Getting Emotional About E-Learning

All of us have felt the sting of failure, and the resulting mix of emotions, while learning. While too much emotion can cause us to shut down, too little can mean that we are not being challenged. Most of what is published on the role of emotion in learning is intended to help teachers achieve an ideal balance of learning that is challenging but not too difficult to cause frustration. I want to suggest a different model for a special kind of e-learning—one where all emotion is useful, even if it seems to stop learning in its tracks.

Precedents have been established for using emotions, even negative emotions, to maximize learning and task performance. In boot camp, for example, military recruits are yelled at, physically harassed and deprived of sleep—an abuse that mimics war and prepares recruits for battle. In business schools, the case-study method puts students in the shoes of a specific person facing a specific problem, nearly always ending with a question such as: "What would you do?" This places students under the spotlight, as they would be on the job. In Fate is the Hunter (Modern Learning Press, 1994), Ernest Gann describes an airplane training flight during which his instructor thrust lit matches in his face. After Gann successfully landed the plane, he remembered the matches and his ability to master his panic, which proved beneficial later in his career when real airplane emergencies occurred.

Managing emotion may also be the most important interpersonal skill. For instance, when giving a performance review to an employee, the emotions involved need to be managed just as carefully as the data concerning the employee's performance, expectations and the like. The cognitive part of giving a review is easy to train, but giving a review to a real human being is hard to do well. In fact, handling emotions turns out to be the most crucial part of the meeting, for both the supervisor and the employee. Students will have to deal with their emotions in the real world, so it is best to let them experience emotionally realistic situations before putting real employees and employers at risk.

This is where emotional simulators come in. Since emotional people are the stimulus for students, simulators create expressive characters with difficult personalities on a computer. Consider these scenarios, all possible to create via an emotional simulator: an employee, upset at a review the manager-in-training delivers; a second lieutenant student unreceptive to a sergeant's attempt to teach him how to lead; a difficult customer, initially angry with the salesclerk trainee, but who might be grateful after some thoughtful assistance; even an airline passenger who will betray their nervousness about their forged passport only after some probing questions from a customs inspector trainee. Computers can simulate all these characters so students can learn how to handle them—before they really have to.

Currently, teaching ways to deal with emotional people consists of either watching a video or role-playing in the classroom. Both methods have problems. Videos have no interaction whatsoever. Classroom role-playing can work well if the students are able to act. But this is rarely the case, and students may not take the risk of stepping into their roles in an authentic and engrossing way. Also, neither method can be immediately measured for success.

The emotions that simulated characters awake in students, during individual sessions on a computer simulation, are an intrinsic part of the task being learned. That is, the emotions occur during training in the same way and intensity as they would occur in the real world. The student can either face these emotions while training, when the consequences of failure are nil, or face them for the first time in the real world, when the costs of failure are high. Intrinsic emotion is useful, even if it is "negative" as in the boot camp and other examples from Fate is the Hunter.

Few groups have yet produced emotional simulators. Unquestionably, they are hard (read: expensive) to create. USC's Information Science Institute and Institute for Creative Technologies have probably been the most active in U.S. academia. Their respective programs, "Carmen's Brilliant Ideas" and "Mission Readiness Exercise," are two good examples of emotional simulators. While a few companies are capable of creating these learning programs, so far only Extempo Systems and eDrama Learning have done so (full disclosure: I am the founder and CEO of eDrama Learning). Both companies have demos on their Web sites for anyone to try.

William Wiltschko is the CEO of eDrama Learning in Monterey, Calif.