DIY Serious eLearning


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   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.


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.


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


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.’


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.

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:

Suggestion One: Link to VR sites

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




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. 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 (,  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.


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


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 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)

Geolocation Storytelling:  Van Gogh in Arles  (a mobile app)

Geolocation Storytelling:  Van Gogh in Arles  (an article)

Geolocation Storytelling (an article)

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 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.


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.


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 (

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.


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.


Emergency Remote Learning Survey Results

Perspectives: COVID-19, and the future of higher

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


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.


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:


Getting Started in Seven Steps

Step 1. Install and sign into GitHub Desktop

Download GitHub Desktop from

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.


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.


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.


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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


You will see this dialog:


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.


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


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

Update:  the location is now


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.


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:

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


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.


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.


  • 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.


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


  • 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.



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.


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

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

The Humble Variable


Instructional Designers are skilled at using text, media and graphics to help meet learner objectives.  But design often extends beyond the visible into the functional.  Designs might require tracking user performance, branching to an appropriate level of instruction, saving state, and creating highly individualized, interactive, learning experiences.

At the root of this functionality is the humble variable.  Understanding the variable and all of its implications in a learning design may seem a little out of reach of instructional designers.  That seems like programming…and programming is the domain of specialists like programmers or instructional technologists who know and, perhaps, even enjoy things like mathematics and logic.

But most instructors and many designers don’t have such specialists as a resource.  With a little knowledge, designers can expand their designs on their own and create better experiences for learners.

The Variable

As a start, there are some basic things about the variable that all instructional designers should know – some basic things that will help designers think about their designs more clearly.

First, a bit of unlearning.

We learned about the variable in elementary school.  We were asked to solve for x, given this type of equation.

6 + x = 10;

‘x’ was a challenge.  You had to manipulate things in your head like  x = 10 – 6.  You needed to learn about the dark art of algebra.

And so, something as arcane as this


produced the graph below if you repeatedly plugged in a number for t, solved for x and scaled up the result:


Probably not the traditional domain of instructional designers.

But, in instructional design, the variable isn’t a problem to solve.  It’s a tool.  It’s a tool like text and graphics and media.  And you can start simple.

The use of variables gives us the ability to save state (remember things like user performance on a question item) and to branch (go down one learning pathway versus another) and to evaluate performance (were the right things chosen and in the right order, perhaps).

So powerful is the variable that all major eLearning authoring systems not only use variables internally but give the author access to them.

Down below is a screenshot from Storyline, a popular authoring tool.    The author of a game is tracking how many correct answers the learner achieved (correctcounter), whether or not the learner has achieved a fail condition (fail), and other things not pictured here like whether or not the learner has attempted the question once, twice or three times, the overall score and the number of seconds on the timer (timer).

The variable is a storage place.   Some people like to use the analogy of a bucket – a place to dump data into.  I like the analogy of a mailbox.  The mailbox has both an address and a place to store stuff. Like a mailbox, variables have an address in computer memory; they have an easy name that we can use to refer to that place in memory; and they store a value. That storage place can typically hold numerical values, characters (as in a name) or true/false states.  There are fancy names for all these things like integers, floats, strings and booleans – but we are only concerned about basic things such as the value being stored as a number, set of characters or true/false.

Numbers versus characters versus true or false matter because they take up different amounts of computer memory, they enforce the type of data that is stored in the variable so that coding mistakes aren’t inadvertently made, and they are stored differently in the bowels of the computer.


The following screenshots also hint at another division between variables.  The first screenshot that follows shows user variables.  User variables, in this case, store information about the student name and id.

User Variables in Captivate


In the next screenshot, system variables store program settings related to movie control.

System Variables in Captivate


There is also another category often referred to as the user-defined or custom variable, not shown here.  In most programs, if you wanted to track something special, you would create your own variable.   For example, if I gave the learner a choice of tools to select in order to complete a task and wanted to track which tool was selected, I could create a variable called ‘toolSelected’ and assign the variable a value.

For example, toolSelected = ‘caliper’

Or, optionally, I could assign a number to the variable, as in  toolSelected = 1


Alternatively, I could create a variable called ‘caliperSelected’ and set it to true or false. Or I could create a variable called ‘toolsSelected’ and in this case, set it to:

toolsSelected = “caliper; nippers”

In short, I have options.

So with that we are straying dangerously close to the wheelhouse of the computer programmer.  But for the instructional designer, what is important is an affordance — a capability.  We could give our learner a task and have the learner collect the appropriate tools.  Just knowing that variables can hold a bunch of values gives us a strategy to think about.  What if we placed learners in a situation where they could gather things to use in a problem-solving situation?  Thinking about variables and their capacity to store can inform our thinking – and give us a strategy or a way to accomplish our objective.

Let’s take this a bit further.

Conditional Statements

In my next example, I will use a custom variable and apply it to some branching logic.   In order to understand the example, we’ve already looked at the variable.  Now let’s look at some logic.  Branching logic can be achieved by either a conditional statement like one finds in Microsoft Excel or, in the example that follows, a ‘Gate’

Let’s think about logic.

In the spreadsheet below, we have scores in column B.  The logic is that if the score in column B is greater than 49, then the text in column C will show ‘Pass’.  Else, column C will show ‘Fail’


The gobbly-gook language part of this, looks like:

=IF(B3 > 49, “Pass”, “Fail”)

B3 is the cell that lies at the intersection of column B and row 3.   So, if you can think of the first part inside of the parentheses as a condition, the second part is a value if the condition is true, and the third part is a value if the condition is false, then the gobbly gook reads like this:

If the condition is true, show “true”, else show “false”.

The condition:  is the value in B3 larger than 49?  If yes, show ‘Pass’; else if no, show ‘Fail’.

eLearning authoring systems present different ways of using the same type of logic.  You can imagine a branching scenario.  If the learner score is greater than 80, proceed down the ‘enrichment’ path.  If not, proceed down the ‘remedial’ path.   Branching is just a series of else if statements, like the one shown on the spreadsheet.

So now, let’s show an example that combines the use of the variable and some branching logic.

An Example

In the following example, we’ll introduce LodeStar 8 (which will be released soon).    In the activity, I will show 6 animals.  3 of the animals are critically endangered.

The object of the lesson is for students to understand what critically endangered means and, given some data,  to be able to identify some animals that are examples of critically endangered species.

Identifying the critically endangered is actually highly technical, involving numbers, habitat area, habitat fragmentation, number of generations and so forth.  Let’s say, for the sake of our example, that we presented students with all of that information and then asked them to select the animals that are critically endangered.

If students correctly select a critically endangered species, they will earn 2 points.  Selecting an endangered species subtracts 1 point.  Selecting a vulnerable species subtracts 2 points.

Out of the six animals, three are critically endangered.  The best score is therefore 6.

Here is a screenshot of LodeStar 8 and the ActivityMaker template, which we used in our example.


A screenshot of LodeStar 8, due to be released March 2020

ActivityMaker supports different page types.  I’ll select the “Text” page type.  This page type supports text, imagery, SVG graphics, and widgets.  (We’ll talk about widgets soon.)

On the first page, I’ll add six images and a page heading.


Produced with LodeStar 8 ActivityMaker Template

Adding Branch Options to Images

First, to assign a Branch Option to an image, I click on the image and select the branch icon.  The branch icon is used throughout LodeStar.  (Please note:  You can only add branching logic to an image once it is loaded and appears on the page.)


The Branch Option dictates what happens when a question is answered correctly or incorrectly, when a page is displayed, when a gate is reached and so forth.  In this case, the branch icon controls what happens when an image is selected.  There is a selected branch option and a deselected branch option.  This is new to LodeStar 8.


To start, I load the image, select a scalable size (in percentage) and then click on OK.  I then click on the image and re-open the dialog box.

I click on the ‘Selected’ Branch for the Sumatran Rhino and launch the branch dialog.

I then set the Branch Option to ‘Append Value’ and fill in the variable name, which is ‘score’ and a value that will be appended to the variable, which is the value of 2.

Appended, in this case, means that 2 will be added to whatever the value that the variable ‘score’ is currently storing.    Essentially this:

Score = Score + 2


The new value of score is assigned the old value of score + 2.


For deselected, the opposite is true.

score = score +  (-2);


-2 will be appended to score, which is the same as

score = score – 2;


I then want to present the option for students to evaluate their selections.  I type in text ‘Check Answer’, highlight it, and then select the ‘Insert Link’ tool in the HTML editor.

LodeStar’s HTML editor is unlike any other editor.   The ‘Insert Link’ dialog presents multiple options including the ability to link to one of the LodeStar pages.  The Pages (UID) dropdown displays all of the available pages.  If the author forgets to give a page a human-friendly name, then only the computer-friendly UID number is shown.  In the screenshot below, you can see both.


When the student clicks on ‘Check Answer’ they will jump to the ‘Evaluate’ page and see an Embedded Variable widget displayed on the page.

The purpose of the Embedded Variable widget is to display the values of variables.    The widget dialog is launched by clicking on the sprocket icon as pictured.  (Remember, the LodeStar HTML editor is not your everyday brand of HTML editor.)


Insert a widget on a page

The widget dialog presents a menu of different widgets.


Widgets enable authors to embed timelines, word problems, questions, drag and drop, and other items on a Text Page

The author inserts the ‘Embedded Variable’ widget wherever s/he wishes to display variables and then types in the following:

Your ability to identify critically endangered species ranks {score} out of 6.

‘score’ is a variable name.  It holds a value (the student performance).  When the student sees this sentence, they will see the value and not the variable name.  If the variable has not been initialized (given a starting value), they will see ‘undefined’.

I also added two links:  ‘Start Your Journey’ and ‘Go back’.

Students can go back and attempt to improve their scores or they can move on.    The ‘Start Your Journey’ links to the ‘Gate 1’ page.  The ‘Go back’ links to the page with the animals.   The following diagram, found under ‘Branches’ on the left side, shows the branching connections from the Evaluate page to the preceding page and from the Evaluate page to the Gate. (I’ll explain gates in a second.)


The Branches view

The following screenshot shows the ‘Embedded Variable’ widget editor.   Variables that have been used elsewhere in the program need only curly braces {} to be used.  Variables that don’t exist can be declared here.  (They can hold the result of expressions written in JavaScript, which is a more advanced concept.)   ‘score’ was used on an earlier page and, so, it can simply be referenced with the curly braces.


Again, the two links on the page cause the learner either to move forward to the gate or backward to the animals.

Finally, we have the ‘Gate’, which is a LodeStar page type.  We use the gate in this case to branch the student.  If the student scored 5 or above, then we follow the ‘Pass Branch Options’.  If the student scored lower than 5 then we follow the ‘Fail Branch Options’.  ‘Pass’ and ‘Fail’ might not be appropriate terms, but students never see these terms.  They just imply one branch if the condition evaluates to true and another branch if the condition evaluates to false.

The condition is:

Pass only if Score Is >=  5

The variable that holds the score is the variable named ‘score’.  The variable name can be anything.  The author simply checks ‘Use Custom Score’ and identifies which variable will be used in the condition, as pictured below.


The following two screens show the two branch options.  The ‘Pass’ option is set to ‘Jump to Page’ to a page that is titled ‘Enrichment’.  The ‘Fail’ option is set to ‘Jump to Page’ to a page that is titled ‘Remedial’.


The following screenshot shows a page labeled ‘Enrichment’.  Notice the ‘Page ID’?  The Page Id was used in the gate.  This represents the start of a whole series of pages that represent the enrichment sequence. Similarly, there is a remedial page, the start to a series of pages that represent the remedial sequence.


Here is what the ‘fail’ branch dialog looks like.


When I click on the ‘Gate’ in the Branches view (as opposed to Pages view on the left side) and filter out the other pages, I can see the following.  Gate 1 branches to either ‘Enrichment’ or ‘Remedial’.  If I check off the filter I will see all of the branches for all of the pages, which gets to be a bit overwhelming.


More Complex Scenario-based Learning

So far, we are making the learner do something.  We then store their performance in a variable called ‘score’.  We use the value of the variable to branch in one direction if the score is low and in another direction if the score meets or exceeds a number.

That is a very basic building block.  It’s like Legos.  A Lego® brick is a simple thing, but Lego® bricks can be combined to form ever more complex shapes.  So too in eLearning.

As a culminating example, let me describe a project we recently completed.  The basic strategy of storing values in variables was used in a highly interactive learning module that we created to teach the topic of using LinkedIn in for business development.


With the use of variables, we were able to track learner performance through four Social Sales Index (SSI) measures: brand, people, insights, and relationships.  If learners acquire the skills to improve their SSI index through the learning module, then they can apply that directly to LinkedIn and see tangible results.


In the learning module, behind the scenes, there are four variables, each matched to an SSI metric.  As learners expand their LinkedIn network, respond appropriately to notifications, build their profile, etc. etc. they increase their SSI.  Each activity is tied to one of the variables.

The Function

We started with the humble variable, and then saw it used in branching logic.  Variables are also frequently used with functions.

A function is a group of instructions used by programming languages to return a single result or a set of results or simply to do something.

Because LodeStar automatically tallies student-earned points and reports performance to the learning management system, in our example, we use functions to override that behavior by setting the user score and total score to our SSI metrics or to anything we want.

Let’s look at functions in general, and then at how our example uses them.

As mentioned, the function either does something or gives you are result based on some input.  In LodeStar, functions are just something you use rather than define.  But if you looked at a function from a programmer’s point of view, it would look like the following function named addValues.  (functions are often named in this way, with the first letter lower cased.)

function addValues(value1, value2){

            sum = value1 + value2;

            return sum;


‘value1’ and ‘value2’ are inputs (or arguments, in technical speak)

The body of the function falls inside the curly braces {}.  The body of the function adds the two inputs and spits out a result — a return value.  Notice how we assign the sum of ‘value1’ and ‘value2’ to a variable?

Our use of a function is simpler.  We don’t need to define functions.  That work has been done for us.  We just need to use them.  We need two functions to override the default behavior of LodeStar.  As mentioned, the default behavior is that LodeStar automatically tallies up the student performance points in all of the different question types and reports that to the learning management system.  But we don’t want that.  We want to report the SSI score.

A perfect SSI score is 100, so that becomes the total score.  The sum of brand, people, insights, and relationships becomes the user score.

We use the function named setCustomUserScore(value) to set the user score.  We use setCustomTotalScore(value) to set the total score.

Once we do that, all of the module’s learning activities are tied to this real-world performance measure.  Finally, and most, importantly, all of the activities simulate real-world LinkedIn actions.


So, for our project, it all started with the humble variable.  We asked how does LinkedIn measure proficiency.  The answer is the SSI index.  We then asked how would we capture the learner’s performance in an SSI metric.  The answer is four variables named brand, people, insights and relationships.  We then asked how could we bring up different types of content in the form of notifications, messages and so forth.  The answer was in the use of variables and some conditional logic.  Finally, how would we report the SSI index to the learning management system.  The answer was….the function.

Instructional Designers traditionally think about text, graphics, audio and other types of media.  These elements alone lead to very linear designs.  The addition of variables, logic, and functions frees up our designs from the constraints of these linear models and allows us to add variability, surprise, realism and other things that enrich the learning experience.

So, start simple.

Geolocation Storytelling: Van Gogh In Arles


Because this is so personal, I’ll introduce myself.  I am Robert “Bob” Bilyk,  founder of LodeStar Learning.  I am passionate about the project I am about to describe and a proponent of instructional technology in general.

I recently heard an interview with Christopher Kimball, formerly of America’s Test Kitchen.  Two things he said that stuck with me: First, he described himself as being a home cook rather than a chef.  Secondly, he talked about introducing recipes to other home cooks that were slightly out of reach of their comfort zone and knowledge but not way out of reach.

My efforts are a modest version of that.  I’m interested in helping online instructors reach out and embrace new ways of interacting with their students.  I’m trying to connect to that inner instructional designer in all online teachers. And I’m trying to introduce strategies that are within reach but may require a stretch.

Geolocation storytelling is one such strategy.  It’s an incredible strategy that, I believe, is within reach of all online instructors.  Geolocation storytelling works for a broad range of disciplines: literature, history, biology, environmental studies, communications, urban planning, and on and on – wherever location is relevant. I use the term storytelling very loosely.  It can be fiction or non-fiction.

Geolocation storytelling reveals something about a location when the student visits the site either physically or virtually.   The student can see or hear the narrative on her smartphone when she physically visits a site or clicks on a map marker.

In this article I intend to share a project that I’m currently working on.  I intend to disclose the inspiration of the project, the brainstorming, and the nuts and bolts of how I am putting it all together.  It’s not completed. It truly is a work in progress.


Screenshot of a Geolocation project.

Screenshot of one page of a LodeStar Geolocation storytelling project situated in Arles, France, and focused on Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch painter.


The idea

Recently my wife and I traveled to Iceland and France.  We had several ideas in mind for geolocation stories — ideas that would match up to educational needs.  Some of our ideas turned out to be impractical because of cell phone coverage issues. But one of our ideas hit the jackpot.

The keys to a good geolocation story are a)  locations where there is a strong cellular signal b) exterior locations with line of sight to the sky for the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) signal c) a strong educational objective that is tied to location and d) somewhere to house the project like a learning management system.

For us, all of the elements came together in Arles, France.  Before arriving in Provence, in southern France where Arles is located, I imagined a GPS-guided walking tour of all the places that Vincent Van Gogh painted and sketched in Arles.  But I didn’t know whether or not it would be practical.

As it turned out, it was not only a practical idea (cell phone coverage was great and the buildings didn’t obstruct the satellite signal) but one that needed to be done.

The need

I’m sure there are dozens of guidebooks, brochures and pamphlets on Van Gogh’s Arles.  We didn’t immediately find any. The tourist office had a nicely illustrated guide in French, which we didn’t buy.  Instead,  we thought we’d start off with the obvious starting point — Fondation Vincent Van Gogh.

The mission of Fondation Vincent Van Gogh is wonderful — but it houses only a few of Van Gogh’s paintings.   If you are fresh off the train, boat or motorway, full of anticipation of all things Van Gogh, the Fondation is a bit of a disappointment.  (They do sell rubber ear erasers, however.)

We then thought of the next thing we knew.  The Yellow House!  That’s where Van Gogh stayed and painted and decorated in anticipation of the arrival of a fellow artist: Paul Gauguin.

As we soon learned, the Yellow House doesn’t exist.  We asked around. No Yellow House.

Arles is a wonderful place.  But it is difficult, at first, to make that Van Gogh connection.   If you know where to go, you’ll find panels of Van Gogh’s work at the locations where he painted some of his most famous works.  However, you need a guide to find them. Arles is a big place. The panels are helpful but you need to know something about Van Gogh to really appreciate them.

The opportunity

So here is the crux of the thing.  Van Gogh painted in locations. Location — with its people, rooted in the farms and neighborhoods, its colors, patterns, streets, trees, and flora — is an important part of the story.  As important is the perspective and knowledge of the educator. What the educator can bring to the story, superimposed on location, is the opportunity.   In our project, visitors to Arles would be guided by the story to important places and then presented with information related to the places.

The intrepid educator

I’m not a Vincent Van Gogh scholar.  In contrast, I think of the scholarship of educators with whom I have worked.  I think of educators like Dr. Carolyn Whitson, at Metropolitan State University, who recently published an eBook titled  ‘Understanding Medieval Last Judgment Art’* and I imagine what they could do with geolocation story telling. This strategy is within reach of educators like Dr. Whitson because she teaches online, she uses technology, and she has already embraced eBook technology (and other technologies) to make her text and photography accessible to a wide range of students.  (The link to her book can be found at the end of this post.)

I’m not a Van Gogh scholar, but I am an enthusiast.  Since I was a teen, I’ve been drawn to his sketches, paintings and personal life.  His ministry in the Borinage coal mining district, ‘The Potato Eaters’ and the sketch ‘Sorrow’ with its accompanying tortured love story hooked me from an early age.   His hope of renewal in Arles and the vibrancy of his paintings and the eventual devastation of his dreams and aspirations, in various ways, inspired me. I carved wood, painted, and wrote stories under the same melancholic humor as the artist.

And so it was with much enthusiasm that I approached this geolocation story-telling project.  But recognizing that I am not a Van Gogh scholar I limited myself to these few simple elements:  location, Van Gogh’s own words and paintings, photography, and (sparingly) some shared insights from an art historian, the late Jean Leymarie.   I added a few details to help bring significance to the location but kept those to a minimum.

Less is More

From an instructional perspective, less is more.  Writers like Leymarie can bring boatloads of insight to the subject, but what do the paintings and locations evoke in students?  Too much information in geolocation story telling cuts off the blood supply. The student needs to be aware of  her surroundings – with a modicum of interpretive assistance.  At several of the Arles locations, what is interesting is the contrast between the scene and the paintings.  How might students account for the contrast? In places, like the Rhone River, the scene is not nearly as interesting as the painting.  In other places, life imitated art. The hospital garden (now the library garden) and the Cafe Van Gogh had to be decorated to match the painting. In short, geolocation can be the convergence of location, media, the educator’s perspective and the students’ own thinking and imagination.

The Nuts and Bolts

The coordinates

To produce the geolocation tour of Arles, I used the ARMaker template in LodeStar 7.3.  Other tools are available that will create similar projects, but I’ll describe the tool that I designed and know.

Each page produced with the ARMaker template includes a rich text editor and geolocation fields that I’ll explain in a minute.  In the authoring tool, a page looks like this:




Note where the content sits, and where the coordinates are held.

To the student, the page will look like this:




The images that appear as thumbnails in the authoring tool are now rendered in full size in a slide viewer.  The coordinates now appear as markers on a map.


The student can either walk to the site and have the page content called up or, if the instructor allows, the student can simply click on a marker to bring up the content associated with the marker.

In other words, geolocation story telling can require students to visit sites or it can help organize content in a virtual tour that students can take from the comfort of the library or their homes.

In our project, we actually traveled to Arles to see the sights first hand and designed the application for a guided walking tour.  We meandered the streets, took photographs, took GPS readings, and absorbed the sights and sounds.  But a lot of this can be assembled by the instructor without leaving her office.

The GPS readings can just as accurately be obtained from Google Maps.  In the screenshot below I invoked the popup by keeping my mouse depressed on a location.

If you are interested in this approach, bring up a Google Map, click and keep your mouse button down.  If nothing pops up, click on a street away from any existing Google markers or building outlines.

The number that appears at the bottom of the popup is a coordinate.  For example 43.678610, 4.630738 means roughly 43.6 degrees latitude and 4.6 degrees longitude.   These coordinates have six numbers to the right of the decimal.  You need this level of precision so that your coordinates fall within a few feet of your target location.  Click on the coordinate and it appears at the top left of the screen, in a format that is easy to copy to your clipboard.


Google map with the coordinates popup. Incidentally, La Maison Jaune is not the Yellow House and we only encountered Gilets Jaunes once and not in Arles.


The following is a screenshot of the LodeStar page with the coordinates pasted in. The next thing to add is proximity, which means how close do the students need to be to the location before they pass an invisible geofence that triggers the display of content.


The content

The content can be in the form of audio, imagery, text, timelines, questions, and other assessment exercises.

In the following screenshot, the page features text and an inserted widget.  In the screenshot below, I clicked on the black sprocket. widget_sprocket , which brought up all of the widgets that can be inserted into the text.  I chose the image slider widget.



From there I could insert my images, caption them and dictate how they would be displayed – with a display list or without.



The result could be something like this:




Audio can be added with the help of the audio icon at the top right of a text page and the audio dialog, which supports the import of mp3 files. (Note that auto play policies in browsers prevent the auto play of sound files unless the user has interacted with the application first. Browser policies differ.)




Finally,  ARMaker (our template) is built on Google technology and so it supports what Google has afforded us, including the ability to map our location and mark it.  In this case, I scaled way up to a global view.  My current position is the black dot.  Arles is the red marker.  Normally, the student uses ‘My Location’ to mark how close they are to one of the locations.  The screenshot below shows that I’m 28,073,020 feet away from the nearest location, which is the Langlois Bridge, on the outskirts of Arles.  I have a bit of a walk ahead of me.




Google technology also allows us, in many locations, to switch to the satellite view or to drop down to the street view.


Satellite View


Satellite view of Arles


Street View


Street view of Place du Forum, in Arles


The red marker was placed on the street view by our coordinates in the LodeStar tool.  (LodeStar interacts with the Google Map.)  The white arrows and our mouse clicks enable us to navigate the streets.  In this view, we are in the Place du Forum, which was a plaza that dates back to the Roman times. We are facing the Café Van Gogh (yellow building), which was the location of a very famous and wonderful Van Gogh painting, ‘Café Terrace at Night’, that the artist described in his letter to his brother.  The second story of the Café recreates the scene of another famous painting named the Night Café.  The original site, Café de la Gare, was near the Yellow House and is now gone.


All of this can be housed in the instructor’s learning management system: D2L Brightspace, Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas, Schoology, wherever.  In fact, in order for the application to be able to receive location data, it must be launched from an address that begins with HTTPS//   The ‘s’ means secure. All learning management systems use this protocol to secure student data.

So technical stuff aside, imagine the possibilities.  With the combination of location and the instructor’s perspective or prima facie information shared through text, imagery, and audio, educators can use geolocation storytelling to transport their students to another place or they can get online students out of the house and into a neighborhood location that is of scientific, social, historical or artistic interest.

Again, the possibilities are endless.

As for ‘Van Gogh in Arles’, this project will be completed and published shortly after Thanksgiving, 2019.  You won’t need to go to Arles to view it  — but I highly recommend the trip.





The Problem with Simulations


As a student I can be told about central tendency in statistics and the properties of a normal distribution.  I can memorize the difference between mean, mode, and median.  I might even do well on an exam, if asked to calculate the standard deviation.  I could, by rote, follow the four steps, and produce an accurate number – and yet have no concept of variance, and the significance of samples and of sample sizes and understanding the complete picture of central tendency.  Or I could play with a simple simulation as illustrated on the following website:

In this simulation I see the real population distribution and I see the output of mean, median and mode – and standard deviation.  I can see that I need a lot of samples in order to start to see the low frequency outliers from the mean.   Rather than being told something, or memorizing a formula, I get to manipulate numbers and see the story of central tendency and variation play out.

I’ve moved from the lower level memorization of a definition and the lower level performance of a procedure to the higher level conceptual understanding that is so important in the field of statistics.

The problem with the term simulation

Perhaps, my example doesn’t quite measure up to your idea of a simulation. That indeed is one problem associated with the concept of ‘simulation’.  We have one word that describes a wide range of things.  A simulation can be any number of things ranging from this ‘smart’ animation of samples to an immersive virtual world, complete with body suits and head gear.  The Inuit, reportedly  had different words for snow, including “matsaaruti” for wet snow and “pukka” for powdery snow. Instructional designers have one inadequate term for a full range of activities:  the simulation.

But that’s not the only problem.

I’ll set out in this post to outline categories of simulations, champion their value, and help clear away some of the obstacles to their adoption.

The need for higher order strategies

Despite their value, simulations represent a very small percentage of online learning activities.  Many business, medical and engineering programs engage their students in simulations, but the ratio of simulation-based activities to all online learning is small.

More than ten years ago, research at Cornell University (Bell, 2008)  cited a study that places simulations at a ‘relatively small percentage (approximately 2-3%) of the total e-learning industry’.  The study states that the costs of producing simulations is high and the effectiveness of simulations has had mixed reviews.  That’s the heart of the problem. The authors of the study suggest that “instructional designers are left with little guidance on how to develop an effective system because the factors that influence the effectiveness of simulation-based training remain unclear.”  Not a very promising start.

But, in my view, simulations are an important strategy for online instructors.  In order for online learning to have any significant impact on learning performance, we need instructors to be skilled at selecting strategies that promote higher order thinking.  Too much of online learning replicates the worst of the classroom experience, in which students passively receive a lecture.  The interactive portion is resigned to a quiz. There are significant alternatives – but they are not easy to implement.  The simulation, as a strategy, is the most challenging.

Simulations are effective because students enjoy engaging in simulations and being challenged to think.  Instructional designers often prescribe or design simulations to promote higher order thinking that helps students synthesize facts, concepts, principles, rules and procedures.

Educational psychologists recognize the value of simulations to promote cognitive complexity – which is the student’s ability to detect nuances and subtle differences that might impact their decisions or judgement.

In a meta-analysis conducted by Dr. Traci Sitzman at the University of Colorado, computer-based simulation games promoted students’ retention of content, belief in their own capacity to complete the tasks, recall of facts, and their procedural knowledge (Sitzmann, 2011).

But what is a simulation – and how can busy, online learning instructors leverage this strategy?

As mentioned, the term ‘simulation’ covers a broad range of activities – from the very simple, to the very sophisticated.  We’ve all seen the complex training simulators used in space and flight training.  A commercial aircraft simulator can run from ½ million to several million dollars.  Clearly outside of our budget.  We’re also familiar with high fidelity simulations in nursing.  They range from virtual reality systems to high fidelity mannequins.  These are two categories of simulations that require significant investment.  There are other types of simulations, however, that are simpler and affordable.  And they can positively impact every discipline.

A Range of Types

Under this umbrella of simple and affordable, we can include a range of simulation types.  In past articles, I’ve written about interactive case studies.  In interactive case studies, students are presented with a case and some resources. They have to do something as a result such as create a business plan, solve a problem, uncover underlying issues…whatever.  In the past, I contributed to a team working on an interactive case study that involved assessing a student’s eligibility for credit for prior learning.

In decision-making scenarios (a type of interactive case study), a student is placed in a situation, must collect information, make a decision and then evaluate that decision based on the expert answer, which may come in the form of feedback from a coach or from the revealed consequence of the decision.  I’ve written about a decision making scenario that placed the student in Abraham Lincoln’s shoes when southern states were threatening to secede.  As a student, you consult the same advisers who Lincoln consulted.  You make a decision and then contrast that with what Lincoln actually did.  The whole idea behind this decision-making activity came from a professor of history at Tulane University.

Kognito  ( produces a wide variety of simulations for different audiences, including mental health professionals and school personnel.

One of their products educates faculty, staff, and students about mental health and suicide prevention.  In their simulations, the company employs a variety of strategies:  users interact in an environment made up virtual characters and virtual settings.  The learners role-play by selecting the most appropriate thing to say in a simulated conversation.  Learners get immediate personalize feedback as they engage in decision making in an interactive case study.

Another type of simulation involves students tweaking the values of parameters and seeing the result graphed.  For example, an Isle Royale simulation has students tweaking the initial number of wolves and moose on an island.  After the simulation is started, students watch the wolf and deer population rise and fall until the populations fall into a pattern.  The InsightMaker site hosts thousands of this type of simulation.

Another popular type of simulation is found in the interactions featured at the University of Colorado.  Student learn concepts by changing parameters.  In learning about Ohms law students can increase or decrease voltage, increase or decrease resistance and then see the resulting amperage.  The display is highly visual with all parts of Ohm’s Law graphically illustrated. Even the equation is illustrated, with parts that grow and shrink in size.


Screenshot of a LodeStar Learning Activity on SIR modeling

Screenshot of LodeStar activity with embedded InsightMaker on SIR modeling: Infectious diseases

A Range of Purpose

Simulations fulfill a range of purposes or functions.  The purposes aren’t mutually exclusive.  Simulations may involve one, several or all of these.

Functional or Procedure simulations help learners perform a function in a given situation.   Software simulations, for example, require learners to perform tasks in the software environment.  Vehicle simulators and high fidelity mannequins require learners to do the right thing at the right time.

Conceptual simulations helps learners view a concept in isolation and, in some cases, change the parameters, see the effect and be able to recognize the concept in action.  For example, in a simulation of predator-prey relationships, students see a unique pattern that always develops regardless of the initial number of predators or the initial number of prey.

Process Oriented simulations often include underlying mathematical models – mathematical representations of a real-world system. ‘What-if’ process simulations ask students to make a change to a process and see its outcome.  Students change inputs and immediately view outputs.

Synthesis Oriented simulations involve learners in gathering information, making observations, recalling key principles, concepts and facts and then putting it all together to make the appropriate choices.   Decision-making and interactive case studies are examples.

Behavior Oriented simulations engage students in the affective domain and require students to choose the appropriate behaviors and demonstrate the right attitude given a situation.  Choosing to recycle garbage or choosing to manage time are examples.

In short, types of simulations align nicely with types of knowledge.  Less important is the technology – virtual world, versus two-dimensional animation, versus text narrative – and more important is the behavioral and cognitive change.

By focusing on what is important and eliminating what is not important, we can pare away cost and remove one of the obstacles to using simulations in our curriculum.


It is difficult to sum up simulations in a single definition and so I offer these attributes.

An educational simulation:

  • Loosely or closely represents reality (low versus high fidelity)
    • Represents or models the behavior or characteristics of a system
    • Mimics the outcomes that happen in the natural world.
    • Pares away unnecessary detail
  • Stimulates a response in the learner
  • Presents learners with a situation that causes them to think – that is, draw upon their knowledge and procedural and analytical skills to make decisions, to form hypotheses, to draw conclusions, to state rules or act in some way
  • Provides feedback

Under this broader definition, a disease model that shows a population that is susceptible to, infected by, and recovered from a disease is a simulation.  It is a particularly useful simulation if its underlying math and logic represents a real world phenomenon – even if it is an over-simplification. It is also useful if it allows the student to change parameters of the model, such as population size, the number who are initially infected, the proximity of members of the population and so forth and then make inferences about the outcome.  In this way, the simulation invites learners to ask ‘what if’ questions.   The results of student input cause learners to think and, perhaps draw their own conclusions about general rules and principles.  Changing parameters and running the simulation provides immediate feedback.

General attributes that make simulations an effective learning strategy

From a meta-analysis (Cook, 2013)  focused on simulations involving virtual worlds, high fidelity mannequins, and even human cadavers, we learn about the positive effects of key learning strategies including:

  • range of difficulty
  • repetitive practice
  • multiple learning strategies
  • individualized learning
  • feedback
  • longer time

In short, students benefit from interactions that vary in difficulty, present opportunities for repeated practice, engage them in different ways, adapt to student performance and confidence level, give them time, and, importantly, provide meaningful feedback.  Those are useful characteristics of any eLearning.

Much of eLearning doesn’t include any of these characteristics — not one!   A lot of eLearning is built on voice over PowerPoints that have been imported into an eLearning authoring tool.  The feedback is limited to a score on a final quiz.  More finessed eLearning comes in the form of talking head videos with chapter quizzes.  Many of the learning platforms that allow instructors to market their courses don’t even bother with the import of interactive learning objects.  They support video and audio files and PDFs – that is, presentation formats, not interaction formats.

By necessity, the corporate world relies on voice-over PowerPoints.  High-end eLearning development shops bristle at the prospect of creating a voice-over PowerPoint.  They are often engaged in making highly creative learning objects that impact a lot of employees and yield a high return on the investment.  When I worked for these companies, we developed six figure learning objects that would reduce service calls, for example, and save a company tens of thousands of dollars or cut down on the use of natural gas, to cite another example,  and save a utility tens of thousands of dollars.  But the economics don’t always support such high-cost investments.  The continuing education industry for medical and accounting professionals, for example, is characterized by literally thousands of voice-over PowerPoints.  These industries change so fast.  The demand far outpaces our ability to create quality learning experiences.

Instructors may recognize or accept that simulations are important, but don’t know where to begin. Obviously, building a half-million dollar simulator is out-of-reach, but there is something that instructors can do to make use of this strategy.  The next section is dedicated to some practical suggestions.

Simulation tools

There are a number of web sites that provide free authoring, hosting, and viewing of simulations. One of my favorite cloud-based simulation tools is InsightMaker. ( InsightMaker supports a variety of different simulation types.  Instructors can build their own simulations and models or use one of thousands that have been created across many disciplines. I want to emphasize that last point.  You will be able to find a simulation that you can use – but it may take a little patience and perseverance.

In biology, an instructor can find simulations on food chain, prey/predator population dynamics and much more.  In business, one might find sales forecasting, or marketing simulations.

In ecology, an instructor can simulate the tipping effect of climate change when shrinking icecaps accelerate climate change with bodies of water absorbing radiation rather than reflecting it.   Students can change the values of parameters and see change accelerate.

Here are other sites and examples worth investigating:


And for the engineer:



There are a number of ways to get started using simulations.  Finding simulation websites is one; finding cloud-based modelling tools is another.

There are a lot of elements to a simulation.   The authors of the Cornell study suggest that all too often we focus on the technology of simulation rather than on the critical educational elements that are found in the content, the level of immersion (fidelity related to the real world), the interaction, and communication.  The cost is strongly associated with the design and the production of content – the imagery, music, the interface, etc.  The interaction, however, may be accomplished relatively inexpensively with text narratives and decision-making (supported by authoring tools).  The last element, communication, can certainly be facilitated through the learning management system discussion board or group discussion in the classroom.  If we can study these elements discretely and evaluate their impact on learning, as instructional designers, we can separate high cost artwork and media production (that may have little instructional value) from low-cost instructional strategies that provide great value in terms of learning outcomes.


Bell, B. S., Kanar, A. M. & Kozlowski, S. W. J. (2008). Current issues and future directions in simulation-based training (CAHRS Working Paper #08-13). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies.

Sitzmann, Traci, (2011) A Meta-Analytic Examination of the Instructional Effectiveness of Computer-based simulation games

Cook DA, Hamstra SJ, Brydges R, Zendejas B, Szostek JH, Wang AT, Erwin PJ,
Hatala R. Comparative effectiveness of instructional design features in
simulation-based education: systematic review and meta-analysis. Med Teach.
2013;35(1):e867-98. doi: 10.3109/0142159X.2012.714886. Epub 2012 Sep 3. Review.
PubMed PMID: 22938677.


Postscript: A Proposed Low-fidelity, low cost simulation

On a personal note, for the last several years I’ve been thinking about low-cost simulations that pay high dividends in terms of student outcomes.  As mentioned, I’ve written about decision-making scenarios and interactive case studies.

My latest experiment has been with a model that I call a State Response Engine (SRE).  In the future I hope to write extensively about it.  Briefly, SRE presents the learner with a randomized state and requires the appropriate response.

To better understand SRE, let’s imagine this eLearning activity.  The learner is an online instructor.  The situation is that the college dean has presented the instructor with a set of learning goals.  The online instructor must follow the appropriate process in order to select, develop and evaluate activities and assessments that will align to the goal and help students achieve that goal.

The random state comes in the form of a specific student audience and learning goal.  The engine (the computer program) selects an audience (e.g. non-majors versus majors or freshman versus capstone students, etc.)  From that point forward all of learner responses and any future random states relate to the first choice.  If the computer chose senior students completing their capstone – all of the future states relate to senior students.  All of the resources that appear relate to senior students.  The learners can then investigate the resources for key situational factors.  The engine then randomly selects a learning goal.  The goal might involve the capstone students in promoting conceptual knowledge or putting it all together – but a goal of recalling some basic facts and figures would not be in the selection pool.

The engine then displays resources connected to the state and options in the form of learner responses.  Some of the options or choices would be valid regardless of the goal and student audience.  Others would be valid only for a specific type of knowledge or a class of learner.

The learner progresses through phases or categories.  The phases might be specific stages in a process or something else.  In this case, the phases relate to recognizing situational factors, developing objectives, designing assessments, and designing activities.  In short, a backward design process.  Some of the response options will be correct; others will be incorrect based on the randomly chosen state.   At every stage, learners will be shown links to resources that will help them make the right decisions.  After learners have chosen what they judged to be the right responses, they submit for evaluation.  They then receive a response by response critique and an overall score.

That’s it in a nutshell.  It may or may not be a useful arrow in the instructor’s quiver, but we must continue to search for low-cost high-yield strategies that promote higher-order thinking.  I’ll continue in this pursuit and celebrate other attempts to create effective strategies.

Online Learning Trends: Risks and Opportunities


Our web journal focuses on specific instructional design strategies for online learning.  But in this post, I step back and address something much more fundamental – and at risk.

Online learning has tremendous potential.  I am encouraged by faculty who really want to do a great job in their online courses and continuously strive to do better.  Chances are very good that you are in that group.  You are taking the time to read this blog and explore new ways of engaging students.

Next month I’m retiring from my position as Director of the Center for Online Learning from a state university. This gives me occasion to reflect on the eight years I’ve served in this role and on current trends.  As trends would indicate, the immediate future presents faculty with both risks and opportunities.  Faculty who are invested in quality online learning should think about the immediate future very carefully and help direct policy and best practices at their institutions that advance the state of teaching and learning in this relatively new medium.

Online learning can be an instrument of good.  But because of its technological nature, it is susceptible to scale, mechanization and bad practice. At risk, at the very least,  is the autonomy and self-determination of faculty.

In our university, faculty make the critical decisions related to their courses.  They are free to make choices related to activities, assessments, instructional materials, teaching methods and course support.  When faculty are free to decide and exercise that freedom, individually and collectively, they exercise self-determination.  With self-determination comes leveraging of faculty strengths and recognizing their own limitations;  responsibility for decisions; and substantial personal reward for success.  Self determination means faculty can apply their competency, and effect positive change in their students.

Risks to self-determination may appear in many forms.  Today, a few of the potential sources of risk include:

  • Highly competitive and large-scale online programs that discourage or eliminate fledgling entrants
  • A billion dollar Online Program Management industry that can dictate the design of courses from entrance requirements to curriculum and course design.
  • Turn-key publisher platforms that demote the decision-making of instructors

Competition, Online Program Management (OPM), and publisher resources are not inherently bad things.  I view them as risks only when they subvert faculty control. OPMs, for example,  have successfully ramped up online programs and built university enrollment.  Publisher platforms have provided course content and resources where, perhaps,  none existed.  Each of these trends, however, does impact faculty self-determination and needs to be carefully considered.



Photo Credit: Christina Morillo,  Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain


The Nature of Change

The nature of change in online learning can be misleading.

Many changes in this space get hyped and then disregarded when they don’t achieve immediate, high impact.  But, then, over time they have profound, long-lasting impact.  The MOOC is a good example.  2012 was the hype year.  2013 was the year of disillusionment.   Today, MOOCS are a vital enrollment strategy for many universities.

(See for a definition of this phenomenon.)

In a somewhat related manner, many of the changes in the last decade happened incrementally without cataclysmic impact and disruption.  And yet eLearning is in a very different place today because of them.

The Recent Past

It is eye opening to consider just a few things that the past decade has brought to us.  I’ve intentionally omitted a deeper discussion on many things such as Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, eBooks, artificial intelligence, and so much more.  I’m sticking to a few basic things that have had profound impact on just about everyone.

Online enrollments have steadily increased

The Babson Survey Research Group showed us year after year that distance education enrollments continued to grow, even as overall higher education enrollments declined. Today, nationally, nearly a third of all higher education enrollments are online. (Seaman, Allen & Seaman, 2018).

(For more on the Babson reports see:

At our state university, nearly a third of our credits are earned by students in fully online classes.  More than forty percent of the credits are earned in either online or hybrid classes.  Most of our students take at least one online class each year.

Over the past eight years, online enrollments kept climbing as did the perception of faculty that online courses were qualitatively on par with face-to-face courses.  As more faculty became engaged in online learning, perceptions changed in favor of online learning.

Today, imagine the negative impact on your university if online enrollments were removed overnight.

Tools have become cloud-based

In addition to online enrollment increases, most of our tools today have become cloud-based.  Our IT department, in a metaphoric sense, is spread across many for-profit companies who host our learning management system, media system, collaboration tools, office applications, remote proctoring, and more.  Where you won’t easily find a cloud-based service is in how to improve teaching and learning experiences for your own students.  Universities will need to keep online pedagogy/andragogy  in their wheelhouse of expertise.

(See article that recognizes shift away from technology-focused professional development to pedagogical-focused:

Accessibility, Mobility and Interoperability have become critical

In the past decade, legislation and compassion have demanded that we pay greater attention to accessibility for all students, including those who are visually and hearing impaired.  Our courses play on mobile devices and are adaptable to smart phones, tablets, and desktop computers.  Cloud-based services talk to one another.  The learning management system survived obsolescence by partnering with other service providers.   Our university learning management system, because of integrations with other providers, can display media from a library, check originality of student papers, remotely proctor, engage students in a discussion over a PowerPoint, and perform other services that are not innate to the platform.

It is a different world – and yet it didn’t seem to change overnight or particularly startle anyone with its abruptness.  It didn’t feel like an eruption or disruption.

The Near Future

Current trends suggest that the future won’t be any different.  It will change incrementally, but one day instructors will wonder what happened!  Related to faculty autonomy and self-determination, specifically, here are some of the critical market forces faculty should observe:

Market dominance

The annual Babson report tells us that nearly half of online students are served by five percent of higher education institutions.   Only 47 universities enroll almost one-quarter of fully online students.  Those universities will presumably have the resources to reinvest in curriculum development, instructional design, enrollment management and aggressive digital marketing.  Smaller institutions and new entrants to the marketplace may be forced out or forced to partner with each other and with external organizations in order to compete.  The challenge to faculty comes with a perceived gap between well-resourced and under-resourced programs, unnatural alliances and forced partnerships.

On a side note, the encouraging news for smaller public universities is that the majority of online students take at least one course on campus.  Most online students come from within 50 miles of campus.  Distant education is local, which means that the university can cultivate relationships with partnering two-year colleges, local employers, and community groups and market through both traditional and digital methods.

In short there is hope for smaller institutions – but only if the following are diligently and vigorously supported:

  • Strong faculty support for online development, both pedagogically and technically (instructional designers, instructional technologists, learning management specialists)
  • Strong student support (orientations, mentoring, advising, tutoring, high impact practices like first year seminar and electronic portfolio)
  • Integrated, team-based approaches to enrollment management, marketing, advising, online program development and professional development.
  • Communities of practice that encourage faculty to share best practices with one another and especially with other members of their discipline

In my opinion, the days of working in silos are numbered.  If programs are developed without market analysis and attention to enrollment/communication strategies from the start, they will not compete and will not be available to faculty and students in the future.

Instructional Design Support

In the past, the tide of instructional design has ebbed and flowed.  Today and toward the future, it is cresting.  A quick scan of will convince you of that. The best programs now have a phalanx of instructional designers.  My chats with educational leaders has underscored the fact that instructional designers provide university programs with a competitive advantage.

The Online Learning Consortium (OLC) reports that as online learning has grown there has been an equivalent increase in demand for instructional designers in higher education institutions (Barrett, 2016).

(To learn more about OLC and the evolving field of instructional design, visit

Fulfilling that demand has not been consistent across universities.   In a recent survey, fewer than half of those who taught online said they had worked with an instructional designer.  The following article provides one interesting approach to sizing the number of designers to the institution.

In my opinion, we typically don’t have enough instructional designers. Designers play a critical role in helping faculty match instructional strategies to the level and type of learning and can draw from a tool chest of techniques, applications, methods and evidence-based practices.  A recent survey of instructional designers, cited by OLC, showed that 87% of respondents have masters’ degrees, and 32% have doctoral degrees.  Most higher education instructional designers provide faculty with direct support in design and professional development (Intentional Futures, 2016).  The result is increased student performance and satisfaction as evidenced by research studies on specific practices.

At our university, through extensive professional development we saw a growing body of faculty adopt the skill set of instructional designers.  We saw faculty who could critically evaluate online courses and discuss issues of course alignment, integrated course design, accessibility, student engagement and many of the issues that concern instructional designers and make a difference to students.

In the past, in instructional design and other areas of online learning, higher ed institutions failed to build their core competence.  Several sources identify the number of instructional designers employed by colleges and universities as 13,000. But, as the report from the Online Learning Consortium states, “There is still a certain mystery surrounding who instructional designers are.”

In short, instructional designers in a good relationship with faculty will strengthen the faculty’s ability to make good decisions and produce a good, impactful course.  Over time, faculty who design and develop online courses should acquire many of the skills of an instructional designer.  That can happen through seminars and workshops and communities of practice, learning circles, brown bag lunch sessions – all of it sponsored by faculty groups and the centers focused on faculty development and online learning.

Online Program Management

Wherever we have failed to build our core competence, external providers are ready to flood in and assist us at great cost to the university.

One category of external provider is the online program management company.  Online Program Management companies (OPMs) provide expertise and services in instructional design, enrollment management, digital marketing and other areas in support of online learning.  They provide the support through a number of revenue-sharing mechanisms.  An online program manager, for example, might help plan a program, design courses, produce courses and manage enrollment and marketing.  In exchange for these services, the Online Program Management company might receive revenue equivalent to 40 to 60 percent of the tuition dollars earned from the program for a contracted number of years.  A typical number is 10 years.

The following Eliterate article estimates that 27 companies currently provide Online Program Management.

The alternative is that there are external providers who will provide a needed service for a fee.  For example, if the university is weak in digital marketing, an external fee-for-service organization can help. In this arrangement, the university pays the fee up front but keeps the tuition revenue.  A growing number of companies provide services and then recover the fees through tuition revenue sharing – but only until the initial costs are covered.

Faculty need to be aware of all of these flavors of services because faculty are invested in the future of the university and its their autonomy that is at stake.

One of the founders of the original Online Program Management companies (but who now has a vested interest in a different business model) describes a growing dissatisfaction with the OPM revenue-sharing model:

“He compared revenue-share OPMs to the businesses in the early 2000s that built websites for millions of dollars. At the time, they were the only people who knew how to do it, but as more workers learned HTML, these companies went from ‘very valuable to pretty much out of business’ in a very short span, he said.”

Inside Higher Education, 2018


According to Inside Higher Ed, the bottom line is one that all faculty should recognize:

“To launch a successful online degree, institutions need expertise in instructional design, must be skilled in identifying areas where there is student demand, and must have enough funds to develop and market the program, which several sources said could cost upward of $1 million each.”

 Publisher Platforms

Business analysts predict that the US digital education publishing market will register a compound annual growth rate of close to 12% by 2023. (Research And Markets, 2019) The digital education business is a huge and growing market.

Online faculty can choose to use digital publisher resources for part or all of their courses.  Textbooks often come with a publisher-based online learning platform where students can engage with course material.  In many cases the publisher platform is integrated with the university learning management system.  Students log in to their university online course and seamlessly connect to the publisher resources without a second log in and in many cases with no awareness that they are accessing the publisher platform. In some cases, the reverse is true.

Key players in the U.S. digital education publishing market are Cengage Learning, Inc., Houghton Mifflin, McGraw-Hill Education, and Pearson.

The upside to publisher platforms is that they save instructors time and that publishers are continuously improving their offerings, which, in some cases, include adaptive learning.  (McGraw Hill’s LearnSmart, for example.)  The downside is that, for some platforms, answers to quizzes and solutions to problems are discoverable on sites that students use in order to cheat on their assignments and exams.

The more insidious downside to publisher platforms is that they can lead to an instructor acquiescence to all of the critical design decisions of a course.  In some, hopefully rare, cases instructors substitute publisher PowerPoints for their own advance organizers, explanations, guiding questions, graphical illustrations, and materials that are contextualized for the specific circumstances of the students, program and environment.

As one online program manager cautions:  “Never allow publisher-made materials to be the meat of your course!“

Learning House

Adaptive Learning

Adaptive Learning has huge potential and should be continuously monitored and repeatedly evaluated – but again, the role of the faculty member should be carefully considered.

Contrasted with traditional Learning Management System content, adaptive is not a ‘one size fits all’ learning product.  Typically,  we structure topics within a learning management system in a sequence.  All students, regardless of knowledge, experience or ability move through the same sequence.  Adaptive Learning, in contrast, assesses students on what they know and what they need to learn.  Students then view or engage in the content that they need.  If students miss items or lack confidence, then the adaptive system connects them to the appropriate prerequisite skills.

Adaptive Learning solutions are available in a variety of forms.  For one, they are available as turnkey systems.  McGraw Hill’s ALEKS is a popular product that assesses and teaches math subjects that range from pre-algebra to calculus.  They are also available as open platforms in which an instructor or department can build content and sequence learning pathways that capture the prerequisite relationships between topics.  Examples of open adaptive learning systems include Acrobatiq, CogBooks, and BrightSpace LeaP™  .  Many of these platforms can be integrated with learning management systems through an interoperability standard called LTI (Learning Tools Interoperability).

(For a glimpse into adaptive learning, visit:

Once the adaptive system has been designed/adopted and deployed, faculty need training on how to facilitate a group of students who are progressing at their own pace but still need the academic and social support of their peers and instructor.  There are many design decisions related to how an adaptive system dovetails into a course – and faculty need to be at the center of that decision-making.

Open Educational Resources (OER)

Open Educational Resources are already impacting us in so many ways.  You might be surprised to hear faculty denounce open textbooks, for example, and yet find them in your book store.  Faculty can engage with OER on so many levels.  They can find open resources cataloged in dozens of repositories such as OER Commons ( ) and Merlot (  They can purchase completely assembled OER-based courses from, ironically, publishers who earn more from their digital platforms than from underwriting and maintaining original content.  They can use repositories like OpenStax ( ) to find complete textbooks or sign up for a free account in OpenStax CNX (, which gives granular access to open material at the page and module level.  Finally, faculty can participate in the creation of OER by creating content, assessments, learning objects and supplementary material and posting them to a repository.  In our state, we’ve just launched Opendora ( ) that houses materials created by MinnState faculty.  Faculty can also participate in textbook reviews.   In other words, faculty can engage in the use of OER in many ways before even considering authoring a book and making their intellectual property freely available.


Current trends and practices offer support to faculty, but also have the potential of rendering instructors passive bystanders in their own courses.  The online learning space is becoming more competitive and expensive.  To many, this seems counter-intuitive. After all, online learning should be opening up new markets and it should be cheaper.  Universities can decrease their physical footprint!

The reality is that universities will either invest internally in multifaceted teams in support of strategic program development or pay outsiders to design, build and market online programs.  Potentially, instructors could be supported or sidelined.   We will either invest in instructors populating adaptive systems or purchase off-the-shelf solutions that may not, in the end, be well adapted to our learners.  We will either support rich curriculum development or populate online courses with publisher materials and, in the end, pass on the cost to students.   We will either use OER in new ways of engaging students or purchase turn-key solutions built entirely on OER.

Faculty have the greatest stake in the future direction of the university and the impact of these key trends.  Their own autonomy and academic freedom is at stake.  Faculty need to be aware of the issues and be present wherever decisions that impact curriculum development are made.


Michael Feldstein’s Blog (industry observer) eLiterate

Phil Hill’s Blog (industry observer)

Wil Thalheimer’s Debunker Club (research to practice)

Online Learning Consortium

Inside Higher Ed

Publishing Market Research