On a busy traffic circle in downtown London, accidents were reduced by 44 percent recently after the city removed all signs, guardrails, and road lines. The move forced drivers and pedestrians alike to carefully decipher each other's intentions instead of brazenly claiming right-of-way.

A Harvard University law professor encourages incoming students to become proficient at poker before entering his class. He claims that nothing beats a few hands of "Texas Hold 'Em" for instilling the concepts of risk management, strategic analysis, and other valuable life lessons.

Learning opportunities are everywhere, it seems. All it takes is a little imagination to connect the dots. Indeed, these scenarios serve as reminders that in today's era of instant computer access to training, some of the best avenues for creating learning and modifying behavior can still be decidedly low tech.

We at T+D are frequently asked for our perspectives on the most innovative learning methods. That discussion often turns to the latest multimedia wizardry, such as game-based learning, simulation, and virtual reality.

Unquestionably, such advances have produced invaluable achievements, including just-in-time training and advanced degrees to individuals around the globe. Yet valuable skills and knowledge also are obtained from seemingly mundane sources, as well as blended combinations of high and low technology.

Our answer to the question is that there isn't a definitive list of the most innovative training methods. But we certainly do encounter our share of terrific training ideas, both new and old. So herewith, in no particular order, are five of the best we've seen lately.

Laughing and learning

It's hard not to admire fast thinking comedians who respond to unpredictable situations with creative - and invariably funny retorts. How do they do that? For starters, so-called improv comics tap the resources of their entire brain instead of just residing in the left brain universe inhabited by many business people.

Chicago's renowned improvisational theater company, The Second City, is so good at this technique that it maintains a separate business unit to provide its improv-based learning methods to people of all ages. Business is booming, and why not? The same skills acquired by its actors to work without scripts and create harmony on stage are enormously valuable in business.

The company says it trains some 14,000 students each year through its centers in the United States and Canada, not counting the 300-plus corporate engagements. A variety of custom workshops helps corporate clients draw the best from their employees, reports Sarah Finch, director of learning for Second City Communications (SCC), the organization's learning and corporate services arm.

"We help businesses create more engaging ways to present information, and break out of the PowerPoint mold," says Finch. "We find ways to insert playfulness and create strong transitions in creative ways." Emphasizing factual information in creative ways encourages greater retention, she says.

Finch adds that improv-based training also helps businesses enhance the way people adapt to changing environments, process information, work in teams, and collaborate across functional and geographic boundaries.

"It enables individuals to recognize whether they're helping or hindering a situation with their attitude, and staying alert for new opportunities," Finch says.

The methods address an ever-evolving range of client situations and needs. For example, a national relief organization recently rolled out a new strategic plan for members at its annual conference. To underscore the message, SCC held workshops featuring its Human Board Game, which uses improvisation to literally move people around in groups to make learning collaborative, engaging, and fun. The customized exercise drew plaudits from the organization and its participants, says Finch.

She says such improv games are especially helpful in training work cultures to improve their response to issues "in the moment," such as coaxing sales organizations to become more nimble. Other popular methods include project-based team presentation coaching, improv-based simulations, and brainstorming sessions that apply improv skills to generate ideas.

'Hit me' with knowledge

"Poker is a great game for learning how to size up things for yourself, get into risk management, and channel aggression," says Charles R. Nesson, a Harvard law professor. "A student who can hold his own at a poker table, I have no worries about when they enter the real world," he says.

When it comes to instilling that message in others, Nesson is no penny ante player. He has formed the Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society (GPSTS) with some of his students to promote the game as a learning tool.

Poker skills could make a real difference for high school kids struggling with math, he figures. "Algebra's a killer. It's at this age when I believe poker has the capacity to draw them into numeracy, probability, risk assessment, and seeing that things have subtlety," Nesson recently told National Public Radio.

Nesson says his favorite game is Texas Hold 'Em, in which players fashion poker hands out of shared "community cards" along with separate "hole cards." Although the game can be learned in a single session, perfecting the broader skills inherent in its layers of complexity is another matter.

The utility of those skills can be surprising. For example, mastering Nesson's course on evidence is an important step for budding attorneys learning to establish truth in a courtroom. He says a key to persuasion in court is convincing people that one understands the problem from their point of view, which is a fundamental skill acquired during poker playing.

Nesson's GPSTS seeks to create an open online curriculum centered on poker that will draw bright minds together. Chapters have been formed within Harvard and several other Ivy League schools to hold tournaments without financial stakes and promote the game's educational aspects. Also on the agenda is educational outreach. GPSTS hopes to legitimize online poker in the eyes of the U.S. government, which has enacted trade restrictions against European gaming operators.

No, you first

Wouldn't it be nice to see a spirit of collaboration on the roadways? How can we teach people to be more considerate? One answer: Try removing every traffic light and sign, and let chaos rule. It's a wild idea whose time has come in a smattering of cities and communities in Western Europe, including London.

Because no one ever has right of way, accidents dropped 44 percent as drivers and pedestrians suddenly began relying on eye contact with others rather than signs.

Similarly, motorists in a growing number of communities in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, and Denmark are participating in a project implemented by the European Union to boost socially responsible behavior on roadways. Selected streets are unencumbered by any signs telling traffic to stop, yield, or merge. Even curbs and lines have been removed.

To capture the growing audience of learning professionals who are seeking new methods to interact with a larger, more dispersed population, ASTD is creating an island on Second Life. The platform has caught on with users who are drawn to its 3D visual effects and lifelike interaction features.


The island will be a completely branded ASTD experience. Initially, the ASTD island will be exclusive to members with possible expansion in the future. It will be officially launched at the ASTD TechKnowledge 2008 conference in February, but members already active in Second Life can participate in an initial testing phase.

"Second Life is one of many forms of 3D virtual communication that can improve learning exchanges between people who would otherwise be separated by geography, personality, or work," says Tony Bingham, president and CEO of ASTD. "ASTD believes that 3D communications tools offer the potential for a richer learning experience than 2D tools, such as email, instant messaging, and blogs."

The virtual worlds offer a new platform with unlimited potential to link people within organizations that most users are only beginning to understand. Just as radio, television, and the Internet transformed communication, 3D virtual platforms are the latest innovation that will transform all fields, especially the learning profession.

"It's so much more than a virtual classroom," says Anthony Allen, director of digital media for ASTD. "Second Life is not just a 3D version of real life or a 2D activity. The best thing about it is the ability to role play. If you have a sales force of 20,000, you can reach out to all of those people. Everybody can practice their pitch." Allen says that in contrast with other high-resolution games, Second Life offers users the ability to express a wide range of emotions, such as laughing, shrugging, or running away.

To counter concerns about the program's speed and complexity in navigating the site, Allen advises visitors to enter Second Life with hardware that is suitable for high-resolution games that kids play and not on an old laptop.

"Many users have gone there, tried it once, and left," Allen says, acknowledging the difficulty users have with the platform. "We want to flatten the learning curve. We'll make the process as seamless as possible so users will always know the next task. We want people to understand it and not get frustrated."

Called "naked roads," they are the brainchild of Hans Monderman, a traffic engineer in the Netherlands. He devised a psychology-based approach to road safety in specific locations where limited space was shared by a range of road users.

Monderman reasoned that unlike high-speed highways that demand simple cognitive skills of drivers, busy roads with shared usage are a different story. "When faced with a safety problem, most engineers tend to install something additional," says Monderman. "My instinct is always to take something away."

The result is a dramatic increase in harmony on the roadway, such as in the 17th century village of Drachten in the Netherlands, where an unmarked roundabout serves as a busy intersection for some 20,000 cars, buses, and trucks each day.

Says Monderman: "Pedestrians and cyclists used to avoid this place, but now, the cars look out for the cyclists, the cyclists look out for the pedestrians, and everyone looks out for each other."

Point-of-need learning

It's an oft-heard question from workforce trainers: What happens after the workshop? How can learning become embedded and accessible on the job? Increasingly, technology is seen as the answer, especially when the need to collaborate arises. Today's array of high-tech collaboration tools include video and web conferencing, instant messaging, and file-sharing software, as well as social networking applications such as wikis, forums, virtual team rooms, and blogs.

All of which prompts another question: Are we using technology or is it using us?

"In the rush to adopt the latest platform, interfaces, and operating systems, many companies overlook an important distinction," says Michael Papanek, general manager of training and consulting firm Interaction Associates. "Technology doesn't collaborate. People do." He says some new technologies exaggerate the failures of not working together effectively.

San Francisco-based Interaction Associates addresses this dilemma with a new blended learning platform that enables skills-related collaboration across an enterprise.

Called Total Access, it pairs in-person workshop learning with practical tools and technologies available at the point of need using a Web 2.0 fully interactive community.

Total Access is not a learning management system. It includes a library of learning content delivered on a web-based platform to provide employee support whenever it's needed. Flexible and responsive content includes more than 400 editable learning objects, as well as training or demonstration videos and downloadable job and learning aids. It can be customized with a client's own collaboration related learning content.

Papanek calls Interaction Associates a "capability provider," not a classic learning content provider. That's not an exercise in semantics. Rather than merely providing customers with proprietary content "solutions," the company incorporates in-person consulting and other tools to help ensure that clients acquire the strategic change in performance they are seeking, he says. "We help them by providing that skill transfer capability."

"Eighty percent of learning happens on the job," claims Papanek. "People have tried to bring the real world into the workshop, but we need to bring workshops into the real world."

A virtual community blossoms

Just in time for Generation Y's entrance into the workforce, the virtual threedimensional digital universe has emerged as a bona fide educational tool. But games aren't just for kids anymore. Case in point: the meteoric rise of multi-user virtual environments such as Second Life, the 3D online community whose "residents" can work and play in myriad ways. Among them are educators seeking to interact with students and peers in academic and workplace settings.

Second Life provides a borderless medium for delivery of blended learning. Organizations can use Second Life as a "place of engagement" where employees can interact in formal and informal settings. Both public spaces and private "islands" can enable learners to meet with instructors and mentors, join role-playing exercises, access supplemental resources and engage in other forms of collaborative learning.

"The virtual environment offers unique opportunities not available in traditional classroom settings," claims Kathleen Fortney, senior instructional designer at Centrax Corporation.

She says the rich visual landscape, coupled with the ability to interact with others, provides a level of engagement that is unmatched by some blended solutions.

But Fortney says companies sometimes limit use of Second Life as a marketing tool because of security concerns, and she claims the learning curve can be initially daunting for individuals unfamiliar with gaming and virtual worlds.

A fast-growing contingent of Second Life educators held a recent workshop in Chicago to discuss best practices and help develop an "ecosystem" of blogs, wikis, and model projects. Reportedly, some 160-plus colleges and universities are active in Second Life. Their agenda includes identifying how learning in Second Life develops knowledge and skills, as well as designing assessment models and tools.