A Case Study in Immersion: the Centre for Experiential Learning


The Centre for Experiential Learning (CEL) project was one of the most exciting projects I’ve collaborated on. The goal of the CEL was to teach business improvement skills in the South African mining context. The revolutionary aspect of the CEL was the way in which experiential, immersive learning practices were used. This was a project that was four years in the making and a brilliant team  took the project to fruition. While the idea was similar to many model factories, it was the first time that such a system had been used in the mining context in South Africa.

What were some of the principles used when we designed it?

Show not tell: The CEL is a truly experiential environment where participants are exposed to a typical mining scene with room for improvement and are then given the tools to optimize the scene. The scene is played out in real life,  with actual actors presenting the scenes. Participants work together and provide instructions for actors to optimize this process.

Use of narrative: having actors act out “scenes” lends itself to the use of stories throughout the experience. The narrative arc was made more compelling because we used stories real stories from the field. The use of real stories meant that the content is richer and mirrors participant’s real life experiences. I’m quite proud of the fact that we created true scenarios with more than one path.

Use of immersion:  We created a business improvement games using augmented reality. This was a multiplayer game with teams competing to finish the business improvement challenge in real life. This provided a solid learning experience.  In the days of social media, it’s quite easy to forget that groups of people provide a great deal of the positive aspects of real-life social experiences.

Mirror the implementation context: One of the biggest challenge with business improvement is not that practioners don’t understand the business improvement concepts, it’s that they find it very difficult to sell these concepts to their peers. Participants were not only expected to use these tools, they were expected to work in a group and instruct actors on how to use them.

Providing a low-tech option: I’ve written before that I think that low tech curricula can provide high educational value. The CEL team proved this by providing a paper-based experiential curriculum that could be used at mining operations. This curriculum used many of the principles discussed above.



Low-Tech Gamification Ideas

Gamification is a very useful tool for designing curricula for adult learners. It promotes concentration and engagement with the subject matter. Even though gamification is often associated with technological solutions, elements of gamification can be usefully applied in low tech environments.  Here are some things that I remember when I design curricula in low tech environments


Refresh your understanding of the  MDA Framework: This framework was not written for electronic games per se and so many of the principles (showing progression, promoting learner investment and using narrative) can be applied in low-tech settings

Draw inspiration from board and card games: When I’m faced with a low-tech educational context, I go back to low tech game solutions. Card games and board games have kept people stimulated for ages before we had mobile games. Drawing inspiration from card and board games can include using a literal paper and pen game such as bingo, drawing on board-game design elements in the course materials or demonstrating class progression in a board-game style fashion.

Draw on the strengths in the educational learning environment: You’ve already noted the fact that there isn’t the technology available to implement the kind of fun gamification elements you would like. But what are the strengths of your situation? IS there a strong local tradition of oral story-telling? Can you use this to get participants to add to the narrative content of the curriculum (without appropriating) Is there a safe space outside which you could incorporate into a curriculum?

Involve participants in  crafting their own learning experience: Use live role-plays. Add a timekeeper on tasks to stimulate pressure. Simple things such as sound simulation can be provided by participants themselves.

Don’t be afraid to use a simple solution: Sometimes showing progression involves the facilitator drawing a training plan on a chalk-board and checking modules off as you go. Sometimes and educational game is a piece of paper used in bingo. Game-like sounds can be provided by participants themselves.

Distance Learning

computer-1185626_1280Distance learning is cheaper than contact-based learning, has the potential to reach more students and can “slot” into working adult’s lives and so it is potentially part of the answer to our growing skills crisis.  In addition, it provides students with flexibility of subject choices which are not always offered in traditional learning structures Distance and online learning is currently under-utilized for adult skills development in South Africa.   Which strategies we use to improve a distance or online learning offering for adults in South Africa?

  • Improving the offering of UNISA: UNISA is the largest university in South Africa, but the learner experience at the institution is not always ideal. UNISA should scrap courses which are not useful, take advantage of modern e-learning methodologies and offer more short-term, skills based courses. A degree obtained through a distance learning institution may never be as through as a traditional degree, but there is far less prejudice around skills-based further education.
  • Use flipped classroom methodology to decrease the amount of class-room time to teach technical skills. Some things (like plumbing) require practical experience. Nevertheless, a flipped classroom technique can decrease the amount of (expensive) classroom time required.
  • Teach some skills online: Ensure that there is broad access to online skills development opportunities. Skills such as coding and web development are easy to learn online. Quantitative skills and language skills could both be taught online.

The popularity of forums such as Code Academy or the Open University in the United Kingdom show us that there is a scope for mass, web-based learning. We need to find a way to leverage these kinds of opportunities for South Africa.