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Devlearn 2012 – what’s in a theme?

This post was written by Imogen Casebourne and first appeared on the Epic blog on 3rd December 2012.

devlearn conference 12Perhaps it’s fitting that it was pure luck that unexpectedly took me to Las Vegas for Devlearn 2012. Originally we had planned for our colleagues from the Epic New York Office to attend the conference but hurricane Sandy had other ideas, cancelling their flights and trapping them in Manhattan at the last moment. Their bad luck was my good fortune, as I found myself unexpectedly on the plane to Las Vegas to attend the conference.

Given that we were somewhat short staffed, I spent a lot of time at our stand, meeting some very interesting people. I also gave one of our conference talks ‘Where you can go if you go mobile‘ as well as demoing some of Epic’s e-learning on BBC Editorial Policy Guidelines at Demofest. But I did get a little time to attend some of the other conference sessions which were inspiring and thought-provoking.

I especially enjoyed Jon Landau’s keynote speech ‘Braving a new world: innovation in Avatar and what lies ahead‘. Rather than being a leading figure in Learning and Development, Landau is a film producer who has worked closely with James Cameron over many years and has collaborated on many extremely successful and technologically ground-breaking films such as Titanic and Avatar.

What insights did he bring to the field of learning? Well, he had some interesting thoughts on stretching what technology can do, and making it serve the overall creative vision. Just as we believe at Epic that the needs of learners should drive the use of technology, the creative team that brought the world these ground-breaking films made sure that their use of technology was driven by the story rather than vice-versa.

I was also struck by what he said about the power and importance of themes. He defined a theme as encapsulating what the viewer walks away with at the end of the film – the emotional connection viewers take from a film – which is something that he sees as distinct from the plot. He suggested it was the same with learning – learning designers should ensure that people come away not with just the key points of the lesson, but also a sense of resonance and connection.

Themes certainly seemed to be in the air in Vegas, a place where many of the hotels and casinos are themed. The hotel I was staying in was called ‘New York, New York’ (chosen to celebrate the opening of our US office) was of course modelled on Manhattan. There are other hotels with other themes including Venice (complete with canals), and Luxor Hotel, which looks like an Egyptian pyramid. A lot of work – and I imagine a great deal of expense – has gone into these creations, but why do the canny business people who own the casinos and hotels do it? Surely it’s because they believe that a theme increases engagement, helps foster a connection and makes people more likely to visit.

So themes are employed by film-makers, casino owners and e-learning designers, which is a diverse range of people, but it seems to me these themes are being used for approximately the same purpose. Themes bring a sense of coherence and overall creative direction to a large project, and they increase engagement and help users, viewers or learners to understand and engage with the material. Epic has used themes very successfully to bring a diverse variety of projects to life for learners, for example Sky web cookies policy and AgustaWestland helicopter training.