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Angry Bird's Implications for m-Learning


Hunter, Mary Scott

by Mary-Scott Hunter, vice president - client services

You probably already know that the current favorite rags-to-application-riches story is Angry Birds. Conceived during the swine-flu panic in 2008, the game developer Rovio Mobile created a simple game with an equally simple premise: pigs stole our eggs. We want revenge.

By 2010, it was the number one best selling app. In MIT Entrepreneurship Review (February 2011), they called Angry Birds "the largest mobile app success the world has seen so far."

Those who want their companies to invest in m-learning might read that and salivate.

After all, Angry Birds boasts the triple crown of user nirvana:  1) behaviorally-based, 2) simple, elegant interface, and 3) a game that takes six minutes to complete, manages to draw users back for eight, nine, ten hours. Those who create learning events cry out the same outraged chorus: why can't we create learning like that?


The problem with m-learning right now is that everyone wants Angry Bird success without paying attention to those three success factors outlined above. The secret to mobile learning success isn't much of a secret. Dr. Michael Allen discusses it in every book he writes. My team and I preach it at every project kick-off. If you want learners to value your training, first and foremost, it's got to be behaviorally-based. Your learning event must center around actions performed by users, not content.

Everyone reading this will nod at that sentence and it sure looks like agreement, but then Carol from Legal wants this text explained in detail, so suddenly that's included. Just a small compromise. Then, the Regulatory team doesn’t like the idea of putting learners at risk, so we'll just compromise a bit more and put in some reading pages here, here, and here. You must understand that successful m-learning will not tolerate content-heavy, reading-rich applications.

How many screens are learners required to read about physics and calculating angles for hurtling birds at the pig lair? None.

Simple, elegant interface

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you willing to create a simple interface that focuses on learners? (Everyone's nodding again.) Uh huh.
  • Are you willing to remove your own company logo to make sure the interface is simple? (Less nodding.)
  • Are you willing to whittle away content that is not absolutely essential to the next step? (Infrequent, hesitant nodding.)

What if your CEO says, "it's not intuitive; I couldn't figure out what to do next" but your learners had no problem. Would you risk arguing against the CEO's changes on behalf of the learners? (Crickets.)

The gaming industry gets who their customers are: the ones who pay for their product. We in the training world say the learning is for learners, but when push comes to shove, is it? We don't like their suggestions so we don't include them. Yet for widespread acceptance of a learning event, the usability testing with actual learners must drive decision-making.

 If the first success factor isn't heeded (behaviorally-based), then the second success factor (interface) cannot possibly succeed and you get an application that is designed to hold content. And beyond a smartphone's contact list, users are underwhelmed by the prospect of reading extensively in the palm of their hand.

Time to complete

As a gamer, I am willing to spend several hours a stretch in an immersive world that fascinates me (Skyrim or Flower). I return over and over for the richness, to see what nuances I might discover during each visit. I play mobile games as well, 15 minutes here, an hour on a plane there.  However, meaningful and memorable experiences are more likely to happen on a PC or console device.  While the technical limitations of delivering on mobile have quickly evaporated; on a handheld device, I’m still mainly passing time.

In contemplating m-learning's golden possibilities, some fixate on its many advantages without considering what could be lost.  Learners might not invest much affect in an m-learning experience. If you're developing higher-order skills that require learner richness or complexity, m-learning may not be the right option.

Some topics aren't good candidates for your "Angry Birds" m-learning.

Winged migration to m-learning

angry birds for pc

Let me be clear.  I love technology.  I love games.  And I’m really excited about m-learning. 

As a consultant, it's my job to steer clients toward their best solutions, and (following our bird analogy) help them avoid crashing into windows. In my next blog, I will explore some of the design principles that can help make this migration more successful.  I'll analyze more gaming trends and ponder what lessons learned we can apply.

In the meantime, remember that e-learning isn't dead. Even classroom training isn't dead. No, there's just another addition to the family of options, and it's new, fragile, barely hatched out of its egg.  We must take care against crushing m-learning with expectations that it is the miracle solution.

And we must especially protect it from those damn pigs.

Mary-Scott Hunter is studio executive for one Allen Interactions’ Minneapolis/St. Paul based studios and vice president of client services.  While not gaming, she is deeply committed to solving clients’ business challenges by helping design meaningful and memorable e-learning and m-learning experiences.


Hi Mary-Scott, great article. As an Angry Birds master, I've gone all the way through every level twice, I would like to add that this game also subtly teaches the principles of civil engineering. Players learn the real principles behind stress and strain, and also some tactical tips on the best place to hit for maximum impact. So addicted am I that I even have Angry Birds bandaids, LOL, thanks for your article.
Posted @ Wednesday, March 07, 2012 12:44 PM by Rainy Horvath
As a special education teacher and trainer for 17 years I have to object to this notion that behaviorally based engagement educates. Trains? Yes. Educates? Teaches? not so much. If all training and teaching were meant to do is get the correct REACTION or ACTION from a learner in response to an environmental cue or prompt, then this kind of learning activity is fine. But if you hope to build an edifice of constructed data that is able to receive additional modification over time and includes the learner's awareness and articulation of what he or she knows, how it can be applied, and what invention he or she can devise based upon the expertise built with it, then behavioral training is not enough.  
Is M-learning going to be strictly applied to behavioral TRAINING scenarios? I spent my first career devising behavioral training and applying with hundreds of students whose lives would be permanently worse without it. I'm not against it.  
But ask yourself, how many people working in their jobs would really appreciate something along the lines of Angry Birds trying to teach them how to do their work better? And how many people DON'T play Angry Birds, or any M-games at all? Gamers are a self-selecting crowd. To extrapolate their trends onto other populations is an error.  
Training behavioral responses to stimuli is only the beginning of learning for people with typical cognition. I'm not quick to sequester mobile learning in this one acre of online instruction.
Posted @ Wednesday, March 07, 2012 1:50 PM by Tahiya Marome
Couldn't agree more this this post. I've seen 2 major issue with many attempts at mLearning:  
1) The biggest battle I've seen has been people always want to put so much content including the kitchen sink. This is a terrible learning experience for learners. 
2) People think they can convert their current Captivate simulation or 1024x768 eLearning course and just have it play back on their mobile. By the time you convert it to fit on a mobile, you have to squint to make out anything. What a tragedy. 
I think mLearning really lends itself to performance support tool, especially video.
Posted @ Wednesday, March 07, 2012 1:58 PM by Lee Graham
Another enjoyable post. M-learnign is another option, it can be used for better or for worse.
Posted @ Wednesday, March 07, 2012 2:23 PM by Daniel Albarran
Rainy -- I share your war wounds. I think I have angry bird calluses on my finger tips. 
Tahiya -- I completely agree with you that training behavioral responses to a stimuli is not and should not be the end-goal of education. However, achieving even this modest goal in a training environment seems to elude most learning initiatives. This is the bar I’m trying to move with this posting -- or at least maintained amidst the enthusiastic rush to embrace mobile.
Posted @ Wednesday, March 07, 2012 2:51 PM by Mary-Scott
Times are a changing! Is m-learning the best and! We as developers/trainers need to understand our audience and see what mode works best for each situation. Things that work well in an educational arena may not in a corporate. We as developers/trainers need to be open to all forms of training with the understanding that there is not the perfect delivery method that will fit every scenario. 
I guess for me when I read articles like this I ask myself if I can use m-learning in my environment. If so, what other methods do I need to incorporate with it to make sure my learners have what they need. When you have generational gaps within your learners, understanding the best method of training for your learners to retain the information can produce the need for multiple types of delivery methods. Are you willing to produce multiple types? Are you restrained to a budget that will only allow one?  
Thanks for the article…it helps to get the creative thoughts flowing!  
Posted @ Thursday, March 08, 2012 7:17 AM by Leandra
I appreciate your eloquence, but I couldn't disagree with you more. 
"Gamers" are not a small subset of the population, anymore than TV/Movie watchers are. The average age of Angry Birds players is 37. The AVERAGE age is 37. Think about that. And many gaming sites are dedicated to women in the 30-60 age bracket who are a huge force in casual gaming. Not to mention the retired people who have flocked to casual games in the past 5 years. 
Human beings respond to moving images like movies or films and they respond to interactive, multimedia experiences like games. It may take another 20 years to get the same percentage of the population playing games as watching TV/Film...but then again it may only take another 5 years. The rate of adoption of gaming has been far, far faster than for TV and Film. Your comment makes me think you may greatly misunderstand who "gamers" are and how powerful it can be to harness games for learning or anything else. 
My short answer is that yes, people would like to learn about their jobs through something like an Angry Birds game. Very, very, very much. Almost infinitely more than they would like to learn about their jobs through a classroom or through a Captivate/PowerPoint eLearning class. Do you really think that if we put a well designed class about their jobs in front of them or a well designed game about their jobs in front of them that most would choose the class? If so, can we put some money on this? I don't doubt that some people would prefer the classroom, but that number is dwindling every day. 
Learning doesn't have to be painful or boring. In fact learning rarely is. Classes are often painful and boring. Sitting through lectures is often painful and boring. But when we actually learn something new (which rarely happens in classrooms or through lectures) we're usually pretty interested. Well-designed games are nothing more than interactive experiences that capture interest and reward good choices as people make decisions. Well designed interactive learning games, just add the additional element of meaningful context.  
Games are not limited to behavioral learning. They can be much more robust and complex than Angry Birds. However, I think there is a serious flaw underlying your thinking about learning: that people need to think about what they do. I'm all for critical thinking skills, don't get me wrong. But so much of what we do, even what seem like very complex things, are not governed by conscious neo-cortical thought. And in a many cases the more people think about a task the worse they do. 
There are several sections in the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell which refer to this phenomenon. So if we really want people to be better at their job, I question whether getting them to "think" about their job is the best approach. I think a far more effective path would be to get them to practice doing their job well. Once they can do it, they can do it again. But getting them to think something often doesn't translate to doing.  
Sometimes this is scoffed at as just being "vocational training", but in truth I think very few job tasks we do fall outside of this realm. 
Get people to practice doing their job and they will do their job better when they are performing it later. That is an ideal task for eLearning or mLearning and something that is very hard to do in a classroom or through a lecture or book.  
The biggest problem is what Mary-Scott Hunter addressed above. People aren't willing to get out of the damn way! They throw a bunch of useless crap in-between the good stuff. 
The #1 reason Angry Birds works is because it's fast. You get in, play, re-start the level, play again. 
When m-Learning is as well designed and as FAST as Angry birds we'll have m-Learning that many "learning experts" turn up their noses at...while billions of "gamers" play and learn to their heart's content.
Posted @ Thursday, March 08, 2012 11:17 AM by Django Zeaman
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