the player to continue due to cliff-hangers and other drama devices, managing to create a desire to find out “what is going to happen next”.

These attributes are of course not unique to visual novels (aka ‘narrative games’). For example, I am currently playing Assassins Creed Valhalla (as mentioned in a previous post) and this game has strong character development and a compelling story to keep you playing – it even specifically separates the game into “story arcs” (effectively chapters in traditional written storytelling). Where traditional games, and particularly rich 3D open worlds like Valhalla, struggle is how much narrative choices can impact the game. Valhalla, for example, gives you choices for the conversations of your character but few actually impact outcomes or the game’s story. It is not obvious to the player of Valhalla which conversations impact things either, hence a number of explainer articles online such as this one.

An example Assassins Creed Valhalla narrative choice from a EuroGamer article.

If a quick Google is anything to go by, there has been relatively limited interest in visual novels (specifically) within the wider interest of gamification and how games may, or may not, educate.

Gamification has, of course, been a bit of a buzz term but I would agree with quite a lot of this post regarding explaining that the real reason that gamification has become a focus is because of concerns around motivation. The other half of the puzzle here really is the storytelling element which has also had a lot of interest in L&D (see here for an example article). This is of course nothing new in so much as video based and drama based learning have long played on the benefits of storytelling and emotional response.

There are though a few articles discussing the attempts to use visual novels, for example this one on an example use case in education.

Scale of visual novels as a medium

As with most categorisations in gaming, what makes a ‘visual novel’ is debatable. However, games categorised as such amount to 4,588 items on the hugely popular Steam Store. Perhaps inevitably a large subsection of these are tagged as “dating” sims or even “adult”. There are also the usual visual gaming splits between anime style graphics, more western style cartoon, more realistic 3D models, etc. The quality of these graphics of course impact the experience but at the same time it was nice for me to play a few things with real character development – rather than the stock Microsoft, Articulate and other cut out “characters” we see in so many webinars, eLearning modules, etc.

Reading this, you might presume these games, often free-to-play or low cost, are terrible. However, reviews on Steam are an interesting read for learning professionals – for example people fearing “click-fest type” games are instead “genuinely surprised” thanks, again, to the storytelling. How often have ‘click next’ eLearning courses ever really surprised you?

One authoring tool, Ren.Py, has a seperate directory of free games you can try. Interestingly, this directory does give you the word count of the game (something I have previously suggested would be possible for the wider gaming industry).

But branching is hard

Such games are, of course, complex – at least with regards to the branching and storytelling. In the past I have worked for organisations that have outsourced such storytelling into bespoke eLearning. However, today, the basics of branching is relatively straightforward in many eLearning tools.

However, if you play a few visual novels it soon becomes clear how shallow some eLearning branching is. And I include some of what I have worked on in the past in that statement.

If we want to avoid branching due to the complexity then what we are working towards is a different categorisation: “A kinetic novel is a linear type of visual novel where there is a linear storyline with no player choice or gameplay.”.

Authoring tools

There are numerous options in this space, here are a few I have looked at…

A few years back I had a bit of a play with Twine. Twine is primarily text based so might not be appropriate for all situations.

There are some tools marketed for education including ones which shift to a 3D model, like this from CoSpaces, rather than the more scene style of other visual novel tools.

PCGamer considers some of the options in this article. In addition, there are some useful threads on Reddit, both in instructional design and gaming channels [warning not all are safe for work if you go looking]. For example it was here that I realised that many tools are combining RenPy with 3D model assets from DAZ. RenPy’s tutorial, built within the tool, is actually very good and shows how well it can work:

Screenshot from RenPy tutorial.

Challenges

A big problem for those working in corporate environments has always been the restrictions in place with regards to technology. This is why the more recent publishing tools tend to be helpful in being browser based, gone are the days where companies have needed to keep supporting old tech (including Flash) or insisting on everything being in a SCORM package.

Renpy.org requires local .exe files so is likely a non-starter for many corporate environments. Indeed the open source authoring tool but is sponsored by companies that will help you get published elsewhere, such as on games stores. Other options such as TyranoBuilder offer export to browser functionality (although Tyrano is an example with an upfront software cost so I haven’t tried it) which might be more suitable for corporates.

Therefore getting the tool installed and the games out to users to install will be a blocker for some organisations. The mobile app publication option might be a solution for some though.

Nothing new?

In many ways the learning that could be designed in RenPy and other tools is similar to narrative based eLearning in other tools and just as reliant on the quality of writing and story based learning.

This is of course nothing new, indeed conferences for eLearning and games based learning are long running:

What should we use?

With time to learn them, these authoring tools become very powerful. However, the challenges of installation and publication would likely block many corporates/organisations from using them.

Personally, I am going to try and go deeper into Ren.Py in part as it is basically teaching you some Python language through a simple interface which I suspect might be of help in the future. In addition the option to publish to Android and iOS might offer some solutions to the desktop publication problems.

For now, the ease at which Articulate and other tools have made branching become something anyone can do (rather than expensive bespoke eLearning like it used to be) is probably the way that makes sense. However, the cost of developing on a free tool like Ren.Py is likely much lower than a fully blown interactive video experience. Therefore, there are no doubt use cases out there.

“The more things change, the more they remain the same” MoodleMoot Ireland and UK Online 2021

Last week I attended the IE&UK MoodleMoot which was, of course, held online this year.

My feelings about the presentations will sound something like a follow-up to my “not all innovation is created equal” post which itself was triggered by the global MoodleMoot last year. Why? Well, while Covid loomed large over this year’s event the ‘transformation’ taking place all sounded very familiar.

The change

The opening keynote pointed out the scale of change in the last year, and the scale of global challenges beyond Covid too. The growth in online learning in the last year set out via a particularly striking metric:

Whilst this might be expected given the Covid situation it is perhaps still impressive that that many people have launched Moodle sites during the period. Whilst Moodle offers a low cost solution there are, of course, plenty of other options out there so that growth is still impressive IMO. It is perhaps also worth pointing out that the growth will be across multiple types of organisations whilst this MoodleMoot was primarily university focused in terms of the presentations (and I would imagine the audience too).

I did have to agree with some of the keynote points, for example Martin Dougiamas stressed that too much of the pivot/transformation has simply been video based learning sessions, webinars, etc. He also, I think, agreed with me that it has really been a time of reinvention, not a revolution, for him and others who have been in the industry a while. Overall, the lessons learned in the last 20-odd years are clearly inconsistently applied in the world of online learning.

The same

As with the global MoodleMoot much of what was being discussed has not really changed in the last 10+ years. This might be a sign that digital learning is now mature in further and higher education (and elsewhere), or it might just be that the agenda for the event did not really get beyond the basics as many presentations were by people being pushed online by Covid. In fact, away from those ‘this is how we responded to Covid’ type sessions, the agenda was quite sponsor heavy – it is perhaps difficult to sell presenting at user conferences if it doesn’t involve a day out of the office?

In no particular order here are some items I took away from the event, as always accuracy is reliant on my memory and note taking, and (as I have said) a lot of these points are far from ‘new new’:

  1. Moodle is only part of the solution. The opening keynote stressed Moodle’s role is to build a learning system, it is not a learning system in itself. This is probably not the way Moodle has been sold to many educators but should be remembered. The great desire in education institutions has always been to have ‘a size fits all’ solution but Moodle has 200+ plugins and, of course, most people will be reliant on various other tools (from Microsoft to Articulate and beyond). I have grouped some of the other related content/conversations to this as #12 below, not to mention different learning/teaching approaches (see #2).
  2. Social construction. The keynote also reinforced the point that Moodle was designed for social learning. We heard some presentations where the transformation has been little more than moving from Moodle as a file store to Moodle as it was intended to be used (i.e. as a platform with active discussions, activities, etc). Better late than never I guess but it also really depends on what else you are using this matters or not (see #12).
  3. Moodle 4.0’s promise of improved visuals and UX could probably have been from any point in the system’s version history. Obviously these changes are continuous, and needed, but 4.0 probably shouldn’t be oversold given this conversation is certainly a ‘deja vu’ topic. Fingers crossed 4.0 is a big leap forward though.
  4. Brickfield’s accessibility checker. This tool sounds really useful but long overdue given Blackboard, for example, has had Ally for a while (this could be seen as a comment on commercial vs OS development – however, Brickfield’s full offer is still commercial as a plugin/partner). Related to #1, you would likely need to invest here to extend Moodle into a full offering that meets modern accessibility requirements.
  5. eAssessment. Whilst I would have thought most universities had an online LMS/VLE pre-covid they may not have ‘pushed the button’ on online assessment before being forced to in the last year. Catalyst did a good presentation on the need to consider various things before launching eAssessment, including making sure the load on servers is not a problem – something I suffered the pain of with Blackboard hosting back in about 2010. Obviously we often rely on trial and error in tech but in high stakes assessments this is not really an option. Catalyst were selling their hosting and load testing services but you can argue for a move away from this simultaneous style assessment to other models.
    • Gradescope, now part of the TurnItIn group, looked good as a way of getting written exams and non essay exams into a digital tool – this in part tackles some age old questions such as how to deal with diagrams and maths in eAssessment. However, at the same time, a lot of what was being talked about (rubrics, etc) is, again, not really new. Related to #1, you would likely need to invest here to extend Moodle into a full offering if you are in an assessment heavy sector.
    • Poodll also showed some nice functionality in this area, although they advertise as focused on language learning I would say their tools could be used wider – for example, with the rise of voice operation over typing you could author questions in different ways.
  6. Plugin evaluation. UCL presented a few sessions, including one on their new-ish plugin evaluation process. This was all fairly straightforward and I would imagine many orgs have something similar, either for Moodle, Blackboard building blocks, etc. etc.
    • Of other plugins and themes mentioned, the Moove theme sounded great for simplifying the user interface – it was mentioned by Hibernia College (interestingly they have 17[!] in their Digital Development team).
    • Hibernia also mentioned the MyFeedback [?] plugin which sounded good for one of the problems I have with Moodle – namely the need to better aggregate, for the student, a view of their gradebook across modules/courses.
  7. Studygroup pre-arrival course and course development processes. This is a course that can be licenced for institutions to help international students know more about their new location pre-arrival, including some of the cultural differences they might want to be aware. As with pre-start date induction materials in workplace learning this looked a good idea.
    • In terms of the design process discussed (Aims > Pedagogy > Limitations > Content Development > Content Transfer > Test Systems > Amendments) it all made sense and not a bad model for others to use.
    • Bolton Uni did a session later on developing a Masters course during lockdown, the most interesting bit for me, again, was their approach (Pedagogy > Design and Structure > Validate > Upskill Staff > Deliver, Support and Track > Enhance). Bolton admitted they were “new kids on the block” for online learning development but this seemed to be working for them (I presented on something similar in 2011).
    • I liked an example from Nottingham of a different type of learning activity, namely an attempt to create an escape room type experience made up of video, puzzle quizzes and other Moodle elements. Overall, this was a nice example of thinking ‘outside the box’ when faced with the Covid challenge.
  8. Global search engine. Another UCL session, this showed their results in comparing three global search tools (Azure, Elastic and Solr?). The presentation was good in showing the different findings in terms of the indexing impact and the search results across the three tools. Content management and discovery have long been problems in learning platforms and a solution to this really should be in the core code. Indeed I have found such a search tool useful within Totara in the past, not least as the logs are illuminating in what your users are looking for.
  9. Upgrades. UCL also presented on a move to continuous release upgrades. This was an interesting one given the problems VLE upgrades have long caused. Higher Ed having long relied on the ‘big’ summer upgrade. However, this also goes against the desire for permanent online learning and avoiding downtime. The UCL session got into some of the management of code and cloud vs local data integration. Overall, one for hosting teams but also highlights the issues for teams like UCL to be managing this versus using external hosting services.
  10. Moodleboard development from DCU. More the kind of thing I like from user conferences – how to do something new. In this case it was ‘boards’ via a tool developed as a new plugin that does some of what popular external tools (like Padlet) can do but all internal to Moodle and keeping the data your own.
  11. Tile format for courses. A lot of the presentations either mentioned this specifically or were clearly using it. Very interesting from a “the same” perspective as, in many ways, it goes back to the same logic as the old WebCT UI just with a more modern look. Some of the examples looked good – for example the Royal College of Midwives managing to move their 3 day residential programme to an online course looked like a real achievement.
  12. What data where in the ecosystem. An OU session looked at the new options related to user profile fields in release 3.11. Overall this really felt like it came back to the age old question of what systems you have, where the data needs to be, etc. There are clear use cases here, for example creating additional fields that could then be used in different ways – for example the old Blackboard community system allowed you to filter what users of that system saw. Examples of what this would allow included employer sponsored students being able to see their company content. Other use cases include changing what a fully online student sees in their dashboard versus a blended or campus-based student, etc. by their profile fields. As someone who has completed an online MSc this is the kind of functionality universities could get a lot better at to personalise and filter out the noise.
    • Dundalk presented about moving their student support hub online, I would imagine many institutions would have offered this for a while but how they do it, and what is on Moodle versus other parts of an ecosystem, no doubt varies. Indeed having to navigate a university student record system, VLE/LMS, intranet, website, library and elsewhere for information (rather a simple single Google-style interface) is a well documented challenge for online education providers and a great example of service providers often carving customer experience up by their departments rather than what a customer needs. Indeed Dundalk mentioned a major drive for the move was student feedback that their Moodle was a logical place for more than just modules and programmes.
    • For many, a key part of their ecosystem will now be webinar and virtual classroom tools so it was good to see BigBlueButton still being plugged in the face of Teams and Zoom becoming so dominate (at least in my experience).
  13. Academic staff upskilling and PD. Most of the sessions touched on this and no matter how many learning technologists, templates and other aides are in place most academic institutions presenting still seemed to have the model of tutors being the end user and that they ‘own’ the digital space. There are, of course, debates to be had over the rights and wrongs of this.
    • It was interesting to see Birkbeck deciding to go back to the drawing board for how to go fully online (decisions > policy [including adopting basic standards for Moodle and ABC Learning Design] > roles).
    • Gallway showed some nice use of using H5P to teach academics how to use H5P – there seemed to be some clever setup tricks in their approach that would be good to see shared in a way that others could use. However, it seemed like it would need quite a lot of setup – indeed the presenter mentioned it was being used for small groups (of 5) as would be in a face-to-face workshop, rather than something that could be used more widely at a larger scale[?].
  14. Data analytics was considered in a few presentations, including with regards to search (#8) and in terms of the wider ecosystem (#12).
    • Intelliboard presented on how to use data for early intervention, proactive advising and more. Much of this sounded very familiar to what I got excited about with Starfish’s solution at BBWorld in 2009.
    • Chicester showed some interesting work in rationalising module evaluation to cut the number of templates to allow comparison across departments/schools and how they have used templates and question banks to do this. There were some nice displays of data with the chart.js plugin [?] but overall it was a little mind blowing that a university would have, until recently, been doing this on paper and not in a consistent way.
    • There was also some data analysis and consideration of machine learning models from a Hungarian institution that looked interesting for what it might mean for the metrics being used.
    • Another session from Intelliboard was good in showing the research and data related to online learning and how there are many things we do know, for example the correlation between perceived instructor competence and if the instructor is seen as caring about the student [i.e. we give a perception of competence to people we like!]. Homophily, the perception of time (i.e. you need to answer student queries quickly), etc. were also considered in this.
  15. Video sharing from OneDrive. This was a practical and super simple presentation – I would hope no one who would attend this event actually uploads directly to Moodle and would imagine most organisations will have a video platform to use (which is probably preferable to the OneDrive examples shared).

The future

I am well aware that we all take our own things from such events – for example, there were more developer/technical focused sessions during the conference which are not related to my area of expertise but would have been of use for others and I did not get to attend everything due to other events, emails, etc.

Therefore, I appreciate me complaining about basic Moodle operations is unfair given this is new to many. What is more worrying is that the beginners and basic stuff in some of the sessions originate from higher education institutions that are really behind the sector overall and will be continuing to waste tuition fees and government money in various areas.

The real change going forward might be with Moodle’s model itself. The creation of Moodle US alongside the monetization via Moodle Workplace and Mobile are interesting changes for what is theoretically still an OS project. Of course it is also a fair point to say one shouldn’t criticise the project if not contributing financially or via time (such as in testing or development).

My main takeaways

  1. We need to challenge ourselves to not just learn from the last 20-odd years but also apply those lessons.
  2. There were a few plugins and themes for me to look into (those I have taken time to highlight above).
  3. Moodle 4.0 is a huge opportunity but probably one not to get too excited about.

Some reflections on week one of the #LTDX21 event (with a bit on the latest The Learning Hack podcast)

Learning Technologies, of course, is normally a big, physical, conference and exhibition and I had hoped to attend this year (amazingly I don’t think I have been since 2016 – where did that time go?). However, with travel and event restrictions there has been the inevitable move to a “digital experience” this year. The free sessions I have attended for this year’s LTDX21 have really reminded me about three things from Learning Tech as an event:

(1) The “free” sessions, normally on the exhibition floor of the physical event, vary enormously and it is a lot better to attend the “paid for” conference event if you can.

(2) The major benefit of the event, for me, is bumping into people you normally see once a year (or less) for a quick catch-up.

(3) There is value in just browsing the exhibition for trends, new entrants, etc. – I am yet to attend a virtual event which does this kind of thing well in getting the balance between viewing “exhibitor information” and having sales people harangue you via LinkedIn and email.

With regards to the first point above and specifically the sessions, the ones I have attended in the first three days have varied between the incredibly introductory and the very thought provoking. Kudos to Omniplex for the thought provoking session – one that really picked at the shared learning industry conscious over our role in organisations (and impact on wider society) with calls for improving practice. A good example of bringing emotion in – by highlighting real world examples (from big stories like Grenfell through to smaller scale examples).

One problem with the less interesting sessions was that product demos, which would normally be restricted to exhibition booths, and presentations (with a product focus) that normally appear in the “theatres” seem to have blurred together in this format. The answer here is probably to look beyond the titles and descriptions to try and second guess the nature of presentation – this isn’t really an issue if you commit a day or two to an event and can walk away from less interesting sessions. It is more annoying when you are blocking out calendar time for virtual events.

From the sessions I have attended, I could see some of the ongoing challenges for online learning – for example, discussions in session chat showed a drive towards wanting to display learning in Microsoft Teams (in part due to Viva?) but at the same time we had presentations around old concepts rebranded as new. I would really advocate everyone in the industry listen to the below podcast. A lot of people are still very blinkered to the companies they have experience in and I really don’t think people realise what is actually “new”. As Dr Chen points out, for example, doing more than SCORM is not new. There also seems to be a growing trend of huge content libraries and aggregators (perhaps because of LinkedIn Learning’s success) which I personally feel has a role but is just part of the puzzle. Anyway, listen to the pod if you haven’t the latest Learning Hack podcast was timely given all of this:

Regarding point 3. Attending only a few sessions you also miss the general feel. Today, I am going to try and follow the event’s hashtag more closely to try and pick up some of the more general trends. Thanks, as always, to all the tweeters out there on #LTDX21.

Not all innovation is created equal

A few things lately have got me thinking, once again, about what innovation means, particularly in the area of online learning.

The Covid crisis has brought a lot of this to the fore, for example the list below are just two things which have been day-to-day activities for me (and many others) for over a decade (or more) but are genuinely new for others:

  • Training companies and education institutions moving their operations to online (be it virtual classroom, webinar, async, LMS/VLE, etc.)
  • Primary collaboration between colleagues taking place online, rather than face-to-face, via VOIP, Teams, ESNs, etc.

These changes will be seen as transformational for some organisations, and not for others. This will have the knock-on effects that digital transformation has, for a while, promised – unfortunately including job losses. Leading to a spate of memes on that theme:

Just one example playing on the theme/meme.

The recent MoodleMoot global conference helped highlight this to me – here we had a tool (Moodle) that critics (myself included in the past) would describe as struggling to move past its c.2003 functionality and user interface. However, many presenters were focused on their personal success of switching to online (I personally really find the “pivot” phrase odd/annoying) or offering tips for ‘newbies’ in this area. This brings to mind the often used quote:

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

William Gibson

The challenge here is not just that digital transformation will naturally mean different things to different people also that a “webinar” will mean different things depending on the organising body, presenter, purpose, etc.

This confuses the picture, as picked up recently by Jane Hart in a tweet poll over what “e-learning” may (or may not) mean today:

Personally, I would say eLearning has become synonymous with “click next” slide-style content. The result being that “online” learning became the norm and then “digital” to capture changes for learning via mobile, VR, etc. However, whilst the differences remain, and old conversations (e.g. what is e-learning? is the VLE dead? etc.) continue, it is increasingly difficult to see where real innovation in the learning sector is given many orgs are now having “transformational pivots”.

Panic in the disco(urse)

The Higher Education (HE) world and the associated academic discourse would appear to be in a state of panic right now – at least in the British and American HE sectors.

We have open rebellion at Durham against online learning and COVID-19 gutting finances whilst (going by job boards, LinkedIn, etc) an apparent rush to hire instructional designers and learning technologists is underway.

I’ve commented previously that the race to online learning due to COVID feels like a hollow ‘victory’ for those of us who have been advocating for this for a long time as the news remains grim.  Rationalisation and innovation seems to be finally happening in HE but at the risk of institutions that, for all their faults, are often major employers and bring inward investment to our towns and cities.  For someone who went to (physical) university in Hull and Sheffield I have plenty of personal experience of seeing how university campuses have a part to play in urban regeneration and our post-industrial landscapes!

It is at least 15 years ago now that online learning has been in place and ready to transform the HE sector – I don’t think I have my slides any more but I was (in part jovially) booed on stage at the University of Leeds in 2012 during an Articulate event.  Whilst it is scary to say it that is 8 years ago we have not really seen any major change to the UK HE sector from the privatisation, and push to online, that I was booed about.  Now, finally, COVID seems to be asking some of the big questions expected back then – for example, should there be shared resources versus reinventing the wheel at different universities:

This alludes to the problem of unis adding little value from one another in core curriculum across many subjects.  This is familiar to L&D teams when we think about pumping out ever more content on, say, leadership – rather than curating or adding value through, for example, original research.  It also alludes to the failure (in my eyes) of the HE library profession in they have been pushed down a collection management route – with reading lists often the limit of their eLearning ambitions.

That universities are struggling, even a decade+ after many introduced blended learning, is partly surprising.  Durham, for example, have had some excellent learning technologists in that time and I am glad to say I have bounced ideas of a number of them at their Blackboard eLearning conferences (albeit that I haven’t been for a number of years!).  This is in part anti-online snobbery but also in-part based on truth – for example, actually doing physical activity may be needed for some degrees and be difficult to replicate online – science experiments, underwater archaeology or electrical engineering to name a few examples.

That so many schools have moved online easily also shows the weakness of HE – for many staff “teaching” is a chore beyond the core driver (namely research) thus to be forced to put effort into teaching becomes a further challenge.  This is in part why learning technologists have emerged in the UK – to manage the time consuming setup and admin of online learning for the lecturers.  Schools for younger, <18, age groupss, in the last few weeks, have succeed thanks to the primary driver of teachers (or at least good ones) being the students interests and they have made use of their control over their class/subject to do things quickly ‘their way’.  This again alludes to waste, compared to shared resources (or full OER) but also should allow teachers to continue to support their students – which might be more difficult if using centralised resources.  Schools and universities share a focus on knowledge development for assessment (lets be honest) so have no real difference in ‘goal’ but seem to be experiencing things differently through the crisis due to their cultures.  Is this in part due to schools tending toward 100% contracts, with cultures where many teachers work outside of their scheduled hours?  Meanwhile HE has become too messy with labour costs and thus are looking to pass on to ‘cheaper’ learning techs and other teams, see, for example the very debatable argument in the Tweet below and through partnering with private online providers:

Fascinating times and lets hope that not too many jobs are lost in the end but money is better spent and blended learning used in more programmes and in better ways.