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ELC interviews Anders Gronstedt in Second Life

E-Learning Symposium speaker and virtual worlds expert Anders Gronstedt met with E-Learning Council's Birgit Schulz (in the form of the ELC robot) at the Gronstedt Group island in Second Life.  The consulting firm's weekly virtual meetup "Train for Success" began its new season today, and will touch on new topics every Thursday at 9.00 AM PT/ NOON ET/18.00 CET.

ELC: Can you tell us about your background and what the Gronstedt Group does?

Anders: My background is a former marketing professor at University of Colorado. I left academia some 16 years ago to start my own business, the Gronstedt group.  We help large organizations, Fortune 500 companies, and governments, to innovate learning using new technology such as these kinds of 3D virtual worlds.  We also develop webisodes using dramatized video; we develop podcasts; we develop mobile learning applications with iPad, iPhones, Android, and other mobile, tablet, and smart phone devices. And we try to help organizations to get out of the old mood of trying to replicate an already failed classroom experience in the virtual world where we’ve seen already so many failed examples of trying to create virtual classrooms and webinars and E-Learning programs that do nothing but replicate some of the worst aspects of a classroom with PowerPoint slides and quizzes and moaning, droning monologues, and instead create true learning experiences.  This 3D virtual world that we are in now is one example of a world where create things - you can do all kinds of difference exercise, and you can visualize products in 3D, you can visualize data in 3D, you can meet with other people, you can go to a place together and meet with other people as avatars which is an experience that really rivals meeting someone in real life.  In these types of environments, we help clients do everything from holding meetings, running role play (sales role plays, for instance) to doing emergency response exercises.

ELC: What can you tell us about Train for Success?

Anders: We host a weekly meeting called “Train for Success” here in Second Life. We’re also using some other 3D platforms for our meetings and it’s essentially a weekly speaking series where we invite thought leaders to share what they’re doing in virtual worlds and we frequently go on virtual field trips where they will actually show us what they’re doing.  In Second Life, you can jump/teleport from island to island so we frequently take the entire group over to another island where the presenter will do a show and tell. We’ve been running this for some four years now.  We used to draw about 40 or so learning professionals every week.  This fall we’re going to start broadening the topic from virtual worlds to include gaming and simulations as well.  So we’ll have speakers who’ll talk about gaming applications in the virtual world and also, for instance, iPad and other mobile gaming applications – social games, [and] games that are used for serious purposes, for learning purposes.

It’s a lot of fun, we attract great speakers. But really the value is getting together in a virtual world and meeting with professionals who are thought leaders.  I think this is where the evangelists, the people who are the innovators in the learning organizations, will come to get new ideas.  And I think it is important for those of us who are involved in learning innovation to meet on a regular basis, compare notes, and share our best practices with each other.  The ability to get together and meet, to socialize, to come early and stay late – people tend to hang out here, chit chat, and meet new friends.  Once you experience this once, you find that this is really unlike any other type of online meeting experience.  You really have the feeling of going to a place together, you’re not just looking at the same PowerPoint slides and listening to people as disembodied voices over a phone line. But you are in a very real sense meeting them in this 3D space.

ELC: That sounds exciting! Who can join this group?

Anders: It’s open for anyone, it’s free.  You can go to our Facebook group, just search for “Train for Success” to get the regular updates.  We’re going to start posting our fall schedule shortly.  The meetings are free, you just go into Second Life and search for “Train for Success” or “Gronstedt” and you find us.  It is at noon eastern every Thursday and you just drop in.  You do need Second Life to open an account – it’s free.  I do have to warn you that most firewalls will not accept access to Second Life so if you’re working at a big organization you probably need to find a way to go outside of your firewall.  Because this is such a big issue, we are increasingly going to run our meetings in the Web Alive platform that does go through most firewalls.  About once a month we will meet in Web Alive and that should be able to work if you’re behind a firewall.

ELC: I look forward to joining in sometime soon! Is virtual learning suitable for all training goals?

Anders: I think just about any type of training works really well in a 3D environment.  I guess the only areas where it might not be optimal is if you have software training where it’s really about going from screen shot to screen shot and teaching people how to do certain operations – you can do that in a virtual world but you’re not really leveraging the benefits of being in a virtual world if that’s all you’re going to do.  With that said, even most hardcore system training like that, there’s always an element of more strategic training of how do you use it, when to use it, problem solving, and other things where it can be beneficial to be in a virtual world.  So that would be perhaps the only caveat.  Other than that, it works for new hire orientation, certainly works for most soft skill training, role play is a low-hanging fruit.  Running role plays in classroom is fraught with problems because people are uncomfortable stepping into another role so they start laughing and get in and out of character, but in a virtual world you are already in character - you’re playing the role of your avatar so people are much more comfortable role playing in this type of virtual world. We’ve seen this done with sales training, for instance, where someone will take on the role of the customer and the other will be the sales person.  It works much better than in a classroom because people are much more uninhibited and take their roles more seriously when they’re in a virtual world.  I mentioned things like emergency response, product training, anything where it would be a benefit to visualize something in 3D.  That can obviously be if you have a physical product, but it can be data – you can be inside of a data set, a 3D bar chart for instance.  You can scale things up and you can scales things down; you can walk inside of a molecule; you can walk on top of a map that illustrates various things. So you can think creatively about how you can use a 3D environment you can custom develop for your E-Learning needs and have people literally walk around in it and do training that is asynchronous - they can do it on their own.  The most benefits would be if they do it in a synchronous fashion where they will get together, you’ll have a facilitator take them through or it can be peer-to-peer lead.  You can set up an asynchronous experience that small groups or peer-to-peer lead students can go through, which is in fact, what we’ve done with the city of New York, for instance, where we have a 4-hour long emergency response training simulation which is set up as a self-paced simulation but you can do it in a small group and that’s where people have the most benefits and the most fun, when they can do the decisions together and talk through what they do as next steps with a small group.

ELC: Are there any drawbacks to creating training in 3D?

Anders: Drawbacks of creating things in 3D environments – there’s always a little bit of a learning curve to figure out how to move around, but with the new generation of browser-based 3D virtual worlds that we’re mostly using, Second Life is great for community building activities and weekly meetings and it’s a good sandbox to try out different ideas. But for larger corporate deployment, we usually use a new generation of browser-based virtual worlds that have a real easy learning curve.  Usually it just takes people about 10 minute to get used it.  They have to find a headset and it does require a high-bandwidth connection, although it doesn’t require an extremely fast connection with these new browser-based platforms.  So you’ll usually want to set up an orientation session a few days before the first event and make sure that people have their headset.  So it’s a little more of process than just sending them a link and asking them to go into a flash-based E-Learning program for instance.  But the benefits are obviously that it’s a much more engaging and immersive experience that they’ll get so much more out of, and it’s a social environment where people can get in together.  Of course, as far as drawbacks, other things that people raise, if you need to do something where, for instance a role play, where eye contact and gestures are very important and perhaps you want to video tape people as they’re performing something and play it back to them, obviously there’s some limitation to that.  You see me gesture here, but that’s sort of automatic - I’m not controlling exactly what gestures I’m making.  I can make eye contact with you just by moving my mouse, but it’s not quite like doing it in real life.  So obviously if you’re going to have a course in live presentation skills, for instance, it’s more optimal to be in a live environment.

ELC: What kind of feedback have you gotten from your clients using this new training approach?

Anders: Feedback from clients who have been using this approach – you see some skepticism before they’ve actually gone on to the world. You’ll get feedback along the lines of “this is just a game, this is too playful”, but those kinds of comments always come from people who have never experienced it first hand.  Once you have dragged them in here, if they are resisting, I’ve never had anyone walk away with anything negative to say.  You can almost see the light bulbs go on over their avatars’ heads when they come and experience it the first time.  This is something really have to experience first hand to get. If you just watch a demo on a screen, you’re just not going to get the idea, particularly if you don’t have any previous experience of being in a 3D virtual world. Once you drag them in there, once you put them in front of the controls and actually let them control their own avatar and let them customize their avatar, you’ll find that they get incredibly vested in their look and the appearance of their own avatar and from there on you have an orb of enthusiasm and evangelists. Everyone who’s experienced a meeting just once, I’m finding, become an avid fan of this approach to learning.  Examples of feedback we have received in the case of running our New York City emergency response simulation by people who participated in a live exercise that our virtual experience was modeled on was that this was just like being there at the live exercise. We had modeled this school building, a real live Brooklyn middle school, where they actually ran the live exercise. And some of those same people who participated in the live exercise, which by the way cost millions of dollars to run, you had hundreds of university students actors playing the public there, and you had supplies, and you had to go into the school building, and run a full scale exercise.  And some of the people who participated in this exercise said that the virtual version that we created in 3D was just like being there, they could almost smell it. That’s really heartening to know that we, for a fraction of the cost and a much greater convenience and frequency, can replicate something that would cost millions to do in real life.  And we’ve done several sessions where, I wouldn’t say replicate a classroom, but we’ve taken what used to be run as a classroom session and re-purposed it here and reinvented it here because we like to take advantage of the 3D environment here and we’ve heard from a lot of participants that this was not just as good as running it in a classroom, but many times they will say that it’s even better.  For instance, when we run role plays, they’re finding that people take the role plays more seriously.

ELC: That is amazing! I’m starting to get the swing of this. I think you have to put your ego aside and laugh at yourself. Are you enjoying your coffee?

Anders: (Laughs) Yeah, I know it’s hard to keep serious here and talk about the business topics when you’re talking to a cute little robot.

The fun factor, that really is the key benefit of this.  It is fun!  And I know that can be a tough sell in the executive suites sometimes, but the fact that it’s so darn fun to be here makes learning more engaging.  And you know, I always get the customers saying “Well isn’t that distracting you from the learning” and my response to that is there are thousand things will distract me if I’m in a boring old webinar or WebEx session or an e-learning program – I’m distracted by my e-mail, and my Facebook, and my phone, and a thousand other things.  Here, yeah, I’m a little distracted by that fact that you’re a cool little robot, but I’m here in the presence of you, I’m focused on our meeting, you have my full attention here.  We can goof around here, I can fly up and down, we can jump, and I can pull up things from my inventory – I have a pet tiger I can pull up from my inventory. The playfulness is something that really that needs to be leveraged and used to its advantage.  It makes people hang out here more often, people look forward to meetings, people stay long after, and it’s a great facility to have informal communication. After our weekly meetings here, I can come back hours later and they’re still just hanging out and playing around with each other.  And we all know that 90% of all learning is informal communication – it happens around the water cooler. Well, most organizations don’t have a water cooler anymore because people are working from Starbucks or from their kitchens and they’re working from all over the world.  So people don’t get together in an office over a water cooler anymore and this is really the closest thing to have those water cooler conversations.

ELC: This is such a refreshing approach to learning!

Anders: Thank you, it’s really different from anything else.

I can take you around a little bit.  This is the area where we meet for our weekly meetings - it’s a boardwalk.  The first generation of learning applications in virtual worlds were building exact replicas of classrooms with wall and roofs, but it occurred to us after a few weeks that you really don’t need and walls or roofs.  It never rains here unless you program it to rain, and being out in the open just makes it more fun-filled.  You really have the sensation of being out at a boardwalk.  So we usually meet here.  We have some chairs where you can sit down, but of course you never get tired of standing as an avatar.  A lot of times people will just stand around.  We have a PowerPoint presenter so you can drag in your 2D assets and you can show PowerPoint slides and you can show video and everything else you would do in the real world.  You’ll also notice that while we’re walking around here that, if I walk away or walk a little faster, my voice will fade away from you and as I walk closer to you, you can here me louder. In fact I can walk in a circle around and with the headset you can here me go from the right to left.  That’s stereo effect, 3D audio, really contributes to the feeling of being together. So it’s 3D visually and auditory. And it’s also practical.  If we’re in a meeting here, you and I can just step aside and have a side bar conversation, people do that all the time.  If you have breakouts, you can ask different groups to walk to different corners of the boardwalk and have conversations in the breakout groups and just call them back together.  The voice is one way to communicate.  So we’re talking to each other via headset here.  You can type messages – I can type on the screen 

here and that message appears to everyone.  I can have a private text conversation. At a lot of our weekly meetings, you’ll find there a lot of side conversations, sort of back channel going on in the chat, which really adds to the sense of participation when you have that back channel communication through chat.  You can move your camera around independently of your avatar to check things out if you want to be an invisible person and want to take a look at something without walking up close with your avatar.

It’s fun; it’s engaging.  And of course, the avatar appearance is part of the whole experience.  You’re a cool little robot, I have my parrot on the shoulder.  Of course I’m not quite as buff and young looking in real life as I am as an avatar and that’s part of the beauty here – you can reinvent yourself staying within your own gender or even with the human race – it’s voluntary. If you want to be a robot, or a two-legged fox, a man can be a woman.  The playful aspects of your avatar appearance can really help contribute to people’s sense of engagement in the environment and you can predict who you want to be rather than who you actually are.  And of course, there are lots of examples of people, with instance, with physical handicaps who hang around locked in virtual worlds and they can be able bodied in the virtual world.  We think it’s pretty cool to fly here; a lot of people would kill to be able to just walk, and they can walk here in the virtual world.  And there’s been a lot of research on the avatar appearance.  It turns out if you’re a better looking avatar than you are in real life, your self-confidence improves and it actually spills over into real life.  So spending an hour as a handsome-looking avatar will actually make you more confident in real life situations.  There’s been some research at Stanford to suggest that.

ELC: I plan on joining the Train for Success experience. Hopefully they are robot-friendly.

Anders: (Laughs) We have robots.  We have people who have butterfly wings.  There are no restrictions obviously.  We don’t want to do something that’s offensive in anyway, but for business meetings like this, that’s never a problem.  We encourage playfulness with the avatars.

ELC: Thank you for your time today, Anders!

Anders: I look forward to coming out Houston at the end of October.  It’s going to be great! We’re going to do a workshop and I’m going to speaking at the E-learning Council Conference. So that will be a lot of fun, I haven’t been in Houston in a long time.

ELC: I look forward to continuing our conversation at ELS! 

Experience a world of new learning opportunities at Anders' session, "The Five Superpowers of Disruptive Learning and Communications" at E-Learning Symposium 2011 Houston.  


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