Around a year ago I was tasked with creating an innovation in online learning technology for my doctoral work. Picking up on major themes in learning solutions like social learning, games-based learning, and others, my team and I created a platform that embodied them all. Here’s how, and why, we did it.

I love London’s Natural History Museum. From the outside it looks quite like no other building I’ve seen before. According to the guide book, its neo-Romanesque edifice is covered floor to ceiling with terracotta tiling, frequently punctuated with intricate archways and stained glass windows. In fact, as you walked through the grand central hall and noticed the frescos dotted about the ceiling you would be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into a cathedral. But last I checked, not many cathedrals housed a 26-metre long Diplodocus in the entrance.

It was amongst the skeletons, the rocks, and the other assorted objects of the Natural History Museum that the basis of my Doctoral Research at the University of Warwick was founded. I was tasked with a four-year research project to develop an innovation in learning technology. Learning at the museum is based on discovery, taking journeys through learning objects, and piecing the story together for yourself. Inspired by the experience, I wanted to know what online learning could take from this approach. How could we learn from these principles and put them into practice for our benefit? And how could I make it engaging without the benefit of a life-size T-Rex?

I spent a few months playing around with the idea of non-linear learning, of learning objects being “atomised” versions of the complete story. My vision was that we could present learners with a canvas full of learning objects and allow them to create their own journeys to reach an end-goal. Here learning objects could be anything from a video to a piece of text. They wouldn’t have to be complex and expensive nuggets of “e-Learning.”

It was around this time that a copy of Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, was thrust into my hands. Pink’s book is a quasi meta-analysis of research into the science of motivation, written in an engaging style that showcases his past experiences as a Presidential speech writer. In it he postulates what he believes to be the three key points for motivating individuals who are involved in an activity like learning. He calls these points Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. It struck me that Pinks first point, Autonomy, was something of which the Natural History Museum was a great example.

Letting go of learners

Autonomy is about being given control of your own destiny, not to be micro-managed but to be allowed the freedom to work at your pace, in your sequence. The museum was a great example of this.

For example, some objects in the museum I really didn’t connect with, like the world’s largest collection of stuffed birds. Frankly they freak me out a bit. Row after row of dead eyes, staring back at you from a glass case; it’s weird. Sure, their feathers are eloquently coifed and their perches painstakingly reconstructed, but birds just don’t do it for me. I’m the guy who bypasses the aviary section at the zoo – and that’s when they’re alive. But of course this is no problem at the Museum; learning here isn’t linear in nature.

Pink wasn’t the first person to articulate this, nor will he be the last. Traci Sitzmann, working with a team on behalf of the ADL, conducted a meta-analysis of the effectiveness of Web-based instruction a couple of years ago. They found significant evidence that online learning is more effective where learners have more control over the content, sequence, and pace of content.

Mastery and computer games

Inspired by the way in which Pink’s first point had fitted so nicely with my own thoughts from the Museum experience, I investigated his opinions further. Mastery, his second point, is concerned with the drive that people have to get better at something that matters. Pink leans heavily on the work of one Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi here; specifically on his theory of flow. You don’t forget a name like Csikszentmihalyi in a hurry and I had come across the theory of flow a few years previously. The theory suggests that people can experience a state of “flow” where the challenge they are tasked with completing is a direct match for their current level of ability, or just a bit beyond. If the challenge is too hard, then a person would become overwhelmed and stressed out by the task. If it was too easy, then this same person would be bored. Csikszentmihalyi uses examples from sports amongst other genres, but one which stands out for me is the example of computer gamers.

Computer games are really quite popular, in case you hadn’t noticed. In fact, calling games “really quite popular” is perhaps one of my greatest understatements; Jane McGonigal, speaking at the TED conference 2010, claimed that we are currently spending three billion hours a week playing computer games. Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow is perhaps one of the underpinnings as to why games are just so popular. When you first start playing a game, the level of difficulty tends to be low. As you get better, the game gets harder. Your progress is fed back to you constantly as you play; you are aware that you are getting better and you look forward to the challenges that await you. Most games actually lock away the harder levels until you reach a suitable level of experience; if you were to try and confront them straightaway, you would probably be overwhelmed and would perhaps lose interest in the game altogether.

Games in training are not new, but their penetration into the online learning arena has been somewhat stilted. The overwhelming cost of development, coupled with the social stigma of a “game,” has meant that sustainable examples of computer games in learning are relatively few. But we should remember two points here; it’s theories like Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow which underpin the effectiveness of games, not the fact that you are killing zombies. And computer games have been around a while now; many of those people holding “C-level” positions in organisations will have been the target audience of the first computer games like Pac-Man. This isn’t something new and scary; most people will have played a computer game at some point in their lives.

Understanding social

Pink’s final point was the idea of purpose; that we aspire to be a part of something bigger than we are. Again, Pink was working from established concepts when he spoke of purpose. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs established a model which showed us that, generally speaking, people aspire to make a real difference in their field. Douglas McGregor subsequently built upon Maslow’s work and changed the way in which many of us manage and lead teams today. McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y work showed us the benefits of aligning lofty organisational goals with the ambitions of workers: give people a purpose that they wish to aspire to and they will rise to the challenge.

Generally speaking, online learning doesn’t tend to offer this sort of opportunity. In a learning environment, purpose requires at least three elements: The opportunity to contribute back to the learning, the opportunity to influence others, and the opportunity to be recognised for your efforts. If you complete your learning in a read-only, isolated environment then you lack the necessary opportunities to make a difference to the community. In other words, purpose is dependant on learning being a social activity.

When it comes to online activities, Websites like Facebook have, of course, totally nailed “social.” They have done this by making everything revolve around people. Without people, Facebook would be a pretty boring place to be. Today, “social” is a major theme in learning solutions; it is very much the flavour of the month. Many learning solution providers offer some form of social element as a part of their package; normally this comes in the form of a plug-in that provides the functionality of a Blog or a Wiki, or quite often, both of the above. However, in most circumstances, the social elements in Learning Management Systems are all about the method, but never about the intention. You do not need to be social to learn with these systems, it’s a fancy option that you can add-on if you want to.

In circumstances where you have a choice about being social or not being social, some will choose not to be. This is a dangerous precedent to set in a social learning environment; apathy is but a stone’s throw away. If no one else is watching you make your contribution then why bother? Where social is an option, purpose is negated.


Sidebar: Putting people at the heart…

When Steve Jobs was designing the new Pixar HQ, he positioned both the cafeteria and the restrooms in the middle of the building. By doing this, he was making sure that people would run into other people through the course of their day. He was making sure that social was just the way things worked at Pixar, because he knew that this sparked creativity and spread ideas.


For our solution to work, Social would have to be at the heart of it. Not only would it need to give people the opportunity to connect with other people, it would need to base its entire function from this principle. Without people, it shouldn’t work.

Our solution

The research led us to a point where we knew the basic elements that our innovation would need to comprise: non-linear learning objects, presented as a game, in a social environment. It took a bit of work to come up with the initial specification, but the proposal called for the following:

The development of a system that will display learning objects of any kind (documents, videos, Web pages etc…) as nodes on a canvas, which can be accessed in any order the user chooses. The colour of the nodes should denote useful information (like viewed / not viewed, learning style etc.). Users should be able to comment on these objects and contribute their own to the canvas. The objects should be held at different levels, which can only be unlocked when a user has the pre-requisite amount of experience to access that level. Users should be able to organise Objects into Collections and into Guides. These will be linear representations of a series of nodes – allowing different objects to be linked together to tell a complete story. The system should be accessible both on a desktop computer and through a mobile app.”

In honour of the Natural History Museum, where our solution started, we called the environment Curatr.

Development begins

Throughout the initial development of the product I could see that others were building solutions that included elements of our thinking. This was hardly surprising, as most of our key points could be considered emerging trends in learning solutions. But one thing that was of concern was that our solution really looked like nothing else out there. We had developed a very visual approach to learning, with our atoms of learning being represented by nodes on a canvas. Our menu system looked like something out of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. We were decidedly odd.

We made the decision to release a very early Beta version of our software to a private crowd. We desperately needed outside feedback that what we were doing wasn’t completely crazy. So we gave ourselves a deadline of about two weeks to put out a Beta version for the public at large to play about with.

Development reached a certain point of fever-pitch around this time as we pushed towards release. I had put together a short couple of promo videos and a one-page Website to help us recruit beta testers in advance of us actually having anything worth testing. Seeding the videos through my own blog, Twitter, and e-mailing it out to a couple of key trend-watchers in the e-Learning industry, we’d managed to create our own little world of buzz about Curatr. Within our two-week timescale, we had over 200 organisations from some 35 countries sign up to test the software: a phenomenal response.

In order to procure some useful research information back from our beta testers beyond the usual bug fixes and feature advice, I decided to run an experiment. We would split the testers into eight groups. The groups would work with one of two sets of content; some would have access to all our features, some would not see the social aspects of the system, some wouldn’t see the gaming parts to the system and the final batch wouldn’t see either gaming or social elements. It was my intention to examine the average amount of activity for the groups in attempt to disprove a null hypothesis: “Enabling the Gaming and Social features of Curatr does not make an improvement in the activity levels of a user.”

Of our beta signups, a little over half actually logged on to help us test. There were two content sets in the test. Generally speaking, those participants who worked with the content set based around Shakespeare’s Hamlet tended to be more active than their counterparts, who worked with content on the Science of Education. Go figure! Those persons who had neither Gaming nor Social features enabled were, on average, around 50% less active on the system than those who had both.

I had the evidence, both anecdotal and empirical, to suggest that Curatr was an idea worth pursuing.

“Houston, we have a problem”

It became apparent from our Beta feedback that some of the people who were working on our “non-social” experiments didn’t actually realise that “social” was turned off. They couldn’t work out that something was missing. This really worried me. I was hoping the lack of social would smack people in the face and show the whole thing to be a waste of time. We had based the idea of social around the concept of elements like a Leaderboard and User-Generated Content, but where people weren’t contributing, this became irrelevant. We were wandering into the same trap as others that had gone before us.

So we went back to the drawing board on social. This was a difficult task, not least because we’d got hundreds of testers using our product already. We needed to tweak the product to make it people-centric, in the Facebook mould. After a bit of a brainstorm the answer became apparent; in fact it was staring us in the face. The clue is in the name: Curation!

Curation, for us, is all about the acquisition, organisation, and sharing of learning objects. By giving each user a Gallery of their own we could allow people to acquire, organise, and share objects back with the group as they saw fit. We would replace our opening screens with activity streams, the updates taken from the people you had chosen to follow. We would also introduce a “Peer view” above the level of the Object view, meaning users would need to choose a person to learn from first. Not only would we create a more social experience, but we were opening up lots more pedagogical approaches that could be taken with Curatr.


Sidebar – Friend or Follower…

In social networking terms there are broadly two types of relationship; the friend or the follower. Friends are what Facebook and LinkedIn do – your information is private (given the right security settings!) and you allow the people that you designate as “Friends” to access it. This is a two-way relationship; both parties have to agree to become Friends. The follower model is slightly different; it’s Twitter. Here your information is generally more public in the first place. People can choose to follow you without your permission and the relationship is one-way, until you decide to follow a person back.


Developing the “MVP”

Over the next few months we released updates for Curatr on a continuous basis; bug fixes went up immediately, major releases came around every couple of weeks. We tied down our Minimum Viable Product (MVP) around this time – the feature list that would make our product commercially viable. This was a desperately difficult process and continues to be today; knowing which comments to listen to and which to ignore.

In addition to this we had always intended to be mobile from Day One, looking to release an App to the Apple store at the same time as we launched our product. Right now, mobile is an order-winner for some customers, but pretty soon I believe it will become an order-qualifier. If your solution isn’t available on a range of devices, it won’t be a part of the marketplace. This is especially true when we talk of Social Learning; this is anytime, anywhere learning which doesn’t rely on centralised interventions to move on and update. Mobile, for us, was not a mere option either – it was a total necessity.

For users to be motivated to use a social learning environment it must be more than just another method of communication. We use curation, game dynamics, and a non-linear approach to learning in order to create an environment which allows for Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. For our users, social will not be an option; it won’t even be an active thought. It will just be the way it works.

To reward your patience in reading this far, here is a look at Curatr as it exists at this point.

Video: Curatr in action…