A Conversation with Bryan Austin of mLevel

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Bryan Austin, mLevel’s Vice President of Learning Innovation.  I’ve known Bryan for a while and he has always been passionate about games for learning and it was good to catch up with him. We discussed the evolution of the mLevel game-based learning platform and how it has helped a number of companies increase the effectiveness of learning in their organizations.

Bryan has had a distinguished career in corporate Learning & Development, including leadership roles with Skillsoft, Kaplan, AchieveGlobal and NETg.  He founded Game On! Learning in 2012, and subsequently joined mLevel last fall.  You can also check out a case study on how one of mLevel’s clients has leveraged the product for sales training right here.  

Now here are the highlights from our conversation.

Kapp: Can you please explain a little about what mLevel does and how it got started?

Austin: mLevel (short for “mastery level”) is both the name of our learning platform and our company.

First, the platform:  mLevel’s purpose is to measurably increase the engagement, effectiveness and retention of our client’s workforce learning programs, while reducing the time to create and deploy those programs – often by as much as 80%.  The mLevel platform has won numerous awards over the last few years, including Brandon Hall, DevLearn DemoFest, and Elearning! magazine’s Best of 2014 and Best of 2015.

As for the company, mLevel is a venture-backed company that is doubling in size each year.  Our client list includes 16 Fortune 100 companies and several dozen more Fortune 500 organizations.  The company has also won innovation awards for the way we’ve reinvented learning development.

Kapp: What problem are you solving with the mLevel platform?

Austin: Corporate learning functions are often stretched too thin by the business’ increasing demand for learning programs coupled with the increasing pace of change.  Combine this with static or reduced budgets and a workforce that increasingly demands high quality, highly engaging experiences – something’s got to give!

Either the learning program development backlog will increase (delaying the time to deployment), or the programs’ quality will have to be watered down to meet the required delivery date to the business.  Either way, the service level of the Learning and Development (L&D) function suffers, as does its perception by the business and employees.

mLevel allows the L&D function to significantly improve its service level by simultaneously deploying both online and mobile learning that is much more effective and efficient than traditional online learning.  Given mLevel’s easy-to-use authoring tool and supporting game templates, one of our clients deployed 28 sales training programs to their sales force in less than three months.  The staff assigned to that effort:  one person.  This single individual outperformed many Fortune 500 sales training staffs.

Kapp: What are the key elements of mLevel?

Austin: There are three, which we like to refer to as the “3 E’s” (Engagement, Ease-of-Use and Effectiveness):

  1. The Learner interface (native app or web-based player) — Engagement. This is where the learner logs in (via smartphone, tablet or laptop/desktop browser) to access their assigned learning. The learning (which we call “missions” versus “courses”) is composed of a series of highly interactive and engaging activities, many of which are learning games.  Our big differentiator is that we bring the experience that people come to expect from their personal lives (mobile, social, engaging, fun, efficient) to the workplace in an unprecedented way.
A sample of the mLevel suite of Learning Activities.

A sample of the mLevel suite of Learning Activities.

  1. Learning content development system (mLevel Studio) — Ease-of-Use. This is where the innovation and magic happens! mLevel provides numerous pre-developed learning activity and game templates that the learning designer can configure with the learning content and assessment questions upon which the mission is based – all without any game development or coding knowledge.  mLevel Studio allows the designer to quickly create a client-branded learning experience that typically includes knowledge bases (content and questions), video segments, games and assessments in just a few hours, which can then be assigned and deployed to users with a few simple clicks.
mLevel Studio

mLevel Studio

  1. Analytics and reporting system — Effectiveness. All learning activity is tracked by mLevel and accessible via a series of real-time dashboards that track program completion, learner engagement, knowledge acquisition, knowledge and skills gaps, and question performance. This data can be ported back to the client’s LMS for further review and reporting.

Kapp -- 3.1 -- mLevel analytics

Kapp: What makes mLevel unique?  What do you feel sets you apart as a learning solution?

Austin: In the segments of our industry devoted to online learning, mobile learning and gamification/game-based learning; mLevel provides a genuine enterprise-level SaaS solution that incorporates the global scale, data security and integration points required by some of the world’s largest corporations (including multiple data center locations in each region of the world for truly global companies).  Most other learning solutions in our category fall short in these areas.  mLevel also supports numerous languages.

The biggest point of differentiation, however, is the engagement and effectiveness of the learning.  End-users rave about the learning experience:  the level of interactivity, the games, the competition.  mLevel really works!  We have just as many success stories where mLevel has been integrated into classroom or virtual classroom programs as we do with purely online and mobile e-learning programs.  We’ve also worked with numerous clients to add mobile mLevel activities to intercompany conferences and meetings with great success.




Kapp: Some mobile or game-based learning solutions seem to focus on simple fact memorization.  Is that your focus as well?

Austin: We believe learners need to progress through the following stages of learning to measurably improve performance.

  1. Acquire and anchor the knowledge (repetition and recall of the knowledge).
  2. Cognitively assimilate the knowledge to be able to use it, rather than just recite it (process the knowledge).
  3. Apply the knowledge as part of their skill set to solve problems and produce positive results in the workforce (leveraging the knowledge via real-world, multi-path scenarios).




mLevel is the only learning solution that provides pre-developed customizable learning activities that are instructionally designed to address each of these three stages of learning.  That’s how we partner with our clients to increase the business results they achieve through their learning programs.  In other words, we go beyond simple fact memorization and into actual application of knowledge through real-world scenarios.

Kapp: What have been some of the results that you’ve seen?

Austin: From a learner engagement metric, our learner satisfaction scores are well over 95%.  As we continue to scale, this becomes very meaningful to us since mLevel is now delivering well over 150,000 learning activities per month.  Not to mention, that we’ve surpassed 1,500,000 gameplays in our system.  The most important results, though, are the business results.

One of our global education companies drastically reduced their exposure to fines from the federal government after using mLevel to provide training. This organization documented a 55% reduction in compliance infractions during the application and onboarding process by school administrators.

A large consulting organization, struggling to engage and train global employees on their Ethics & Conduct training, was able to get 60% of their global audience to participate in a non-mandatory program causing an immediate improvement in their culture and working relationship across continents.

A global telecommunications firm attempted to train outsourced call centers on a new offering, but turned to mLevel after experiencing high call times and low first-time call resolution.  Through the use of mLevel they were able to reduce call times by over 5% and increase first-time call resolution by 6.9%.  As an added bonus to the program, they also increased upsells by 7.9%, demonstrating the value of game-based learning to this global outsourced audience.

By leveraging mLevel, one client was able to reduce a key onboarding program from 14 weeks to 10 weeks, while another client reported a 35% increase in sales revenue by those who completed a new mLevel-deployed sales curriculum.

Kapp: What is mLevel’s position on game-based learning versus gamification?

Austin: The body of research is now very conclusive.  Both gamification and game-based learning, when correctly designed into learning programs, can improve learner engagement and effectiveness as well as the overall retention of that learning.

That said, we’ve found that the “novelty” of gamified learning can wear off when organizations simply add badges and leaderboards to every traditionally-designed learning program.  This can present a challenge over time, and mLevel believes that game-based learning (versus only gamification) is a preferable long-term strategy.  Using highly-interactive and challenging learning games/activities increases our clients’ ability to deliver engaging lessons that optimize learning.  mLevel provides both learning games and other non-game activities, but all are designed around specific learning strategies to make the training memorable.

Simply put, our research proves that the combination of gamification and game-based learning provides the highest level of engagement and effectiveness.  Merely “gamifying” existing learning will have a limited long-term effect.  mLevel enables organizations to “reinvent” their learning strategies through the use of games and other activities, all while integrating specific gamification components to maximize effectiveness.

Kapp: What research does mLevel base its learning strategies/capabilities on?

Austin: After researching game-based learning, gamification, and mobile learning; we’ve really focused on the A.G.E.S. model that’s evolved over the last 10 years.  A.G.E.S. stems from the neuro-science field and stands for Attention, Generation, Emotion and Spacing.

We believe employing the A.G.E.S. model is essential for ALL learning programs to maximize effectiveness and retention.  If your readers are interested in learning more about A.G.E.S., we recently published a free white paper on this research, which includes how we’ve designed the model into mLevel (http://info.mlevel.com/brainscience).  I’ll also be hosting a webinar on A.G.E.S. in conjunction with Elearning! magazine on January 28th (registration for the webinar is available at  https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/85950294068593666).

Kapp: Are games just a fad or are they here to stay?

Austin: The research is indisputable: learning games DO work for improving learner engagement, learning effectiveness, and knowledge retention.  We know this because we also have the privilege of working with universities through our relationship with Pearson.  As you can see by the quote below, learners, and those responsible for their education, clearly see the value in game-based learning and mLevel.

“As students enter the classroom, it is important to introduce material that they can relate to.  They are eager to engage using their mobile device and that’s what makes the use of technology such a great asset for my course.  Using interactive gamification technology motivated my students to come to class and challenged their participation with each other, which was great.”

Caroline G. Yarbrough, assistant professor, Business & Technology Division, Delgado Community College

The main challenge is that some business leaders might question the efficacy of games in learning programs.  We often use a tongue-in-cheek dialog to illustrate this:

“Games?? You want to train my people using games?  That’s ridiculous!  Our employees are not in training to have fun!  They are in training so they can learn to do their job better!  Not to play games!  No games during training!”

In short, sometimes the word “game” can be a red-flag when used in a training context.  The key is not what the learning activity is called, but how effective it is.  That’s why we typically work with each new client to structure an initial evaluation of mLevel versus their current online or mobile learning strategies.  By comparing learner reaction and engagement as well as learning effectiveness and retention, it’s almost always a hands-down win for mLevel.  And isn’t that why we’re all in the L&D profession:  to produce those positive results for our organization via the learning programs we deploy?

Kapp: What advice would you have for instructional design students who are just entering the field?

Austin: First of all, congratulations on choosing a field of study and a career path that will be extremely interesting, valuable and rewarding in the years and decades to come!

My advice:  be passionate about innovation, and advocate continual innovation in learning.  Organizational learning is evolving more rapidly today than at any time in my own career.  This evolution will only continue to accelerate in the future.  Be a part of driving new thinking and new ways of helping workforces learn more effectively and efficiently.

It’s rewarding to play a significant role in helping vast numbers of employees improve their performance, advance their careers, and impact the results of the organizations they are a part of!

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