One of the game engines that has captured the attention of many in eLearning is Unity. As eLearning has evolved to include games, VR, and AR, the tools and related skillsets that we use to create eLearning applications have also evolved. Unity has emerged as a good choice for eLearning that supports these new immersive and more experiential forms of online learning. In this article, I will outline some of the reasons for this and a new online course that will help eLearning developers learn to use Unity.

Unity has a relatively short learning curve compared to game engines that major publishers design, use, and maintain in-house to create their "AAA" games for entertainment. Unity also supports fast development, using smaller teams compared to hundreds of designers, developers, and artists for major productions that rely on proprietary game engines. Having said that, major publishers do use Unity to prototype games and in some cases to develop complete games for release. It is a tool that developers can adapt and extend through assets and plug-ins from an ecosystem of creators. In addition, Unity provides extensive cross-platform integration.

For many eLearning developers new to game development, learning to use Unity can be a daunting proposition, as can be learning to use other powerful game engines. Developing experiential online learning requires a certain amount of reframing of the design thinking and development process compared to what we did with the older forms. Recognizing this, Unity3D, the publisher of Unity, has joined with the University of Southern California (USC) to develop a course and supporting tutorials that will help you master the learning curve. I am starting with Unity in my exploration of game engines because in my opinion, it offers a combination of power and ease-of-use, along with an introductory offer and license that facilitate use by small- and medium size businesses.

I recently interviewed Jessica Lindl, the global head of education at Unity.

The Unity + USC course

BB (Bill Brandon): I was pretty excited when I learned about the existence of this course. Can you give us a thumbnail outline?

JL (Jessica Lindl): The course is ideal for students, educators, hobbyists, and anybody who really has a concept in their head of what they want to create and bring it to market. We'd like to call it the "untutorial" because it's not about us telling you how to develop something; it's really about how we take the idea that you have in your head and give you the best processes to bring it to market.

One of the very unique things we've discovered in the game industry is how people learn. There's a very strong apprentice model. Not everybody can find that great relationship to bring the idea to market. In addition to partnering with USC, we also brought into the course a lot of the experts who have built games, and then finally a very strong project-based learning approach with peer reviews and a community that can guide you in bringing your idea to market. The course is $79 for lifetime access, and it is available globally.

BB: About how much time will be required to complete the course?

JL: Usually we predict about four to five hours, for an eight-week period.

BB: That's four to five hours a week?

JL: That's per week, right. Our recommendation is that you are an intermediate level programmer within Unity, so it's not about learning how to use the Unity platform in this course. We believe that you have the fundamental skill to do that. If you don't and you're coming to the course, we're recommending other learning materials that you start with first before you take this course.

Challenges for eLearning developers

BB: From my own contact with game developers, it seems like it's a team sport. Who on the team would benefit most from the USC course?

JL: It's absolutely a team sport. When you build a game, there's kind of three key roles and oftentimes you'll find that even one person can play all three of those roles, but that is rare. You have the game designer and/or producer, really the person who kind of has the concept, who's overseeing the resources to bring the game to market and I think that's probably the person for whom this course is most applicable.

You have the programmers, where the programmers are building the game technology to actually make the experience. And then you have the game artists who are building the assets that are used within the experience. Obviously the programmer and the artist can certainly play the role of the game designer or producer, we see that all the time in indie games, but it's really part of somebody's skill set that is the game design producer itself.

BB: For small- and medium-size organizations, would it be normal to outsource the programming and the artist roles?

JL: I have actually been using Unity since 2012 to build learning apps, not even necessarily games, just interactive learning experiences. I was fortunate enough to have in-house teams who were doing that, but most of my colleagues who work in education globally don't have that expertise in-house, so there's a whole slew of contracted companies that have Unity expertise that they outsource their work to. So you would own the learning objectives that you were trying to achieve, you would give design guidelines, and then these companies would go ahead and build it for you and maintain it for you.

BB: Is there any sort of directory available for those companies, a way to find them?

JL: There is! We're lucky enough to have a whole part of our website called Connect. You can almost think of Connect as the LinkedIn for Unity creators. It literally has hundreds of companies on there with Unity skills that you could reference.

BB: Can you address what you see as the challenges for eLearning developers and eLearning designers that the USC course will address?

JL: So just to provide some context before I dive into that question: We've seen Flash disappear from the marketplace and HTML5 has its limitations. Most of the eLearning edtech developers have moved over to Unity already. Any time you're creating an interactive 3-D experience that's on your mobile phone, your computer, or in a virtual reality or augmented reality piece of hardware, we're finding people choosing Unity for a bunch of reasons. Number one: It's very easy to learn; and number two, you can build it once and deploy it to all of these platforms. You're not creating default code for an iPhone versus a Chrome web browser. And the third reason is that there are deep analytics within the Unity platform, as well as artificial intelligence and machine learning that can be leveraged by the creators.

With that context, we have found that for people who are switching over to Unity with an eLearning background, it's a pretty seamless transition if they've already been programming or developing with HTML5 or Flash. However, if this is their first interactive programming experience, what we provide for them are the fundamentals before they get to the USC course. But when they do get to the USC course, I think the big breakthrough for an eLearning person is how to drive engagement and how to pace, test, and measure for engagement, which as we know is a critical component of developing a learning product.

BB: Will participants need more than the basic Unity software in order to participate in the course?

JL: No, they won't.

BB: Does the course address the design and creation of levels within a game?

JL: Yes. It's very much focusing on concepts, designing the appropriate levels, and play testing to ensure that you have the levels correctly identified.

Certificates for course completion

BB: I saw on the website that there's no certification or credentials from the course available. Do you think that might happen?

JL: There is a certificate, there's not necessarily certifications or credentials. We are in the process of working with quite a few universities right now for our certifications, which is not part of the course. Our Unity certifications, of which there are six right now and will soon be seven, count for college credit, and are a true credential in that sense. We're not sure yet whether the USC course would become a part of that.

Using Unity for eLearning

BB: Can you speak to the degree of use of Unity in what I'll call the enterprise eLearning or serious games community? Most of our readers are in corporate settings.

JL: It's significant. Everything from Walmart employee or corporate training to major publishers like the Pearsons of the world are using Unity to create their interactive experiences. We don't have exact numbers on market share, but I think it's safe to say that most of what you see that's developed as interactive adaptive learning is being built in Unity now.

What we're seeing as 2-D is really only used when you have to have a very lightweight hardware experience, usually in a web browser. 3-D, I think, is usually the default of what eLearning specialists are using for mobile or computer-based learning. We're finding AR right now mostly being used in any sort of science or engineering-related learning; VR is primarily used in high-risk, high-cost learning experience. Instead of getting up on that old crane, you can simulate it. That's my quick thumbnail of how to think through the four different mediums.

I think the only slight amendment to the frame of how you're thinking about this is that I feel like a decade ago we were in more of a serious games gaming world. I think what we've moved to as a global industry is that it's now about experiential learning that may not necessarily have game mechanisms included in it. I think we've seen a much broader application of Unity being used as a result of that shift.

Looking ahead

In the coming months, I plan to do additional articles on game engines and how they are finding a place in the skillsets and practice of eLearning developers. If you have particular questions or comments from this article, please let me know in the comments.