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Ping Pong and the Art of Skills Training

Posted by Dave Coodin on Thu, Aug 25, 2016

Here at SwissVBS, we take pride in many things: our talented team of designers, writers, and programmers; our commitment to customer-driven learning; our obsessive attention to detail.

But if you were to ask our employees what accomplishment they’re most proud of, one answer would probably come up again and again: “My ping pong game.”That’s right. Walk into our offices at 10:30, noon, or 3:00 on the nose (set times negotiated with noise-sensitive neighbours), and you’ll invariably hear the familiar pitter-patter of the ping pong ball, punctuated by the occasional cheer.

When I started at SwissVBS a little more than a year ago, I was great at hitting the ball as hard as I could. I would watch my opponent rejoice as the ball would sail either straight into the net or, on a shot that I considered formidable, roughly a mile past the end of the table. On occasion, the ball would arc 15 feet into the air and land squarely in fair territory, where it would accrue sufficient bounce to allow my opponent to deposit it, by way of a well-placed ricochet, directly into my windpipe. It was a great way to make friends.

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As SwissVBS, we take our ping pong fun very seriously.

But in the months that followed, I developed some techniques that slowly improved my game: low shots that would just graze the top of the net, back-spinning serves that could only be lobbed defensively in return, and a backhand smash good enough to provoke some surprisingly unprofessional outbursts of emotion.

How did I go from free-swinging caveman to Federer-in-training someone who can at least hold his own at the ping pong table?

Easy: I practiced, over and over and over again. I played against increasingly skilled opponents, and repeated the same shots until they became second-nature. Then I moved on to more difficult shots and did the same thing.

For those of us who design eLearning courses, it’s an important lesson. Our medium is excellent for knowledge acquisition. We know how to make concepts interesting and interactive, how to help learners apply those concepts to realistic situations, and how to reinforce knowledge with post-learning opportunities.

But how do you design an eLearning experience that is supposed to teach skills such as selling or negotiating? When it comes to learning a skill, the theory behind it can only get you so far. To truly become a first-rate negotiator, for instance, you need deep and extended practice.

So, how can we incorporate meaningful practice into eLearning design?

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Role-playing scenarios, such as branching conversations, are one important way to help learners practice skills in a simulated environment.

For me, it’s through role-playing. Placing the learner in a situation where they have to use their skills allows for realistic practice. I always try to give these situations as much emotional resonance as possible. That means relatable characters and situations, as well as rich media not only to mimic a real-life experience, but to enhance it. I’ve designed branching conversations that allow the learner to inhabit a character’s persona, and to make decisions in a conversation that yield immediate consequences.

Speaking of consequences, part of sustained practice is offering both short- and long-term rewards. In ping pong, as soon as I perfect a new shot, I get the immediate reward of a point. But if I make enough good shots, I also get the long-term reward of winning the game. It should be the same in a role-playing conversation. There’s the immediate goal of mastering one particular skill - if you don’t get it right away, you practice until you succeed. Then, there’s the longer-term reward of putting those skills together to complete the conversation successfully and “win the game," as it were.

Finally, there needs to be variation. If I were to practice my forehand day in and day out, I could master it. I would also hate playing ping pong. In eLearning, learners need  practice, but they also can’t become bored. That means changing the kinds of practice that they undergo. If someone repeats a skill a few times and still hasn’t learned it, there’s no point in forcing them to keep doing the same thing. Instead, I try to structure the experience so that learners will encounter the same skill a few different times, but through different kinds of challenges.

To recap, skills training involves three elements:

  1. Realistic role-playing with emotional resonance
  2. Short- and long-term rewards
  3. Variation in the challenges that learners face.

Try to incorporate all of these elements when you’re designing a course for skills practice. And don’t forget to take breaks for ping pong whenever you can.

Some examples of how we teach skills

 

Topics: SwissVBS, Story-Telling, Storytelling, Learning Journey, Online Coaching, Skills

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