The Myth of “Micro-Learning”


There’s a new buzz phrase going around town these days in the L&D and talent development communities. That phrase is “micro-learning.” The infographic on the modern learner, published by Bersin and Associates” in late 2014, fuels this fire.


The biggest take-away many are getting from this infographic is that today’s workers and “modern learners” only have 1% of their workweek to devote to professional development and learning. That equates to 24 minutes per week if you assume a 40-hour work week… which is 4.8 minutes per day to focus on learning.

The concern I have is that we make an assumption that we can and should winnow down all learning initiatives to fit into this 4.8 minutes per day or 24 minutes per week. Most definitely, reinforcement of a skill or reinforcement of a specific body of knowledge can be handled in 4.8 minutes a day. Learning science-based platforms such as Knowledge Guru, qStream, or Axonify can be very useful in delivering micro reinforcement in this context.

Micro-learning is NOT useful when people need to acquire/learn complex skills, processes, or behaviors. Imagine trying to learn any of these behaviors or skills in 4.8 minutes per day:

  • A musical instrument
  • Project management
  • Agile software development and processes
  • Instructional design
  • Any software tool
  • Teamwork skills
  • Sales
  • A product (e.g. launching a new one where you need to acquire knowledge of the product’s value proposition, competitive landscape, positioning, etc.)

What our industry needs is better clarity on when we need to formally train people, when we need to reinforce knowledge or skills people are building on their own, and when we simply need to keep key principles or practices front and center (e.g. safety and security practices).

The BLP Way

A few years ago, we opted to create a “learning lab” environment in our own organization. We wanted a means of building technical and project management skills – and we recognized that if we want innovation to happen, we have to give it time to happen. This sparked the idea of “skill-builders,” which are formal side projects that employees can do ON COMPANY TIME. This year, we formalized this to the point of letting an employee allocate five full work days to time on a skill builder. Criteria for doing a skill-builder:

  • The skill-builder needs to link tightly to a competency the company has agreed is important to us. (e.g. We use AfterEffects quite a bit in our work. So, if a graphic designer wants to learn AfterEffects, he or she can craft a skill-builder around it.)
  • BLP needs to make sure the employee has sufficient time to do it; ideally, they will be able to work in 1/2 – full-day “chunks” on the skill-builder as it is too hard to stop/start when you are in learning mode.
  • A formal document needs to be created that describes the project, what skills it will build, and what resources are required, and how it links to BLP business needs.

Here’s an example of what one team member, Jackie Crofts, recently did with her skill-builder: she produced a fabulous AfterEffects video that we will use as a “product tour” of Knowledge Guru. She had only base knowledge of AfterEffects when she started.  More critically, Jackie is a fabulous illustrator, but she had minimal skill in using stock imagery and in doing graphic design work. She is a pure artist, which is GREAT when we are designing games; challenging when we need her to focus on marketing collateral.

Let’s not get so excited by this concept of “micro-learning” that we fail to recognize when it is appropriate – and when it is absolutely NOT appropriate. If we had only allowed Jackie to spend 1% of her workweek building AfterEffects skill, she would never have built the skill she did. Also…note that we did not send Jackie to a formal AfterEffects training course. We did provide her with access to tutorials and to a colleague with AfterEffects skills, but she was mostly self-directed with her skill-builder.

So, is “micro-learning” the right answer for reinforcement? Absolutely. Will “micro-learning” help when it comes to actual skill-building? Not really. People still need dedicated time to build their arsenal of knowledge and skill. However, not all of this time needs to be spent in formal training. It DOES need to be time they can devote to learning for more than 4.8 minutes per day or 24 minutes per week. The payoff to organizations who give employees this time will be huge in terms of the innovation and productivity gains over the long-term.

Have training needs of your own? Whether micro-learning is the answer or not, you’ll need a plan. You can start with our Simple Template for Planning Your Training Program.

Bottom-Line Performance Wins Three 2014 Brandon Hall Awards for its Knowledge Guru Platform

Bottom-Line Performance won two Brandon Hall Excellence in Technology gold awards for its Knowledge Guru Game-Based Learning Platform. One gold award honored Knowledge Guru as Best Advance in Gaming or Simulation Technology. The other award, gold for Best Advance in Sales Training Online Application, recognized BLP and Cisco Systems, Inc. for Cisco’s use of the Knowledge Guru platform.

BLP and ExactTarget also won a bronze award for Best Use of Games and Simulations for Learning in the Brandon Hall Excellence in Learning awards earlier this year, bringing our total to three Brandon Hall Awards for the 2014.

The Knowledge Guru platform is used by Fortune 500 companies to reinforce and help employees retain critical knowledge such as policies, procedures, product knowledge and compliance information. The platform uses serious games that link engagement and motivation to the science of learning and remembering.

Cisco uses Knowledge Guru in its award-winning Cisco Sales Associate Training Program (CSAP) to train the next generation of sales leaders at Cisco. The platform helps new sales associates master and retain product and technical knowledge, and participants rate Knowledge Guru highly as a learning tool that helped them complete their Cisco certification. Cisco uses Knowledge Guru games around the world and the experience scores equally well in all regions – Europe, Middle East, India, China, Japan, Singapore, Australia, Canada, North and South America.

“It is truly a great honour for the Cisco Sales Associates Program to receive a second Brandon Hall Award,” said Paula Rossini, Global Program Manager of the CSAP program at Cisco. “The team is proud to uphold the highest standards in learning and to be recognised for this. We value our strong partnership with BLP and with them, we look forward to taking the learner experience to the next level!”

“I am honored by the recognition BLP’s Knowledge Guru platform has received in 2014,” said Sharon Boller, President and Chief Product Officer of Bottom-Line Performance. “It recognizes the efforts our team has put into designing and developing a research-based learning platform focused on helping people learn and remember critical knowledge and skills. It also recognizes the great work clients such as Cisco have done to integrate serious games into their organizations in a relevant, appropriate way.”

The entries were evaluated by a panel of veteran, independent senior industry experts, Brandon Hall Group Sr. Analysts and Executive Leadership based upon the following criteria: fit the need, design of the program, functionality, innovation, and overall measurable benefits.


Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO) is the worldwide leader in IT that helps companies seize the opportunities of tomorrow by proving that amazing things can happen when you connect the previously unconnected.


Bottom-Line Performance is a learning design firm serving a wide range of corporate, nonprofit, and government clients. Since 1995, we’ve helped clients choose the right learning solutions for their learners, while also helping them to design and develop learning tools effectively. Areas of specialization include product launches, customer training, customer service training, and safety and compliance training. BLP is a certified woman-owned business.


Bottom-Line Performance is the creator of Knowledge Guru, a game-based learning platform that uses learning science to increase employee knowledge retention and improve performance. Use it to create a single serious game teaching foundational knowledge or an extended play experience that incorporates performance challenges to help players acquire and practice new skills. The secret? Every game mechanic and game element are carefully linked to the science of how we learn and remember.

Bottom-Line Performance, ExactTarget Marketing Cloud Win Brandon Hall Award for “MobileConnect Guru”


Bottom-Line Performance and the ExactTarget Marketing Cloud won a coveted Brandon Hall Group bronze award for excellence in the Best Use of Games and Simulations for Learning category. BLP and ExactTarget’s win was announced on September 10th, 2014. The winners are listed at

The winning solution, MobileConnect Guru, was created using the Knowledge Guru Game-Based Learning Platform. Knowledge Guru is a cloud-based platform for designing serious games that link engagement and motivation to the science of learning and remembering.

ExactTarget’s employees, resellers and partners played the game to gain mastery over mobile terminology and product features and benefits – mastery that is critical to effectively selling and supporting a product. The game reinforced other rollout efforts and provided a “just before launch” reinforcement.

“We are continually looking at ways to innovate on our learning initiatives,” said Scott Thomas, Director of Product Enablement at ExactTarget. “The Knowledge Guru platform was a fun and new way for us to reinforce the training we needed to do with the launch of our new product. Our clients loved it, and the training led to meaningful business outcomes.”

“ExactTarget Marketing Cloud was truly innovative in the way they incorporated the Knowledge Guru platform into their training,” said Sharon Boller, President and Chief Product Officer at BLP. “They are a best-in-class example of how games can be integrated into a broader product launch training effort. We are proud of the award but more proud of the business results MobileConnect Guru helped drive for ExactTarget.”

The entries were evaluated by a panel of veteran, independent senior industry experts, Brandon Hall Group Sr. Analysts and Executive Leadership based upon the following criteria: fit the need, design of the program, functionality, innovation, and overall measureable benefits.

About the ExactTarget Marketing Cloud

The ExactTarget Marketing Cloud from (NYSE: CRM) is the leading 1:1 digital marketing platform, connecting companies with customers in entirely new ways. Learn more at

About Bottom-Line Performance, Inc

Bottom-Line Performance is a learning design firm serving a wide range of corporate, nonprofit, and government clients. Since 1995, we’ve helped clients choose the right learning solutions for their learners, while also helping them to design and develop learning tools effectively. Areas of specialization include product launches, customer training, customer service training, and safety and compliance training. BLP is a certified woman-owned business.

About Knowledge Guru

Bottom-Line Performance is the creator of Knowledge Guru, a game-based learning platform that uses learning science to increase employee knowledge retention and improve performance. Use it to create a single serious game teaching foundational knowledge or an extended play experience that incorporates performance challenges to help players acquire and practice new skills. The secret? Every game mechanic and game element is carefully linked to the science of how we learn and remember.

When Remembering Really Matters – New White Paper from Sharon Boller

Sharon Boller, President of Bottom-Line Performance, has authored a new white paper: When Remembering Really Matters: Learning Strategies for Long-Term Retention. It’s full of research, case studies, and advice for learning professionals ready to reduce the amount of information learners forget from all types of training.

Here’s what is covered in the white paper:

What will learners remember?


The question is not asked often enough in most organizations. Research shows us that most of what we learn is forgotten after a learning event, so what can we as learning professionals do to combat this in our designs?

The Cost of Not Remembering


Managers, Directors, and VP’s are painfully aware of what happens when critical training concepts are forgotten. ASTD estimates that in 2012, organizations invested $164.2 billion in employee training. How much of your training investment goes to waste?

Remembering is hard; forgetting is easy

You’ve probably heard of Herman Ebbinghaus’ famous “Forgetting Curve,” based on research done in the late 19th century. While the curve can approach 90% in terms of total information forgotten, more recent research shows that the Forgetting Curve is highly variable. Regardless of the exact percentage, What percentage of what we learn do YOU think is okay to forget?

Four Strategies to Foster Long-Term Retention

Sharon introduces four proven strategies that inhibit forgetting and enhance remembering. You’ll learn more about how to apply these strategies, and the research behind them, in the white paper:

  1. Provide frequent, spaced intervals of learning instead of “glops” or “unrepeated waves.”
  2. Provide multiple repetitions.
  3. Provide immediate feedback for mistakes, and make sure learners get it right before moving forward.
  4. Use stories to drive the learning experience.

All of these strategies are explained in detail within the white paper.

Learning comes before remembering


While the first part of the white paper focuses on remembering, part two is all about the learning. If employees never truly learn new knowledge or skill, they certainly will not remember it. Sharon introduces four strategies for learning that, coupled with the strategies for remembering, will lead to long-term retention.

  1. Balance the use of multimedia.
  2. Limit learner control in the course design.
  3. Personalize the experience as much as possible.
  4. Be ruthless in eliminating content.

Putting it all together

Perhaps most importantly of all, the white paper closes with a summary of five business challenges we solved for our clients using a combination of these strategies for learning and remembering.

Ready to change the way you design and deliver learning? Download the white paper now!

Are You Going to DevLearn 2013? We Are!

Looking to have your mind opened? Your paradigm challenged? Looking for a hot new tool you can start using right now to improve your corporate training?

There’s a conference for that.

DevLearn 2013

DevLearn is one of our favorite eLearning conferences, and it’s just around the bend… October 23 – 25 in Las Vegas. BLP will be at DevLearn in a big way this year. Members of the learning services team will attend for professional development… and we can’t wait to hear what they learn from the 200+ sessions available at the conference. Sharon Boller is partnering with Karl Kapp to lead a pre-conference workshop on learning game design, their fourth session of the year.

We’re ESPECIALLY pumped to send the Knowledge Guru team back to DevLearn with some exciting product enhancements to announce. We’ll be showing off the new business theme packs and improved Experience API dashboard, which makes it easy to connect Knowledge Guru to an LRS.

Are you going to DevLearn? If so, we’d love to meet and share ideas. Fill out this form to request a personal meeting with us, or come to one of the following sessions:

Powerful Learning Games You Can Build Yourself Happens Thursday October 24th, 12 – 12:45 pm on the eLearning Tools Learning Stage. Includes an overview of research supporting learning games… and an overview of Knowledge Guru. Learn more

Knowledge Guru in the DevLearn Expo See an overview of the Knowledge Guru game engine in Booth 208 of the Expo. Set up a free trial of Knowledge Guru. Happens all day October 23rd and 24th. 

Play to Learn: Designing Effective Learning Games Pre-conference Workshop happens all day October 22nd. Presented by Sharon Boller and Karl Kapp. Learn the basics of learning game design, then spend an afternoon prototyping your own learning game. Learn more

BLP at DevLearn Demofest See a demo of our Avoid the BBPs gamified eLearning course at Demofest. Happens October 24th, 4 – 6:30 pm.

You can register to attend the Expo, Learning Stages, and Demofest portions of DevLearn for free here.

Gamification, Sales Training in Learning Solutions Magazine

Gamification, Sales Force Training

Image © Learning Solutions Magazine

Organizations faced with fast product launch cycles must simultaneously train sales teams, support teams, and customers on the features and benefits. There’s often no “easy button,” however games and gamification are shown to be some of the most effective methods for acquiring new knowledge quickly.

Dr. Karl Kapp, Ed.D has written a two part series on games and gamification for Learning Solutions Magazine. The series focuses on case studies that show the efficacy of games and gamification in business situations. He gathered the case studies while researching his latest book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook, which will be available soon.

Part two of Karl’s series is focused exclusively on product knowledge training for sales and support teams. The case study he uses is especially familiar to us: Karl describes how ExactTarget used our own Knowledge Guru game engine to get employees and partners up to speed on their MobileConnect product.

I suggest you read the full article, as it provides a comprehensive overview of how gamification principles can be applied to support a product launch and help people learn facts fast. The business results ExactTarget saw are particularly powerful:

The result for the business was that, of all the launches done in the two years previous to the MobileConnect launch, the sales team built one of the quickest pipelines for this product. The gamification approach improved product knowledge and helped the team build the sales pipeline while simultaneously reducing call-response times.

The hardest part about “selling” a learning game or gamification idea inside your organization is often just getting the initially buy-in. Thankfully, Karl’s upcoming book will feature many case studies, just like this one, to help making the case for a new gaming initiative easier.

So, read the full article to gather new ideas for implement games and gamification in your organization… and on how to use Knowledge Guru to make your own games.

Click the image below to read the full article.

The Gamification of Sales Force Training - Full Article


To Game or Not to Game? The Best Ways to Use Games for Learning

So, you think you want to use a game to help people learn. You’ve got the “what,” but do you know the “why” and the “how?”

There are many reasons to use games for learning… and also times when you’d be better off picking a different interactive learning experience. The best way to figure out whether or not to create a learning game, and to get the project started, is to ask the right questions. Karl Kapp has two short but sweet blog posts with questions you should ask before creating a learning game. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.


When mapping out a learning game design project, you need to determine the instructional objectives… and how the gameplay will serve those objectives. You’ll identify demonstrable tasks that can be completed through the game, and you’ll also decide whether or not a game can mimic the context where learners really need to apply the skills. I could go on, but Karl covers all of these in his posts.

Once you’ve decided that yes, you want to use a learning game, you have to decide whether it will be the primary learning activity or a reinforcement tool. This decision will influence the game’s content, design, and your internal promotion strategy. Yes… you should promote your game internally to get people to play.

Using a game as the Primary Learning Method

Games are most useful as the primary learning method when the content is highly immersive. Context is vital to learning, and a game that mimics the situation where learners will have to recall information or complete a task will aid in retention and performance.

We took this approach when creating A Paycheck Away, a board game that simulates the problem of systemic homelessness. Players play as a profile of a real homeless family and must make realistic decisions to try and get out of homelessness. While the game is a tabletop board game, the situations are realistic and spark real emotions. An issue like homelessness simply must be taught in an immersive experience like this that gives context to the problem. A quiz-style game teaching facts about homelessness simply wouldn’t cut it.

A Paycheck Away - Game as Primary Learning Method

A Paycheck Away game board

Conversely, a gameplay experience that is closely linked to how people learn best can also be useful as the primary learning method. Our Knowledge Guru® game engine is designed to utilized the principles of spaced learning, immediate feedback, and repetition to maximize retention of new information. When players play the quiz-style game as a primary learning method, they learn the information by getting questions wrong, reading the feedback explaining their misstep, and trying again.

Knowledge Guru game as primary learning method

Players learn from the immediate feedback in Knowledge Guru

Using a Game for Reinforcement

Games are also great for reinforcing the learning that happens through an eLearning course or instructor-led session. After people complete the regular training, you can simply send them the link to play a game or invite them to a face-to-face session. The key with using a game for reinforcement is to promote it well and remind players consistently that they should come back and play.

ExactTarget, a digital marketing company, used Knowledge Guru to help employees prepare for a product launch. Since they are a marketing company, they did exceptionally well at promoting the game internally, and saw a high rate of participation as a result.

Take a look at some of the emails and advertisements ExactTarget used to position their game as a reinforcement activitiy:

Internal Advertisement of Learning Games for Reinforcement

Example of a banner ad displayed to employees

Email messages that include a link to play the game are also very effective.Send internal emails to encourage game play for reinforcement

Games are Fun… Which Makes Participation Easier

“Fun” can be pretty intangible, so business types sometimes shy away from citing it as a goal for training. We’ve seen that the “fun” factor of games is a big motivator for getting players to come back and reinforce skills and knowledge. Even giving a basic game eye-catching graphics, a narrative, and a sense of purpose goes a long way.

We use a pre-game narrative to set the stage for Knowledge Guru games. The first page is pictured below with our soon-to-be released Business Theme Package.

Fun, story-driven nature of games can make people want to complete reinforcement

Whether you decide to use games as the primary learning method or as reinforcement, asking the right questions up-front and designing it with “fun” in mind will help set you up for success.

Using Spaced Learning and Distributed Practice in Corporate Learning

Interested in spaced learning and distributed practice? Then download our free Primer on Spaced Repetition and Feedback Loops. This guide will teach you everything you need to know about these concepts so you can incorporate them in your own training.

Students are often told to study for a few minutes a day, every day, instead of cramming for a test. Musicians know that consistent, daily practice is the only way to learn a challenging piece. Research on the benefits of distributing our learning into small chunks has been around for a long time.

Formal Training a Small Amount of Overall Time

…So why do corporate trainers forget this fact when delivering eLearning and Instructor-led training? When did we start thinking of learning as a one-time event? If formal training is the only form of learning in your plan, and training is only happening a few times a year, L&D is not doing it’s job in supporting workplace performance. You must include opportunities for practice, reinforcement and reflection in your L&D mix.

Use Gamification to Space the Learning

In a recent article for Learning Solutions Magazine, Karl Kapp shared a case study on Pep Boys‘ approach to Retail Safety and Loss Prevention training. They used a gamification platform to deliver daily reinforcement of the monthly safety and loss prevention training through a fun, quiz-style game. Kapp describes the project in greater detail:

Associates answered quick, targeted questions related to risk, loss prevention, safety, and operational policies and procedures—standard questions in these areas. If they answered correctly, they played a slot-machine game titled “Quiz to Win” for a chance to win cash prizes. If they answered incorrectly, the system immediately presented a short training piece designed to specifically address the topic covered in the initial question. Questions repeated at various intervals until the associate demonstrated mastery of the topic. The entire process takes 30-90 seconds each day and associates do it either at the beginning of a shift or during downtime throughout the day.

Game-based learning and gamification have many different applications, but using a short game-like experience as a daily reinforcement activity is, frankly, an excellent idea. Pep Boys reported a voluntary participation rate of 95% and a 45% reduction in costly claim counts. I’m sure many trainers can’t claim a 95% participation rate for some mandatory training! By giving employees a fun and motivating experience they could complete in just a few minutes’ time every day, Pep Boys was able to ensure the training it delivers every month was properly reinforced. By making the reinforcement a fun, gamified experience, players were self-motivated to keep participating and reviewing the content.

Market Your Learning Internally

One of the best ways encourage distributed practice is to make employees want to come back and review. Offering some sort of external reward, being consistent and engaging in your reminders, and making the reminders memorable will all help.

Example: ExactTarget. Now a part of Salesforce, ExactTarget is a leader in the digital marketing space. It should come as no surprise that ExactTarget’s L&D function is best-in-class at marketing their training internally. We built a Knowledge Guru® game for ExactTarget to support the ramp-up for a new product launch, but it was ExactTarget’s reinforcement tactics and internal marketing efforts that really made the project a success.

Marketing Spaced Learning in an Organization

Example of an internal advertisement ExactTarget used to market their Knowledge Guru game.

ExactTarget furnished prizes for the top players and displayed advertisements on the LCD monitors all over their offices. They also sent consistent emails updating players on game progress and encouraged players to log back in and compete for prizes. This creates a culture of “fun” for the employees, but more importantly it encourages lots of distributed practice and reinforcement over a longer period of time than traditional methods.

Build spaced learning into your training design

Creating a separate reinforcement activity can be effective, and so can consistently marketing an activity and giving people an opportunity to return and review. But what about building opportunities for spaced learning and distributed practice right into the learning solution? That was our approach when designing Knowledge Guru. As this tutorial post explains, each training topic in the game requires players to climb three paths and deliver scrolls to the guru. The topic only has 5 – 10 total unique questions, but each of the three paths has a different iteration of the same question. By the time learners complete the paths, they have been exposed to the same information three different times.

Spaced learning and distributed practice in Knowledge Guru

Different iterations of the same question are placed on each path.

Guru Grab Bag Mode: The Guru Grab Bag mode in Knowledge Guru encourages players to return to the game and practice even after completing the game. Grab Bag is only unlocked when players complete all of the normal game mode topics. It’s easy for the L&D professional administering the game to encourage players to return to the game later to compete in the “Grab Bag Round,” where all questions in the game are mixed together and players try and see how big they can get their streak of correct responses. If a player plays Guru Grab Bag long enough, they will be exposed to all of the game questions again, which helps them log more distributed practice time.

Distributed Practice Helps the Bottom Line

When you’re trying to solve a performance challenge, you need to give learners the tools and opportunities to learn as quickly as possible. Failing to create a plan for sufficient reinforcement and distributed practice will only lead to increasing costs further down the line. Take some time up-front to plan the reinforcement and internal marketing of your training. If you can, build the distributed practice right into your learning design.


How to Pilot Game Based Learning for Free

Convincing a bunch of people in suits that it’s a good idea to spend their company’s training budget on a game can sometimes be tricky. We’ve even dedicated a whole blog post to it. But the corporate environment is constantly evolving and every day more companies are embracing games as a way to not only train their employees, but to engage them. So now that games are becoming a more accepted part of the culture, there’s only one hurdle left: would our employees actually like the game we want them to play?

That’s an important question to ask, and it’s pretty hard to answer without actually trying it out. So that’s what we recommend you do, try it out—with the employees who are going to use it. The learners are the ultimate judge when it comes down to it. They are the ones who need to retain the information and use the game to help them in their day to day work. It only makes sense, then, that they should try the game out before you commit to the initiative.

A Live Trial

We created The Knowledge Guru Game Creation Wizard to let training and development professionals take full control over their content creation process, on top of keeping costs down and making it more affordable to blend games into their training. Since this is a brand new concept, we want to let people demo the product to show them how easy it is to use and how versatile it can be. But like I mentioned earlier, we aren’t only trying to convince the buyers, we’re also trying to convince the learners. That’s why you can make your trial live.

If you’re demoing the Knowledge Guru and building a game, you can set the game to live and have learners sign up to play. It’s really important to take advantage of this option. Make a demo game and sign up a few employees who will have to use the game if you end up purchasing. Have them play through it and give you feedback. That’s the best way to see if it’s a right fit for your organization.

Beyond Knowledge Guru

Piloting game based learning isn’t just about Knowledge Guru; it’s about educating an industry. We understand that games don’t work for every company or every situation. And we realize that despite the buzzwords, we’re still in the early phases of adopting games in the corporate training environment. But hopefully we’ve removed enough of the barriers to entry with this trial for industry professionals to see for themselves how game based learning works.

The studies are trickling in (check out this infographic of some of the research) but what we really need are more people actually trying out games for themselves. Use this opportunity to see if games really can engage your employees more. It’s one thing to read about it, it’s another to actually see it in action. If you do decide to try it out, don’t forget to check out our tutorial on using The Knowledge Guru and writing iterative questions. Game based learning only works if you build it right.

Click here if you want to test it out for yourself—happy gaming!

Interview With Karl Kapp on Games and Learning

I conducted the same interview with Sharon Boller, President of BLP. She is the lead designer of the Knowledge Guru® game engine and designs learning games for many of our clients. Read the interview here.

Play to Learn: Designing Effective Learning Games

After a sold-out pre-conference workshop at ASTD ICE in Dallas, Karl Kapp and Sharon Boller have decided to host their learning game design workshop again. This time, the all-day event will be held in Indianapolis on August 28th in Indianapolis, IN.

Attendees will have the opportunity to design their own learning game at the workshop with the assistance of Kapp and Boller… two of the leaders in the learning game space.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Karl and Sharon about their backgrounds in learning game design, the reasons behind their passion for games and the research and evidence they find most essential to proving why games link to learning.

Karl’s answers are below, and I will share Sharon’s responses in part two.

Karl KappKarl M. Kapp, Ed.D., is a scholar, writer and expert on the convergence of learning, technology and business operations. Karl is a professor of instructional technology at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA. He teaches graduate level courses including Learning in 3D and Instructional Game Design. Karl also serves as Assistant Director of Bloomsburg University’s acclaimed Institute for Interactive Technologies (IIT). In that role, Karl helps government, corporate and non-profit organizations leverage learning technologies to positively impact employee productivity and organizational profitability through the effective use of learning. Karl has written five books including Learning in 3D and Gadgets, Games and Gizmos for Learning and The Gamification of Learning and Instruction. His work has been featured in Jeannie Novak’s popular Game Development Essentials series. Karl blogs at the popular Kapp Notes website. Visit him at

How did you get started in instructional design?

Karl: Well, it started with a sixth grade crush. A girl I liked had taken acting lessons at a local theatre so I decided to take acting lessons as well. Then one day a company came to the theatre because they were looking for kids to act in a safety video about crossing the street, the girl whom I fancied volunteered to act in a safety video and, of course, so did I.

After I graduated from college with a teaching certificate, an English degree and several courses in psychology, I was looking for a job before heading to graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh for a program in educational counseling. Someone mentioned that a local company did something with writing, psychology and teaching and that I should check it out. It turns out the company was the same one that created the safety video. When I applied for the job I said, “Hey, I’ve worked here before?” and they were a bit confused until I told them I was one of the “child actors” in the safety video. They hired me and after working there for a few weeks, I discovered what Instructional Design was all about. I was immediately hooked. So I spent the summer changing my graduate program form educational counseling to instructional technology. It was the best move. I discovered a field that used all my talents from standing up in front of people and speaking to teaching to writing to psychology. It was and is a great field and I really love it.

I thought it was the most fascinating thing to systematically design instruction to impact learners and behavior, and to actually help people learn things in a variety of environments. There was a systematic way to do that. That really attracted me to the field. Once I had my masters, I got a job at a software company as the one-person training department, and I realized, “Oh, I need to know more.” Then I went on and got my doctor of education from the University of Pittsburgh. So my short acting stint in sixth grade literally changed my life and led me to this field.

Divider for Game Interview

When did you start playing games… and when did you make the connection that games were powerful learning tools?

Karl: I have been playing games all my life. From card games and board games in my earliest days to playing on the Atari 2600 to handheld Coleco Games (football was my favorite) to the Super Nintendo Entertainment system to the console and online games of today like the Uncharted series for the Playstation III and games on my iPhone like Temple Run.

I first noticed that games could play a role in corporate learning on my first internship out of college. It was the summer of 1989. I was working for the instructional design company I mentioned earlier and one of the employees was working on a radical idea of a paper-based game to teach people negotiation skills. He needed some people to test the game and I volunteered. As we were playing the game, I realized how impactful it was in terms of helping me to understand the negotiation skills he was trying to teach, in terms of my being comfortable applying those skills and in terms of gaining a perspective about negotiation skills that I did not have before. From that moment forward, I was convinced that instructional games could be invaluable within a corporate setting.

At that company, I was involved in some small scale efforts after that time. Then I began to study them more in-depth in the late 1990s and early 2000’s and wrote about using games for instruction within corporate environments in my 2007 book, Gadgets, Games and Gizmos for Learning. After that book was published, I was also able to help design some corporate games and see the impact they had within organizations and see how to apply game-elements as a new method of designing instruction within the corporate environment but up until just a few years ago, games were not seen as something appropriate for corporate settings. There is still some stigma remaining but it seems to be subsiding now that people are beginning to understand the interactive nature of games and how game elements such as challenge, story, interactivity and feedback encourage learning.

Then, I was fortunate enough to become a member of a team developing a game to teach middle school children science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills. In that project I helped design a full scale educational game which provided me with a wealth of insights into the design of games for learning. I continued my research and work into games and gamification and I needed a place to capture all my thoughts so I wrote them down and captured them in a file that eventually became my latest book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction.

Divider for Game Interview

What specific studies or anecdotal stories, to you, make the strongest case for game-based learning efficacy?

Karl: Well, the one thing that really excites me about the field for game-based learning is that there are a number of meta-analysis studies (study of studies) that points to the fact that games are effective for helping people to learn. We now have peer-reviewed empirical research that shows positive learning impacts and behavioral impacts from games. To me, it is exciting that we now have evidence showing games do, in fact, teach.

Another area of research that is fascinating to me is that the research is now looking into what individual attributes of games make them effective for learning. So, we are moving away from studies that compare game-based learning to classroom instruction and are now looking at what attributes (i.e. story, freedom to fail, fantasy, etc.) make a game compelling from a learning standpoint. I think that is a great line of research.

In terms of examples, I have personally seen people playing games in a corporate setting and discovering concepts, ideas and approaches that they had never before grasped. I’ve seen this with board games, I’ve seen it with online games as well. Now, it requires debriefing and setting expectations by the instructor but when it happens, it can be highly impactful.

Divider for Game Interview

What are some of the biggest mistakes you see newbie learning game designers make, and how can they avoid them?

Karl: I consistently see three big mistakes. The first is that the newer designers tend to want to create a game that teaches “everything.” They want a game to teach the entire sales cycle or the entire product life cycle. When designing a game for the first time, keep it to one or two main objectives that you want to teach. A game can be simple but effective and the less complicated the learning goals are for the game, the easier it is to design and develop. This doesn’t mean the game is simplistic, getting across a couple of really compelling ideas can be difficulty to design but not as difficult as trying to convey a dozen compelling ideas so keep it to one or two learning objectives to start.

Second, don’t think game design is easy. Just because it is fun and easy to play most games doesn’t mean it’s easy to design a game that is instructional. It is hard. There is no “cook book” for designing games, it is more craft than science. Be prepared, especially for the first time, to work and rework your game. Make a paper prototype, then use a slide deck to mimic the game and then decide to program it for online play. Take your time. If it was easy, everyone would have a game to teach everything but… it’s not easy.

Losing site of the learning objectives is the third issue I see. The most important element in a learning game is that learning has occurred. If learning doesn’t occur, re-think the game. Sometimes organizations become so caught up in the game creation and even implementation that they lose site of the learning goals. Always keep learning goals in mind.

Divider for Game Interview
What tips do you have for individuals just getting started with learning game design?

Karl: My biggest tip is to play games! Well, play them with purpose. The idea is to become a critical consumer of games. Look for what works, what are the game dynamics and think about why a game designer chose to do X instead of Y. One cannot develop a game unless they are experienced with games. You cannot be a good elearning developer without having ever taken an elearning course. One cannot be an instructional game designer without ever having played games and especially instructional games. Additionally, read up on the topic and learn as much as you can from the examples and experiences that others have had. Designing an instructional game might be new to you but plenty of people have been doing it for a long time so learn from others.

Divider for Game Interview

What’s your favorite part of playing, designing, studying, and speaking on games for a living?

Karl: Hmm, my favorite part… I enjoy so many elements of games and helping others understand the value of games. I always jokingly say the favorite part is to be able to purchase video games and write them off as a business expense. But really, it is when people realize learning doesn’t have to be boring, it doesn’t have to be a chore, learning can, indeed, be fun and engaging.

Space is limited for Play to Learn. Read the event description or click the link below to register.Eventbrite - Play to Learn: Designing Effective Learning Games