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Zero-Budget E-Learning

As a foot soldier still recovering from the post-traumatic stress syndrome from a previous instructional revolution, I see our fearless e-learning leaders making the making errors in the latest revolution. We are rapidly losing of the hearts and minds of learners, trainers, designers, and whoever else we are trying to save. Our strategists are converging toward learning objects, meta tags, and comprehensive and costly platforms. My friends and I have been sneaking up with agile, brief, and cheap guerilla activities. In this process, we have stumbled across e-mail learning games as an effective and inexpensive strategy.

What Are Email Learning Games?

An email game is the poor person's gateway to online learning. In this format, the facilitator and players communicate with each other by sending electronic notes. All interactions are limited to low-technology text messages. We currently use 24 different email games associated with different types of learning. Most of these games incorporate several rounds of play spread over a number of days.

Limitations and Benefits

First the bad news. Here are some problems associated with email learning games:

•  They are not fast. To permit participation from people around the world, you have to schedule a few days for each round of play.

•  They don't have bells and whistles, sex and violence, or flash animation and sound effects. You have to depend on relevant content and engaging activities to motivate the learner.

•  They are not solitary interactions between the learner and the computer program. You may learn in bunny slippers in the privacy of your bedroom but you need other people from other places to play the game.

•  Your email game messages may get lost among the SPAM. Players may intentionally or accidentally delete your instructions.

•  Players keep dropping in and out of the games. You need built-in flexibility to permit intermittent play.

Now for the good news. Here are some advantages of email learning games.

•  You don't have to learn a new technique to participate in this interactive learning activity. You are familiar with the use of email and you already use it for several other purposes.

•  Email is ubiquitous. You can play the learning game from anywhere in the world. Thousands of players from more than 20 countries have participated in the learning games that my Australian partner Marie Jasinski and I have conducted.

•  Email is inexpensive. Most players have access to email at home and in the office; the marginal cost for playing an email games is zero.

•  To the designer, email is an enabling tool for improvisation. You don't need a production team to code HTML or program Java applets.

•  To the player, email is unobtrusive. The game comes to your in-basket. You don't have to log in, enter your password, and wait for files to download.

•  Within limits, you can schedule your participation to suit your preferred time.

•  Although we call them games (because we prefer plain English to some jargon like asynchronous collaborative conferencing systems ), there is nothing trivial or contrived about this format. Email games produce measurable performance-based learning outcomes.


Here’s another advantage of using email games: You can use them in a wide variety of contexts, ranging from a minor activity to a major course. Here's a composite example of how a series of email games were strung together to deliver a “complete” course.

The context

A multinational high-tech corporation, with offices in eight different countries, recently shifted to a team-based work mode. This change transformed traditional managers into team facilitators. Because of the geographic dispersion of manager-facilitators, the training director decided to use an online learning approach. We were authorized to conduct a pilot test of an email-game approach with a group of 17 participants in different locations.


We sent out an email note briefly explaining what we were planning to do: We emphasized our mutual goal of improving everyone's performance as a facilitator in face-to-face team meetings. We explained that our email-game approach required setting aside 30-45 minutes every day and responding to each round of the game within 48 hours. We pointed out that our approach will parallel on-the-job teamwork activities and encouraged all participants to keep a log of their workplace experiences. We also distributed a resource list identifying books, videotapes, and web sites that dealt with facilitation skills.

POLL AND PREDICT: Characteristics of Effective Facilitators

Our next email note introduced the first game called POLL AND PREDICT by asking participants to reflect on what makes an effective facilitator. Each participant was asked to send a list that contained as many characteristics of an effective facilitator as possible. We compiled a consolidated list, adding a few more items from a research literature on facilitation. The final list contained 20 items (such as confidence, empathic listening, expertise in process skills, flexibility, integrity, and inclusiveness ).

The second round of the game required participants to review this list of facilitator characteristics and complete two tasks:

•  Select the three most important characteristics of effective facilitators.

•  Predict which three items that would be selected by most participants.

Participants sent email notes with their personal choices and predictions. In return, we sent them the result of the poll with the 20 items arranged in order of popularity. We also identified the participant who made the most accurate prediction and declared him to be the winner of the Outstand Psychic Award .

The impact of POLL AND PREDICT was to expose participants to different characteristics of an effective facilitator and to have them think about these characteristics.

DEFINE: More Details of Effective Facilitator Characteristics

We began the next email learning game by identifying the highest-rated characteristic of an effective facilitator (which was confidence ). We asked participants to send an operational definition of this characteristic. In response, we received definitions such as these:

•  The facilitator's ability to be present in the moment, to go wherever the group needs to go, knowing that whatever the path or destination, the facilitator can support participants in the process and help them discover value along the way.

•  The belief that no matter what the group throws up, the facilitator has the ability to help them deal with it, to move on, and to progress towards their stated objective.

•  The facilitator's ability to know when to say "yes", "no", or "I don't know".

We collected these definitions and sent back a complete set to participants and asked them to select the top three items. We identified the definition that received the most choices and declared it to be the winning entry. We also conducted a content analysis of all definitions and listed the critical attributes of facilitator’s confidence .

We repeated the same process with each of the top five characteristics of effective facilitators. The outcome of DEFINE was a deeper understanding of the factors that contribute to effective facilitation.

DEPOLARIZER: Exploring the Dark Side

During the earlier DEFINE game, there were some inklings that the characteristics of effective facilitation had negative elements associated with them. We explored this possibility through the next game.

Once again, we began with the characteristic of facilitator’s confidence . In the first round of DEPOLARIZER, we assigned a negative role to half the participants and a positive role to the other half. We asked players whose last names began with the letters A through M to send us three or more reasons why facilitator’s confidence could negatively interfere with team performance. We asked the other half to send reasons why confidence could positively enhance team performance.

Here is a sample of the negative influence:

Team members feel that the facilitator is arrogant and begin questioning her judgment.

Here is a sample of the positive influence:

The facilitator's confidence may become so contagious that team members begin to feel empowered.

We collected all comments, arranged them with negative and positive comments alternating with each other, sent them back to participants, and invited them to reflect on them. We repeated the same process with each of the top five characteristics of effective facilitators. The outcome of DEPOLARIZER was the realization that different facilitator characteristics may produce different results in different situations.

101 TIPS: How To Be an Effective Facilitator

We began this email learning game by asking participants send practical guidelines for being an effective facilitator. We encouraged players to generate these tips on the basis of the earlier email games, personal experiences, what they heard from others, and what they read in books. We told participants to keep the tips brief (not more than 75 words) and to send us at least one tip and not more than five tips before the deadline. By sending in a new tip (different from the samples that we used), a participant earned 10 points. In addition, a panel of judges selected the top three tips at the end of each round. The best tip received a bonus score of 70 points, the second-best 30 points, and the third-best 10 points. At the end of each round, we sent emails with the latest collection of tips along with the names of the top three scorers.

Here are a couple of sample tips received during the play 101 TIPS:

•  SAY "I DON'T KNOW". From time to time feel confident enough to say, "I don't know." Tell the team that you will find out the necessary information. Don't forget to give the team a report during the next meeting.

•  DISTRIBUTED FACILITATION. You don't have to do the entire facilitation job all by yourself. Divide the facilitation task into component parts and assign different parts to different people. For example, you may say, "Diane, can you please make sure that everyone gets equal air time?" This strategy works all the better if Diane is guilty of taking more than her fair share of air time.

The outcome of 101 TIPS was a set of practical tips for effective facilitation. In the process of playing this game, participants also became aware of different facilitation styles and their own preferences.

SUPERLATIVES: Debriefing Facilitation Experiences

Sometime around this time, all participants had actual face-to-face experience in facilitating their teams. This email learning game was designed to compare and contrast facilitation experiences of different participants. The game began with a note asking participants to reflect on their experiences and to briefly describe an experience related to each of these five superlatives:

•  the most rewarding

•  the most challenging

•  the most depressing

•  the most humorous

•  the most confusing

The next email note asked participants to predict the nature of the most frequently mentioned experience for each of the five superlatives. Later, we gave participants a complete list of responses for each superlative and identified the most accurate predictions.

The outcome of SUPERLATIVES was increased awareness of how different facilitators react to different experiences.

CREATIVE SOLUTIONS: Dealing with Challenges

This email game began with a composite mini-case based on the responses to the most challenging, the most depressing, and the most confusing superlatives in the preceding game. Participants received this case through email along with an invitation for them to send their suggested solution. We organized the 17 responses into two sets of six and one set of five. These sets were sent to groups of participants in such a way no participant received a set that contained his or her suggested solution. Participants reviewed the five or six solutions and selected the best one (in terms of creativity and practical utility). We tabulate these choices and identified the top three solutions (one from each group). During the next round, we asked participants to select the best solution among these three.

The outcome of CREATIVE SOLUTIONS was increased ability to analyze facilitation problems and to generate effective solutions.

FOUR HEADS: Generating Practical Ideas

This email learning game provided additional opportunities for analyzing and solving facilitation problems. We began the first round by sending four different mini-cases to four randomly selected participants and asking each of them to come up with a suitable solution. During the second round, we sent each of the four solutions to two other randomly selected participants. One of the participants was instructed to write a critique of the solution focusing on its weaknesses. The other participant wrote a testimonial for the solution focusing on its strengths. During the third round, the original solution along with its critique and testimonial was sent to the fourth participant who improved the solution by removing or reducing its weaknesses and emphasizing and reinforcing its strengths.

The outcome of FOUR HEADS was increased fluency in recognizing and solving facilitation problems.

HALF LIFE: Discovering the Essence of Facilitation

This email game provided a closure to the course. During the first round of the game, we asked each player to write a comprehensive guideline for effective facilitation, incorporating the key insights they gained from the earlier games and their workplace experience, using exactly 32 words. We sent these guidelines to all participants, identifying the top three guidelines selected by an external panel of judges. During the next four rounds, we asked participants to successively shrink their guidelines to exactly 16, 8, 4, and 2 words--while preserving the essential message. During each round, the panel of judges select the top three guidelines. Also, after the final round, participants voted for the best guideline of any length.

The outcome of HALF LIFE was to focus on the essential ingredients of effective facilitation.

The Show Goes On

Although the HALF LIFE game brought the course to a temporary closure, we reminded participants that learning to be a better facilitator is a lifelong pursuit. We suggested that they continue playing 101 TIPS, CREATIVE SOLUTIONS, and FOUR HEADS as frequently as they wanted to.

The pilot group of 17 participants helped us to concurrently design, evaluate, and modify the course. In addition, they generated a lot of relevant content. While we incorporated these content elements in the ensuing implementation of the course with additional learners, we did so only after requiring each new group to respond to different questions on their own.