Struggling to Keep Virtual Training Engaging? Don’t Leave Out the Narrative [Podcast]


In this episode of The Skytap Podcast, we learn from Keith Quinn about the power of relatable, realistic, real-world narratives when used in virtual training courses. Keith is the learning & development manager (digital learning) at the Scottish Social Services Council and he recently presented his session, “Using Immersive Simulations to Develop Real-world Skills,” at DevLearn 2016.

Obviously not everyone is creating the type of virtual training that Quinn is, but what Seth Payne and I realized during this episode is that Keith’s team’s efforts and approach to training – are just as applicable to the business world, and probably should be borrowed from by anyone who truly desires a higher level of engagement with their students.

We hope you enjoy this week’s episode of The Skytap Podcast, and we encourage you to subscribe to the show (on iTunes or SoundCloud) so you can be the first to know when new episodes are live, or to go back and listen to our awesome past episodes!

A full transcript of this episode can be found below.

Noel: So, you are giving a session on Friday titled, “Using Immersive Simulations to Develop Real World Skills,” and I really thought that title was so wonderfully loaded. We can probably conduct this entire interview just picking apart each word of that title alone. To get started, I wanted to see if you could define what makes a simulation immersive in virtual training today and what are some of the real-world skills that that type of training is able to improve or benefit?

Keith Quinn
Keith Quinn

Keith: Sure. Contrary to what folks might expect, immersion doesn’t come from fancy 3D graphics, virtual reality, or any of that. It comes from emotional engagement. We started getting into simulations because, in the social service sector, one of the key training tools that’s used for college-based learning is the case study. You’re given a scenario, and the student is told, “What we want you to do is tell us how you would deal with this, and give us the theory that supports it.”

The big problem with that, the massive problem with that, is it becomes an intellectual exercise. So, there are a lot of times where their answer sounds a bit trite. It’s academically fine, but they never have to deal with the consequences of their actions, and there is no emotional engagement whatsoever. The scenario doesn’t come off the page and inhabit the real world.

What we do is we get that emotional engagement. What we’re really looking to do is to give folks the opportunity to rehearse assessment investigation skills, interview skills, and collaboration with our professionals. In the real world, especially the collaboration with other professionals, as soon as you try to do that in the real world, all kinds of barriers are in place. Nobody wants to look stupid in front of other professionals. So, they don’t ask the silly question that sometimes needs to be asked.

What we’ve found is that we’ve put that online. There is a perception of anonymity, and it’s less threatening to ask the silly question. You’re not seeing the body language around the room, the rolling of the eyes, or whatever, and you can ask the question. That’s kind of where we go in terms of skill.

The immersion, it’s not about technology. Technology’s the last consideration. It’s all about the narrative. It’s all about the story, and it’s about getting people to suspend disbelief. We manage to do it in some fairly simple ways and inexpensive ways. It’s probably, in many respects, more immersive than the 3D worlds that I’ve seen.

Seth Payne
Seth Payne

Seth: So, I’m thinking back to my business school days. You mentioned case studies. I’m curious, could you maybe talk a little bit about what that looks like for a learner? To take on a case study that’s simulated and they get that emotional connection. What does that look like?

Keith: For us, I suppose the starting point is we use the lowest level of technology required to do the job. We build simulations in flat HTML with media resources. The narrative looks like an opening scenario which says, “X, Y, and Zed has happened. Here’s where the key players are. Now we want you to make a decision. A, B, or C?” It’s basically a branching scenario. You pick an action that you think is the best action to take. The next part of the narrative you see is, “Well, you chose to do this. So, here’s the consequences. Here’s what happened next.” We step someone all the way through the process, right to the very end.

There’s one of the simulations we do where if you take an action which is to observe and assess repeatedly, what you get is: a family member in intensive care, children are moved and placed into the formal care system, and it comes to you as a voicemail from the domestic violence unit at the police station. What we’re really looking for is that sharp intake of breath when you realize, “Oh my God, what have I done?”

Noel: I just had that sitting here and hearing that. Wow.

Keith: Then what we do in the interface is we created a town. We created a map, populated it with services (all fictitious), and we also created a street for the family or individuals to live in. But, we don’t just tell you about them. Every house in the street you can click on, and it will tell you who is there. What we’re really trying to do is build up a picture of, “Here’s the environment that this family lives in.”

We’ve had scenarios where … the first one we did was domestic violence and substance misuse. A query about child neglect. We’ve done them on parents with learning disabilities, and that also featured issues like young carers. So, you had a 15-year old who was a primary carer. It featured issues about autistic spectrum disorder. A whole bunch of stuff around that.

We’ve done it on people and taking control of their own care. Our new policy system in the UK and Scotland called “Self-Directed Support,” where we enable the folks to interview a person being assessed, even though it’s pre-recorded, pre-scripted video. Then fill out an assessment.

We did one where you could come in from the viewpoint of one of five different professions all dealing with the same family. So, you could be a teacher or you could be a speech language therapist. You could be a community health professional. You could be a social worker. The idea is that everyone is working with the same family.

We added on to that a bulletin board messaging system. So, you could talk to peers who were involved. Social workers could talk to social workers. But crucially, you could talk to the other professions and ask that question about, you know, “I think a speech language therapist does X, Y, and Zed. Am I right?” Then the answer might come back, “No, you’re way off base. This is what we actually do.”

What we’re trying to do is create environments where people get sucked in. We use audio as a replacement for voicemail. We use video, but the video is person to person. So, the person on camera is speaking to you, the learner. We use it to turn up the emotional heat, so we can have things like a parent ranting at the camera about, “How dare you, interfere in the life of my family and…I’m going to do this, and as for you…”, and they look off. When I show that at presentations, you can see folk beginning to move back in their chair, right? You go, “You know what? If you work in children’s services, that’s at least a weekly occurrence. If not daily.”

It’s that kind of trying to get to the gut and involve the emotional intelligence as well as intellectual stuff. That’s what’s immersive. We use subject matter experts to give us the narratives so that we know. When I talked about the person taking charge of their own care, the character there has multiple sclerosis. Not only did we get subject matter experts to write the narrative, we also had it checked by somebody who has MS, and said, “Does this sound real?” We got her feedback, and throughout the development process. So, we knew that we were on track. As far as she was concerned, we were absolutely inflicting a lived reality.

If you can get that in flat HTML with some media, that’s a big win.

Noel: When you were speaking about the anonymity, I was going to ask you … Somebody I interviewed at a conference earlier this year said that she believed that virtual training could be even more effective than in-person training. You mentioned being able to have that anonymity where, again, the things you’re talking about doesn’t make someone necessarily feel comfortable. But maybe more comfortable than having it done in-person. It goes beyond being able to just offer more classes, by having them recorded and that kind of thing, but actually having it be more effective. That technology does allow for some sort of things, especially if there’s any kind of over the shoulder view, or the ability to then interact with someone in real time as well. This style of training sounds highly effective for the work that you’re doing.

Keith: I used to be a face to face training person. An instructor. I was a staff development officer for a large, state-run … part of the state in Scotland. You would often have people who were silent in groups. It’s hard to involve them without putting them on the spot. So, these people tended to stay silent for long stretches of whatever you were trying to get across.

What I’ve found is that when you move that experience online, it’s the people who would be silent in groups were often the most vocal online. If you look at using a text-based chat for support sessions, you’re also dealing with the issue of people who may not have English as a first language.

I’m one of these sad folks that’s got more than one master’s degree. The second master’s degree I did, there were people in the course from Malta, from Spain, from Ireland, and from the UK. The Maltese and Spanish students couldn’t cope with voice chat. Particularly with folks like me involved, and folk from Northern Ireland, who have accents even stronger than mine. They couldn’t cope with the dialect. But, as soon as you moved to text chat, they were absolutely at home.

There are ways in which the technology can mitigate and make it a much more inclusive experience for people. One of the things I come out trying to impress on employers is, “Don’t just create it. Don’t put it online and walk away.” You need to be there and support the learners through the process as well. If we create the content and we create the resources, you guys need to create the support systems and help them maximize the benefit.

Seth: So, before you were describing scenarios involving families, children, sickness, things like that. Which, certainly, I think most of us can relate to. Depending on how it’s presented, I can see becoming emotionally engaged in that kind of story or simulation. How do you get that same level of emotional engagement when you’re dealing with something a little more mundane? Like, how am I going to hedge my fuels if I’m an airline, or whatever it might be? How do you get that same level of interest or engagement when it’s not something that hits you in that emotional spot?

Keith: I think the key of any of that is to personalize it and humanize it for the learners. I was just in a session earlier about a podcaster. Using stories and podcasting as a means of providing online education.

Noel: That’s what we’re doing here!

Keith: Yeah, exactly what we’re doing here! These guys were writing scripts and creating serialized stories. They were teaching insurance adjusters how to do … “So, if X, Y, and Zed have happened to a policy holder, is it covered? How do I know? How do I work through the process?” For somebody like me, that’s when the eyes begin to glaze over. That’s exactly your point. How do I get it so that I’m emotionally invested in that?

What they created was a narrative of a small business. They created characters. They created the business. They created, and turned the adjustment exercise into almost a “Who done it?” I’ve done some work for some colleagues in Finland, and they are exactly the scenario you’re talking about. They run online learning for airport staff, and believe me, some of that, it would really make you yawn very fast!

As soon as you engage the narrative, and as soon start trying to create a story … The key thing is to give the learner a focus that’s human. That feels human, even though they’re only text or images on a screen. We never create a character and don’t give you an image. You would never have somebody on a TV series where you never saw their face. You’ve got to get that investment in a character. You got to show them what they look like.

I thought their example this afternoon was fantastic. When they said that they did insurance adjustment, I thought, “I’m in the wrong session.” But it was really, really interesting. They took what is arguably quite an old format and they breathed a lot of life into it. I think you can do that. I mean, look what we’ve done. There’s nothing we’ve done that you couldn’t take and transpose to other sectors’ activity.

It’s easy for us to get the emotional bit because you’re talking about human services.

Seth: I imagine on this idea, you have to be careful not to be manipulative almost.

Keith: Yeah.

Seth: Don’t go too far with it.

Keith: Yeah. The scenario we did with the parents with the learning disability, we got somebody from a learning disability advocacy group to help us write it. The resource was in the managers of daycare services for children. You know, pre-5’s … well, maybe up to 7. When the advocate was helping us write the story, I had to stop her and say, “We have to tone this down.” She said, “But it’s real.” I said, “I know. I know it’s real. But bear in mind that your audience is childcare professionals, not people in the learning disability sector. They will think that you’re exaggerating. They won’t believe it because it sounds extreme.”

I said, “What we can do is create our scenario, and at the end put a link to your website.” It was like service users’ voices. It was two or three paragraphs of, “This happened to me.” We said we can put that link in so the folk can see that we actually toned this down for you. You’re right, you can get to the point where you could really wind it up to the extent where folks stop engaging because the go, “Yeah, you’re just exaggerating. That would never actually happen.” If we get to that point, we’ve lost it.

We always make sure we stay within what is currently the living experiences. We try and get that sense of not only could this happen, it has. I was involved in writing the first one. There was four of us, and we all used our specs of previous experiences in the sector. We just kind of melded them in a way where it was identifiable. That’s where we all try to work out the formula for making it real enough without exaggerating.

Noel: That reminds me, Seth, of what you were saying as well. We talk a lot about technical training, complex software training, the core training you mentioned as well. But being able to suggest someone tie in a bit of a story. Not just, “You’re going to take a class on how to complete this one action.” Again, making sure not to go too far and make it seem unbelievable, but tying in any kind of fictitious but realistic story of, “Here’s what happens when you don’t complete it in this amount of time.” Or, “Here’s what happens if you think you’ve completed it and you leave it open,” the ramifications of those kinds of things. So, it’s not just, “You didn’t pass the class. Take it over again.” You didn’t complete this the right way, so look at the different effects that can have.” It gives people a lot more motivation to do it right.

Another thing that you’ll bring up in your session on Friday is how to design simulations for an audience that has limited time available. We brought this up a little bit earlier, but there’s a lot of focus that shows this on micro-learning, remote access, low bandwidth, on demand, self-paced course offerings. What we’d love to know, is when someone’s taking a course like this, how do you make it available and effective for someone who can only take certain parts? If they want to try and take them out of order or take one and they’re not available for another week. How do you work in that kind of design for that self-paced access?

Keith: Because of the way we construct the scenario so it is very much … So here’s a situation. Define your action. Once you’ve taken your action, you’re going to see what happened next. We always start them on, “It’s Monday and it’s in February,” for example. “This has happened, what do you do next?” Each of those sections will only take you 20 minutes, half an hour, but not long. If you do them at a very superficial level, you’ll get through them in 10 minutes.

We build in things like reflective diaries and stuff we actually want folks to see. “I did this. Here’s why I did it. If I was doing it again, I might change what I did. I didn’t expect this consequence.” You’re actually getting folk to think about what they did and why. So, you’re looking at each one of the scenarios, each step taking about 30 minutes.

We’ve got a ludicrously simple system of bookmarking where you are, and then jump straight back to where you left off. That scenario you’re talking about is very real for us with people. Learning development is getting pushed to the margins. People are struggling to be released for classroom training. We really are looking at how can we deliver things that will take 10-15 minutes.

We put these scenarios online, we leave them online. They’re open-ended. You fit it in wherever you want to fit it in. One of the things that I’ll be saying on Friday that you can do is look at episodic simulation. We create something and we release one episode a week to take folk through it. We deliberately put the whole thing online for the first five or six we did, because we wanted to put the resources out and let people self-pace.

It’s funny because when you release something into the wild, unexpected things happen. We aim the first three at managers who completed them and then went, “You know what? This would be really good for training my staff.” Then they started to use it as a training tool for their own staff to give them insights of bits of practice they might not come across on a daily basis. The key thing was the whole thing was available online. It was open access to the whole lot and it was work at your own pace.

In the simulation where we had the discussion forums, it was all asynchronous. That was the beauty because you had people who might be in the discussion and then not be back for another week. If they had posted a question, they would get the answers. Again, I think sometimes we overthink it. We try and create really fancy systems for addressing some of these things. Keep it simple. Very, very simple. So far, it’s worked.

Noel: Last question I had for you was how are you measuring the effectiveness of this approach? I imagine there’s really positive, uplifting answers to that, and maybe some sad ones, too, with this style. How do you go back and find out? When it’s just online like that, how do you find out who viewed it, what they did with that information? Is it just the number of … I don’t mean to say “just.” But, is it the number of times a course was watched? Is it fewer families with issues in a community? How are you measuring the effectiveness?

Keith: I suppose the answer is kind of two-fold. We get a lot of information from our analytics. We can tell who’s there, where they’ve come from, how long they stay. Down to individual IP addresses. We can get a lot of granular information from the analytics that gives us the kind of bare bones.

What we’ve also done recently is badge everything. So, here’s open badges. To get badges on our system, you need to say what you learned and how you applied it. That’s where they get the qualitative stuff. We didn’t get into open badges for that. We got into that because we wanted people to get recognition for informal learning. The qualitative data that we’re getting out of the system is phenomenal. When you badge something like that, they see the cumulative effect and they want the next badge. We’re getting some really rich data about what they’ve learned from the simulation and how they’ve applied it.

We also have a kind of higher level badge, which is not only what did you do with it, but how did you pass that on to others? How did you cascade the learning? We’re getting some fantastic feedback for that as well. It’s not coming through in a dashboard style report, but it’s coming through. For me, that’s the most important bit. We’re starting to see big amounts of data coming in.

The long-term thing is: what you want to see is more effective practitioners. We’re also a workforce regulator, and everybody must do a certain amount of CPD a year. We’ll start to see that coming through in our continued professional development returns. We have a scenario based learning system called “Making Better Decisions,” which presents practitioners with ethical dilemmas. If they get it wrong in the real world, there could end up being a conduct hearing for unprofessional practice.

What we expect to see over 50 years is the number of referrals for these themes to gradually reduce. What we’d find is that people were falling foul of our codes of conduct, not because they were bad practitioners, but because they didn’t understand what was being asked of them.

What “Making Better Decisions” lets them do is to try something out. If they get it wrong, they’ll get feedback saying why they got it wrong and what the corrective action would be and there’s no risk to them or to members of the public. They’ve avoided doing it in the real world so they’ve avoided putting themselves in dangerous positions.

It’s a kind of multilevel answer to what you’re asking. We get pressured for the numbers. “How many, how long are they there,” all that kind of stuff. What we’ve kept saying to people, “Yeah, that’s fine. The numbers are good.” All of that. What’s more important is the quality of feedback we’re getting about how people are learning and how they’re applying it.

Seth: So, I’m a very casual PC gamer. I mean very, very casual. One thing I’ve noticed, and I think it relates to what you’ve been talking about, is that there’s a lot of new indie games coming from small developers or individual developers. Well, maybe not a lot, but there’s been several that have come out which are very interactive. You’re in there, solving problems, giving clues. You can play these games multiple times because they respond to your choices and things like that. It would seem to me that that type of platform to deliver it really matches well with what you just described about seeing the results of decisions that were made, what should have been done. I know you mentioned that technology doesn’t … keeping it simple is important. Do you see some of these ideas expanding out into almost a “gamification” on a bigger scale?

Keith: Absolutely. We are driven by a budget. So everything I’ve described to you has been done on an absolute shoestring budget. There’s a guy I know from Finland who produces games exactly as you’re describing. Very AI-driven. Very, very sophisticated. I would love to have Harry involved in taking one of our simulations and bolting on the AI at the back, so we could do a lot of the sophisticated, on-the-fly adaptation to learn their action.

The reality for us is the budgeters just don’t allow it. We’re funded by the Scottish government. The budgets are what they are, and we try and stretch them as far as we can. You’re absolutely right. I’m already looking at ways in which we can look at adaptive learning, with a small “a”. How far can we go down that road before we need to phone Harry in Finland and say, “How about coming over?” If we can do it in a small way, great.

One of the things I’m going to be saying on Friday is about how we need to pay attention to game designers. Learning development developers can be a bit precious. Game designers are actually better at doing some of the things we claim as ours. Like incentivizing learning. Like building experiences where they completely engage the learner. Like encouraging people to learn from failure. Even if you’re a causal gamer, you know if you want to get to the next level and you can’t do it, you’re going to try and try until you do. In our terms, that’s about having to stretch objectives that are just far enough in advance of the learner. Game designers have got that worked out to a T.

I saw Roger Schank speaking where he said, “We should embrace failure as learning development professionals because that’s the point at which the learner is most responsive to trying something new.” Yet, our formal education systems actively punish failure. So, when you have people in the workplace, they fear to fail. Actually, a lot of the time I’m talking to my staff about creating scenarios where we want them to fail. We want the sharp intake of breath, and that cold feeling when you think, “What have I just done?” Because if it’s only code, that’s fine. If it’s a real family, that isn’t fine at all. So, it’s better that that failure happens in the virtual world than it does in the real.

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