Mobile learning in an augmented world: Ingress and immersion

As part of our ongoing exploration of what L&D can learn from the linked worlds of virtual and augmented reality, mobile gaming and non-traditional storytelling, Sean Pearce goes wandering in the realm of Ingress and brings back insights for how we organise and incentivise social learning.

It’s a Thursday evening. It’s dark, it’s cold, it’s windy, and there’s a hint of rain. I’ve buttoned my new black coat to the chin, put on my trusty military surplus boots, and I’m listening to industrial music. My cold, gloveless hands (touchscreens don’t like leather gloves) are clutching my smartphone, and I’m cautiously walking along an unkempt grass verge, trying to get in range of a portal so I can hack it.

Because what else is a twenty-something meant to do on a Thursday evening?

I’m playing a game called Ingress, an Augmented Reality mobile game. The premise: aliens called Shapers have created dimensional portals across the world, and two factions of humans (the Enlightened and the Resistance) are fighting for control of them. To play the game, you have to travel to where a portal is located (they’re tied to local landmarks and businesses) in order to interact with it.

Right now, you’re probably thinking: ‘What the hell does this have to do with e-learning?’

The answer to that is everything. I’ve already written about m-learning, about how important it is to realise that one size does not fit all, that even aside from the technical issues surrounding use of Flash vs. HTML5, e-learning designed for desktop- or laptop-lifestyles will not necessarily be suitable for a mobile learner’s device. We have different expectations about functionality and content when it comes to mobile devices — this doesn’t mean that learning isn’t possible on a mobile device, just that it needs to be tailored to suit the medium at hand.

This isn’t a limitation: this is an opportunity for innovation. The mobile medium offers unique features and functions to be exploited and experimented with. The hint’s in the name: ‘mobile’. These are devices that can be used anywhere, whenever. There is huge potential in these devices for personal, just-in-time learning and performance support strategies, and, the best thing is: they’ve already been invented! They’re right here, in our hands, waiting for us to think of new ways to use them…

And Ingress is a fantastic example of how this can play out.

One of the most interesting aspects of the game play is the mobility it requires. You have to go to the different portal locations. The game even encourages you to walk there by deactivating features if it suspects you of using a vehicle (the friend who introduced me to it described it as an elaborate conspiracy to trick nerds into going outside!). It goes without saying that this, similar to Geocaching, is only possible with a mobile device, it simply can’t be done from a desktop. This is just a small example of the creative potential hiding in mobile technology, how it can be used to interact with our environment — and artificial digital environments — in novel ways.

One can easily imagine a piece of gamified e-learning that requires learners to download an app and travel around their area, perhaps collecting clues or points; maybe different pieces of content are only accessible at certain locations. But, of course, that’s just speculation.

But…that’s not what I’m here to talk about, really. This is about social learning.

The progressing plot of Ingress is shaped by player activity. Challenges are set, and depending on the outcome (i.e. whether the Enlightened or Resistance win), the narrative will progress in a different direction, reflecting the growing or waning influence of a faction over events in the game. What the company behind Ingress, Niantic, does is provide a platform for gamers to shape their own experience. They provide certain elements (characters in the story, events, artefacts), these aren’t rules, but prompts for the players to do with what they wish (ignoring the story and just playing for points is an option).

This requires players to interact, collaborate and organise spontaneously in order to beat the opposition. No one makes them do this, the motivation is no more mysterious a force than self-interest, expressed through membership of a loose community, that brings the different players together as a group, directed towards a particular goal.

This is exactly the same dynamic we find in effective social learning environments. The learners determine their own direction and methods of learning from the resources available, with oversight and validation provided by both the overarching organisation and the activity of the social learning community itself. By setting simple rewards (earning points which can, of course, mean prizes) to encourage sharing of new learning experiences, or working together to complete gamified learning resources, a community manager can create conditions where learners are incentivised and directed towards doing the hard work of learning under their own steam.

The challenge that then faces learning designers and community managers is setting up the initial conditions — the platform, the cultural norms and incentives — that allow for self-directed, organic learning. The direction that the learning community goes in has to be tied to the organisation’s values and, most importantly, learning and training needs. Community managers then facilitate and, if needs be, guide this community — but don’t dictate to them. The locus of responsibility is shared between the learners themselves and their agreed mission.

This isn’t for suitable for every learning need, and may not be suitable for every client, but the mechanisms and benefits are there already, waiting for L&D to exploit them.

Edit: A reader on the Ingress Reddit forum has written an excellent comment on how the game opens up players to new learning experiences:

‘Another point you might be interested in making in the article is that a lot of portals have detailed descriptions of the portal in question. Sometimes that can be the history of the statue or what’s inscribed on a historical monument, or sometimes it can just be a little funny note about the location.

But you could use the same premise, or even the same portal database, for learning about a new city’s history. Whenever I go out of town, portals are how I find new places of interest and I can usually learn about the city and its history in those locations. I’ve actually guided myself and a few friends around a few places in Dallas just using my scanner. None of us had ever been there and we got to see some places most visitors don’t think to go.’

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