Giving Thanks, and Highlights from DevLearn 2016


I recently passed the one year mark at my company (for my day job) so I’ve been reflecting a lot about the changes of the past year and how lucky I am. I’m a fan of the product I work on, and the people I work with are just awesome. It would take me too long to describe all the things they do and how amazing they are, but the short list is they’re dedicated, always on top of their stuff, always available when someone needs help, and, most importantly, they’re people you can hang out for two weeks straight and not get sick of (we did that this summer).

My new(ish) company in general cares a lot about investing in people, promoting diversity and inclusion, and letting its employees learn, grown, and find their own path and ways to make a difference in the world. Over this past year, I’ve gotten to learn about a whole new industry and product, create and manage my own projects, and do some amazing volunteer work. I got to meet STEM women from Africa, help assemble 3D-printed prosthetic hands for people impacted by war, and mentor middle-schoolers and help them learn about the wide variety of careers they can have when they grow up. I’ve also had the opportunity to do a lot of traveling: Petaluma, Anaheim, Montreal, and most recently, Las Vegas. These trips have been a mix of team bonding and attending conferences. Through them I’ve walked down the side of a 15-story building, done ropes courses, confronted my anxieties of standing in front of a crowd by singing with our team’s band, and learned so much from going to GDC, SIGGRAPH, and DevLearn.

DevLearn Keynotes

DevLearn is a conference about learning, and covers trends, technologies, lessons, and more about e-learning, for education, internal training, and external training. This year’s theme was creativity, and a lot of the things I learned at DevLearn I think can be applied to multiple industries, especially publishing. A lot of the focus was on storytelling, and how to get your message across in a meaningful, effective way.


The first keynote speaker of the conference was the magician Penn Jillette. He shared his story of how he became a magician, and how he and Teller perform magic for smart audiences, and truth is their brand. They don’t want to lie to people (make them actually believe they’re sawing a woman in half) but they do work hard to learn their limitations and what they’re able to do. For Penn, the words “talent” and “genius” are dangerous, because they reduce respect for the amount of work required.

Storytelling is an important aspect of what Penn & Teller do, and according to Penn, “There’s nothing more powerful than a person telling a story.” He also mentioned that we’re all storytellers. Here are some other memorable quotes from him:

  • “The depiction of violence in art is a celebration of life”
  • “One of the most important parts of storytelling is make the person get the idea themselves”
  • “All you want out of art and learning is to get a glimpse of the heart of another human being”

He ended his speech with a demonstration of fire eating, all while explaining to us exactly how it works and how much danger he was actually in. I’d seen Penn do this on TV before, but seeing the flame in person made it seem much more impressive.

Comics and sketching is becoming more important as a way to convey information, and so this year DevLearn produced sketch notes of many of the talks. You can see more of the takeaways from Penn’s talk here:


The second keynote at DevLearn was by Tony DeRose from Pixar.


Tony walked us through the animation pipeline at Pixar, which is similar to what you can learn at their free Khan Academy course, Pixar in a Box. Tony emphasized that lessons in a course should be authentic and tell a story, and that shorter videos are better and should be tied into the lesson and concept to keep people engaged. You can also iterate on courses, and topics can evolve.

Education should be more relevant, and should show kids how challenges work in the real world. That makes multidisciplinary and project based learning key. “There’s creative potential in just about any discipline,” Tony said.

Animation requires a lot of math and science, which is why it’s important to teach kids at school.

“Anytime you see anything rotate in a Pixar movie, trigonometry was involved,” Tony said.

Linear functions are also important, and in computer graphics, especially with simulation effects, what’s offscreen can affect what’s onscreen, which is why science is also important.

“Our job is to implement the vision of the director,” he said. “Physics is a starting point.”

To help foster creativity, Tony said Pixar has a culture of “yes and” to focus on what you like and make it better. Tony is also part of MakerEd, which gives kids the opportunity to learn and create anything.


The last keynote was by Karen McGrane, who talked about responsive and adaptive web design. According to Karen, responsive web design is fluid, and adaptive is fixed (kind of like reflowable and fixed format ebooks).Responsive design is good because it’s the simplest way to easily display content on different sized screens. Responsive and adaptive design can work together, so you can use responsive design with adaptive content to get information targeted to your device (phone type, OS, etc.).

DevLearn Concurrent Sessions

In addition to keynotes, DevLearn had breakout sessions that focused on specific topics. There were too many sessions to go to all of them, but I managed to go to sessions with gamification, instructional design, and video themes.


Gamification should be about reinforcing the learning. This can be done a few ways, through icons and points (from quiz scores, for example), as well as rewards via visual stimulation, such as bright, complementary colors in the modules.

Gamification can also be in the narrative. You can hook people in the beginning and inject positive emotion and let them know what’s in it for them. There’s also a thing called lucid reading, where you are so engrossed with reading something you don’t notice anything else. Interestingly, The Economist’s has some guidelines for writing articles that will evoke lucid reading in their style guide.

One of the biggest ways to gamify learning however, is via badges. Badges are a great way to motivate people, and also become engaging when people can observe their peers’ success (as seen by the number of people who participate in Wikipedia).

IBM recently implemented a badge program, and the people who worked on the program gave a great talk on the 10 steps they took to build the program. They use OpenBadges, because there’s a standard that defines a new way to recognize and verify learning outcomes. And they also use Acclaim to issue their badges.

IBM has 40 badge issuers, 575 badge templates, and they issued 180k badges this year. Here are the steps they followed:

  1. Start with why you want a badge program. Which of the following do you want to do?
    • Reduce customer service
    • Solidify the client base
    • Track skills at the nano level
    • Build a loyal skill base
    • Enhance expertise analytics
    • Promote skills eminence (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn)
    • Crowd-source critical skills
    • Membership and rewards
    • Acquire talent
    • Increase sales
    • Achieve career milestones
    • Accelerate shifts in expertise
  2. Obtain and maintain executive buy in, align with business strategy and objectives, and provide ongoing visibility to executives on successful badge program outcomes.
  3. Have an operational framework, and don’t just give badges to people who complete training programs.
    • Establish an advisory team
    • Program scope and objectives
    • Badge program governance and coordination
    • Badge-worthy assessment criteria
    • Infrastructure and integration needs
    • Support workflows
    • Landing page best practices
    • Stakeholder badging operations guide
    • Data privacy considerations and guidelines
    • Tools to capture metadata and issuer details
    • Badge visual design assistance
    • Badge visual application guidelines
    • Benefits-drive communication strategy
    • Industry awareness and outreach
    • Measure, evaluate, adjust
  4. Choose your badging platform wisely. You want portable badges, keywords, skills, and a way to show context around learning achievements. Also consider the following:
    • Purpose built, scalable platform
    • Valuable badge earner profile features
    • Secure
    • Robust admin capabilities
    • Intuitive template development tools
    • Detailed analytics and reporting
    • Simple and easy for all users
    • APIs for LMS integration
    • Mobile device ready
    • Cost effective
  5. Establish measures of success. Think about:
    • Engagement
    • Certifications
    • Product trials
    • Employability (verify job skills)
  6. Considerations in deciding to outsource:
    • Financial
    • Portability
    • Strategic
    • Collaboration
    • Agility
    • Security
  7. Create a thoughtful badge design, with a logo and standard colors for different badge types. Keep designs consistent.
  8. Badge what you have. This includes training completion, rewarding progression, engagement and contribution, performance driven programs, stand and deliver, award programs, academics and internships, and professional certification.
  9. Issue badges in a timely manner. The quicker you issue the badge, the better. Have a support workshop.Set clear expectations, issue badges in real-time when possible, use API capabilities to streamline issuing, and send reminders to drive badge acceptance. Also, don’t have too long of periods for retroactively issuing badges (90 days works).
  10. Look for opportunities to improve. Measure, evaluate, and adjust. Have surveys for badge earners and badge issuers, and work with a design partner if possible. Also, things to think about:
    • Educate, communicate, promote
    • Have a community with forums, answers, more information
    • Explain uniqueness, free/no risk, easy, why you should care, benefits
    • Keep execs and stakeholders up to date
    • Get data from the platform, and have custom reporting and monthly operations report
    • Set expectations and if you have a large program, have a community and resources, with documentation of badge emblem types, modifications, and an overall guide
    • How are cloud badges looking? Claim rate (overall claim rates of badges both accepted and claimed)? Note that tough to earn badges tend to have a higher claim rate, especially if there’s a lot of communication about it
    • Have landing pages to link to each badge and have all metadata and greater level of information

Some other things to think about for badges include:

  • Badge programs have three stake holders: badge issuer, badge earner (shareable skills currency to build brand), and badge consumer (can see on Linkedin, as a peer, colleague, or potential employer)
  • Badges can be for internal use as well (managers can use them for evaluation, for example)
  • What matters is what’s inside the badge, the metadata that explains it
  • Badges can expire, and you can make people renew them

Instructional Design and Learning

The tools for creating online courses keeps getting better and better. And what helps the most is xAPI/Tincan. You can collect xAPI statements to see how people learn, and basically everything they do in your course. One way to use the xAPI is to allow learners to fill out their personalized action plans. Then both the learners and their managers can access the action plan.

It’s hard to choose the Learning Management Platform (LMS) or Learning Record Store (LRS) to use, since there are so many options with so many capabilities. But one that looked promising is Moodle. Moodle is open source, and has a lot of flexibility. Moodle is often used for university classes, but is now moving into the corporate world. Lots of people use Moodle, so you can find documentation and tips everywhere (like WordPress).

With Moodle, you can do certification, gamification, GoTo webinars turned modules, CSS styling, analytics, xAPI use, create free or paid courses, and create internal and external courses. You can add video, lectures, and I believe interactive video (that you can make with YouTube and ThingLink). There is a one-time installation fee, and Moodle can integrate with many platforms, including Zendesk. There is also a fee of about $5 per active user over a six month period, so overall it’s pretty inexpensive. However, there can be “hidden” costs, if you want or need to hire someone to help you customize your site.

Even with Moodle, you will need a course authoring tool to create modules. Luckily there are free authoring tools. There are also a number of paid tools that look promising:

When it comes to learning, it takes three instances of learning for a point to stick. Chatbots are good at helping with that. With Chatbots, you’re also forced to design things for the size of a note card, and not a desktop screen. This keeps things more focused and precise, and untethered modern learners can use their phones to engage.

Chatbots can help with learning challenges, such as:

  • Engagement and stickiness
  • Frictionless LX
  • Retrieval and performance support
  • Learning on-demand
  • Being just in time

One person created a chatbot for DevLearn so we could text ourselves takeaways and be reminded of them a week later. He used Mobile Coach to create it, and it worked pretty well for me, though it was a little too persistent at first and kept texting me every two minutes.

Another chatbot option is Obie, which works in Slack. Obie can help with support tickets, as well as offer short lessons within the chat app.

When using chatbots, some metrics that are worth measuring include:

  • Active and engaged rates
  • Anything that triggers confusion
  • Average number of conversations per user
  • Retention
  • Conversation steps


Video is also an important part of storytelling and learning online. One session in particular stood out to me, where the speaker pointed out what people can learn from advertisements. Basically, there are two hooks to make a video memorable: video concept and drama.

A video concept is one line you give to your team for execution, and a good concept is about a learning purpose and only has one message per video. The concept is the idea or story on which you base your video, and it’s the creative transformation of the learning purpose into an executional idea. It’s brings learning points to life so they become memorable and change behavior.

So what makes a good video concept?

  • Focus on the one topic
  • Make you think about the topic in a new and more motivational way (heart and mind opening)
  • Be meaningful to participants, based on audience analysis
  • Be distinctive, unique from other executions so it’s memorable

So the main takeaways then, are this:

  • Make your work narrowly focused on the learning purpose and eliminate fluff
  • Strive to incorporate heart or mind opening moments
  • All training should be meaningful to participants
  • Be distinctive with purpose, and try to avoid overused themes

Next is the drama, which is the focus of the video. It’s the memorable action that happens in your video, and it captures, sustains, and rewards the audience’s attention while bringing the learning to life.

So what makes good video drama?

  • Learning purpose is dramatized
  • No drama overuse. If participants don’t remember the message or take away the learning point, the drama is not good
  • Message visualization. Each image and interaction is carefully designed to convey the needed message so that video/audio/text length can be reduced, the message sticks with learner, and the learner can understand faster

The main takeaways here are:

  • Ensure your drama (activities, photos, audio, stories) explain the learning point
  • Don’t use drama for drama’s sake
  • Push yourself to use visuals (images can replace words) to depict the content, and do this as much as possible
  • Have a heart or mind opening. Stimulate intellect and make people think of your topic in a new, motivational way. Also be meaningful to participants, based on your intended audience, and be distinctive and unique and memorable

All these things together make your message stick in people’s minds. Multisensorial experiences are good, and humor is good. You can make use of metaphors, and it’s good to have a twist. Just make sure the drama is on the learning point. Music can also help convey the message and create emotion and theme.

Animation is good too. If you create animation vignettes, it’s good to carry one constant element throughout for consistency, and to keep things simple. Some tools to help with animation include Go Animate and Tumult.

You can also create interactive video. Quora has a list of tools.


Another highlight of DevLearn was the DemoFest, where hundreds of people demoed projects they’ve been working on. A few of the highlights included:

  • Engaging with Museums Using beacon Badges and xAPI (Torrance Learning): Torrance uses beacons, then tunes them with iPads in a museum to get xAPI information, learn about what exhibits students visited, what they learned, and then teachers match up the information later with students (the museum doesn’t collect names). It’s all modular so Beacon, xAPI, and the curriculum can be changed and not hard coded.
  • Discover Nielsen: Onboarding Using a Microlearning App (Sealworks Interactive Studios): Allows you to write notes to refer back to, involves interactive learning, remembers where you left off, and links to other sites for more content.
  • DBQonline: Online Resources for Critical Thinking (Sealworks Interactive Studios): Involves critical thinking and working collaboratively.
  • Antitrust and Fair Competition Simulation (eLearning Brothers)
  • Using Viral Video to Help Launch New Software (Infinitude Creative Group)
  • Microcontent as Strategy (Summit Learning and Technology)

Giving Thanks

I’m really glad I got to attend DevLearn this year, and also thankful to have a job that challenges and excites me and helps me grow. I’m looking forward to another year of new experiences and growth. What are you thankful for this holiday season?


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