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Let the competition begin – what we can learn from the Olympians

This post first appeared on the LINE blog on 7th June 2012.

Over the coming weeks, London will be hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Can our industry take some inspiration from the competitive spirit that drives Olympians in order to help us create more compelling e-learning?

Let’s face it, competition is pretty much a fact of life; we are confronted by it every day – at school, in business, in sport, and in our personal lives. But is it good for learning? When using competition in a healthy, positive way – to encourage learners to do better and improve – we believe there are compelling arguments to say it works. These are framed below around Itiel Dror’s – a cognitive psychologist – ‘3Cs’ of learning: Commitment, Control and Challenge.

Commitment: Competition = motivation

Competition is a great motivational factor in learning; everyone wants to win and learners will push themselves harder when they are being challenged. It puts the learning into a different perspective – learners aren’t ‘just’ learning anymore, they are working towards a specific goal, trying to overcome a challenge.

In learning, competition usually comes in the form of a game or scenario, which makes it more fun and promotes participation and engagement. It is very effective in getting learners involved with a topic that would otherwise be dryer or less engaging and delivered as an information dump.

Competition is also rewarding – in success as in failure. It is usually associated with success and winning helps build a learner’s self-esteem. But just as being part of the Games is what matters most to a number of athletes, the aim of a course with an element of competition is not so much for learners to win, but to indentify how they can get better. Finding out about their areas for improvement motivates learners to try again to do better. By combining rating devices and constructive feedback in the learning environment, learners can effectively and positively learn both from successes and from failures.

Control: Competition is active

Learners have a role to play in the e-learning and what they do has a direct and visible impact on their performance. Setting learners a goal and showing them the consequences of their decisions gives them control over their learning experience. To obtain a better score, they must act accordingly. It is not just about being fed information; learners must also act upon it.

Challenge: Competition is like real life

Introducing competition in learning allows us to put the learner under pressure and make them take real-life decisions, in a safe environment. It puts the learning into context by giving learners problems to solve rather than giving them all the answers. It is also a very efficient way of developing courses related to team work, where the results depend on the team working well together.

At LINE, we have used competitive treatments in a number of our courses with great success.

Fire Control Orders

This course was delivered on iPads to create an immersive environment where the learner has to complete levels to progress. The learning also included multi-user immersive exercises monitored by an instructor where all students’ iPads were linked.

The feedback from learners was great – they found this approach more fun, and enjoyed having to make use of the information to come up with a solution to the challenge that was posed. As one user put it, “people are more likely to revise the stuff because it is fun to do it.”

The multi-user exercises created an additional dimension by giving learners high-score codes that the instructor entered into a score board so that learners could see how they did compared to others.

Sales Manager training

The Volvo Manager training puts the learner in their own role as sales manager in a fictional company. They have to turn around a failing dealership and are assessed on eight KPIs, directly linked to the decisions they make during throughout the learning.

Learners get hooked in this immersive environment and seeing their performance directly reflected to them (via the sales impact on the mock dealership) creates the motivation to do well. It encourages learners to develop the skills and knowledge they need on the way.


Objective setting nugget

This example was used as a teaser to get learners in the mood for a topic which may at first glance appear a bit dry and not so exciting.

Before they could access the content of the e-learning, learners had to answer questions to cross the grid and unlock the learning. The game show style introduced an element of fun to the learning with learners covering the key learning points as part of a game rather than being told the information. The rest of the e-learning nugget simply built up on the quiz questions to bring the learning points home, but most of the learning happened upfront.

Competition, when used in a positive way, is a great motivator and support to learning. It is very effective where learners are competing against themselves as it encourages them to re-use the learning to try and get better, so it is worth that extra effort in development to increase the return on investment and increase learners’ control, challenge and commitment.