CMI5: A Call to Action

Introduction

Since 2000 a lot has changed. Think airport security, smart phones, digital television, and social media. In 2000, the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Initiative gathered a set of eLearning specifications and organized them under the name of SCORM. In 2021, in a time of tremendous technological change, SCORM still remains the standard for how we describe, package, and report on eLearning.

However, finally, we are on the eve of adopting something new and something better: CMI5.

We no longer have landlines, but we still have SCORM

CMI5 Examples

To many, CMI5 is another meaningless acronym. To understand the power and benefit of CMI5, consider these very simple examples:


A Learning and Development specialist creates a learning activity that offers managers several samples of readings and videos from leadership experts. The activity allows the managers the freedom to pick and choose what they read or view; however, the specialist wants to know what they choose to read or watch as well as how they fare on a culminating assessment.

CMI5 enables the activity to capture both the learner experience (for example, the learner read an excerpt from Brené Brown’s Daring to Lead ) and the test score. CMI5 can generate a statement on virtually any kind of learner experience as well as the traditional data elements such as score, time on task, quiz questions and student answers. In this sense, CMI5 supports both openness and structure.

Let’s consider another example:

An instructor authors a learning activity that virtually guides students to places in Canada to observe the effects of climate change. She wants students to answer questions, post reflections and observe the effects of climate change on glaciers, Arctic ice, sea levels and permafrost. She sets a passing threshold for each activity. Once students have completed all of the units, then the learning management system registers that the course was mastered.

Let’s go further:

The instructor wants the learning activity to reside in a learning object repository or website outside of the learning management system – but still report to the learning management system. In fact, she wishes that no content reside on the learning management system. Regardless of where the content resides, she wants to know what sites students visited, how they scored on short quizzes, and how students reacted to the severe impact of climate change on Canada.

For students with disabilities, the instructor makes an accommodation and requests that the LMS administrator adjust the mastery score without editing the activity.

As the course becomes more and more popular, she anticipates placing the website and its activity onto CloudFlare or some content distribution network so that students all around the world can gain faster access to the learning activities.

The instructor works as adjunct for multiple universities and wants each of their learning management systems to get the content from a single location. In some cases, she wants the content locked for anyone who circumvents the Learning Management System and in other cases she openly lists the unlocked content with OER libraries like Merlot and OER Commons.


Before CMI5 much of this was difficult to achieve, if not impossible. So, let’s review what CMI5 offers us.


CMI5 captures scores in the traditional sense. But it also records data on learning experiences such as students virtually observing the change in the permafrost. CMI5 allows instructors and trainers to set the move-on criteria for each unit in a course (i.e. passing score before student moving on to the next unit).

CMI5 activities can reside anywhere – on one’s own website, for example, and still report to the learning management system. CMI5 enables an LMS administrator to change the mastery score from the LMS for the benefit of students who need accommodations and essentially trump what is set in the unit.

LodeStar’s CMI5 Implementation allows
authors to indicate where the content resides


CMI5 is a game changer. And yet for many – learning and development leaders, instructional designers, technologists and students – it doesn’t seem that way in 2021. CMI5 seems like a non-event. It feels like something we all talked about – a welcome change of weather on the horizon –and then nothing. Not a drop of rain.


We have been talking about and anticipating CMI5 for a long time – and yet, major learning management systems both in the corporate and academic worlds still don’t support it. CMI5 was envisioned in 2010, released to developers in 2015, and then released to the public in its first edition in 2016. We are now in the waning days of 2021—with limited adoption.


But that is likely to change.


For one, Rustici Software and ADL delivered on their promise of Catapult. Catapult is likely to accelerate adoption of CMI5. It provides many benefits to developers, including the ability to test if a CMI5 package conforms to the standard.

In my view, the learning technology architects have done their part. They brought us a meaningful set of specifications. They brought us the tools to test learning packages and to test the learning management system’s implementation of CMI5. Now’s it’s up to learning and development specialists and the instructional design community to cheer CMI5 on. It is my belief that once the community understands CMI5, spreads the word, and imposes its collective will on the LMS providers, CMI5 will become an important part of our tool bag. I urge you to share this article and others like it.


In the meantime, let’s take a deeper dive into CMI5’s potential.


Benefit One: Freedom to capture and report on any learner experience.


With CMI you can report on scores, completion status, and just about anything else. You can report on standard assessment results, and the not-so-standard learning experiences.


To understand this, we need to re-look at SCORM.


One should consider CMI5 as a replacement for SCORM – an improved specification. Conforming to SCORM was useful because a learning object or learning activity could be imported into just about any modern learning management system. As an instructor, if you created a game, quiz, presentation, simulation, whatever and exported it as a SCORM package, your activity could be imported into Moodle, BrightSpace, Canvas, Cornerstone, Blackboard, and any learning management system that supported SCORM. So, the benefit of SCORM was that it was a set of standards that most LMS systems understood. The standards that fell under the SCORM umbrella included metadata, a reporting data model, and standard methods for initializing an activity, reporting scores, reporting on interactions, and reporting passing or failing and completion status.

The data model included dozens of elements. One example of a data element is cmi.core.score.min. Related to score, SCORM conformant activities reported on the minimum score, the maximum score, the raw score (absolute number) and the scaled score ( a percentage between 0 and 1).


SCORM supported a lot of different data elements. A SCORM conformant activity could report on a variety of things. The limitation of SCORM, however, was that, despite the large number of elements, it was still a finite list. Take a Geolocation Storytelling activity as an example or an eBook reading. If I wanted to capture and report that the student virtually or physically visited location A, then B, and then C, I would have to work around the limitations of SCORM. I could not generate a statement such as, for example, ‘Student visited the Amphitheater in Arles’. If I wanted to capture a student’s progress through an eBook, SCORM would be problematic.


At this point, you might be protesting, but xAPI does that! xAPI? Another acronym! Yes. xAPI, or The Experience API is a new specification that makes it possible to report on a limitless range of things that a learner has experienced: such as, completed a chapter of an eBook; watched a video; toured a museum, and on and on. So, if we have this thing called xAPI, why CMI5?


The benefit of xAPI is that it supports the reporting of anything. The downside to xAPI is that, by itself, it doesn’t have a vocabulary that the LMS understands such as launched, initialized, scored, passed, completed. That is what CMI5 offers. CMI5 is, in fact, an xAPI profile that includes a vocabulary that the LMS understands. In addition, CMI5 can report on any type of learner experience. Here is the definition of CMI5 from the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative:


cmi5 is a profile for using the xAPI specification with traditional learning management (LMS) systems

(Advanced Distributed Learning).


With CMI5, you can have your cake and eat it too. You can report on learner activity in a way that LMS understands and you can report on just about anything else that the Learning Management System stores in a Learner Record Store. The Learner Record Store or LRS is a database populated by statements about what the learner experienced.

xAPI Statements can capture an
any learner experience, including reading the instructions


Benefit Two: Freedom to put the learning activity anywhere


With CMI5, you can place a learning activity in a repository, in GitHub, on a web server, in a Site44 drop box site, in SharePoint, in a distributed network, wherever….without restricting its ability to connect with a learning management system. CMI5 content does not need to be imported. A CMI5 package can contain as little as one XML file, which among other things, tells the LMS where to find the content.


To appreciate this, we need to look back at SCORM once more (as if it were ancient history).


I’ll start with a pseudo technical explanation and then follow with why it matters.
The way SCORM works is that the learning activity sits in a window. The learning activity uses a simple looping algorithm to find the Learning Management System’s SCORM Adapter. It checks its parent window for a special object. If the window’s parent doesn’t contain the object, the activity looks to the parent’s parent, and so on. In other words, somewhere in that chain of parents, there must be that special object. Typically, the SCORM activity can only communicate to the learning management system if it is a child window of that system or if some server-side technology is used.

CMI5 works quite differently. CMI5 gives us freedom to leave our parents’ home. Whereas SCORM uses a Javascript Application Programmer Interface to communicate, CMI5 uses xAPI to reach across the internet and call a web service’s methods. Loosely, it’s like the difference between a landline and a cellular phone service. To use the landline you must be in the house; to use a cell phone, you must be in the network.

Benefit Three: A simplified sequencing model.

SCORM supported simple sequencing, which many say is not so simple. CMI5’s ‘move on’ property, in contrast, is very easy. A CMI course can contain one or more Assignable Units (AUs). The instructor spells out what the learner must achieve in an assignable unit before being able to move on. The move on property has one of the following values:


• Passed
• Completed
• Completed Or Passed
• Completed And Passed
• Not Applicable


Once the student has ‘moved on’ through all of the assignable units, the LMS notes that the course has been satisfied by that student.


Benefit Four: An assignable unit passing score can be overridden


In SCORM, the mastery score is hard-coded in the activity. In a SCORM activity, the instructor can base completion status on a passing score. But what if that hard-coded score were inappropriate for a group of students, for whatever reason? The specification enables an LMS to pass the mastery score to the Assignable Unit upon launch. So the LMS launches the AU, and sends it student name and mastery score (among other things). By specification, the AU cannot ignore the mastery score but must use it to trump what is hard-coded in the unit or refuse to run.


Benefit Five: Theoretically, CMI5 isn’t hamstrung by pop-up blockers.

When an LMS launches a SCORM activity, it either embeds the activity in an Iframe or launches a window. Both scenarios are problematic. The content may not be well suited for an iFrame and a pop-up blocker can obstruct the launched window.


Theoretically, CMI5 AU can replace the LMS with its own content. It’s not in an embedded iFrame and it’s not a pop-up window. When the LMS launches the AU, along with student name and mastery score, the LMS sends the AU a return URL. When ended, the AU returns the student to that return URL, which is the address of the LMS.


I write “theoretical” because the LMS should not but may ignore this requirement.

Benefit Six: CMI5 activities securely communicate to the Learner Record Store


As I wrote, the activity can send information about learner experiences clear across the internet to the learner record store. But how does the AU have the authorization to do this from, let’s say, a web site? And how does it happen securely?


This is the marvel of 2021 technology versus 2000 technology. Before 2000, we had difficult-to-use protocols for passing information securely across the internet. Oftentimes, special rules needed to be added to internet routers. Then along came a simpler protocol that the first version of CMI5 used (SOAP). Then came an even better way (OAUTH and REST). After launch, the LMS hands the AU a security token (kind of like a key that dissolves in time). The AU uses that key to gain access and to post information to the Learner Record Store.

Conclusion

CMI5 returns power to the instructor and to the L&D specialist. CMI5 allows one to choose where the content resides and to choose what the content reports. CMI5 captures learner experiences more completely and yet it communicates with Learning Management Systems with a vocabulary that LMSs understand. CMI5 supports accommodations for a special group of students without needing to change the code of the Assignable Unit. Finally, CMI5 uses current technology to send data over the internet.

The implications of this emerging specification are tremendous. It is better suited to mobile learning and it is better suited to the learner experience platforms that are emerging (e.g. LinkedIn Learning’s Learning Hub). Soon instructors may be able to organize content from a variety of providers (like LinkedIn Learning, Khan Academy, or OER Commons) but retain the learning management system as an organizer of content, data collector, and credentialing agent. Now instructors, average instructors, may be able participate in that content market from their own GitHub repositories and web sites.

But many LMSs have yet to adopt CMI5. The architects have done their part. Now it’s on us to understand this technology and advocate for it. Start by sharing this article. Thank you.

Appendix A — How it Works (A simplified flow)

For those interested in a deeper dive, let’s walk through the CMI5 process flow step-by-step. (See diagram)

To begin, the author (instructor, L&D specialist) exports content as a CMI5 package. The package can be a simple file that instructs the LMS where to find the content or it can include the content itself.

(1) When a student needs the content, the Learning Management System (LMS) launches the content and sends the Assignable Unit (a course can contain one or more Assignable Units) (2) information that includes student name, a fetch URL and the activity ID.

(3) The Assignable Unit (AU) uses the fetch URL to retrieve a security token. The security token enables the AU to communicate securely to the Learner Record Store (LRS).

(4) As the student interacts with the content, the AU can optionally send Experience API (xAPI) statements to the LRS . (5) At some point, the AU reports that the student passed and/or completed the unit.

(6) The LMS uses the ‘move-on’ information to determine whether or not the student can move on to the next assignable unit. The move-on options are passed, completed, passed and completed, passed or completed, or not applicable.

Finally, when all of the assignable units within a course are completed, the course is marked as satisfied for the specific learner.

A simplified process flow that starts with the
launch of the CMI5 Assignable Unit by the LMS

Geolocation Storytelling Revisited

We’ve observed an uptick in interest in Geolocation Storytelling. We’ll revisit the subject for those who know little about this medium as well as those who either want to design a project on paper (i.e. Word) or who want to go all the way and use the LodeStar Authoring tool to complete a working project.

To reach all audiences at some level, this article starts from the general and ends with the specific. Hop on and off at any point.

Introduction

Every place hides its own unique, rich story. Have you visited an unfamiliar town or area and wondered about its history,  geography, and points of interest? Have you ever wanted to connect to a place on a level deeper than a quick drive-by?

A new form of storytelling—geolocation storytelling—combines technology and traditional storytelling to connect visitors at a deeper level.  With the help of an app, the place where you’ve entered or visited on a map suddenly comes alive with narrative and imagery.  You may hear about the past or be guided to an unusual rock formation or the vantage point of a famous painter.   Geolocation stories can work on-site, guiding you from point to point or they can help you discover a place from the comfort of your home.  Geolocation stories can be both informative and entertaining.  They can involve the visitor in discovering why a place got put on the map, or solving a challenge, or even solving a murder mystery.  In short, geolocation stories can be about anything that piques the visitor’s interest about a place.

The Inspiration

Places inspire people to learn more about them.

A group of history buffs, known as Lensflare Stillwater, were inspired by the many untold stories of Stillwater, a Minnesota river town.  Stillwater was a lumber town with connections to Minnesota and Wisconsin pine lands by river and connections to Saint Paul by stage road and later by rail. 

Stillwater inspired a number of geolocation stories. The first stories were guided  tours of Stillwater’s historical downtown.   A subsequent story helped cyclists learn about the rich history from the vantage point of a bicycle trail.  Even later, another story recovered the lost memory of Stillwater’s streetcars.   

Thousands of miles from Stillwater, a geolocation project told the story of Vincent Van Gogh’s year in Arles, France, and what went horribly wrong for him.   Its authors first visited Arles to learn more about Van Gogh but were disappointed in the local tour booklets, which didn’t sufficiently tell the story. 

If your town or place has points of interest, a rich history, or geographical features, you will want to consider creating a geolocation story to help others see the place from a new point of view.  Visitors can walk to the specific places of interest and hear audio, see imagery, read text, scroll through time lines and learn more about this special place.

How it works

Typically the visitor launches a geolocation story (a web-based application) from a web address on a smartphone. The first page of the story provides instructions and a starting point. When the visitor reaches that point, she crosses an invisible geofence. Geofence is a just a metaphor. Actually, the visitor’s location is calculated from the signals of three or more satellites . Most modern smartphones are equipped with the hardware to detect these signals. Global positioning satellites constantly emit signals. The GPS receiver in the visitor’s phone listens for these signals. Once the receiver calculates its location from these satellites, it provides that information to the application. The logic of the application is constantly checking to see if the location matches a place of interest. If yes, then content in the form of audio, text and imagery is called up and presented.

Getting more specific: Best practices

If you already understand the power of the geolocation story and wish to get started, you’ll want to consider a few things.  These are not hard and fast guidelines.  As we gain more and more experience, we’ll learn about what works and what doesn’t.

  1. First, geolocation storytelling works best when the audience is on foot and out of doors.  Smartphones can’t receive satellite GPS signals from inside of buildings.  The technology works best outside with clear line-of-sight to the sky.
  2. Geolocation projects must be housed on a website that supports HTTPS.   Smartphones don’t reveal their locations to applications that run from websites that begin with http:// The web address must be https:// The ‘s’ means secure.  Information that is transported by HTTPS is encrypted in order to increase security of data transfer.  
  3. There is a limit to the distance that people will walk on a tour or the length of a tour in time.  Limit yourself to two miles completed within one hour.  Of course, this is a very loose rule of thumb.  Consider your audience when setting the limits.  Young adults will have no difficulty with 3 – 5 mile hikes.  Time and attention span, however, will remain a factor.  Senior citizens with mobility issues will find two miles too long.  The steepness of the terrain will be a factor. Use your discretion but keep it as short as possible.
  4. Some people’s interest may wane quickly.  A two mile tour should have at least a dozen points of interest.  Limit the distance and length of time between geolocation points.
  5. Present narrations in audio and text formats.  People like to hear a recorded narration but, without headphones, the narration could easily be drowned out by traffic or a rushing river. On the flipside, audio narration often works in situations (e.g. bright sun) where the screen is difficult to see. You’ll need to use your judgement.
  6. Consider the format of the tour.  Will you guide your audience from point to point or will you cluster points so that the audience will simply wander about and come upon points of interest? 
  7. Audio should be cleanly recorded.  The audience should not hear background noise or a muffled narration.
  8. Text must be spelled correctly, grammatically correct and short. 
  9. Favor more points of interest and shorter narration/text rather than fewer points of interest and narration that drones on.
  10. Have fun creating this story. You’ll learn a lot!

Get your Geolocations

Even if you’re starting with Word to capture your text, find the locations. You can use Google Maps.  This is a very accurate way of finding locations.  For example, if I wanted the location of the intersection of Myrtle and Water Streets in Stillwater, I would do the following:

  1. Go https://www.google.com/maps
  2. Search for Myrtle Street, Stillwater.
  3. Move the map to the location of interest.
  4. Click on the intersection.
  5. Either write down the location coordinates or click on them.  The coordinates will now appear in the address field at the top and can be copied and pasted into your Word document or directly onto a LodeStar page (see below).
Google Maps reveals latitude and longitude

About the Location Coordinates

In the example above the coordinates were 45.056745,-92.805510.  The first coordinate (45.056745) is the latitude.  The second coordinate is (-92.805510) is longitude.  Always use a coordinate with six digits of precision (six digits to the right of the decimal point).  The six digits will ensure an accuracy within a few inches but never rely on that.  In other words, allow the technology a slop factor. Use precise coordinates but allow for imprecision in the ability of device to calculate its location. Never create a geolocation story that relies on an accuracy of a few inches.  You control this by typing in numbers in the latitude and longitude proximity fields. The numbers spell out how close one needs to be to the precise location to trigger an event. In our geolocation stories we trigger something (e.g. show content) when the user is within 25 to 50 feet of a location.  We call that crossing the geofence.   The minus sign is important.  In latitude, the minus sign denotes the southern hemisphere (south of the equator).  In longitude, the minus sign denotes west of the prime meridian (Greenwich) and east of the antemeridian (roughly where the international date line resides).

If you want to grab your location while physically on the spot, use your smartphone’s Google Maps app. 

Current Location Arrow in Google Maps
  1. In Google Maps, click on the arrow to show your current location.
  2. Scroll down until you find the marker and the location.  See screenshot below.
  3. Copy and paste the coordinate into your notes so that you can transfer the coordinate to LodeStar.

Getting a location from Google Maps while on site

Preparing a Geolocation Story in Word

Your role might be to prepare the content. When you’ve completed the preparation, you can hand off the content in the form of a Word file. In Word, each location should be on a separate page. At the top of each page, key in the title and the latitude and longitude coordinates of the location. Add your text, graphics, image and narration. If your version of Word doesn’t support audio narration, use a free tool like Audacity to generate an MP3 audio file.

Even More Specific: Authoring a Geolocation Story with LodeStar

To create a geolocation tour in LodeStar, do the following:

Launch LodeStar and select the ARMaker template.  (AR stands for augmented reality.)

LodeStar’s ARMaker template
  1. Title your project.  The project will now reside on your hard drive in a folder with the same title.  It will be found in the LodeStar/Projects/[your title]  directory.
  2. Add your title to the first page.
  3. Add a page by clicking on the + button at the bottom of the app.
  • Ensure that the new page is a Text Page Type.  Examine the screenshot below.  The page should have a place to enter a latitude and longitude.
  • Add your content.  You can insert a widget (e.g. Image Layout Widget), text, audio, and more.
  • Add a page to add more content.
  • Then Preview in Browser (find button at the top).
  • When you are ready to publish,  Export as a SCORM 1.3 package and import to a Learning Management System or simply copy the LodeStar/Projects/[your title]  directory to a web server.
LodeStar authoring tool with ARMaker template. Click on image to view.

Below is what this page looks like in Preview.  Notice the audio control at top left and the Show Map at the top left.   Notice the navigation buttons top right (depending on layout).  Notice the how the image slider appears, created by the PWG Image Slider Widget.

Previewing a Geolocation story

If your audience clicks on the ‘Show Map’ button, a Google Map appears with all of the locations marked with red markers.  Again, each location represents a separate page in LodeStar. 

Each location (marked by red marker) matches a LodeStar page

Controlling the User Experience

If you allow users both to show map and navigate to content by clicking on a marker, then you need not adjust project settings.    If you want to restrict users’ access to the map and/or their ability to access pages of content from the map, select Tools > Project Settings.  Change the settings according to your needs.  (The important settings are marked with arrows. See screenshot below.)

Project settings in LodeStar allow control of application

Publishing your project

As a SCORM object

If you use a Learning Management System (LMS) and want to control access to your geolocation story, then, with your project opened in LodeStar, click on Export and export to SCORM 1.3.    Go to your LMS and import the story as a SCORM object.

As a website

If you have access to a web server, copy the project folder to the web server and use the index.htm file in your URL.  Once again, location services will only work on web servers that support https://

If you don’t have access to a web server, then read the following article that explains how you can use GitHub as a web server.

https://lodestarlearn.wordpress.com/2020/05/14/seven-steps-that-will-change-how-you-share-elearning/embed/#?secret=5b4inntyGg

Alternatively, you can use Site44 to convert your Dropbox folder to a published website:

See https://www.site44.com/

(We are not endorsing Site44 but LodeStar Learning has successfully used it on a number of projects.)

As an Open Education Resource (OER)

Publish the geolocation story as a web site, then register the URL (address) of that site with OER Commons, Merlot, or whatever OER repository you prefer.

 

Additional Details

If you are new to Geolocation Story-telling to learn more detail, visit:

Geolocation Storytelling: Van Gogh In Arles | LodeStar Web Journal (wordpress.com)

To see an example of a finished product as OER, visit:

https://www.oercommons.org/courses/vincent-van-gogh-s-arles/view

Or view the app at:

‎Van Gogh In Arles on the App Store (apple.com)

Conclusion

Geolocation stories are a great way to help visitors uncover the hidden wonders of place. Google Maps and the LodeStar Authoring tool are indispensable ways of authoring stories and publishing them either to Learning Management Systems or to the web.

If you complete a project, share your project. Drop a comment or drop a line to supportteam@lodestarlearning.com.

Short Sims

Introduction

Some of us aren’t content with simply presenting information in a linear fashion in an online course.  We have dozens of words to express what we wish to achieve: interactive, game-like, thought-provoking, challenging, problem-based….   We are also hard-pressed to find the time or the budget or the design that will fulfill our highest aspirations for eLearning. 

It’s easy to get discouraged – but occasionally we’re offered a strategy that works within our budget and time constraints.  One such strategy is the basis of  Clark Aldrich’s recent book, “Short Sims” (Aldrich, C. (2020). Short sims: A game changer. Boca Raton: CRC Press.)  

In his book, Clark Aldrich discusses the methodology of the short simulation.  He begins by lauding the virtues of interactivity.  Interactivity allows learners to experiment, customize their experience, role-play, make decisions and apply skills. He writes that game-like interactivity is expensive to build.  We all recognize that.  Short Sims, on the other hand, can be built in the “same time frame as linear content”.  Short Sims engage students in making decisions, doing things, meeting challenges, solving problems, learning from mistakes and so forth.  Essentially Short Sims offer us a strategy – a methodology – to do things differently and more effectively.

The hook comes from this excerpt: 

“From a pedagogical perspective, the more interactivity the better.  Connecting user action with feedback has long been proven to be critical for most neuron connections”. 

Aldrich, 2020

Aldrich credits the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology for that insight.  But again, in Aldrich’s words, “game-like interactivity is expensive to build.  It is time-consuming.”  Aldrich offers a new Short Sim methodology as an antidote to linear-style presentation the death-by-PowerPoint approach.

Short Sims

                Show, not tell

                Engage learners quickly and are re-playable

                Are quick to build and easy to update

Short Sims square with the Context-Challenge-Activity-Feedback model that we’ve heard so much about from Dr. Michael Allen, Ethan Edwards and the designers at Allen Interactions.  They are a solution to M. David Merrill’s lament that so much learning material is shovelware.  ShortSims are not shovelware.  They are a cost-effective means of engaging students.

Quite frankly, the LodeStar eLearning authoring tool was made for the Short Sim.  Instructors have used LodeStar for years to produce Short Sims but never used that term.  We called them Simple Sims, which sometimes included decision-making scenarios, interactive case studies, problem-based learning and levelled challenges.  We solved the same problem.  We made it easy for instructors to create Short Sims quickly. 

Our design methodology has a lot in common with Aldrich’s methodology as described in his book.   The following ten points outline our approach to creating a simple decision-making scenario, which, in our view, is one form of Simple Sim.  To avoid mischaracterizing Aldrich’s methodology, I’ll use our own terms in this outline.

  1. Select Challenge
  2. Pick Context
  3. Determine the Happy Path
  4. Determine Distractors
  5. Pick a setting – background graphic
  6. Choose a character set
  7. Produce the Happy Path
  8. Add the Distractors
  9. Add Branches
  10. Add Randomness                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Select Challenge

Selecting the right problem and the right scope is, in itself, a challenge for the instructor or trainer.  Straightforward processes that present clear consequences for each decision are easy to simulate.   Processes like strategic planning that are influenced by dozens of variables are much more difficult.   The Short Sim methodology itself would be good candidate for a Short Sim.  Another example would be the backwards design method of instructional design.  In my early days at Metro State, a decade ago, we discussed the backwards design approach with instructors.   We then used a Short Sim to rehearse instructors on the key questions to ask during each phase of the backwards design process.  We based a lot of our thinking on Dee Fink’s “Creating Significant Learning Experiences” and  Grant Wiggins’ “Understanding By Design”.  Our objective was to help instructors design with the end in mind.  In Backwards Design, outcomes and assessments come before the development of activities.   The Short Sim did the trick.  Planning instruction is complicated business.  A simple and short simulation is not, in itself, transformative.  But we just wanted assurance that instructors understood the basic principles of backward design by the decisions they made.

Pick Context

In the Backwards Design example, a dean asks an instructor to design an online class to help K12 teachers use educational technology in their classrooms.  So, in this context, the learner is playing the role of online course designer.  The learner is challenged to make the right decisions at the right time.  If the learner holds off on designing activities until completing an analysis, defining outcomes and creating assessments, then the learner succeeds in the challenge.

Determine the Happy Path

The happy path is all the right decisions in the right order.  Situational Analysis -> Learner Outcomes -> Assessments -> Activities -> Transfer.  It is all of the right answers with no distractors.  It’s like creating a multiple choice test with only one option: the correct answer.

Determine Distractors

Now come the distractors.  What are the common pitfalls to Backward Design?  What might tempt the learner to go astray.  If we were designing a Short Sim on the Short Sim methodology, the pits and snares might be what Aldrich calls the Time Sucks:  choosing the wrong authoring tool, too many decision-makers on the project, custom art, and so on.  The learner might be tempted with “the medium is the message.  Invest in the medium.  Commission a graphic artist to create a compelling interface.”  The point of Short Sims is to not invest heavily in artwork or graphic design.  The focus is more on describing the context, presenting choices to the learner, and showing the consequence of learner choices.

Pick a Setting

A background photo helps to set the context.  Images that display settings without people can be found on sites like Pexels, Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain section of stock image services and, of course, on stock image sites. Because one image often suffices in a short sim, authors can snap their own photos and not waste too much time.

Alternatively, vector artwork can serve as an effective background.  Vector art can be found and  downloaded from such sites as https://publicdomainvectors.org/.    (LodeStar Learning doesn’t endorse any of these sites – but we have used them all.)

In either case, if the scene is relevant to the learning context and not just a vain attempt to gamify, it might actually contribute to content retention and recall. 

Choose a character set

A popular approach to Short Sims is the use of cutout characters with different poses and expressions.  Cutout characters can be photo-realistic images with transparent backgrounds or illustrations.  To see examples, please google ‘elearning interactive case studies’, select ‘images’ and you’ll see thousands of examples.  Despite their popularity, finding cutout characters cheaply can be frustrating.  Several authoring tools offer a built-in catalog of characters.  These tools tend to be expensive.  Many stock photo sites offer character packs but usually one must subscribe to these sites for a monthly charge.  Some sites offer pay-as-you-go services, meaning that you pay for the character pack once, without signing on to a monthly subscription.  The character pack can be as cheap as $4.  One such site is eLearning Templates for Course Developers – eLearningchips.  A complete character pack purchased from eLearningChips with more than 137 poses costs as little as $54. No subscription.  No additional fee.  (Again, we’re not endorsing eLearningChips, but we have used their service.)

Produce the Happy Path

With the LodeStar authoring tool, we had several options for producing the Happy Path.  We used the ActivityMaker template and, after the title page, added a sequence of Interview Pages.  The ActivityMaker template offers a range of page types. The Interview Page is one of them.  In an Interview Page, we dropped in a character and filled in the best choice.  We didn’t concern ourselves with the distractors (the wrong options) quite yet.  Again, we were focused on the Happy Path.

Here is the author view:

Authoring a short sim happy path

Here is what the student sees:

A short sim happy path

Add the distractors

Once we sorted out the happy path – a sequence of perfect, well-informed choices, we thought about the pits and snares—the problems and challenges.

In our course design example, a common problem is that we think too early about the content–that is, what topics should the course cover.  We anticipated those problems when designing our Short Sim.  If a learner unwittingly falls into our trap, we have the opportunity of providing feedback. It’s a teachable moment.

A short sim

An alternative to the Interview Page type is the Text Page.  In a text page, we can add images and widgets.  These give us a bit more flexibility than the Interview Page Type.  On a Text page, we can add an image (left or right aligned), then a Text Layout Widget.  Here you can see the page with image and the Text Layout widget.  The image was composed in our SVG editor. 

Authoring View

Here is what the student sees.

Student View of a LodeStar Activity

Add Branches

In one sense, a branch is a place where we get sent based on our decisions.  If this were a customer service sim and we made poor choices, the customer would appear more and more irritated and ultimately we lose his or her business.  Programmatically, the place where we get sent is a page that shows an irate customer and choices that represent a difficult situation.  The branches could lead us down a path of destruction but we may also have the opportunity of winning back the customer’s trust with a string of good decisions. 

Branching adds variety to the sim.  It gives us a customized experience or allows us safely to ‘test’ bad choices.

Branching can also be viewed as the consequence of a decision or choice.  In LodeStar, branch options include going to the next page, last page or jumping to a page.  They also include bringing up a web resource, adding an instructive overlay, setting a variable value, etc.  It could also mean the execution of a script or series of commands to make a lot of things happen simultaneously, such as setting a variable (that tracks our failings), sending us down a path, changing the image of a happy customer to an unhappy one, showing feedback, marking the choice with red, and more.

It’s probably most effective to show the learners the natural consequence of their decisions–an unhappy customer for example.  As designers, we might also need to be explicit and display feedback, or introduce a coach who provides feedback.  As Clark Aldrich writes, the sign of a good Short Sim is one that is played over and over again.  Branching helps us make the sim a different experience each time.

LodeStar Branching options

Add Randomness (optional)

Randomness might be difficult to achieve and should, therefore, be considered optional.

Randomness is more than randomizing distractors.  (Randomizing distractors happens automatically on an Interview Page.  It’s done through a simple checkbox in a Text Layout widget.)  More sophisticated randomness might include a randomly generated sum of money, or a randomly selected path or scene, or randomly generated assets that are assigned to the learner.  It might be a randomly generated length of fuse that represents the customer’s patience.   In our course design example, it might be randomly generated student characteristics that include age, gender, and subject interest.  That level of randomness is best achieved with the help of LodeStar’s scripting language and is best left to its own article.

Conclusion

Short Sims represent a level of interactivity that goes beyond the linear presentation of information.  They have the potential of promoting learner retention and application.  With the right tool (and there are plenty),  everyone can build short simulations.  One tool, LodeStar, was designed from the very start with the short simulation and the intrepid instructor in mind.  Short Sims may vary in sophistication and design but, in any form, they cause learners to think and to see the consequence of their actions.  The short sim is a strategy that is doable and repeatable within our budgets and time constraints.  Make it happen in your world!

Serious eLearning: Use Interactivity to Prompt Deep Engagement

Elements of Interactivity

The Serious eLearning Manifesto challenges us to move beyond typical eLearning to the values  and principles of Serious eLearning.   One of those principles is, to quote the manifesto, ‘Use Interactivity to Prompt Deep Engagement’.  The sky is the limit in terms of what that actually means.  We know that it means something beyond page turners and roll overs.  Authoring tools offer us templates that have interactivity logic baked into the template.  The tools’ form-based interfaces allow us to provide information that feeds the template.  To do something original – outside of the constraints of a page turner presentation, or even an interaction template — requires a bit of code.  Few authoring tools allow you to realize your design fully without the knowledge and application of some basic coding.

ZebraZapps is  one of the notable exceptions.  ZebraZapps enables you to build complex interactions by wiring objects together.  A click, hover, drag or collision, for example, on one object could change the properties of another.  Dragging the earth and moon along their orbital path can cause the rise and fall of a tide graphic.  Authors connect the drag of an object constrained to a path to the height property of another object.  Expressing this relationship comes from wiring the drag event of one object to the property height of another object.  This expressiveness through the action of wiring is rare.  Most systems enable this expressiveness through language.  In other words, code.

If you google “should instructional designers learn to code” you’ll get more than 37 million results and many opinions.  My own view relates to the situation that many instructional designers find themselves in.  Whether they support a university department or mid-sized firm, they lack access to a programmer.  They are limited to what they know and how well they can work an authoring tool like Storyline or Captivate.  For them, a little knowledge of code can go a long way.  With a little knowledge, they can realize some pretty sophisticated designs.  They can do more than ‘click and present’. 

In the late 80s I was driving down a dark, country road listening to MPR.  The story was on Interactive Video.  Laserdiscs.  I was enthralled by the possibilities.  I asked my dean who was completing an advanced degree at the time in computer-based learning, what I needed to learn to control an interactive video laserdisc.  He answered “C”.  C was a programming language and his answer, which was actually incorrect, sealed my fate.  I began studying my first programming language oblivious to tools like TenCore and Course of Action (progenitor of Authorware) that afforded a much simpler way to control the laserdisc.

To finish this anecdote, I also began to study instructional design at the University of Minnesota.  At my first Wisconsin Distance Teaching and Learning Conference, I attended a pre-conference cracker barrel session.  Sitting around drinking wine were a bunch of researchers from Alberta’s Athabasca University.  I posed the question to them: “should instructional designers learn to code”.  The answer from at least one was unequivocal.  Become an instructional designer or a programmer.  You can’t do both.  There is too much to learn in either discipline.

So, I don’t necessarily take issue with that.  There is so much to learn in either discipline.  But modern authoring systems give us a way forward where we don’t have to totally geek out.  With just a few coding skills we can go long long way to realizing the serious eLearning principle:  “Use Interactivity to Prompt Deep Engagement.”

So let’s explore the basic prerequisites to interactivity.   There are three parts to this post.  First, this post discusses the relationships between computer code and this thing called interactivity.   Secondly, this video (LodeStar 9 — Elements Of Interactivity – YouTube) demonstrates a simple interaction that is made possible with the LodeStar eLearning authoring tool and its script (code) editor. Lastly, this DIY tutorial (Making your projects interactive and interesting with a little bit of code | LodeStar Help (wordpress.com)) walks through the video example step by step.

But first we need to look at ‘interactivity’ and understand where we benefit from some knowledge of coding.

The Serious eLearning Manifesto states that “We will use elearning’s unique interactive capabilities to support reflection, application, rehearsal, elaboration, contextualization, debate, evaluation, synthesization, et cetera”.   When we examine this list of strategies/activities and consider the unique interactive capabilities that will support them, we start with the following:

  • Ability to store information about the learners and their behavior.
  • Ability to offer something different and individualized based on this information.
  • Ability to create a visual, manipulatable, and functional learning environment that suggests an authentic (if not totally realistic) context.

That’s not an exhaustive list.  It’s a start.  It promises more than page turners and roll-overs.  Now, we need to match these capabilities with the authoring tool and the required code.

 

Ability to store information about the learners and their behavior.

Variables are used in code to store information.  The information can range from a number to a sentence to a list to a full essay.  Variables provide a human-friendly way to store and retrieve information.  They represent addresses in the computer’s memory.  As instructional designers we don’t need to know anything about those gobbledygook addresses or how the information is stored physically in the computer.  We usually need to know whether the variable is intended to store a number or a string of characters. (See Appendix A) 

So what can we store in a variable?  The answer is many things. 

  • Points scored
  • Type of question answered incorrectly
  • Number of tries
  • Learner’s journal entry
  • Bookmarked page where the learner left off
  • Much much more

In a recent eLearning program, our objective was to help the learners use LinkedIn effectively to promote their professional brand.  Their eLearning task was to help a fictitious character build up his Social Selling Index.  The index is made up of four components: brand, people, insights and relationships.  Successful completion of the activities increased the character’s brand index, people index, insights index, and relationships index.  We created four variables and, you guessed it, they were:  brand, people, insights, and relationships.  Each activity was categorized and affected one of these indices.  In other words, we increased the numerical value in the corresponding variable.

Variables included in a LodeStar authored eLearning module

This contributed to what the Serious eLearning Manifesto calls authentic context.  The performance objective was to help employees increase their SSI.  The activities in the eLearning module increased the character’s SSI.  We could have designed a presentation and a quiz.  We didn’t.  But to achieve that authentic context, we needed to store values in variables. 

To learn more about variables, complete the hands-on exercise shown in the video (mentioned above) and the accompanying tutorial.  You can download LodeStar 9 and use it at no charge to complete the exercise.  LodeStar Learning Corporation

Ability to offer something different and individualized based on this information.

In another recent project, we created a simple simulation of a workplace engagement platform.  The simulation helped guide employees through the steps of requesting feedback from their supervisor, co-worker or reports. A future simulation will be focused less on the procedural and more on the best practices of soliciting and giving feedback.  The first simulation was a post-training exercise. Our HR Director conducted the training.  The post-training exercise helped refresh participants’ memory on the basic steps.   The strategy was to add points for correct choices and subtract points for incorrect choices.  In response to wrong choices, feedback steered participants in the right direction.    A counter in the bottom left corner showed the result of correct and incorrect choices.  It was a bit of gamification but always with the intent to guide participants to the right choice.  In other words, guided practice.

So what role does code play?

This simple simulation wasn’t built from a template with some sort of pre-defined logic.  It was custom built for our purposes.  But it was a very simple construction. We began with a blank screen, uploaded screenshots and defined click/touch areas.

As a result of click, we wanted to a) add or subtract points and b) branch to a new screen or display an overlay.  We never subtracted points multiple times in response to multiple clicks on the same thing – but we always showed feedback.

Code can help us to:

  • Check if the item has been clicked before.  If no and if correct choice, add points and then branch.  If no and if not correct, subtract points and provide corrective feedback.  If yes and incorrect, increment a counter to provide another level of feedback with more urgency.
  • Store a value that enables us to check if item has been clicked.

These rules are simple.  They can be complex.  In this simple example, we use variables and conditional logic (i.e. if statements).  We also use branching, which, in this case means, display an overlay or display a new screen with hotspots and more code that gets executed when the invisible hotspot is clicked on.

A Simple eLearning Simulation

To be true to this section heading (i.e. Offer something individualized) , we could have gone further.   If the participant breezed through a scenario, we could have used conditional logic to increase the difficulty of the scenario.   If the participant stumbled through, we could have kept the level of difficulty the same (i.e. plateau).  The same tools apply: variables and if-then statements.  I’m tempted to say that this approach is simpler than trying to shoehorn a pre-programmed template to your needs.  

Ability to create a visual, manipulatable, and functional learning environment that suggests an authentic (if not totally realistic) context.

The screenshot below shows the beginnings of a tutorial on automatic direction finding (ADF), an older navigational method for airplane pilots.  There is just enough detail to make this panel somewhat realistic but the panel is a simple composition of ellipses, paths, rectangles and text.  The Scalable Vector Graphic (SVG) is composed of these elements.  Each element can generate a click event that can result in the execution of some code.  In the screenshot we are highlighting a switch that has the id of g2423.  When this switch is clicked, with a bit of code, we can cause something to happen.   The graphical element is tied to a LodeStar branch option.  The branch option executes commands that relate to a NDB (Non-Directional Beacon) that the pilot can tune in – in this case, the audio playback of Morse Code to identify the beacon.   As I’ve heard Ethan Edwards from Allen Interactions say many times, you just need enough realism to accomplish your learning objective.  Any more and you’re wasting your time or your client’s money or both.

Automatic Direction Finding — eLearning Module

To show another example, in the video and tutorial link referenced in the conclusion, I walk through a simple example of how to make Scalable Vector Graphics interactive.  I walk through an example of a traffic light switch.   I chose this example because it is a little easier to understand than the ADF on an airplane.

A LodeStar Learning tutorial on variables, conditional statements, functions, and SVG graphics

 

Conclusion

In the pursuit of serious eLearning and meaningful interactivity, I’ve noted LodeStar’s ability to support variables, conditional statements, branch options and the ability to change the properties of objects.  Other authoring systems also support these concepts and require the author to understand the basics behind variables, conditional statements and logic in general.  Allen Learning Technologies’ ZebraZapps requires no coding – but it does require the instructional designer to think logically.  Wiring replaces code, but logical reasoning is still required.  Articulate Storyline has the concept of triggers and supports events such as clicks, hovers and drags.  Those events can be tied to property changes of Storyline’s native vector format.  Storyline also supports variables and has an easy-to-use interface for building sophisticated conditional statements.  Adobe Captivate supports the association of actions with graphics.  For example, the learner can click on a rectangle associated with an action such as show/hide and increment/decrement.   Captivate also supports an interface that can apply conditional logic to an action.  For example, a variable might keep track of slide states.  Each state can house different text.  As the learner clicks a rectangle, an ‘if’ condition displays the matching text based on the current value of the variable.   In short, Storyline and Captivate support the idea of variables, events, conditional statements and the ability to dynamically change the properties of graphics.  ZebraZapps has the same ability but without requiring a line of code. 

Whatever the authoring tools’ approach, the ability to store information about the learners, to offer something different and tailored for the learner, and the ability to create a visual, manipulatable, and functional learning environment relies on the instructional designer’s logical thinking and the authoring tools’ ability to store values, change course based on conditions, and modify the visual environment in some way.

These resources can help you get started.  The first two, I’ve already mentioned.  The third is a terrific resource to learn the basics of coding.

LodeStar 9 — Elements Of Interactivity – YouTube

Making your projects interactive and interesting with a little bit of code | LodeStar Help (wordpress.com)

Learn to Code – for Free | Codecademy

Appendix A

To illustrate the concept of data type in variables, examine the following table:

Name                    Rank

Joe                         11

Anna                      2

Kim                        1

In the preceding table, Kim came in first place, Anna in second, and Joe in eleventh place.    A variable stores a person’s rank.  If we interpreted the information in the variable as a number, then this would be the sorted order:

Kim     1

Anna   2

Joe       11

If we treated the variable as a string of characters, this would be the sorted order:

Kim     1

Joe       11

Anna  2

In the second case, the value stored in the variable is treated as a character.  In the computer’s character table, ‘1’ is assigned the numerical value of 49.  ‘2’ is assigned the numerical value of 50.  The computer compares the first character 1 to the first character of 2.  It looks up the character value and processes the comparison as 49 to 50.  49 is lower, therefore, the computer places 11 before 2.    But that’s practically all there is to the complexity.  Variables store information.  It matters whether we interpret the information as numbers or as characters. This is known as the data type of the variable.

DIY Serious eLearning

Introduction

In the past decade, leaders in the field of learning experience design have given us much to think about, much to strive for.  They represent a synthesis of  instructional design, learning sciences, and user experience design.  They also possess, in one form or another,  the resources to execute their ideas.  But, if you are an educator or, perhaps, a learning and development specialist in a mid-sized company, you know that you haven’t got a large team or a large budget.  You have highly specialized objectives.  You want your learning designs to be effective.  And you know that you can’t just pull something off the shelf.

In a series of posts, I’ll explore what the leaders are saying and then get down to DIY specifics.  I will parse out the skills that instructors and specialists need in order to implement some of these ideas – especially in the area of eLearning interactivity. But, in this post, let’s first contemplate some of the themes that are consistent with evidence-based learning design. Conveniently, many of them are listed in the Serious eLearning Manifesto.

The Serious eLearning Manifesto?

If the manifesto hasn’t lit your corner of the world, here is a little background.  In 2014, some highly respected thought leaders in eLearning convened to, in their own words, instigate the Serious eLearning Manifesto.  The instigators were Michael Allen, Julie Dirksen, Will Thalheimer, and Clark Quinn.  If these names are new to you, you’ll be delighted to learn that each name represents a treasure trove of ideas, insights, research, and reflections on how people learn and how to design effective learning experiences.  Joining in the pledge to promote ‘Serious Learning’ is a list that reads like the Who’s Who of learning design.  Among them: M.David Merrill, Allison Rossett, Roger Schank, and Sivisailam Thiagarajan, better known to the world as Thiagi.

If you haven’t read the Serious eLearning Manifesto, it is available at https://elearningmanifesto.org/   Parts of the manifesto might seem self-evident.  One of the listed attributes of serious eLearning is that it must be meaningful to learners.  We might think that it’s obvious we want our learning activities to be meaningful to learners.  But, the site discloses the status quo: too much eLearning is content focused, efficient for authors, attendance-driven, focused on knowledge delivery and so on.  I encourage you to visit the site for the full story.

Implementing the Supporting Principles

The Serious eLearning Manifesto is based on a number of supporting principles.  Each supporting principle is a study in itself. Some aspects of the manifesto and other evidence-based practices are not easily achieved with the traditional skillset and/or toolset of the college or corporation, including the Learning Management System.   I’ll sample a few of these.  I will place the language of the manifesto in bold.  The rest is my running commentary.

The manifesto states:

  • Do not assume that learning is the solution

This is a principle that was driven home to me by the Minnesota chapter of the International Society of Performance Improvement, MnISPI.  They espouse the Performance Improvement Model where training is but one outcome of a performance needs analysis.  At our firm, Redpath and Company, we are working on a Knowledge Management platform that will eventually be integrated with our learning management system. In the both the academic and corporate worlds, students and employees might benefit from a knowledge management center that gives them the cheat sheets, job aids, micro-learning and whatever they need to solve a problem or perform a task just when they need them.

  • Tie Learning to Performance Goals. A new breed of tool can help support this principle. At our firm, we recently implemented an employee engagement system that will soon integrate goals, feedback, and one-one-reviews with training and performance solutions. The system is currently integrated with our Human Resource System (HSRIS), but interoperability standards offer the opportunity to integrate some of the key pieces in learning development: knowledge management, learning management, curriculum mapping, resource library, and employee engagement.  The full suite of tools includes Bamboo HRIS; Microsoft Teams, SharePoint, and Automate; Prolaera Learning Management System; Microsoft Stream; and Quantum Workplace.  All of these systems can communicate to one another through application programming interfaces (API), which act as connectors between vendors. 
  • Provide Realistic Practice  In eLearning, providing realistic practice might mean a case study, decision-making scenario or simulation that simplifies the world into digestible learning chunks.  At our firm, we have generated a few of these and uploaded them to the SCORM cloud, which is integrated with our learning management system.  (The SCORM cloud supports traditional SCORM and a newer standard known as the Experience API or xAPI.)  
  • Adapt to Learner Needs  In eLearning that might mean an adaptive learning system that uses some form of artificial intelligence or smart decision-making to meet individual student’s needs.  These are systems that predict and/or evaluate student performance and prescribe a learning plan with resources that are matched to topic, reading level, level of knowledge, and their place in a learning hierarchy.

I have a personal interest in all of the supporting principles.  As a toolmaker/instructional designer, I’ve been slowly developing and promoting the  knowledge management center.  I’ve been helping our HR department with the employee engagement system.  I’ve researched a host of adaptive learning systems —  but have yet to adopt one.  I have a deep-rooted interest in promoting the benefit attached to the following supporting principle:  Use Interactivity to Prompt Deep Engagement.

Use Interactivity to Prompt Deep Engagement. 

Interactivity can mean a number of things.  eLearning texts often cite the Community of Inquiry framework, wherein the complete educational experience is described as student-to-student, student-to-instructor, and student-to-content engagement or interactivity.  I’ve observed instructors use the first two to good effect.  Many experienced online instructors deftly use discussion boards, chats and video conferencing.  The tools are there.  The instructional support is often there.  One of my favorite memories of effective student-to-student interactivity is from a marketing course.  The instructor set up the discussion thread so that students pitched ideas to the sub-grouped discussion board as if they were pitching to clients.  Students recalled the text and drew from their own knowledge to discuss the merits of the pitch.  The discussion wasn’t formulaic as too many are.  It was not ‘Read a chapter, post by Wednesday, respond to two posts by Sunday.’  In contrast, the marketing pitch simulated an authentic context (serious eLearning), and provided real-world consequences to the student.  Their pitch got a positive or negative response.

Student-to-content interaction is a bit more challenging for both instructors and learning and development folks to implement.  The manifesto talks about using interactivity to support reflection, application, rehearsal, elaboration, contextualization, debate, evaluation, synthesis and more.  Some of this can be accomplished with the traditional tools of the LMS as described above.  Some require 3rd party authoring tools like ZebraZapps, StoryLine,  Captivate, and LodeStar.  They are vital tools in the eLearning instructor’s toolkit.  But making elearning meaningful with the use of authoring tools requires a new set of skills.  Without those skills, we settle for what the Serious Learning Manifesto decries:  page turning, roll-overs and information search. 

Some skills are technical; others related to psychology and cognition. One of the manifesto’s instigators, Michael Allen, wrote more than a half-dozen books and built two incredible tools to enable instructors and instructional designers to build rich learning experiences: Authorware and ZebraZapps.  Both tools gave non-computer-programmers the ability to design something interesting:  realistic scenarios, storytelling,  challenges, environments that invoked action and showed the consequences.  The other instigators of the manifesto gave us additional insights into cognition. Julie Dirksen in her highly acclaimed book, Design for How People Learn, gave us insight into why people persist in their negative behaviors, how they remember things, what motivates them, and what strategies are effective. Wil Thalheimer bridged research and practice in topics related to memory, evaluation and presentation, and he led the charge to debunk many of the learning myths that we hold near and dear to our hearts.  Clark Quinn has written numerous books that cover learning science and design.

Underlying all of this is research-based evidence.  Michael Allen and Julie Dirksen, especially, soft pedal the research.  That’s their style. Their writings are lighter and not riddled with citations.  Some of it is even iconoclastic – like this title of Michael Allen’s Designing Successful e-Learning: Forget What You Know About Instructional Design and Do Something Interesting.  In this field, creative, insightful practices often take a back seat to formulaic approaches.  Stating the objective on page one, presenting information on page two, and quizzing on page three would be an example of a formulaic approach. 

Julie Dirksen’s Design for How People Learning is illustrated with these quirky line drawings that simplify serious ideas and make them more digestible.  But these books, style aside, are grounded in research.   A recent book, which incidentally recognizes the contributions of Julie Dirksen and Wil Thalheimer, focuses precisely on evidence-based practices, and exposes the myths. 

Evidence-Informed Learning Design  was authored my Mirjam Neelen and Paul Kirchner, both highly respected for their contribution to learning sciences. In their book, they list top five ingredients in order of effectivity and efficiency.  The practices include spaced practice, practice tests, overlapping the practice of one topic with the practice of another, and questioning and encouraging learners to explain a process or procedure to themselves. 

If you look up these authors, read their books, read their blogs, listen to their podcast interviews (see resources below), you are further convinced that the serious eLearning manifesto has merit. 

In academia, many have read How Learning Works and contemplated 7 research-based principles  for smart teaching offered by Susan Ambrose, Michele DiPietro and others.  In How Learning Works,  you will find the same themes:  Students and trainees are not blank slates.  How they are prompted to organize knowledge influences how they learn. Addressing motivation is paramount.  Component skills need to be identified, addressed with targeted strategies, mixed and remixed.  Meaningful eLearning should offer practice, practice, and more practice with guidance, feedback, scaffolding, elaboration and so on.  A page-turner PowerPoint with little engagement doesn’t cut it.

Conclusion

So, in the next post, I will tackle one aspect of serious eLearning.  I will parse out what it takes to design a meaningful interaction between student and content.  I will use our own tool, LodeStar, to illustrate the ideas but not confine the discussion to our own self-interest.  I’ll expand the discussion to include other authoring tools and, hopefully, contribute in some small way to the cause of Serious eLearning. In the meantime, please check out the resources listed below.

Resources

Michael Allen’s Books

Julie Dirksen’s Book: Design for How People Learn

Wil Thalheimer’s Site: Work-Learning Research Site

Clark Quinn’s Blog: Learnlets

Mirjam Neelen and Paul Kirschner’s Blog: 3 Star Learning Experiences

The Learning Hack Podcast

International Society for Performance Improvement

Minnesota Chapter of the International Society for Performance Improvement

Using Photospheres in Online Courses

Introduction

If you read my last post, you’ll know that I love technology but am wary of it.  As an instructional designer and toolmaker, I’m selective about the educational technologies I choose to learn and integrate into our authoring tool, LodeStar.  My basic rule is that a little investment must pay large dividends.  My second rule is that instructors and trainers should be able easily to envision how the technology will apply to student learning.

One technology in particular has tempted me down the rabbit hole in the past:  virtual reality.  Until recently, I kept away from integrating VR into LodeStar.  Now, I concede that there are solid stepping stones to instructors using VR in eLearning applications.  The investment can be small; the dividends, with the right design, could be huge. One example of a stepping stone is the ‘photosphere.’

Photospheres

The photosphere is more commonly known as the 360-degree panoramic image, VR photo, and interactive panorama. A photosphere  is essentially a 360-degree scene that is viewed through a special viewer that transforms a two-dimensional, distorted image into something magical. 

Once upon a time, photospheres were difficult, time-consuming or expensive to produce.  Instructors needed special equipment and/or software to ‘stitch’ together many photographs into one viewable image.

Today, smartphone apps step instructors through the process of taking multiple images that are automatically mapped onto a sphere.  The sphere when projected onto a two-dimensional plane looks distorted.  When shown through a viewer it offers an undistorted 360-degree view of a scene. 

The Hermitage museum is a wonderful example of the use of photospheres (panoramas) to give visitors a virtual tour of the museum. 

https://www.hermitagemuseum.org/wps/portal/hermitage/panorama/virtual_visit/panoramas-m-1/?lng=

Now a photosphere can be created by any eLearning instructor with a dozen or so clicks.

I’ll suggest three simple ways that online instructors can get started using photospheres in their courses and conclude with a fourth, more sophisticated, example.  Each of these is illustrated in a LodeStar Learning activity found at:

https://lodestarlearning.github.io/VR-Demo/index.html

Suggestion One: Link to VR sites

An instructor can simply link to VR (360-degree panorama) sites.  Here are some examples:

Louvre
https://www.youvisit.com/tour/louvremuseum

Iceland
https://www.iceland360vr.com/map/

Rome
https://www.youvisit.com/tour/rome

Suggestion Two: Find and download images

Finding and downloading images for education is a bit of a challenge presently.  You’ll find photospheres on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, virtual tour companies, museums, and  tourist bureaus.  But, you will be hard-pressed at the moment to find photospheres in Open Education Resource (OER) repositories.  We might be a little ahead of the curve.  I suspect that, for a variety of reasons, we’ll see an uptick in educationally useful photospheres in the most popular repositories like Merlot, OER Commons, and Curriki.

In the meantime, view and download examples from the following sites.

https://www.flickr.com/vr

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Photo_Sphere

https://pixexid.com/search/360 panoramic

Suggestion Three: Use tablet or smartphone to generate an image

Photospheres are now easy to create.  As I mentioned, once upon a time, photospheres were difficult to produce.  Today, free software on a smartphone guides users by displaying dots on a screen.  The user moves the camera until a dot falls within a circle target.  The user follows the dots until a 360-degree ring of photos is created and then upwards and downwards in igloo-building fashion until all space is covered with images.  The software stitches all of the images together and produces what appears to be a distorted image when viewed without a photo sphere viewer.

Using Google Street View to Produce a Photosphere
Under the Golden Gate Bridge — a photosphere

Suggestion Four: Use Blender or other 3D software to generate a scene and render it as a photosphere

One of the more sophisticated uses of Photospheres is in creating them with 3D software.  In the early 90s when I worked with 3D software, the price tag was in the thousands of dollars.  Some complicated scenes required a room of twenty computers all working on some aspect of the image delegated to them by a rendering manager – a kind of orchestral conductor.

Today, students can download powerful software, like Blender (https://www.blender.org/),  for free.  Typically, instructors wouldn’t have the time to learn the software and build 3d models.  Some students, on the other hand, might be eager to support their teachers by learning the software and generating useful models.  Building 3D Models is a lot of fun and tremendously educational. 

In this example, I used a model produced by Marcin Lubecki.  Here is what the Blender environment looks like:

Blender 3D Software

Next I positioned a camera in the center of the kitchen.

Positioning a camera in a 3D Model created by Marcin Lubecki in Blender

Then I set the Blender tool’s rendering engine to ‘Cycles.’ I set the camera type to ‘panoramic’ and set the panorama type to ‘equirectangular’.   I then set the latitude from -90 to 90 and the longitude from -180 to 180.  I made a few more adjustments and then rendered the image.

The process renders one tile at time to produce this equirectangular projection and essentially stitches the whole thing together before your eyes. 

Rendering a model created by Marcin Lubecki

The result is in the linked LodeStar example found above.

Conclusion

This post focused mostly on finding, creating, and viewing photospheres. The first releases of LodeStar 9 will support the viewing of photospheres.  A near-future of version of LodeStar will enable instructors to add markers to a photosphere and connect the image to all of LodeStar’s branching options. 

Photospheres are easy to create.  Hopefully, in the future they will be easy to find by instructors in order to suit an instructional purpose.  One can easily imagine the applications:  virtual tours of places and items of interest in every discipline.  In a future post, I’ll tease out some of the possibilities and opportunities for the adventuresome online instructor.

Technology and Great Learning Experiences

Introduction:

As instructional designers, we understand that technology (even cool technology) can never substitute for the elemental motivations and emotions of a student engaged in a meaningful eLearning interaction.  Curiosity, exploration, challenge, suspense, resolution and revelation are all examples of experiences one strives to conjure when designing interactions.  Technology alone, once the novelty has worn off, doesn’t cut it.  Technology is just a means to an end – what researchers like to call an affordance.  Technology affords us the opportunity to create experiences that stimulate curiosity, present challenges and encourage learning.  Technology might take the form of videos, animations, audio, elaborate layouts, interactive maps, virtual worlds, and on and on.  But if it doesn’t motivate or result in an emotional experience or elicit the triumph of winning a challenge, or an ‘aha’ moment, the technology will soon leave learners cold. 

I learned that lesson from a computer game I played in the 80s.  It was called Space Quest and it was tremendously fun.  The first versions of the game were in black and white with simple graphics.  You had to solve a series of challenges to stay alive.  Those were addictive.  A group of our friends tried to solve the challenges together.  When it became too late to play any longer, our friends went home–only to return the next day.

Later versions of Space Quest began using a 256-color palette.  The graphics and animation became more colorful but often left you in this passive mode, more like watching a movie than playing an interactive game.  The first exposure to new technology was kind of exciting – but then the ‘movies’ lost their appeal. 

I think about a very exciting technology, geolocation storytelling, in the same way.  The technology is becoming more and more seductive.  Interactive maps can now feature 3D buildings, customized maps, and most recently, game objects.  You can create 3D models of dinosaurs, for example, and have them suddenly appear when you reach a location – like Central Park.  Imagine it: dinosaurs in Central Park or on the Mississippi river, for that matter.  As interesting, you can move around in real space, and see your location updated on a fictional map.  But what does this all mean to the busy instructor?

The answer is, typically, very little. Certainly, instructors and students can purchase or subscribe to off-the-shelf, ready-made products that use these technologies.  The benefits, however, will only outweigh the costs if the technology satisfies a significant instructional goal.  Often, there isn’t a good fit and that’s why I  am more interested in homespun.  I am interested in the instructor as creator and what the instructor can create.  I am more interested in how instructors can use sophisticated technology simply and get students to explore, complete a challenge or experience that ‘aha’ moment in a manner that precisely matches a course objective. 

A simple but effective example

The following example illustrates how instructors can use basic geolocation technology but avoid the pitfalls of spending time without the commensurate return on investment or not getting students to think, solve problems, explore or experience a new insight or gain a new perspective. You will need to use your imagination on how the underlying principle applies to your situation.

The example will show how you can draw on a map and relate that to content that will help students solve a problem. 

The example is inspired by Blue Zones, places where people live longer.  Blue Zones was developed by Dan Buettner whose work (e.g. AfricaQuest, MayaQuest, Blue Zones, etc.)  typically fosters the experiences that I’m discussing:  curiosity, exploration, decision-making, and problem-solving.  Visit https://www.bluezones.com/ for more information on his latest project.

To make our example come alive, I’ll choose two of the original five blue zones: Okinawa, Japan and Sardinia, Italy.  In a real application, I would choose five or more locations.  Our objective is to get students to visit the sites, look around with the help of Google Street View, collect statistics, compare and contrast the information and then propose a theory of why people live longer in these zones.  Dan Buettner, of course, summarizes this information in his books, but in our hypothetical application, we want students to think for themselves

Herein lies the crux of our strategy.  We could simply present the information.  The geolocation technology would then serve as another form of page turner.  If, instead, we get students to explore, collect data and attempt to solve a problem, we have caused students to think and experience firsthand the thrill of discovery.

Please note that we’ve covered geolocation storytelling in the past.  If you’re not familiar with this technology, I encourage you to visit the links below:

Geolocation Storytelling:  Van Gogh in Arles  (an application)
https://www.oercommons.org/courses/vincent-van-gogh-s-arles/view

Geolocation Storytelling:  Van Gogh in Arles  (a mobile app)
https://apps.apple.com/us/app/van-gogh-in-arles/id1489831732?ls=1

Geolocation Storytelling:  Van Gogh in Arles  (an article) https://lodestarlearn.wordpress.com/2019/11/07/geolocation-storytelling-van-gogh-in-arles/

Geolocation Storytelling (an article)
https://lodestarlearn.wordpress.com/2017/05/14/geo-location-storytelling/

The Van Gogh in Arles applications supports students’ visiting Arles and discovering the places where Vincent Van Gogh lived and worked.  It also supports students’ visiting Arles from the comfort of their desks.  The example below is more like the latter.  Students do not need to visit the location.  From their desks, they explore a map, collect information and visit the locations virtually.

How it’s done

So, let’s use the LodeStar eLearning authoring tool to set this up step by step.  (Full disclosure: I have been the chief architect of LodeStar and president of LodeStar Learning for the past two decades. LodeStar Learning offers a free trial of this tool at https://www.lodestarlearning.com so that you can immediately start a geolocation project. )

For this application I chose the ARMaker template.  The ARMaker template is geolocation aware.  The technology is baked right into the template.

LodeStar eLearning Authoring Tool (Version 8.0) Template Viewer

Typically in geolocation applications, one would type in a latitude and longitude of a location and then organize the page with text, graphics, imagery, audio and/or video.  When the student visits the location or, optionally, clicks on its marker on the map, the student is presented with the content.

Content on Text Pages can be tied to geographic locations by latitude and longitude

In our application, we don’t want students jumping from the map into the content.  Rather, we want the content to display on the map. 

In other words, our first page features instructions, but the instructions are not associated with a latitude or longitude.  Because these instructions are on the first page, they display when the application launches.

A page as it appears to the instructor

So, after I chose a layout, a theme, and a background image, our application looks like this when I preview it in a browser.

A page as it appears to the student

The astute LodeStar user will immediately notice some things are different.  I used Tools > Layouts to change the layout and background image.  I used Tools > Project settings to make other changes.

In Tools > Project Settings, I hid the navigation buttons; I allowed students to see the map; and I disabled students’ clicking on a marker to jump from map to content.

Here is where a different approach comes in.  The ‘Branches’ view and screenshot below begin to reveal the strategy.  I add a page with more background detail and link to it.  In LodeStar, any text on a Text page can link to any other page.  When students click on the words ‘click here’, they are taken to an information page.

I also linked to a Long Answer page.  That is where students will input their findings and their theory and submit their work to the instructor.

Also pictured, is a Wall page and two more Text pages on Sardinia and Okinawa.  The purpose of the wall is literally to wall off content.  Walled off content can only be accessed with a link or a branch or a third method that I’ll soon reveal.

Links can take students to other pages or external URLs.

Now here comes the fun part.

The Okinawa and Sardinia pages feature pie charts created by Blue Zones that show the percentages in an Okinawan or Sardinian diet that are made up of meat, fish, and poultry; legumes; added sugar; added fats; fruits; whole grains; and dairy.   In this application, I don’t make any statements.  I simply show the percentages.  I can also supply other information such as population density, family size, pollution index, climate data, and anything else that will enable students to make educated guesses about what contributes to longevity.

In our application, I’ll mark the Blue Zones.  When students click on a blue circle, the data will pop up.

Here is how I set it up:

  1. First, I added a Geolocation widget to a text page.  (LodeStar supports a variety of widgets that can be added to Text pages.)
  2. Second, I added a circle map object and set its properties (stroke color, fill color, radius, etc.) I could also add polygons, polylines, and rectangles.
  3. Third, I assigned a latitude and longitude to the circle to locate it on the map.

The Geolocation widget allows instructors to create circles, polygons, polylines, and rectangles, and display them on a map with precise coordinates

  • Finally, I associated a click on the circle to content.  The content could be housed on any page and not only the page that houses the Geolocation widget.

Map objects can be connected to page content

As pictured below, I also added latitude and longitude coordinates to the page.  This was not absolutely necessary.  Adding the coordinates at the page level (rather than the widget level) causes the red markers to display.  In Tools > Project Settings, I disabled the markers.  Their only function is to set the bounds of the map.  In our example, the markers conveniently set the boundaries around Okinawa and Sardinia.

(In normal geolocation applications, you would create content on a page and then set the latitude and longitude to mark the location on the map.  As I’ve mentioned, when students click on the marker or walk near the location, they are transported to the page.)

Pages can be tied to red markers by latitude and longitude

Here is what it looks like when the student clicks on ‘Show Map’.

Here is what it looks like, when the student clicks on a blue circle (i.e. a Blue Zone).

Now to explore further, the student drags the icon over Sardinia, and gets this:

The student has landed into a ‘street’ view of Sardinia and can look around.  Observant students will notice the water, the fishing boat, and the uneven terrain – all of which relate to factors that contribute to long life.

Once the student has made her observations and drawn some conclusions, she can submit her information to the instructor with the help of the long answer page.

Conclusion

One could easily imagine an application that simply displays the Blue Zones on a map with information on each site.  Our hypothetical application gives students something to do.  We challenge students to solve the mystery of long life that challenged Dan Buettner and the demographers Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain before him.   To present students with this challenge, we don’t need a degree in computer science or in art or in 3D modeling.  We need to boil things down to the essential elements of curiosity, exploration, challenge, suspense, resolution and revelation.  An instructor’s efforts should be focused on organizing the background information, the data, the locations and the assignment to make the most out of what this technology affords us as educators.  As importantly, we want the technology to bend to our educational objective–and not the other way around.

You can picture using maps, graphical objects and information in your own disciplines. When applications are set up in meaningful, problem-solving contexts in biology, geology, social sciences, history, or whatever, the possibilities are, dare I say,  boundless.

Online Learning After COVID

Robert N. Bilyk

As a Learning and Development Specialist, eLearning Toolmaker, former director of a Center for Online Learning, and founder of Cyber Village Academy, I’m observing education’s response to the current crisis with profound regret.

Introduction

I feel like the curator of an art gallery.  I’ve grown a collection of fine art and agonized over every detail of its presentation.  Then disaster strikes and my exhibition space is displaced by a thousand people who evacuated to the art gallery and sought shelter.  The space is suddenly overcrowded, the toilets overflowing, and the art hidden behind sweltering bodies.  When the danger passes, thousands of people will say that they’ve experienced firsthand my most treasured art gallery.

The COVID Crisis — Our Emergency Response

During the COVID crisis, thousands of teachers and tens of thousands of students evacuated to emergency online learning – and they can now say that they’ve experience online learning firsthand.

Image Credit – Dobrislava (Wikimedia Commons)

But in a recent survey of 7,238 K12 teachers (Network of Public Educators, April 2020), here is what they had to say about it:

  • 56% of the teachers felt overwhelmed by distance teaching
  • 55% of teachers said that their students will be further behind than in the classroom
  • A month into the crisis, 25% of teachers (n= 7238) hadn’t determined how they will assess student’s work.
  • 26% of teachers held video conferences with their students once per week and 36% did not video conference at all.
  • 30% struggled to adjust to distance learning
  • 56% of students struggled to adjust to distance learning
  • 64% used Google Classroom

The results are not good, and probably not unexpected.  The results in higher education are no better. In a recent survey of 826 faculty members conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group:

  • 55% of teachers (who had no previous online experience at the institution) lowered their expectations for the amount of work that students would be able to do
  • 34% of teachers (who had no previous online experience at the institution) lowered their expectations for the quality of work that students would be able to do

Educause writes:

Online learning carries a stigma of being lower quality than face-to-face learning, despite research showing otherwise. These hurried moves online by so many institutions at once could seal the perception of online learning as a weak option, when in truth nobody making the transition to online teaching under these circumstances will truly be designing to take full advantage of the affordances and possibilities of the online format. (Educause Review, March 2020)

The authors of the Educause article define what we are seeing. They propose a specific term for the type of instruction being delivered during the COVID crisis. They call it emergency remote teaching.

Online Learning versus Emergency Remote Teaching

I subscribe to that view.  Online learning and emergency remote teaching are not the same.  What we conclude about the one can’t be generalized to the other.

Effective and engaging online learning requires that a lot of things come together and work in harmony before we can hope for good outcomes.   It also has to start with inspiration and vision – and not an emergency measure.

My own inspiration comes from a deep appreciation of individualized instruction, adaptive learning, the power of interaction, the power of challenge, and the satisfaction of grasping new concepts.  Online learning has a place in every curriculum regardless of the primary modality, lecture or otherwise.

To underscore the distinction between online learning and emergency remote teaching, the Educause article cites  Learning Online: What Research Tells Us about Whether, When and How.  In Learning Online,  the authors identify nine dimensions, each of which has options, reflective of the complexity of the design and decision-making process.

The nine dimensions are modality, pacing, student-instructor ratio, pedagogy, instructor role online, student role online, online communication synchrony, role of online assessments, and source of feedback.

The authors also made another point that has stuck with me.

Yet an understanding of the important differences has mostly not diffused beyond the insular world of educational technology and instructional design researchers and professionals. 

What Lessons Have We Learned?

As a member of the instructional design community, I’m challenged with the question of how can we break out of this insular world and really make an impact?  Many are feeling the pain of this crisis and feeling dissatisfied with online teaching and learning.

From parents, I’ve heard:  Kids are getting stir crazy.  Parents are in a power struggle with their kids.  Both teachers and parents struggle to find good sites, good videos, and good activities.  Kids need organizers – from lockers to bulletin boards.

I’ve also heard a few triumphs.  Recently, a parent showed me an obstacle course that a seven year old built.  A required video recording showed the kid scrambling through this course three times.  To me this represented design, physical education, and communication all rolled into one activity.  To me, it seemed very clever and a credit to the teacher.

I have other observations.

Online learning needs some organizer: a place where students can find assignments, submit work, get feedback, etc. It is amazing that to me that K12 teachers adapted so quickly to such a variety of systems  — but they were on a learning curve at the worst possible time.

In the survey, 64% of the teachers used Google Classroom.  Google Classroom wasn’t around before May, 2014.  The Google statistic surprised me despite the reasons being obvious.  Google classroom is free and simple.  A fifteen-minute YouTube video can get teachers and students up and running.  In time, they can master slightly more sophisticated tasks like sharing the editing rights to documents, collaboration and integrating other Google applications.

Google classroom lacks many of the features of learning management systems like Moodle, Schoology and D2L Brightspace  — but again, its simplicity is attractive especially during an emergency response time.

After the COVID crisis, will simple and free be sufficient or will K12 school leaders inventory what worked and what was missing?  Will teachers get the professional development and support that they deserve?  They certainly accomplished a lot with what little they had in terms of training and resources.

In higher education, the story is a little different.  Most higher education institutions have adopted very sophisticated learning management systems, and have invested in media libraries, web conferencing, assessment platforms, quality-control processes and so forth.

And yet, we know that there are only 13,000 instructional designers (source: Online Learning Consortium)  with a wide range of roles spread over 5,500 higher education institutions.  Many institutions, like the University of Minnesota, have more than a dozen instructional designers.  That means many smaller institutions are lucky to have even one specialist whose role it is to help faculty design and build online courseware.  And how about professional development?  Are faculty getting the training they require?   After the COVID crisis, will school leaders double-down on online learning development, or dismiss it as a ‘lower-quality’ option?  Will online learning get properly funded or will it be down-sized in response to the enrollment crisis that appears to be hanging over institutions (https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-05-11/what-colleges-must-do-to-survive-the-coronavirus-crisis)?

Just before the COVID crisis, higher education administrators participated in a survey administered by Quality Matters and Eduventures, titled “The Changing Landscape of Online Education, 2020” (CHLOE).  The majority of respondents said that they did not require students to complete an orientation before studying online.  Then suddenly, online learning became a necessity.  How well prepared were students to learn online?

Another survey statistic, although not surprising, also suggests room for improvement.  In the regional public universities, only 50% of the faculty who are approved to teach online received training on the learning management system.  Approximately 45% received training on resources and pedagogy.  The reason for that lack of participation is not known.  The authors of the survey write that more data is needed to understand the resistance of faculty to becoming more effective online teachers.

I’ll look forward to learning more after the crisis is over.  Did faculty simply substitute their lecture classes with Zoom, or did they take advantage of all that blended learning has to offer in synchronous and asynchronous environments?

It’s Time for a True Sea Change

I expect that a true sea change in online learning will require effort and resources at every level: from student and faculty development to school leaders supporting and rewarding that effort – and paying attention.

But a lot responsibility also falls on the tech providers.  For one, we need to make it easier for instructors to find, select, adopt, adapt and collect data from Open Educational Resources.

In a sense, we operate in a Balkanized environment.   Balkanization is the breakdown of a region into smaller autonomous units that are usually hostile to one another.  We can embed eLearning resources, but they don’t interoperate at any level.  That makes it particularly challenging for teachers with such little time.

As an example, Open Educational Resources are wonderful, and yet faculty must expend quite an effort to find something that matches their objectives. What is the free equivalent to expensive, proprietary systems, which do a good job mining OER and aligning OER to standards and objectives?

Image Credit : Merridy Wilson-Strydom (Wikimedia Commons)

From the perspective of a toolmaker, I am impressed with the work that repositories like OpenStax, Merlot, OERCommons have done.  But OER repositories don’t offer a place to store, share and collaborate on learning objects.  (Although, in some cases, they do allow you to store materials created with their own authoring tool.)

That’s why we began integrating our own tool with GitHub, which offers a place to store, publish, version control, and collaborate on projects. Seven Steps That Will Change How You Share eLearning  What is the EdTech equivalent of GitHub?  The closest that I’ve seen is OpenStax.

Perhaps only the largest of our tech companies can solve the problem of interoperability.  We need to be able to store, share, version control, and plug in learning resources into our learning environments.

Along with the technology, our teachers need professional development and reward and recognition for their efforts.  A single teacher might be able to create one quality resource in one academic year.  That single resource should be shared with the broader community and the teacher rewarded for her contribution.  In higher ed, the resource might factor into tenure and promotion.  In K12,  it might mean a cash reward equivalent to a coaching assignment.

A higher power needs to organize a learning activity exchange where reward comes with contribution.  Each and every resource needs to be interoperable with learning management systems and learner record stores (LRS).  Every resource needs to be tagged by standards specialists so that they are easily discovered and aligned to standards.

Conclusion

A lot of factors contributed to the poor results of emergency remote teaching.  At the fore are the lack of teacher and student preparation for online learning.  School leaders can help with that.  We are also asking teachers to operate in an environment that is somewhat hostile and not interoperable.  The onus is on the tech community to do better and to think through how learning materials can be stored, shared, collaboratively worked on, and plugged into environments that can capture student responses and performance data.

We need to improve not only for the sake of emergency response but for the betterment of education…even at the best of times.

References:

Emergency Remote Learning Survey Results

Perspectives: COVID-19, and the future of higher
education

http://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/covid.html

Means, B., Bakia, M., & Murphy, R. (2014). Learning online: what research tells us about whether, when and how. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

 

Seven Steps That Will Change How You Share eLearning

Introduction:

These steps might not rise to the level of the seven articles of the US Constitution but, hype aside, these seven steps will change how you store, version control, publish, and share your work with the eLearning community.  If you attempt these seven steps, you might get frustrated and even fail at first.   But, if you persist,  in time, you will become comfortable with the process and never do things the ‘old’ way again.

The Problem

Traditionally, instructors have worked on interactive learning activities and then published them to learning management systems like Moodle, BrightSpace and Blackboard.  The project sitting on the instructor’s hard drive lacks an easy-to-retrieve back up and the project uploaded to the  learning management system remains siloed.

By siloed, I mean that when the instructor wishes to share the project with a broader audience or register the project in learning object repositories like Merlot, OER Commons and Curriki , the problem becomes even greater.  Normally, you can’t share your project that is sitting in an LMS with an Open Educational Resources (OER) repository.  If you wish to publish to an OER repository, you must solve a number of problems:

Where does the project get stored? 

Most OER repositories are referential.  They don’t store; they reference material that is stored on the web somewhere outside the repository.  As an instructor who wishes to share with a larger community, you need a website.

How does the project get backed up? 

You need some sort of backup solution.

How does the project get versioned?

You need a version control system.  With a version control system you can revert changes,  create different versions of the same project, and much more.

How does the project get shared with other instructors? 

You must use DropBox, Google Drive, or OneDrive.  But none of these systems allows you to publish directly from their shared drives.  Creating websites from DropBox, Google Drive and OneDrive is disallowed.

One solution doesn’t address all of these problems.  You need a combination of things — or, you need GitHub.

Introducing GitHub

GitHub offers you a place to store, secure, version-control, publish and share your project with others.

GitHub allows you to publish your projects through the web and, optionally, share your project for collaboration with other instructors.

In GitHub,  you can store anything that you can create with tools like LodeStar, including learning activities, geolocation stories, interactive fiction, interactive case studies, WebQuests and eBooks – all for a nominal subscription fee payable to GitHub.

Collaboration

For more advanced users, you can invite collaborators to your project.  With the GitHub Pro plan, you can keep your authoring files private but still publish the project as a website for your students, colleagues, and OER repositories to see.   That means that your project files stay private and the public only sees the end result (the HTML).  You can keep your authoring files private and invite collaborators to help you work on the project.

What is GitHub?

GitHub has traditionally been a place for computer programmers to store, secure, manage and share versions of their code.  It has been the place for openly sharing code.

The very mechanisms that enable programmers to share their code will enable  instructors to publish their projects to the internet, and secure, store, backup and, optionally, share their work with other collaborators.   By default, under the GitHub Pro plan, projects are secure and private.  The instructor then has control over whether or not the project is published to the internet as a website.

Technically, GitHub is an open-source repository hosting service, which means cloud storage for code. That code can include projects created in LodeStar.  GitHub hosts your project and  keeps track of the various changes made to every submission or, in technical speak, commit. The service is able to do this by using git, a popular revision control system.

So GitHub is both powerful and sort of geeky sounding.  But, if instructors follow some very basic steps, they will harness the power of GitHub to store, publish, and optionally share their projects just like any computer programmer.

So how do I get started?

LodeStar 8.0 build 4 and later support GitHub.  This build is now available.

In  broad terms, you create projects such as Interactive Case Studies in LodeStar.  Each project is matched with a GitHub local repository (folder).   As the project is being developed, you export the project to the local GitHub repository.   You use GitHub Desktop to commit the project to a master and then push the project to the repository in the cloud.    When you’re ready, you publish your project to the web.

It looks like this:

2020-05-12_2149

Getting Started in Seven Steps

Step 1. Install and sign into GitHub Desktop

Download GitHub Desktop from https://desktop.github.com/

GitHub Desktop supports both Windows and Mac.

Launch GitHub Desktop and follow the initial welcome screen to sign into your GitHub account. You’ll see a “Configure Git” step, where you can set your name and email address.   Be very careful with selecting a name.  The name will appear in the web address for your projects.

Step 2. Create a new local repository

You’ll see a “Let’s get started!” view, where you will see some options, including create a new repository, or add an existing repository.

Select ‘Create a New Repository on your Hard Drive’

Remember our diagram?  You first create a local repository on your hard drive and then push the contents of that repository to the cloud.

Fill out the fields:

  • “Name” defines the name of your repository both locally and on GitHub in the cloud.
  • “Description” is an optional field that you can use to provide more information about the purpose of your project.
  • “Local path” sets the location of your repository on your computer. By default, GitHub Desktop creates a GitHub folder inside your Documents folder to store your repositories, but you can choose any location on your computer. Do not choose a LodeStar directory.   You will want to keep LodeStar projects and your repositories separate until you are ready to export.  Write down the location of the local repository.  You will need to point LodeStar to that repository in a latter step.
  • Your new local repository will be a folder inside the chosen location. For example, if you name your repository myEBook, a folder named myEBook is created inside the folder you selected for your local path.
  • Don’t worry about more advanced topics like Readme files, licensing and the ‘Ignoring files’ selection. Let’s stick to the basics.

Click Create repository.

When you have been working with GitHub for a while, you can add a new repository by selecting the ‘Add drop down menu’ to the right of the current repository.

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So that you can follow along, I will create a repository for the web version of the Arles Geolocation Story that I’ve written about in past blogs.

Here is what the dialog box looks like.  I’ll click on ‘Create Repository’ to create the folder.

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Side note. Understand GitHub Desktop

Below the menu is a bar that shows the current state of your repository in GitHub Desktop:

Current repository shows the name of the repository you’re working on. You can click Current repository to switch to a different repository in GitHub Desktop.   Pictured below is the repository I was working on before transferring my Arles project to a repository.

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In the screen shot above, I am working on a project named ‘CRM’.  That is the current repository that is selected.

If I clicked on the words ‘Current repository’, this is what I would see:

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The Arles in the listing is my Arles mobile app.  What I am about to demonstrate is the creation of a repository for my Arles Web app.   In the list are all my projects that are matched to their own local repositories.   If I wanted to work with a different local repository like Composter, I would click on its title  to make it the current local repository.

Side note.  Ignore the concept of Branch right now.

Branches is a term used in versioning systems like Git. This has nothing do with LodeStar branches.  Essentially you can clone your project and make independent changes to the clone (the branch) and the original.   For now, our current branch will always be master.  If you choose to become more skillful at using GitHub, you can learn all about branches and forks and pull requests.  But you don’t need to go there.  Making changes to the current branch labeled ‘master’ is sufficient.

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Step 3.  Publish Repository – but not quite yet

You will see Publish repository button on the right, but let’s leave that alone for a while.

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You are done with the initial set up.  Now, we’ll get into the regular flow of exporting a project and then pushing the local repository to the cloud.

 

Step 4. Set up a LodeStar project to export to the local repository

You will need LodeStar 8.0 Build 4 or later for this step.

Open an existing LodeStar project or start a new one.  Once you are in the project, select Tools > Repository Option.

In the screenshot below, I chose the directory that I created in Step Two: Create a new local repository.  In my case it is c:\git\Arles-Web but more typically it will be [username]/Documents/Git/repository name.

By selecting the repository directory, you are associating the LodeStar project with this repository.  Click on the ‘Save Repository Directory’ button.

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Please note: Each project is associated with its own repository directory.

Step 5: Work on your LodeStar Project then Export it to the Repository

You do not need to complete your project before exporting it to the repository.  Exporting to the repository, then pushing the changes to the cloud will serve as a backup of your project.  At this point, no one will see it but you.

Once you have done some work on your project, then select Export > Repository.

Fill in the fields and click on ‘Create Export’.

You are essentially copying your project to the local repository associated with this project.

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Disregard the exports directory that you see in the dialog above.  That is a more advanced topic.  The destination is the Repository Directory. You will see a confirmation that you are exporting to the repository directory in the following dialog.

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After the export, go to GitHub desktop.

Step 6:  View the Changes in GitHub Desktop

The Changes view in GitHub Desktop will now show all of the files in your LodeStar project.

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I’m not displaying all of the files in the screenshot above.  There are 189 of them.

In future exports, only the files that have changed will be listed.  The Changes view shows changes you’ve made to files in your current branch but haven’t committed to your local repository. At the bottom, you’ll also notice a box with “Summary” and “Description” text boxes and a ‘Commit to master’ button.

Type in a sentence for ‘Summary’, and a detailed explanation in ‘Description’.  Your first commit might be labelled as ‘Initial Commit’.  You can repeat that in the description or be more descriptive about the project.

Initially there are 189 files in this project, which includes all of the data files, html, css, scripts, audio files, and imagery that LodeStar manages in a project.

Again, fill in the summary and description.

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Click on the ‘Commit to master’ button.   This commits the files to the master branch in the local repository.  I know that I haven’t explained the concept of ‘master’,  but just know that, for our purposes, committing to the master is a good and necessary thing.

After all of the changes are processed, click on the Publish Repository button to send a copy of your local repository to the cloud.

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You will see this dialog:

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Review the name and description.  Keep the code private.  That means we are keeping the cloud version of this project private.   If you subscribe to GitHub at the Pro level, you can keep your repository private, but still publish to the web.  You cannot do this with the free version.   You must make your repository public in order to publish your web page.

Please note:  If you make your repository public, anyone can copy your project to their own.

 The Pro plan allows you to have your cake and eat it too.  You can keep your repository private, but still publish your project to the web.  In other words you can create a website from your private repository.  Specifically, you can create a public website from the master branch of your private repository.

You can create a private repository with the free plan, and then, when you are ready, upgrade the free plan to the pro plan.  (I’ll show you how at the end of this article.)   At the time of this writing, the Pro Plan is $4 per month.

Step 7:  Publish the index.html page

The index.html page is the launch page for your project.  It is currently private.

To see your project in the cloud.  Click on the ‘View on GitHub’ button as seen below.

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This is what you will see when you get to the cloud:

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Pictured above is the typical appearance of a GitHub project in the cloud repository.  It is starting to look really geeky and spooky, but don’t worry.  It’s just heads on stakes.  Ignore everything for now.  Click on Settings. Just focus on ‘Settings’.

In Settings, scroll down until you see GitHub Pages.   If you are on the Pro plan, you can now select ‘master-branch’ as the source for your GitHub Pages.  This means that Github will publish the index.html file that LodeStar automatically committed to master.  Remember, ‘master’ is good. If you’re not on the Pro plan, we’ll show you how to upgrade at the end of this article.

The publication takes a while for the first time.  The message reads:

Your site is ready to be published at https://bbilyk1234.github.io/Arles-Web/

Update:  the location is now

https://lodestarlearning.github.io/Arles-Web/index.html

 

Once the site is ready, the message will change.   The site will be slo-o-o-w the first time you access it, but that will change once Github caches your files for quicker access.

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How to upgrade from GitHub Free to GitHub Pro

At the time of this writing, GitHub Pro users are billed $4 per month.   With GitHub Free you can create private repositories but not publish them to the web.  You can publish public repositories, but your project can then be copied by any subscriber to GitHub.

To upgrade, log in to GitHub in the cloud at:

https://github.com

Click on the rightmost menu.  See the arrow on the far right in the picture below.  Then select ‘Settings’.

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Select Billing from the menu on the left, then click on the green Upgrade button.   GitHub Pro is likely all that you need.  It enables you to keep your project repositories private, but still publish them to the web.

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Uploading Changes

Once you’ve committed a project and uploaded it to the cloud repository, you are bound to make changes.

In my example, after I uploaded the Arles-Web project, I decided to add a link to the mobile app version.

After making changes to your project, do the following:

  1. Export to the Repository again.

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  • Open GitHub Desktop and make your project the current Repository.  I’ll make Arles-Web the current repository.  View the changes but be patient.  It might take a couple of minutes to place the changes in the repository.  The list of changed files will update.

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  • Fill in the summary and description for this commit. You do this to describe every commit.

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  • Click on Commit to master.
  • Now here is a new step! Click on Push origin either at the top or by clicking on the blue button.  Both are pictured below.  Technically, this is called pushing the commit to the origin.  But, basically you are copying the changed files in the local repository to the cloud repository.  If you published your project to the web in a previous step, your changes will be almost instantly published to the web.

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Conclusion

Seven steps will change your life.  At least it will change your approach to sharing eLearning.  You will be in control of your work like you never have before.  You will be able to safely back up your files, version control them, keep them private, publish them, share them with other instructors – all in one amazing platform, GitHub.

Once you are confident that you have mastered the basic steps, you can read dozens of articles and see dozens of YouTube tutorials on how to do the fancy stuff in GitHub.  Remember, however, that if you accomplish the seven steps, you’ve accomplished a lot.  Those seven steps alone will change how you work and interact with the eLearning community.

 

LodeStar 8 Release

Response to Crisis:

LodeStar’s genesis more than 20 years ago came out of a response to crisis. It came out of an aspiration to help students who were homebound for reasons of health and safety. 

Technically, the origins of LodeStar, in the late 90s, were found deep within an early learning management system.  By 2001, it developed as a stand alone tool in partnership with Broad Education and Microsoft Class Server.  By 2003, Mark Burrs and I incorporated LodeStar Learning and looked to the future to support the needs of teachers and students in any learning management system that embraced the standards of IMS+, and then SCORM and xAPI.

Since then, LodeStar has weathered technological change after change, but the inspiration behind this tool remains the same:  help instructors create a richer, more interactive experience for online learners.

Now the entire world has been forced online.  The need that first engendered LodeStar is global.  It is an unprecedented situation that awaits LodeStar 8, our newly released version on March, 30, 2020.

LodeStar8

LodeStar 8 supports images with branch options

Our Latest Response

We also recognize that we’re in a time of scarce resources.  We have a new tool, but it comes at a difficult time. To address this issue, we’ve made every effort to set the cost of entry low. There will be teachers, however, who can ill afford any cost however low. For them, we’ve created an online request form for a free one year free license.  Just like any license, anything that teachers create is licensed to them in perpetuity.  Only the authoring tool license lapses.  There are truly no strings attached.  We want to do our part.

We ask that instructors from institutions endowed with resources purchase at least a one year license.  (LodeStar 8 requires a new license.). This will offset the cost for others who can’t afford a license.  The key goal is to put tools in the hands of instructors to make online learning a richer and more meaningful experience.

In the upcoming weeks, I’ll be re-releasing ‘how-to’ videos and articles that were produced for LodeStar 7, but are still valid for the new release.  I’ll then create new articles and videos for the new capabilities.  For the future, we’ve  designed a new foundation that, hopefully, will support our building blocks for years to come.

In the meantime, thank you so much for your service.  I hope we’ve developed LodeStar into something that will help you and your students in the upcoming months.  This is a time of crisis, but it is also an opportunity to explore what’s possible in online interaction.  We want to be part of that exploration through our tools, templates, articles, and conversations.  Help us play a role and make a difference.

Please stay safe and stay in touch.

LodeStar Home and Free Trial License Download

http://www.lodestarlearning.com/

During the Covid-19 Crisis

For teachers who don’t have the financial resources to purchase a license, please click on the link below and fill out the request for a free 1 year license.  We may not be able to respond to and grant every request, but we will try.

Request for a Free License